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Vulnerable Women (Alternatives to Custody)

Volume 516: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2010

4. What steps he plans to take to provide alternatives to custody for vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. (17814)

We are already providing effective alternatives to remands for the courts with new enhanced bail provision for women and robust community sentences supported by voluntary sector-run women’s community projects.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, will he pledge that funding for voluntary and community sector projects designed to help vulnerable women out of a life of crime and away from prison is not undermined by cuts to Ministry of Justice budgets?

I appreciate the value of such community projects. The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot make pledges on funding, not least ahead of tomorrow’s spending review announcements. However, we are keen to ensure that such projects continue if they can and, in particular, that there is a role for the voluntary sector in helping to deliver them.

In 2007, the Corston report stated that custodial sentences for women should be reserved for serious and violent individuals who pose a threat to the public, yet 68% of women in prison are there for non-violent offences, compared with 47% of men. What more can the Government do to ensure that fewer women who are guilty of non-violent offences go to prison?

My hon. Friend may know that when the then Government broadly accepted the Corston report’s recommendations, we in opposition broadly accepted them too. The female prison population rose sharply from when the previous Government took power. It had risen by 86% by 2002, although it has been broadly static since then. It is important to provide alternatives such as community projects, particularly to help vulnerable women who do not need to be in custody, although custody must of course remain for the most serious offenders.

While obviously the Minister cannot anticipate tomorrow’s comprehensive spending review decisions, in order to fulfil the strategy set out by Baroness Corston of reducing the number of women offenders in prison, there must be good community provision. Can he now commit to maintaining the existing provision?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role. We want to embed women’s community projects into mainstream service provision and provide support for women at each stage of the criminal justice process, so we are devolving both budgets and contracts to directors of offender management. They are working with the probation service, which will have the lead role in sustaining successful projects. We want those projects to succeed.