“People with convictions need the dignity of work!”
Sir Richard Branson he calls for more employers to take on employees regardless of criminal convictions. Alongside former prisoner and star Virgin Trains employee Tammy Moreton, he is championing a fresh approach and attitude for companies towards those who have been to prison. “Everyone deserves a second chance in life,” he tells Inside Time editor Erwin James.
When Tammy Moreton sat in her prison cell after being convicted of arson in July 2012 her future looked bleak. Moreton, 23, was no stranger to prison.
After leaving school the daughter of a single mum, whose father left home before she was born, joined the army. It didn’t work out as she hoped. Discharged soon after her passing out parade she says she, “got into the wrong crowd, met the wrong people – old friends who were into drugs and alcohol”. A string of convictions including assault, criminal damage and harassment followed which took her in and out of prison. But four years ago she was determined to change.
“I realised it was no life,” she says. “It wasn’t getting me anywhere and I really wanted to try and live a proper life.” In prison she met a mentor called Marie-Claire O’Brien who went on to establish her own charity called New Leaf which guided her onto a transport services course run by the Prince’s Trust and led to her work experience with Virgin Trains and the eventual offer of an apprenticeship as a customer services operative.
The training included role playing with ‘customers’ and interaction with real rail travellers on the platforms of Crewe Station. Candidates are selected by their ability, skills and creativity. Apprentices serve an average of 18 months.
“Sir Richard Branson sets out his plans to ‘dramatically increase’ his recruitment of people with criminal records and hopes other companies will follow suit. Recently he met one of his special programme’s success stories”
It was a visit to a high security Australian prison and an encounter with an Australian transport company employing former prisoners some years ago that persuaded Sir Richard Branson of the merits of employing ex-offenders. In October 2011, along with a host of other high profile CEOs he called on more UK companies to employ people with criminal convictions. Prisons, said the letter to the Financial Times, were harbouring, “a large number of potential superstars who get ignored by employers because of their criminal record. It makes sense for UK companies to recruit these individuals and to make use of their skills and enthusiasm.” He said then that he was determined that Virgin companies would be actively seeking to employ suitable ex-offender candidates.
Four and a half years later Virgin Trains West Coast has a specifically geared employment programme for reformed offenders which has trained 25 candidates into full time jobs with the company. “It’s about giving people the dignity of work,” Branson explains when we meet on one of his trains on platform 3 at London’s Euston station. He wants his scheme to serve as a model for other companies to use.
Before we meet, Branson spent twenty minutes talking with Tammy Moreton. “She had a really tough upbringing, spent some years in prison and is now working in our fraud department as a revenue protection officer which is great. She’s one of our best employees, an extraordinary person willing to get out and talk about it. There are some people who want to keep it quiet and that’s fine.” He says he hopes the numbers of ex-offenders employed by Virgin Trains will “increase quite dramatically”.
Although Branson has recently said that Brexit will cause thousands of job losses, he doesn’t expect it to have an impact on this scheme. “I’ve long encouraged the Virgin businesses to look at ways of providing training and employment to ex-offenders and others from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he says. “Virgin Trains West Coast has been pioneering the concept, and I hope others will follow. While businesses everywhere are trying to come to terms with the outcome of the EU referendum, I don’t see how it will have an impact on these efforts. An investment in diversity and inclusion is an investment that will pay off for any business.”
Branson said in 2011 that ex-offenders would be considered on merit for any job within Virgin companies including aircraft cabin crew and catering and cleaning on trains. Is that still the case?
“We have started conversations with the Virgin businesses to encourage employing ex-offenders as part of their Diversity and Inclusion agenda, and I’d like to see openness across all job categories where we can legally hire ex-offenders,” he responds. “But this must be a structured process, and I’m happy to see that Virgin Trains are working on relevant guidance that we can share with the other businesses.”
Statistically it is just incredible how few people who are given work when they get out of prison re-offend, says Branson. “If you’re dumped outside a prison with no money, you hitch-hike home, most companies won’t take you on because of your prison record, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to go down the wrong path.”
When he was justice secretary Michael Gove gave a firm commitment to reforming the prison system and to increasing the use of ROTL after it had been cut back significantly by his predecessor Chris Grayling, so that more prisoners could be allowed into the community to work. He said in May, “In particular, I want to see prisoners spend much more time engaged in the sort of purposeful activity which prepares them for life on the outside – pursuing worthwhile educational qualifications, or working in an environment that will help them get a satisfying job on release. We know that the three most powerful factors helping to keep ex-offenders from re-offending are a good job, strong family ties and a stable place to live. Offenders have completed plumbing and heating qualifications under ROTL and now unblock U-bends for a living. We have turned out gym instructors, barbers, chefs, landscape gardeners, builders – even locksmiths and a Parliamentary researcher. The number of prisoners to benefit from ROTL has fallen by 40 per cent since 2013. So I think now is the time for a change.”
When asked if the new justice secretary Liz Truss would be committing to Gove’s reform agenda a spokesman said. “We have already made a significant investment in modernising our prison estate, and work to reform it remains a top priority. This will ensure prisons are places of decency and improve public safety by reducing reoffending. In her first full day in office the secretary of state visited HMPs Belmarsh and Isis and met a range of key officials who will be instrumental in delivering her programme. She will set out her priorities in the coming weeks for reform of the justice system.”
Kathryn Wildman, Virgin Trains lead recruiter has high hopes for the Virgin employment scheme and is determined to see it expand. “It’s all about giving hope,” she says. “Our recruits have done their time, paid their penalty. "Now we have to give them a chance. You can’t put a price on hope