Construction is a sector more willing than most to give a chance to ex-prisoners, so the Home Secretary's proposal to employ current offenders on Olympic projects could make a significant contribution to the workforce. Russ Lynch reports
FOR SITE managers up and down the country ? especially those who have had clashes with the unions ? last week's Home Office announcement that prisoners could be used on Olympic projects offers a tantalising prospect.
Just imagine. For the cost of a bit more security to stop the tools walking off-site, there could be no more arm-wrestling with pay negotiations, no more backchat and whinging ? and definitely no holidays.
The Green Paper, A Five-Year Strategy for Protecting the Public and Reducing Reoffending, proposes a significant expansion to the Home Office's Community Payback initiative, where prisoners have been working unpaid in the community under supervision across four pilot schemes launched last July.
But Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said that by 2011 he wants prisoners to be doing 10 million hours of unpaid community work. And he added: 'We hope this will include an important contribution towards the work necessary to prepare for the Olympic games.' The press headlines predictably screamed of an 'Olympic chain gang shock'. But is Mr Clarke really putting the UK on a par with dictatorships like Burma, which regularly uses prisoners to build its road network, or merely providing a modern deterrent for criminals, which benefits the community at the same time?
CITB-ConstructionSkills has estimated that 33,500 jobs will be created in the industry through the games, with 7,500 workers on the site at the peak of construction in 2011. Some prisoners under the pilot scheme have already been working on construction projects.
The Green Paper offers the example of offenders in Avon and Somerset who have gained qualifications in carpentry since July while restoring Brunel's ship, the SS Great Britain.
The interim Olympic Development Authority is staying out of the debate, while playing down the story. A spokeswoman said: 'We have seen the report and will consider it, but it is too early to say what will happen as we haven't made decisions on resources yet.' And, with the industry preparing to thrash out bestpractice principles with Government departments and suppliers for Olympic construction over the next six years in an increasingly tough industrial relations environment (see right), the move raises other questions.
Would prisoners have to gain CSCS skills cards to work on 2012 sites, for example?
CITB-ConstructionSkills admits that skills and qualifications would be an issue. A spokesman said: 'Of course, to get an NVQ, you need on-site experience which obviously prisoners will not be able to get, but they can still work towards technical certificates. Learning trades in prison was very popular up until around 10 to 15 years ago, but a lot of prison workshops have been closed down and replaced with things like IT suites.' But other groups see no problem with the Home Office's move. Bobby Cummines, chief executive of Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, said: 'I don't see any reason why prisoners couldn't work on the Olympics. It could lead to a career back on the outside. Put it this way, it's better than being cooped up in a cell every day talking about crime. I'd rather they did this instead of burgling some old girl's house.' Unlock is looking to foster ever-closer links with the construction industry to train prisoners and ex-cons. It has gained £285 million in backing from a private developer for six training centres of excellence across the country, to be built on land which will hopefully be released by the National Offender Management Service.
The initiative would provide training for low-tariff prisoners, including those on license, ex-offenders and those serving community sentences such as Asbos. After a discipline and training course, participants would learn trade skills on courses ranging in length from two weeks to three years. On gaining employment, learners would pay for their courses through a PAYE system similar to that used by the Student Loans Company.
Mr Cummines said: 'There's a virtuous circle here.
The prisoners get training, the industry gets more skilled people and NOMS gets the prison population down. It costs more than £37,000 a year on average to keep somebody in jail.' Mr Cummines added: 'When we put forward our proposals, the construction industry was the only one which really took any notice. The people in it speak a language our guys understand. And when you give them a job, they're very loyal because they know how hard it is to find employment with a criminal record. Another thing is that they know every fiddle going so when they see one they stamp down on it, because they know it's more than likely that they'll get the blame for it.' Despite this affinity between ex-prisoners and construction and the headlines of last week it is extremely unlikely that whole prison populations will be marched to the lower Lea Valley to build London's Olympic showcase. If prisoners are involved through Community Payback, it will be on the scale of a fraction of 1 per cent of the workforce.
But it is worth remembering that the prospect of reviving one of the most deprived areas in London helped swing the games to the capital last July. Unemployment in the five host boroughs runs at 10 per cent, double the national average.
If prisoners and ex-prisoners were involved in Olympic construction ? men who reformed, learnt a trade and went on to spend their working days helping to shape the vision of the Thames Gateway project into reality ? they would be fitting symbols of the regeneration which the games could bring about.