Leading retailers including Marks & Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland have written a letter to the Financial Times urging businesses to back the government’s plans to provide work and training for ex-offenders.

The letter, also signed by Iceland boss Malcolm Walker, Pets at Home chief executive Matthew Davies, and other business luminaries including Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson, points out that 70% of people leaving prison re-offend within a year, but this figure reduces to 22% for ex-offenders who go into a full-time job.

It reads: “Having a conviction is undoubtedly a major handicap for a job seeker, and UK companies are often reluctant to provide the second chance that prison leavers so desperately need.”

The group said it is personality that matters most and an ex-offender can often be as reliable as other recruits.

The group is also backing the government’s call to introduce real work into prison so offenders can gain some relevant skills and work experience.

The letter said: “We would like to encourage more companies to proactively recruit ex-offenders. If we want to reduce crime, we need to reduce the number of criminals. The single most effective way of doing this is to get them into lawful, constructive employment. If many more companies take this opportunity, then many more people leaving prison will find a purpose in life through worthwhile employment, and everyone will benefit.”