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Custodial Sentences: Women

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

Crime is falling and the female prison population is now consistently under 4,000 for the first time in a decade. Last year, over 70% of women successfully completed their sentence in the community. However, we want to do more, so in partnership with the Government Equalities Office we are making available a £200,000 grant fund to support local areas to pilot the development of multi-agency approaches to female offending.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the number of women in prisons across the UK has doubled since 2000. Many are mothers serving six-month sentences or less for minor offences, and that causes irreparable damage to family life. Will the Minister follow the example of the SNP Scottish Government in working harder to reduce the number of women in prison and give community sentences where possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is what the pilots are about. Female offenders often have very complex needs. They are much more likely to self-harm and to be victims of violence or domestic abuse than their male counterparts. That is why the pilots, which seek to divert women away from a pathway to prison very early on in their offending behaviour, are fantastic. The schemes recognise that sending women to prison can have a devastating effect not only on their lives, but on those of their dependent children.

Will the Minister confirm that, for every single category of offence, a man is more likely than a woman to be sent to prison, to be sent to prison for longer and to serve more of their sentence in prison? Given this age of gender equality that the Government believe in so much, what possible justification can there be for releasing more women from prison than men, and what assessment has the Minister made of whether or not that breaks discrimination laws?

I am very happy to have the opportunity to answer that question. Obviously, sentences are based on the individual offence. Male offenders are, and will continue to be, supported through existing processes to address their needs, but let us not forget that our Prison Service and probation service were designed with male offenders in mind, because they make up 95% of their customers.

Will the Minister outline what levels of support will be available or are being considered for those women’s dependants, many of whom are quite young children?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is why our women’s prisons have made an enormous effort to engage with families and children, and some of them give women the opportunity to hold overnight visits with their young children. That is what the pilots are about: they are about recognising offending behaviour very early on, so that we can bring in third sector organisations and local authorities to divert women from ending up in prison.