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Seyi Obakin

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The More Intractable the Problem, the More Radical the Solution

Posted: 16/04/2012 00:00

If you fancy eating at The Clink Restaurant, you'll have to be patient - this swanky establishment is booked up months in advance. After making the reservation, don't forget to get security clearance. Leave sharp objects at home and once you arrive kiss your iPhone and other gadgets goodbye and hand them over to the maitre'd. As you are escorted to your table (past the 30-foot razor wire-topped walls) sit down on your prisoner-made chair and pick up your plastic cutlery, remember: it's not polite to stare.

But who wouldn't? The Clink is a high-quality West End style restaurant with a twist: it is based in HMP High Down, an Investors in People accredited prison. Most of the chefs, waiters and cleaners are convicts that are trying to turn their backs on crime and their lives around. This struggle is captured in their poetry, written as a therapeutic aid and displayed throughout the luxuriously decorated restaurant. It is in turns bleak: "Darkness and strife, my epitaph is plain, / I wasted my damn life", reflective: "Where along the line of life did I slip, trip and stumble, / Ending up in all this trouble?" and resolute: "Once I'm out, I'm never coming back".

Mouthwatering food and poignant words are only a small part of the big picture. Both the charity that runs the restaurant and the prison are firmly committed to training and mentoring prisoners - or 'graduates' as they are known - and equipping them with skills and qualifications so that they are able to secure employment upon their release. This approach has led to 27 of the 30 graduates released to date successfully finding full time work.

The restaurant's approach proves a number of important points. Firstly, it proves that people in vulnerable positions, whether or not we judge such positions to be of their own making, do have talent, ambitions and aspirations. Secondly, it shows that, given a chance, successful rehabilitation is not just possible but it can also be effective, to everyone's benefit. Thirdly, it proves the importance of a skilled job as a key part of that rehabilitation. And finally, perhaps most significantly, it demonstrates the social effect of skills, especially for those that are unemployed or disadvantaged. Prisoners working at the restaurant are given much more than a simple job - they are given confidence, motivation and pride. Is it any surprise they are much less likely to re-offend?

In an age of banker bonuses and pervasive corruption, it is easy to be cynical about both moneymaking machines and Mother Theresa-like operations (see Kony 2012: Invisible Children for a controversial example of the latter). The Clink and other social enterprises or 'more than profit' organisations serve as armour against this cynicism. As none other than Mark Zuckerberg recently pointed out in a letter to Facebook shareholders, "more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximising profits".

And more and more of these companies are appearing. A similar social enterprise venture to The Clink is Leeds-based Create. Their website states that "we run a great business, but every penny we make gets ploughed back into training, work experience and jobs for people who need them most". On their restaurant's wall is the slogan "Believing that people can grow, thrive and excel when given the chance". It is a slogan that should define our collective spirit.

Restaurants are high-profile, but social enterprises and social partnerships are making their presence felt in other areas, too. Want to repair your bike? There's a social enterprise for that (London's Bikeworks). Need a hairdo? Try The Cutting Edge salon. Want to influence public policy? There are social partnerships for that too, including two which are close to my heart - Centrepoint (of which I am the CEO) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, where I am a Commissioner. It's no coincidence that the UK Commission is led by Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, where the ultimate goal is not profit, but "the happiness of its members".

For too long, there has been a belief in some quarters that the needs of business are fundamentally incompatible with the needs of society. I don't believe this is true. The demon is not business, but inequality. The gap between rich and poor is the basis for some of the country's most intractable social problems, and that gap has so far been resistant to all attempts to bridge it. So it is time for a more radical solution. It's time for businesses, governments, individuals, the third and voluntary sectors, Unions and policy makers to move beyond transactional relationships to genuine partnerships - partnerships without politics, without agendas, without empires and without self-interest. Partnerships in which being a good business is synonymous with being a good employer making a positive difference to communities. Profit and responsibility in peaceful co-existence. Governments, organisations and individuals, working together purposefully.

A last slogan from Create: "Believing that businesses and ordinary people can do extraordinary things". We certainly can.

 
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