The Government’s response to the report by Baroness Corston of “A Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System” (Cm 7261) was published on 6 December 2007. This was followed by a written ministerial statement and a progress report I issued on 24 June 2008 (Official Report, Col. 7WS) outlining developments made over the last six months.
A year on since the Government’s response was published, I am today updating Parliament and publishing a report on significant progress made since June 2008, detailing our continued commitment to bring about real improvements for women offenders. I have placed copies of the progress report in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
My new role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Government Equalities Office alongside my continued role with the Ministry of Justice has created further synergies to strengthen the cross-Government joint working that is fundamental to the success of this agenda. I am pleased to report on the significant actions which we have been able to deliver against the commitments made in the Government’s response and the wider work we are undertaking to take this agenda further forward beyond the Corston commitments:
The Ministry of Justice is committed to providing additional resourcing in the new year to divert vulnerable women who are not serious or dangerous offenders from custody. We plan to reduce the number of women in prison and to provide additional services in the community for women offenders and women at risk of offending. The resources will be used to build capacity of one-stop shop services and to develop further bail support services better to meet the needs of women. Baroness Corston was convinced that one-stop shop services delivered through women’s centres provide the radical new women-centred approach her review called for. The Ministry of Justice has been working with regional offender managers—and directors of offender management—as well as the Griffins Society to map existing provision and develop a picture of where there is potential to develop capacity. It is proposed to invest in existing third sector providers to enable them to work with courts, police, probation and other statutory agencies to provide support and services to vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.
Pilots on a conditional caution specifically for women developed in joint co-operation between the Government, local police, prosecutors and “Together Women” centres—presenting a chance for diversion at an early stage—were launched in September 2008. The pilots are running in Leeds, Bradford, Keighley and Liverpool for a period of six months and early indications are positive. The condition attached to the caution commits the woman to attend a “Together Women” centre for a full needs assessment, providing them with an opportunity to address the causes of their offending.
Following successful pilots, using the new model women's full search, the National Offender Management Service is now implementing the introduction of the new arrangements for full searching—as set out in Prison Service Instruction 38/2008—in all women’s prisons. The new arrangements do not require the removal of underwear unless there is intelligence or suspicion at any stage that an item is concealed. To date this has taken place at HMP Downview, HMP Send, HMP Morton Hall, HMP Styal, HMP East Sutton Park, HMP Peterborough, HMP Bronzefield and HMP New Hall. All women’s prisons will be on stream by 1 April 2009.
In October 2008 a probation circular providing guidance for greater use of female approved premises was issued. This encourages greater use of capacity in female premises by introducing flexibility into the admissions criteria to include women who may not necessarily present a high risk of harm to others. Such women could also benefit from the supervised, structured and supportive environment available. We are expecting to see an increase in numbers of women accessing them in the near future.
In July 2008 the independent Sentencing Advisory Panel published its consultation paper on the overarching principles of sentencing. The panel was asked by the Sentencing Guidelines Council to review the definitive guidelines “Overarching Principles: Seriousness and New Sentences: Criminal Justice Act 2003”. The consultation paper contains an important discussion of the principles of sentencing of women offenders. Further work needs to be done to understand current sentencing practice but we welcome the steps the panel has taken.
Lord Bradley's review into the diversion of offenders with mental health problems or learning disabilities is due to report to Government early in the new year. The review considers women offenders and the ongoing programme of work from the Corston report has formed part of the evidence Lord Bradley is considering. The Government welcome Lord Bradley’s review and accepted recommendations will be taken forward in the offender health and social care strategy, currently being developed by Government for publication in the summer.
The cross-departmental criminal justice women’s strategy unit now includes representatives from the Attorney-General’s Office, Government Equalities Office and the Department of Health, and we are continuing to negotiate with other Departments to contribute resources. The unit informs the work of the ministerial sub-group on implementation of the Government's response to Corston; which has recently expanded its membership to include Ministers from both the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Children, Schools and Families.