Two prisoners lost a test case in the High Court this week, regarding the rate of the so-called ‘victims levy’. This tax is an amount equal to 40% of the net wages that low-risk inmates can earn, in jobs undertaken outside prison, as they prepare for release.
Under the terms of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 2011, inmates must earn over £20 per week, before the charge can be deducted and donated to victims of crime, through the national charity Victim Support.
This rule only relates to about 500 prisoners in England, Wales and Scotland at any one time, as most prisoners who work inside prisons earn ten pounds or less per week.
The Guardian reports that the case was brought on behalf of the two serving inmates by the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS), an independent legal charity. The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Governors Association also lent their support to the challenge.
These organisations were concerned that the rate of the levy is too high, meaning that prisoners would not be able to save money in preparation for their release; to fund housing and other essential costs, and to benefit their families.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, told The Guardian: “We shouldn’t be putting up barriers to legitimate employment and safe resettlement into a crime-free life.”
Conversely, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, commented on the judge’s dismissal of the case, saying: “The Prisoners’ Earnings Act is the start of government getting the balance right – forcing prisoners to take responsibility for their crimes and helping victims to recover through the funding of these vital support services”.
It may be argued that low-risk prisoners, who are already motivated to work, make an easy target for taxation; however, the levy may discourage them from joining the few prison work programmes available.
Furthermore, if prisoners are not encouraged to make use of the rehabilitative nature of useful paid work, the taxpayer may face a higher benefits bill in future when they are released into the community.