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Justice System: Women

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

Crime is falling and fewer women are entering the justice system, and the female prison population is now consistently under 4,000. Women who commit crimes are often some of the most vulnerable in our society, which is why we are developing a strategy for women to be set out in the new year. We want to see fewer women in custody and to promote a greater focus on early intervention, diversion and multi-agency approaches to ensure that the justice system can take proper account of the specific needs of women.

There are many victims of domestic violence within the justice system with multiple complex needs—mostly women. What are the Government doing to address the concerns of Women’s Aid about the perverse impact of gender-neutral commissioning cutting women-only specialist services?

I am committed to ensuring that victims of crime get the support they need. Specialist services for victims of domestic abuse are commissioned both locally by police and crime commissioners and nationally. It is important that a range of provisions are in place to meet the diverse needs of domestic abuse victims. The Government’s new strategy on ending violence against women and girls sets out an ambition that by the end of this Parliament all victims of abuse will get the support they need. We have pledged increased funding of £80 million for that between now and 2020.

Some 82% of women who are sentenced to prison are convicted of non-violent crimes. Is it not about time that the Government had a cross-Department agenda that focuses on early intervention, so that we avoid locking women up?

I am aware of the complex problems often exhibited by women offenders—mental health and substance misuse problems—and I am actively engaged with other Departments to bring forward such a strategy in the new year.

Both boys and girls have to wear uniforms at school. Both men and women have to wear uniforms in the workplace. However, convicted men have to wear uniforms in prison while convicted women do not. Does the Minister agree with that? If so, what does the word “equality” mean to him?

My hon. Friend has a rich track record in this area. Women are twice as likely to report experiences of abuse as a child. They are more likely than men to be primary or sole carers of their children. They are more likely to display mental health problems and, indeed, class A drug use. It is important that we have a gender-specific approach for women and if that involves different uniforms, so be it.

At the last Justice questions in September, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), said that he was not going to “make any commitments” about what he or the Department were going to do to provide adequate support to the thousands of people in our prisons with mental health conditions, including so many women. The latest figures show another increase in suicide in our prisons. Since the new Secretary of State took office, one person takes their own life every three days—the highest level in 25 years. Is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice ashamed of the figures? Will he now commit to ensure that paying for crime in this country will never mean paying with one’s life?

I recall answering the hon. Lady’s question at the last Justice Question Time, and my point was that the cause of this is very complex. I am very much aware of the suicide list, and we know that we have had an increase in the number of suicides this year, particularly in the women’s system. One case in the north-east, that of Michelle Barnes, is particularly shocking. The hon. Lady can be assured that I am looking closely at it, but there have been others. In dealing with this, I am not only trying to work on a women’s strategy that can be brought forward in the new year, but looking at offender mental health across the entire prisons system.

Will the Minister commit to work with devolved Governments to ensure funding for third sector organisations such as the North Wales Women’s Centre, which supports women in the criminal justice system as an alternative to prison?

I have already met Claire Sugden, Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister, and I intend to meet Justice Ministers from the other devolved regions. I am very happy to discuss those issues with them.

The continued cuts to legal aid funding mean that there is a rising number of litigants in person. Many women have to face their abusive partner in court, with no assistance on how to navigate the complexities of the law. More needs to be done to protect women during the legal process. What steps is the Minister taking to increase legal assistance for women and ensure that justice can truly be done?

Women do need additional support, not just in going through the legal process, but in housing and on many different issues, before, during and after their time in prison. I have already visited the Pause project in Hackney, where I was struck by how effective its approach has been in helping these vulnerable women. On the specific questions, we are working on this, but I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with a more detailed response.