Prisoners should work 40 hours a week, says Ken Clarke
Prisoners in England and Wales should work a 40-hour week, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has said.
Mr Clarke made the announcement to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Tuesday.
He said the government will begin a major expansion of prison industries to get more inmates working.
The Prison Reform Trust said there were questions about what would happen to disabled prisoners but welcomed the idea of people gaining work skills.
BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw says it is understood discussions have already begun with a large number of private companies about increasing the number of job opportunities in prisons.
Ministers are also considering building a large-scale "working prison" on the site of a factory, possibly a recycling plant.
Mr Clarke's aim is for inmates in publicly-run prisons to work a 40-hour week, for which they would be paid the minimum wage, with part of their earnings going to victims.
But officials are aware that any move to provide prisoners with work must not be at the expense of local jobs and businesses.
In his speech Mr Clarke said jail is a place of "sluggishness and boredom" for many prisoners, where getting up in the morning is "optional".
He wants offenders to prepare for life on the outside by establishing the habit of "routine hard work".
He said he had never been in favour of "molly-coddling" prisoners or offenders but the current system was failing society, as the prisons were full of people with mental health and drug problems.
Justice minister Nick Herbert told the BBC that often prisoners were left locked in their cells for too long with little to do and needed "purposeful activity and work" to help address mental health and drugs issues and prepare them for work: "Too often, I'm, afraid, we are just warehousing prisoners, often making them worse not better."
He said there could be industries in prisons - where there is space - but said the "lion's share" of prisoners' wages would go to victims' organisations.
The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said there were questions about whether there would be enough work, and whether disabled and elderly inmates would have to take part.
But she added: "In principle, the direction is absolutely the right one. If prisoners do gain skills for work, we know that people who leave prison with work to go to - that's only about a third of people at the moment - are far less likely to reoffend, dramatically less likely, than people who go out homeless, jobless and unfortunately all too ready to get into trouble again."
However the Howard League for Penal Reform said while they welcomed the idea of introducing "real work" to prisons, they believed payment to victims' charities should be voluntary.
Director Frances Crook told the BBC: "A much better idea is to get them to pay tax, to earn real money to contribute to their families and then encourage them to be responsible citizens and then invite them to make contributions out of their wages."
Earlier this week prisons minister Crispin Blunt said he wanted "tens of thousands" of prisoners to take "meaningful" work to help cut reoffending rates.
But any move must be handled carefully to avoid it looking as if "legitimate" jobs were being stolen, he told a Tory conference fringe meeting.
He also said encouraging private firms and voluntary groups to run businesses in prisons would not be easy and the idea had been tried in other countries and failed, but he believed Britain could be a "global leader" in the policy.
It would need require a major change of culture and working practices in Britain's prisons, where prisoners only work for a few hours a day at the moment if they work at all, he added.
Frances Crook told the meeting previous efforts to get prisoners working full time had been blocked by the prison service, who she said did not want prisoners to be entitled to employment rights.
Changes may also meet resistance from prison officers, as they could potentially be required to work longer hours, the meeting heard.
The coalition government is committed to cutting the prison population through fewer shorter sentences and improving the rehabilitation of offenders through better training.
The Ministry of Justice plans to enact dormant legislation, the 1996 Prisons Earnings Act, which would allow prisoners to be paid more than the average of £8 a week those that work currently receive but for deductions to be made from their wages.
At the moment they do not pay taxes and are paid in cash.