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Virgin Trains helps ex-offenders to put their lives back on track

It was a visit to a high-security prison in Australia 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, with a host of other high-profile chief executives, 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.” At the time, Branson said he was determined that Virgin companies would actively seek to employ suitable ex-offender candidates. Four and a half years later, Virgin Trains West Coast’s employment programme for ex-offenders has trained and placed 25 candidates in full-time jobs with the company (five others dropped out after deciding that they “didn’t fit”).

 “It’s about giving people the dignity of work,” Branson explains when we meet on one of his trains at London’s Euston station. But 25 ex-offender employees – or less than 1% of a workforce of 3,500 – doesn’t seem that significant after four and a half years. Although its ex-prisoner recruitment programme has been running for much longer – more than a decade – the Timpson Foundation employs around 400 ex-offenders in its key cutting an shoe repair shops – about 10% of the workforce. “We don’t call anyone an ex-offender or an ex-prisoner – we call them Timpson foundation colleagues,” says James Timpson, its chief executive. His figures for reoffending among that group are impressive: “We only know of seven who have reoffended out of 750 plus who have joined us.” Branson points out that Virgin doesn’t know how many ex-offenders it employs across the group. “Where it is not required, we do not screen job applicants for criminal records, and I’m quite happy we don’t,” he says. “So, Virgin businesses may already employ far more than the 25 people that are currently in Virgin Trains’ specific ex-offender employment programme.” 

Virgin Trains plans to employ a further 10 ex-offender recruits by April and, he says, and the plan is to reach 10% of the workforce in the years to come.

Tammy Moreton, 23, is one of the 25 employees. She says when she sat in her prison cell following an arson conviction in July 2012, her future looked bleak. She was no stranger to prison. After leaving school, the daughter of a single mum joined the army. It didn’t work out as she had 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 decided to change. “It wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I really wanted to try and live a proper life,” she says. 

In prison she met a mentor, Marie-Claire O’Brien, who went on to establish her own charity, New Leaf, which guided Moreton on to a transport services course run by the Prince’s Trust. This led to work experience with Virgin Trains and the eventual offer of an apprenticeship in customer services. The training included role-playing with “customers” and interaction with real rail travellers at Crewe station. 

Moreton has now been working full time for eight months, checking tickets on trains and helping to train other recruits in the use of ticket-inspection scanners. Branson says of Moreton: “She had a really tough upbringing, spent some years in prison and is now working in our fraud department, which is great … She’s one of our best employees, an extraordinary person, willing to get out and talk about [her past]. 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”. Kathryn Wildman, Virgin Trains’ lead recruiter, says: “It’s all about giving hope. They have done their time, paid their penalty. Now we have to give them a chance. You can’t put a price on hope".

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