By Keith Weir
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Britain wants to put more prisoners to work in an attempt to rehabilitate a "growing feral underclass" blamed for riots that swept English cities two months ago, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said on Tuesday.
Manchester, hosting the annual conference of the ruling Conservatives, was one of a number of English cities hit by rioting and looting that rippled out from London after police shot and killed a black suspect in August.
Clarke, a veteran viewed as a moderate in the center-right party, won backing for his plan from a group of business executives led by Richard Branson, chairman of travel and entertainment company Virgin Group.
"I want to see hard work flourishing in every single jail in the UK," Clarke said.
Clarke said that more than three-quarters of those charged after the summer riots were repeat offenders and that putting them to work while behind bars would help to break that cycle.
Britain has one of the highest prison populations in western Europe and a poor record in rehabilitating offenders.
"Our feral underclass is too big, has been growing, and needs to be diminished," Clarke said.
Branson and the head of retailer Marks & Spencer were among eight company bosses to support the initiative. They said there was a "large number of potential superstars" languishing in prison and held back by their criminal records when freed.
"Offenders can gain some relevant skills, and have the opportunity to experience the world of employment before they leave prison," the business leaders wrote in a letter to the Financial Times.
The worst riots in decades have not affected the poll ratings of the Conservatives who have ruled in coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats since May 2010.
The Conservatives are viewed as the "law and order" party and Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May struck a hardline tone that drew applause from activists at the conference. She blamed the riots on "greed and criminality, fueled by a culture of irresponsibility and entitlement."
May said she would this month publish a strategy to tackle gang culture that is blamed for much of the violence in Britain's inner cities.
May pledged to curb immigration and to change the law to make it easier to deport foreigners convicted of crime.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, a maverick whose jovial manner hides fierce political ambition, fired a warning shot across the bows of a government which is cutting police budgets as part of its austerity drive.
Police flooded the streets to quell the riots and Johnson said Londoners were desperate there should be no repeat in the capital that will host the Olympics next year.
"I can tell you that as long as I am mayor, I will not allow police numbers to fall below a level that I believe is safe or reasonable for a great city," said Johnson, who faces a re-election battle with Labour rival Ken Livingstone next May.
(Reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Robert Woodward)