When ex-offenders are offered jobs it's a signal from business that there's a survival route away from a life of crime
I've often wondered if ministers do maths. My curiosity was again aroused after I was asked by Mosaic, a Business in the Community charity, to lead a "Seeing is Believing" visit for businesspeople and officials to Wormwood Scrubs jail. The specific remit was to look into the high proportion of Muslim prisoners (12 per cent and rising, although Muslims account for only three per cent of the
As part of the visit, I went to see the kitchens. I asked the catering manager why there were such huge empty spaces. He told me there used to be a bakery and a butchery, but now the prison buys sliced bread and pre-cut meat. In the restaurant world we dream of buying carcasses so we can deliver real nose-to-tail eating. It's cheaper, greener and it allows us to be more innovative. But in central London, there isn't the space. Similarly we'd love to bake our own bread. Not only do we not have space, there is also a skills issue. There are just too few decent pastry chefs and bakers.
An inmate I met at Wormwood had spent a year in the kitchens and was now producing 200 meals a day. He was due to be released in three months and I queried him about his plans. He didn't have any. I asked him why he didn't think about applying for a job as a chef. He replied by questioning whether I would give a former offender a job. I explained that we have an ex-offender in our kitchen and that it's worked out well. Once we'd given him the opportunity, he was determined not to let us down.
This is not just an issue of being a fair employer; the fact is the catering industry has a major skills shortage and we are always looking for people to help expand our business. I offered the inmate a work placement and saw a light go on. Some 65 per cent of released prisoners re-offend and end up back inside. The main reasons for doing so are because many don't have a home or a job. This is where maths comes in. It costs an average of £200,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up. Upon release they are given £46 to set them on their way.
Businesses can play a role in the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. A released prisoner might end up breaking in to my restaurant, but given the chance he could end up working for me instead. I've been back to Wormwood since and we are planning to take some of our chefs to mentor inmates in the kitchen, so that prisoners can see that this is an industry that wants and needs them. They will hopefully be given day release to do work placements with us, so when they are released they don't need to think crime is their only route for survival.
In time we also plan to set up skills-based qualifications for inmates to be formally trained to NVQ level. One day I may be able to convince a minister to bring back the dying crafts of butchery and bakery and build new career paths. We might even create catering entrepreneurs. Given most politicians' fear of being seen to be soft on criminals, it will be a bold one who takes this step.
For me, this is not charity. This is an innovative way of creating a new stream of talent and possibly a solution to my lack of space for a butchery. It also feels good to give someone hope.
Iqbal Wahhab is founder of Roast restaurant and was awarded an OBE in the New Year's honours list for public service and services to the hospitality industry