This year, around 80 ex-offenders have been offered the chance to turn their lives around through an innovative employment programme.

And, so far, not one of them has returned to crime.

This week, North East social enterprise The Skill Mill marked what it called a "ground-breaking achievement" - a rate of zero reoffending over the course of 2021.

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Founded in Newcastle in 2013, the organisation offers an intensive six-month work programme to people aged 16 to 18 deemed most at risk of reoffending, giving them paid employment in outdoor jobs, mostly in environmental maintenance and construction.

Since it began, 197 people have completed the programme, and just 17 of these have since received another criminal conviction. This 9% reconviction rate stands in stark contrast to the rate of 72% for persistent reoffenders nationally.

David Parks is managing director of The Skill Mill, which began life as a project getting young offenders to clear up Newcastle waterways.

He believes some of the programme's success is thanks to the nature of the work, which gets people outdoors, boosting their mental as well as physical health. Jobs include maintaining Newcastle parks with local service Urban Green; building fish ladders on the River Coquet in Northumberland and maintaining allotments in Durham.

More than that, he argues, The Skills Mill works by inviting offenders back into society and giving them "self-respect" by trusting them to do ordinary jobs.

David said: "The reason it works is because it's a job. It's not training, it's not a scheme or a programme to them, they are just working a job for a company. We do provide support, acknowledging that a lot of them have complex needs, but as far as they are concerned it is a proper job. They follow all the normal conventions of work, they have to turn up on time, wearing the appropriate work wear, they are often working alongside other contractors and members of the public.

"They know there is someone expecting a job to be done to a high standard and that's really something that we make sure the young people understand.

"These are things are are new to these young people. They haven't been in a position in the past where they have been trusted.

"The fact that it's outdoor work is important, the young people tell us they enjoy being outside, it's good for their mental health, they feel less stressed. They don't talk about the money aspect as much as I would have thought, it's more about getting out of the house, doing something constructive, gaining skills."

One man who had been employed through the Skill Mill added: "It gives you a routine in your life, you know?

"Get up in the morning, get yourself out to work, get yourself back, get yourself a nice pay at the end of the week as a bit of an incentive, and enjoy it while you're at it."

At the end of the six-month spell of employment, participants walk away with a recognised qualification and are helped to find more long-term work.

"I've worked in juvenile justice forever and I know that employers can be judgemental and stereotype young people that have been in the justice system," David said.

"We are trying to change that perception. The value that these young people can bring is huge: they have a lot of skills, they are hard-working, they are capable, they just need to be given a chance."

This week, supporters of the initiative met with those who'd benefitted from the programme at Alnwick Garden, to celebrate one year since it secured funding to enable it to grow across the country. The cash came through a Social Outcomes Contract (SOC), which means its funding relies on it being able to prove it has succeeded in its aim to keep people engaged in the programme and boost employability.

Through the SOC, The Skills Mill has been able to expand from its bases in the North East and Leeds into more areas, including Birmingham, Croydon Nottingham and Rochdale.

As well as cutting reoffending rates, David says The Skills Mill team pride themselves on offering good-quality work. Among those who've employed the company to do some work in his Benwell-Scotswood ward is Newcastle City Councillor Rob Higgins.

He said: "I was delighted to attend this event at Alnwick Gardens celebrating the wonderful work of The Skill Mill. This is an outstanding social enterprise enabling so many youngsters to get their lives back on track by doing such important work in our communities and I was thrilled to meet many of them at the event itself.

"I am delighted to continue my support for The Skill Mill and wish them every success in the future as they go from strength to strength.”

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