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Women Offenders

Volume 535: debated on Thursday 10 November 2011

I engage in frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues about how we should address women’s offending as part of the Government’s rehabilitation reforms. Those discussions often include either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities or my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities. We are working across Government to tackle offenders’ mental health problems, along with the Department of Health; to get them off drugs for good; and to give them skills for work, which involves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Our Work programme reforms will of course affect offenders leaving prisons, and in that regard we are doing very good work with the Department for Work and Pensions. In all that work, we are taking full account of the distinct needs of women.

The Government want prisoners to work a 48-hour week, but in a recent written answer the prisons Minister confirmed that just 161 women were working in prisons in March this year. That is a disproportionately low figure given the size of the female prison population. What will the Minister do to close the gap?

Most work in prisons at the moment is effectively a programme: it is a cost centre for the Prison Service. If we are to increase the amount of work done in our prisons to any significant extent, we shall need to adopt a rather more economic and commercial approach, so that the work of offenders can generate resources to deliver services for victims of crime. We are undergoing a system change, and there are many important and difficult questions to be answered about competition and similar issues. That applies just as much to women as to men.

The Government rightly dislike adopting targets, but has the Minister an aspiration in regard to the number of women he expects to be in prison at the end of the current Parliament?

My aspiration is, of course, zero, but although we have delivered a highly effective policy on crime and criminal justice, I am, like my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, realistic enough to know that it is unlikely to be achieved. We will, however, work towards its achievement.

Over the past year the number of women prisoners has fallen by 1.5%, and the number of women arriving at prisons to serve sentences of less than 12 months has fallen by 10.7% .