Lost and found: new skills help U.K. young offenders tread straight path

by Lee Mannion | @leemannion | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 March 2018 13:54 GMT

Edward Trainer at work for the Skill Mill in Liverpool, England (Philip Windever/The Skill Mill)

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A UK social enterprise which helps young offenders turn their back on crime is hoping to expand to the Netherlands.

By Lee Mannion

LONDON, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Edward Trainer was 17 when he got caught with "quite a bit of weed" and charged with possession with intent to supply.

A different kind of grass keeps the 18-year-old occupied these days: with three other young offenders he mows lawns for the people of Liverpool.

Trainer, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, works for the Skill Mill, a social enterprise that provides environmental services for Liverpool city council in northwest England.

He is convinced it will help him tread a straight path from now on.

"It's brought us opportunities that we couldn't get before. We all got nicked (caught by the police); now we've all got a job out of it, so it helps us," he said.

Trainer was dealing cannabis - which is categorised as a Class B drug by Britain's independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) - to fund his habit and make money.

He said his three workmates were caught with Class A drugs, which are regarded more seriously under the law.

"If they hadn't been given this job, they would still be doing what they were doing, which was a lot worse than what I got nicked for," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Recidivism - the term for convicted criminals reoffending - is expensive: the government estimates it costs taxpayers up to 13 billion pounds ($18.2 billion) a year.

But there is a good chance Trainer will not fall foul of the law again: although the recidivism rate for young people in England and Wales is 42 percent, the British government said in 2018, only 6 percent of the Skill Mill's alumni reoffend.

The Skill Mill works in five cities across Britain. It also has a European operation in Estonia after Tallinn city officials saw it had won a best practice award from Eurocities, a network of local governments in major European cities that share ideas about urban issues.

By charging clients, which include city councils and Britain's Environment Agency, for watercourse and horticultural services, it pays young offenders a wage while they learn new skills and get qualifications.

As well as cutting reoffending rates, and consequently contributing to the safety of communities, much of its work benefits the environment - keeping watercourses clear combats flood risks, for example.

That could become increasingly important: the Environment Agency warned in February that climate change would make severe flooding more frequent, and said nine of Britain's 17 years of record-breaking rainfall in a century had happened since 2000.

A Newcastle Skill Mill team removing waste from Lustrum Beck, Stockton, June 2014 (Shaun Breeze/The Skill Mill)

Davie Parks, who works at the youth offending team run by Newcastle city council and who started the Skill Mill, said the social enterprise's reputation meant it would expand to the Netherlands later this year.

That follows its relationship with Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV, which has an office in Newcastle and which, as part of its corporate social responsibility remit, funds the vehicles that transport the Skill Mill's workers.

Parks set up the Skill Mill in 2013 after being asked whether young people serving community sentences - where they are convicted but not imprisoned - could clear rivers. Since then it has worked with 80 young offenders in Britain.

He said the programme benefited the youngsters in a number of ways: for a start they enjoyed setting daily goals and assessing what they had achieved at the end of it. But there was more too, he said.

"The kids talk about how therapeutic it is in terms of being close to nature and learning about that, other than the practical work," Parks told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The supervisor here in Newcastle is particularly interested in wildlife and flora and fauna, so the kids pick up a lot of that stuff."

Trainer agreed.

"I've learned a lot about flowers and trees. It's all knowledge. I like learning new things and doing new things," he said.


Karen Stansfield works for the flood risk-management team for the city council in Newcastle in the northeast of England. She contracted the Skill Mill to build sandbag walls and keep watercourses clear to prevent flooding.

As well as praising the quality of the work, she said that, as a mother, she is sympathetic to the problems the Skill Mill tries to deal with.

"I just think sometimes they get lost. Some of the lads are not mature enough and they go and do something daft, which I think some of them regret. They need guidance," she said.

Stansfield said she likes the way the Skill Mill "nurses" young people towards permanent work, and would continue to send work its way.

"It's looking after our own," she said.

(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Robert Carmichael; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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