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Sentencing Policy: Child Neglect/Abuse

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 26 May 2016

3. What assessment the Government have made of reasons for gender differences in prison sentencing for people found guilty of child neglect and abuse. (905114)

Child neglect and abuse are absolutely abhorrent crimes, and those who are guilty must be brought to justice. Sentencing decisions are a matter for the independent judiciary and not Government. Those decisions take into consideration a number of factors, including the seriousness of the offence, aggravating and mitigating factors, and a guilty plea. Our sentencing framework is gender-neutral.

Despite what the Minister says, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures for the last available period 33% of men convicted of cruelty and neglect of children were sent to prison, but only 15% of women were. That does not sound gender-neutral to me. Notwithstanding the fact that those figures are clearly far too low, given that, as she made clear, these crimes are abhorrent, will she explain why there is such a huge discrepancy between the two figures? Given the nature of these crimes, she surely cannot trot out her normal answer that women are not being sent to prison so that they can spend more time with their children.

Every case is different, and, as I have said, the sentencing framework is gender-neutral, and the same criminal offences, maximum penalties, guidelines and principles of sentencing apply to every case. I say gently to my hon. Friend that data can be used to prove anything. In 2014 the average custodial sentence for child cruelty or neglect was the same for men and women, but in 2015—according to figures from the Ministry of Justice—on average women received longer sentences than men for child cruelty or neglect.

Has the Minister seen recent disturbing evidence of women who have been convicted of non-violent crime, often fraud, who are given horrendously long sentences when they should be serving their punishment by working in the community?

As I have said, the judiciary is rightly independent of the Government, but the Justice Secretary is keen on considering alternatives to custody, particularly when an individual might have child caring responsibilities. That is why we are putting a lot of effort into things such as electronic tagging.

Does the Minister agree that universal access to family planning and maternity services is paramount for the health and equality of women and girls? How will she ensure that migrant women access maternity services in the UK when they have no means of paying for those vital services?

This is in relation to those in prison, having been found guilty of child neglect and abuse—it is fair to say that it is a testing question.

I am not aware that birth control is a massive issue within women’s prisons—I certainly hope it is not, but I will take a look at that.