New Leaf: Co-op will help ex-offenders back into society through training and employment

‘We’re cutting the reoffending rate with the people we help and our people will be economically active’

A new co-op is being created to help the rehabilitation of former offenders by offering them training and employment opportunities.

The New Leaf Initiative, based in the West Midlands, is a community interest company which is now setting up a co-operative CIC as a separate entity; it already has £20,000 of funding in place and has picked up contracts with construction companies to offer work to offenders being rehabilitated from prison.

The organisation has been running for six years, in which time it has supported 600 people – mostly adults of working age, with a few younger and older people as well. 

Founder and chief executive Marie-Claire O’Brien says the new entity will help its work at a crucial time, with the Covid-19 crisis threatening a serious recession which will put more pressure on those seeking rehabilitation and employment.

“With Covid-19 we’re having to look at more innovative initiatives,” she says. “When the job market becomes scarce and competitive people with convictions go to the bottom of the heap.”

In setting up the new entity, New Leaf has had support and mentoring from the Hive – the co-op development programme funded by the Co-op Bank and delivered by Co-operatives UK. “They helped us get our ideas together and get our head around the different models on offer,” says Ms O’Brien. “We chose the model because it offers more scope for funding

New Leaf has a contract in place to provide employment from Midgard Construction and also has interest from the West Midlands Combined Authority. Previously it has enjoyed a lot of success finding work for people with Virgin Trains.

“They started recruiting from us in 2014; a lot of our people have gone through our employment academy to work with them and some have gone on to rise through the ranks and take senior positions,” says Ms O’Brien.

“Organisations have to have an interest in social justice and a sense of empathy.  There are companies out there doing this  – Greggs and Marks & Spencer are doing it successfully; they enjoy a positive impact in reputation because they do it right.”

And although employers may see hiring rehabilitated offenders as a risk, there are also benefits. “They are getting hard-working, motivated individuals who will be productive because it’s their second chance, which is something they value. 

“Our members also have an interest in working hard so the co-op succeeds because it means they can pocket the dividend payment.”

She adds: “We’re working carefully with people – there are probationary periods and accountability and there are measures if people re-offend.”

New Leaf is also putting funds in place to donate to a victims’ charity every year. “It’s important that our people give something back; it’s a question of being accountable, and acknowledging that there are victims and giving them help.”

New Leaf also brings social positives in reducing the risk of people reoffending – especially in the context of tough economic times – and turning former offenders into productive members of society who earn money and pay tax. 

One fruitful employment sector is construction; Ms O’Brien says New Leaf took this route for the successful rehabilitation of a man who had been in prison for 20 years – a long sentence which had left him institutionalised.

“It took 18 months for him to get qualifications; he’d been in prison for 20 years but now he’s earning £800 a week and supporting his family. And he’s a lovely guy.”

The co-op sector could itself offer work opportunities, says Ms O’Brien – for instance housing co-op projects could take on New Leaf as a subcontractor for building projects. “That would be fabulous.”

New Leaf has three directors – Ms O’Brien, Paul Harper and Nadine Williams; a fourth will be joining the board from Midgard. The CIC
will be looking for more directors to strengthen its governance; Ms O’Brien is keen to bring in someone with co-operative knowledge and financial expertise.

“We’re hoping to have the new entity running within the next month – when we have the governance, the accounts, and the board in place. We will borrow from the old New Leaf infrastructure; our staff will transfer to the co-operative and we have the contacts and reputation to hit the ground running.”

For projects like New Leaf to thrive, and to help people be rehabilitated into productive work, Ms O’Brien says it should be easier to set up worker-
led businesses; she wants the co-op movement to work harder in lobbying government to mimic what people in Italy and Catalonia can do in setting up co-ops or have workers rescue failing businesses.

“The country is heading into recession and unemployment,” she warns. “If people can’t get jobs reoffending will go up. We’re doing the government’s work for them – we’re cutting the reoffending rate with the people we help and our people will be economically active.”

“But we need more help and support from co-op movement, and to be more strategic in lobbying of government.”

  • This story was amended on 7 September, 2020, to clarify the fact that New Leaf was already a CIC and is now setting up a co-operative CIC as a separate entity.