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Women in Prisons

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2016

I have been clear that I want to see far fewer women ending up in prison. We are committed to improving the treatment of female offenders and to putting in place the interventions needed at each stage to help them to turn their lives away from crime.

I associate myself and my colleagues on these Benches with the Minister’s earlier comments.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland has made clear the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling the number of women in prison by consulting on proposals to strengthen the current presumption against short sentences, by continuing to invest in robust community sentences and by investing an additional £1.5 million annually in community justice for women. Will the Minister join me in commending the efforts of the Scottish Government to apply a community-based rehabilitative approach?

Absolutely. We are keen to learn from any experiences in Scotland and elsewhere in the world that are successful in diverting women away from prison. Here in England and Wales, we have awarded £200,000 of grant funding to pilot earlier and more sequenced interventions with the right sort of multi-agency approach, which should see fewer women ending up in prison for short periods.

The Scottish Government’s approach to justice has resulted in the number of offenders serving sentences of three months or less plummeting since 2008, and reconviction rates are at a 16-year low. Will the Minister look to the progressive example of the Scottish Government as a new approach to reducing the number of women in prisons?

We know that almost 45% of the women who were released from prison in 2010 reoffended within 12 months, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that the maintaining of family ties and the education and rehabilitation of women while they are in our care will have a good impact on their life outside prison. That is why our transforming rehabilitation changes are showing unprecedented levels of support for offenders who have been released after very short sentences.

Research by the Prison Reform Trust shows that female prisoners are far more likely to receive custodial sentences even when they have no previous convictions or cautions. What interventions are being used at the sentencing stage to keep women out of prison?

Sentencing is a matter entirely for the courts, and they take into account the circumstances not only of the offence but of the offender. As the Prime Minister set out in a speech earlier in the year, we are also looking into how tagging, problem-solving courts and alternative resettlement units can support us to deal appropriately with female offenders, especially where children are involved.

20. The Scottish Government have moved to relocate female prisoners from Cornton Vale prison to HMP Polmont as part of the first phase of their plans to transform the way in which Scotland deals with women in custody. Improved facilities will clearly give additional support to address the underlying issues that fuel crime. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this progressive step towards the rehabilitation of female offenders? (903961)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This is exactly why we have set about shutting Holloway, an estate in which brilliant work is undertaken by some exceptional people despite the constraints of the building that they are in. We hope that by offering a much better environment we will be able to improve outcomes.

23. In 2015, the Prison Reform Trust published research suggesting that 32% of women prisoners were borderline learning disabled, compared with 24% of males. Does the Minister agree that community sentencing such as that advocated in Scotland would be more appropriate than prison for such women? (903964)

So many of the women who end up in our prisons represent a failure of society to intervene and address the causes of their offending behaviour or other issues in their lives. The whole-system approach that we are piloting in England and Wales will enable us to intervene earlier to put in place the right interventions and support that will enable us to do just that.

The case of Sarah Reed highlights the Government’s failings on the mistreatment of prisoners with mental health issues. With women accounting for around a quarter of self-harm incidents, but only 5% of the prison population, will the Minister outline what action she is taking to lower the number of women who self-harm in prison?

We know that the women in our prisons are more likely to self-harm than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems, to have drug and alcohol addictions and to have experienced such things as domestic violence and sexual abuse earlier on in their lives. That is why we are trying to divert as many people as possible from prison by putting in place interventions to address their offending behaviour as early as possible and to support them in any way that we can, and why we also have interventions within the prison estate to support such women.

Does the Minister agree that going in and out of prison has a damaging effect not only on women themselves, but on their families and communities? Will she welcome the Scottish Government’s efforts to transform and improve services for women and to break the cycle of reoffending with targeted support to address underlying issues, such as alcohol, drugs, mental health or domestic abuse trauma? Will she tell us what specific actions her Department is taking to address those underlying issues?

The hon. and learned Lady makes some excellent points. The whole-system approach that we are piloting is all about trying to divert women away from prison and putting in the right interventions much earlier on in their offending behaviour. We are also doing a lot of work looking at problem-solving courts and how we can address such things as drug and alcohol problems much earlier on in people’s experiences of the criminal justice system.

The Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland has said:

“The emphasis must be on preventing women from becoming caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place, diverting them at the point of arrest and prosecution wherever possible, and reducing the use of remand and short term prison sentences.”

It has also said that there must be

“sustainable funding for community-based services and there are lessons to be learned from the success of work with young offenders and the reduction”

in the number of young offenders at Polmont prison in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that the success in reducing the number of young people in custody in Scotland could be replicated across the UK for the number of women in custody?

I am certainly keen to take another look at that. Although sentencing is a matter for the courts, work is ongoing to improve the quality of the information that sentencers receive about community-sentencing options and we want to look more at that moving forward.