Would you employ an ex-offender? Julie Marshall reports on the Yorkshire duo intent on changing attitudes
IN A suite of smart new offices in the centre of Wakefield, Grant Doyle and Mark Hirst, chairman and vice-chairman respectively of Out4Success have just celebrated the official opening of their new recruitment company.
Nothing particularly newsworthy about that, you may think. That is until you learn both have just been released from prison and all their potential clients are, like them, ex-offenders.
The pair met while serving sentences at Leeds Prison and then again at HMP Wealstun. They make no secret of their criminal records – indeed the time they spent inside is, they reckon, going to be the key to the success of their new company.
Grant, 32, a businessman from Cross Hills was sentenced to 14 months when he decided to take the law into his own hands following a spate of burglaries at his business premises which the police didn’t investigate.
Mark, who hails from Emley, admits to ‘taking a few wrong turns in life’ - he served just over two years.
Both men are personable, articulate and passionate about their new purpose in life and the fact they are being given the opportunity to help others.
“At Wealstun we were both involved with the induction programme, we spoke to new inmates about what to expect in the first few days. The same people kept coming back time and again and they told us, although they were given plenty of support in prison, once they stepped outside they were on their own,” says Mark.
“We realised there was a need for an organisation to work with ex-offenders to break down the barriers that stopped employers from taking on anyone who’d been inside.”
Grant adds: “When you’re in prison you’re demoralised and have no confidence and that’s something we want to change. Although you’re encouraged to speak to people from Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) they’ve never walked in your shoes, they’ve never had the bars on the window, they’ve never had the food and the terrible beds.
“Because we are their peers and because, like them, we will always be classed as ex-offenders for the rest of our lives, we can eliminate those barriers.
“We’ve spoken to ex-offenders who, for example, had been managers in technology companies, managers of large retail shops and qualified drivers who struggled to find work once they got out.”
Mark and Grant were guided during the initial setting up of Out4Success by Victoria Blakeman, of Prospects career services, who they met at Wealstun,
She says: “I was immediately impressed with their vision, and drive. They already had a business plan, with the support of the prison governor we were able to support them.
“Since being released that drive and determination hasn’t stopped, whilst Prospects has provided some financial support to help start up the business, the success is all Grant and Mark.”
The support received from the establishment as a whole has been quite extraordinary. The formal company launch held at the Palace of Westminster in March was attended by some big hitters in political and judicial spheres and potential employers, including executives from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and even Andrew Dickinson, the governor of Wealstun, who had to get special permission to be there (prison governors are not normally permitted to meet up with ex-offenders).
Grant and Mark have been in discussions with a national housebuilder who is keen to get involved, a hospitality company in Keighley has pledged to take on 20 people in the next 20 months and Akbars restaurant are working closely with them to enrol them on a programme as waiters and trainee chefs.
Waste management company AWM have already taken on four members of staff and are said to be delighted with their new employees.
HMP Wealstun has a population of 850 with 60-70 inmates released each month. The CRCs have a target of helping 50 per cent of them into work but, according to Mark, they are only helping around four a month.
Nationally there are 9.2 million people who have a criminal record and DWP figures reveal that 22 per cent of people who claim employment benefits have a criminal record.
For the time being Grant and Mark are prohibited from working inside prisons but once Grant’s probation period ends in May he will return to Wealstun.
“The governor Andrew Dickinson is showing an incredible amount of trust in us by allowing us to do this. It’s very rare that ex-offenders are allowed into jail.”
They have also set up an office at the Jigsaw Visitors Centre at Leeds Prison.
Mark says: “We won’t operate like a traditional recruitment company we will actually go into the prisons and work with the inmates to point them in the right direction of academic and vocational training. Through Prospects influence we already have contacts with 12 prisons in West Yorkshire.”
Out4Success is a social enterprise company and aims to be self-funding within 12-20 weeks. All profits will be ploughed back into the company and Grant and Mark have pledged not to draw a salary for the first 12 months.