The concern of trade unions about government plans to increase the number of prisoners doing paid work can well be understood. It is not easy for people to get jobs in the present economic climate and prisons tend to be located in areas of high unemployment, so it is possible to conceive of a situation where it may be simpler to be in paid work as a prisoner than it is as a law-abiding citizen in the outside world. Nor are pay rates irrelevant. If employers can pay prisoners less, perhaps significantly less, than they pay other workers, what is to prevent them preferring "cheap" prison labour and scaling back "full-priced" employment?
While acknowledging that there are legitimate concerns here, we believe that the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, is right in wanting to double the number of prisoners in paid employment. Not having a job, at least a legitimate job, is one reason why some people turn to crime. Indeed, there is a vicious circle that takes predominantly young men from unemployment to crime to prison and back again to where they started. Providing training and a habit of work is an attempt to break that circle.
If the work is paid, even at a relatively low rate, that creates additional motivation and fosters a sense of near-normality. The greater scandal in Britain's prisons at present is not low-paid work, but the fact that so little is provided in the way of education, training and occupation. This means that prisoners may see little alternative than to return to their bad old ways on their release.
The difficulties raised by the trade unions should not be insuperable. Yes, there should be an emphasis on education and training as well as paid work. And it is possible to envisage an arrangement whereby employers paid prisoners less than the minimum wage, diverting some of the difference to helping pay for cell-and-board. It must be recognised, though, that employers need reasons to employ prisoners, and lower pay is likely to be one. Trade unions have their role, but the Justice Secretary deserves support in his effort to give more prisoners an acquaintance with paid work. He should not allow this opposition to derail his plans.