Major high-street chains are to be urged by the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to recruit former prisoners as he steps up his efforts to drive down reoffending rates.
He will target high-profile retailers, such as Marks & Spencer and Virgin, telling them that they can hire ex-offenders without damaging their image.
Mr Clarke has called for a "rehabilitation revolution" to reduce reoffending levels, which are more than 60 per cent among short-term prisoners, and ultimately to cut the jail population.
At a Downing Street summit this month, he will call on executives from up to 40 companies to play their part by helping ex-offenders to "go straight" after their release by offering them jobs.
The call could prove controversial as they will be competing against hundreds of thousands of law-abiding unemployed people trying to find work.
Mr Clarke will say that rehabilitated criminals should be given an equal chance of getting jobs, arguing that prisoners can make committed employees. The Justice Secretary said yesterday: "There is no doubt that people who get sent to prison have made a mistake; society is entitled to look for them to be punished.
"But also society should be trying to do something to help those who have the gumption to sort themselves out, to resume an ordinary honest life as decent citizens when they leave.
"If you just incarcerate people, if prison is just a warehouse in which you keep people and then release them without guidance into the world, it's hardly surprising that half of them will be back within 12 months, having committed more crime. Many prisoners do not want to be part of that cycle. We need to facilitate the way in which people get back into a normal life and do not commit further crimes again."
He added: "We also stress to the businessmen that you can take part in this and derive benefits as a business and you don't have to compromise your ordinary standards of commercial judgement. I want eventually to see businesses manufacturing, providing services from prisons on a commercial basis."
But the former prisoner Mark Leech, the editor of the prisoners' newspaper Converse, said Mr Clarke's rhetoric was not enough. He said: "Simply telling employers to hire ex-offenders won't surmount their ingrained reluctance to do so. If Clarke is serious about this, he needs to provide incentives to employers, such as reduced employer's national insurance contributions for ex-offenders, to encourage the hiring of them."
The retailer Timpson has set up full-time training facilities at Liverpool and Wandsworth prisons and has a policy of recruiting ex-offenders. Mr Clarke said Virgin and Marks & Spencer are two of the major firms interested in following suit.
Case study: 'It gives me hope I will stay out of prison'
In a disused farm building in the Kent countryside, 12 aproned workers cut keys, dry-clean clothes and repair shoes for the public. They are depicted by posters on the wall as Mrs Happy, Mr Keen and Miss Skilfull – belying the fact they are all convicted prisoners, some with many years of their sentences still to serve.
This is the Timpson's Academy, outside Blantyre House jail, which opened this week. Here, in the words of the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, inmates are provided with a "positive, sensible way of combining punishment with rehabilitation", taking them "ever closer to the real world of work" by teaching them new skills. The academies began opening four years ago but this is the first to allow prisoners, who are all risk-assessed first, to serve the public. While it does not accept sex offenders or prisoners with mental-health issues, it provides offenders with a good attitude a way to redeem themselves.
One of those working there, 36-year-old Lisa, said the academy is "more of a career than a short-term job fix".
"I didn't originally think anyone would give me that opportunity. It's given me hope that it will keep me out of prison," she said.
- More about: