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House of Commons Hansard
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Women Released from Prison
18 October 2017
Volume 629

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered women released from prison.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, as I am sure I have said many times. In the UK today, almost 4,000 women are in prison. Although many are serving long, extended sentences worthy of the horrendous crimes they have committed, more than 80% of convictions for women are for non-violent crimes, half of sentences being less than six months. The crimes most commonly committed by women are theft and handling of stolen goods. For many, those are a last resort—a desperate measure to feed a family or fund an addiction. When we consider the consequences of prison for such women, we should ask whether incarceration is the correct response.

After their sentences are served, women leaving prison face inordinate difficulties in readjusting to life. Homelessness is at the core of the problem; on release, six in 10 women do not have a home to go to. Without an address—permanent or temporary—safe and secure employment is near impossible. As a result, fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of less than 12 months manage to secure a positive employment outcome within a year. For those who struggle to find work, and often for those who find it, social security can be difficult to come by. Without a home, income or a family, the path to reconviction is clear; 45% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. Many women reoffend to fund a life outside prison, although many will do so aware that life can be easier inside prison.

Such problems for women should force the House to reconsider the use of custodial sentences for low-level crimes. Women—especially those with a history of social and financial difficulties—will often leave prison in a far worse situation than when they entered. Separated from their families, relationships may have broken down, and the resulting pressures can further an issue that was present before the sentence began. These women need help with the initial problem, and support from the state and society to identify and tackle it.

A prison sentence will not in itself reform a woman who only stole in the initial instance to feed her children, nor will it reform a woman with an addiction, be it to alcohol, drugs or gambling. Addiction is an illness, and the crimes committed to fund addictions are a symptom of that illness. Someone suffering from a physical medical condition will be offered treatment to ease their symptoms, but someone suffering from addiction is given a punishment.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this welcome and important debate. Does he also agree that working with people suffering serious addiction issues is unlikely to be effective in the typically short sentences that women experience? A long period of time is needed to work with someone who has deep-seated problems.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is part of the wider issue of whether a six-month custodial sentence is acceptable. I am not advocating that we should extend custodial sentences; it is about rehabilitation being part of that work, rather than a custodial sentence. In fact, she brings me on to my next point very well: a short prison sentence will not fix the problem. It is far more likely to be a catalyst for a downward spiral that will see these women yo-yo between addiction, committing crimes and short prison sentences for the rest of their life.

Ministers say these issues are not exclusive to women. However, decisions made in recent years have created a system that creates difficulties specific to women. The lack of women-only prisons primarily creates issues as it results in women facing sentences far from home. There are only 12 women’s prisons across England and Scotland, and none at all in either Wales or Northern Ireland; for Welsh women, the closest facility is in Gloucestershire. Staggeringly, some women in Scotland are placed in female units within male prisons—a trend that looks likely to be adopted across the whole of the UK in future—while women in Northern Ireland are detained in a male youth offenders centre.

At present, more than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers due to imprisonment, fewer than 10% of whom are being cared for by their fathers. Distance makes visiting difficult at best and impossible at worst, which has a harmful effect on the children’s welfare. Upon release, women may face further difficulties when a lack of local provision means they are again located 100 miles or more from their families. For some women and men, living in an approved property is a condition of their release on licence. These approved properties are single-sex establishments, and while there are 94 locations across England and Wales for men, including several in London, there are only six for women. They are in Bedford, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Preston and Reading; none of them are in London and, once again, none are in Wales.

Again women are forced to be away from everything familiar to them. They may be out of the physical prison building, but they are still prisoners of circumstance, separated from their families and communities and expected to reintegrate into a society that is unfamiliar to them. The Government should provide suitable facilities and sufficient support care for those vulnerable women on their release from prison. In my opinion, the Government are at present failing to do so.

In May 2017, a woman from London brought a case against the Secretary of State for Justice after she was forced to relocate to Bedford on her release from prison. She appealed on the grounds that the distribution of approved properties was unlawful sex discrimination against women. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court upheld her appeal and found that the Government were indeed discriminating against women on their release from prison. That was five months ago. Disappointingly, there was no response from the Government and no action was taken. It is my understanding that that is still the case today; perhaps the Minister will look at that specific point.

Women leaving prison will always face some difficulty in readjusting, but the complexities they face under this Government are not necessary. It is neither right nor inevitable that women, on their release from prison, should be left homeless and destitute. It is not right that they should be deprived of safe and secure employment, access to social security and support, and it is not right that, by virtue of the Government’s neglect of facilities, they are forced into communities hundreds of miles from their families. I hope that the Government will consider the difficulties faced by women leaving prison, and that they will act to ensure an easier transition from custody to society, free from homelessness, poverty and reconviction.

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It is a great pleasure to contribute to the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am pleased that we are having the debate, as I have a long-standing interest in the experience of women in the penal system. I thank the many organisations that have supported me both for this debate and over a number of years, including Agenda, the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform, as well as Women in Prison, and which give us excellent briefings and information.

The title of this debate is about women leaving prison but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), I will first talk about women going into prison. Alarmingly, the number of women in prison exceeded 4,000 for the first time in July 2017. As we know, the experience of women in prison is generally not a good one: 16 women died in custody in 2015-16 and there have been 18 suicides in 2016 and 2017 so far. That is 14 more than in the previous eight years put together. As we heard from my hon. Friend, many women who have a period in custody face losing their home and their children as a result of incarceration. We know that many also suffer mental health difficulties, which time in prison may exacerbate.

An increase in the number of women going into prison troubles me—especially to the extent that it reflects a perverse consequence of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. I think it is a commonly understood problem that that programme is leading to a rise in the number of women being recalled to prison. The number of women recalled to custody following their release has increased by 68% since the end of 2014, according to analysis by the Prison Reform Trust. The number of those with a sentence of less than 12 months returned to custody after licence recall was 14.6 times higher in the first quarter of this year than in the first quarter of 2015. The numbers in the first quarter of 2017 were 220 women, compared with just 15 women two years before.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said, despite the intentions of Transforming Rehabilitation to reduce reoffending, women are increasingly going round and round in a revolving door. We need to do better, both to keep women out of custody and to prevent them from returning to custody following release from a period in prison.

There may be a number of reasons for the high rate of recall, but one that alarms me is that the through-the-gate support that was envisaged to be provided by dedicated case managers in Transforming Rehabilitation is not yet properly in place. Nor are all community rehabilitation companies offering genuinely gender-specific programmes. My first question to the Minister is: will he review how Transforming Rehabilitation is working and the role of community rehabilitation companies in preparing women for and supporting them on release?

I am concerned that the Transforming Rehabilitation model means that the provision that should be in place for women completing custodial sentences is fragmented. The majority of women, most of whom commit less serious crimes, are likely to fall under the auspices of the community rehabilitation companies, with only a small number of women deemed high risk being supervised by the national probation service.

I understand the risk model that underpins Transforming Rehabilitation. I do not entirely agree with the model and am not convinced that it is viable, but I understand what the Government say it should look like. However, the number of women prisoners referred to the national probation service will be so infinitesimally small in the scheme of things that it is difficult to see how gender-sensitive models can be devised by the NPS for this very small group of very vulnerable women.

One suggestion I would like to put to the Minister is that all women leaving custody should be supervised by the CRCs, not the national probation service. Will he investigate that suggestion and make an assessment of the risk implications of doing so? Those risks could be mitigated, or indeed more than balanced out, by improving access to dedicated gender-sensitive support focused in the CRCs and available to all women.

I am sure the Minister will be well aware of the whole-system approach we have been trialling in Greater Manchester, where my constituency is. I very much commend that approach to him. The programme aims to embed integrated gender-responsive support services for women at three points in the criminal justice system—on arrest, sentencing and release from prison. Nine women’s centres in Greater Manchester provide support hubs for women referred via a range of routes. The services they offer are very much appreciated by the women who access them. I visited my own women’s centre and can absolutely vouch for how the women feel about them and the positive experience they have. They welcome the opportunity to be in a women-only safe space.

The 2015 evaluation of the whole-system approach carried out by Sheffield Hallam and Manchester Metropolitan universities found that service users had revealed a strong sense of despair, hopelessness and isolation prior to engaging with the support on offer at the women’s centre. Once they had that engagement, it gave them a sense of purpose and a structure to their day. It gave them aspirations for the future in terms of volunteering and employment opportunities and led to improvements in health and opportunities to re-engage with their children and families. The development of that positive sense of self is really necessary in improving wellbeing and reducing the isolation and lack of confidence that often lead women to offend and take them to a crisis point where criminal behaviour may result.

Particularly notable in the research and the service users’ own accounts was the fact that such intensive and tailored support was not available to them before their engagement with the women’s centres. Providing a more efficient service with less duplication and burden on statutory agencies was also reported to be a perceived benefit of the approach. Women’s centres were said to be places women could turn to and could be linked to other organisations in the community that could help them, which is important, given that the statutory agencies with which women are involved may not be aware of or not have time to make links with one another and offer all sources of support.

I of course acknowledge that the internal alliance between different statutory and voluntary agencies has improved the sharing of good practice and facilitated some of the pathways, but there are concerns. Some have expressed concerns that innovation will be squeezed out as the pathways become more standardised. Not all referral routes appear to be working fully effectively to refer women into the women’s centre provision. As I say, through-the-gate referrals have been particularly disappointing, perhaps because of the lack of dedicated through-the-gate case managers.

Women themselves may not know of or understand the support they could obtain from the women’s centres and be doubtful about it. When I visited Styal Prison recently, women peer mentors in the prison suggested that they should be able to liaise between the prison and women’s centres to encourage women coming up to completion of their custodial sentences to move on to use the women’s centre facilities.

However, the most crucial problem—it will come as no surprise to anybody in the room—is uncertainty about funding. Indeed, that applies to not only the whole-system approach in Greater Manchester, but women’s centres up and down the country.

May I make a suggestion to the Minister? I am not optimistic, but I keep suggesting this in the hope that one day a Minister will agree with me. I suggest, on the 10th anniversary of the seminal Corston report, which suggested that women should serve their sentences in community settings, that rather than money being put into new community prisons, which as far as I can tell are prisons in all but name, that money could be better directed at supporting women’s centres and rehabilitation programmes in the community. More women could be reached. They could be supported to remain at home, to care for their children and to work if they were able to do so. As we know, those are all important factors in reducing reoffending and costs to the public purse. Instead, precarious funding of community provision is exacerbated by cuts to other services, such as mental health services, and to the benefits on which women leaving prison will rely.

Housing is a particular issue. The Prison Reform Trust says that, as we have heard, 60% of women prisoners do not have homes to go to on release. I draw the Minister’s attention particularly to the following problem, which I heard about in Styal. A woman who had served a custodial sentence, who had a history of offending behaviour and addiction and had been treated as having made herself intentionally homeless by her housing authority before going into custody, was not able to point to the successful programme of rehabilitation that she had undertaken in prison in order to have her housing application treated differently on release. Would the Minister, with Department for Communities and Local Government colleagues, look into that?

I am conscious that you want me to move on, Mr Howarth, so I will make just two final points. The first is on universal credit, which we are debating in the main Chamber this afternoon. The prisons tell me that they cannot start a woman’s application for universal credit in advance of her release. That means that women often leave prison with just £47 to their name and a six-week wait. I hope the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about whether it might be possible to start the application process for universal credit in the prison ahead of the release date.

Finally, I emphasise the importance of family contact, particularly contact with children, which we all know is also a very important factor in helping to reduce offending and reoffending. My final example on that is that on my recent visit to Styal, I met an EU national whose daughter was suffering very severe health problems, having just given birth. The grandmother was deemed low risk by the prison, no longer had her passport and, with a new grandchild, was very unlikely to abscond, yet she could not be granted a family resettlement visit, which would have enabled her to go to her daughter and provide the family with some support.

I hope the Minister will pick up some of the quite detailed but practical points that I have raised, because we all share the common goal of reducing the number of women in custody and helping them to be rehabilitated in the community.

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I apologise, Mr Howarth.

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Three further people wish to speak. If they all take longer than the Minister gets to wind up the debate, I will not be able to get them in.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this important debate.

With nearly 50% of the women serving time in prison having experienced some form of abuse, be it physical, emotional or sexual, surely we should be putting more resources into supporting and counselling them than punishing them with prison sentences. Ten years ago, Baroness Corston published her “Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System”. In it, she talked about the very things that we are talking about here today: the chaos and disruption experienced by families; the disproportionate and inappropriate sentences that women face for minor non-violent offences; and the victims of violence, sexual abuse and childhood neglect who end up in prison because of lack of support.

At the time of writing her report, Baroness Corston called for a fundamental rethink. She addressed the need to consider the issues connected with women offenders before considering imprisonment as a serious option. When we read through the recommendations, we realise that the review could easily have been written 10 weeks rather than 10 years ago, because very little has changed. Women are still being imprisoned without consideration of whether that is the best solution and are still coming out of prison without the necessary support and facilitation to help them to reintegrate into the community.

In recent months, I have visited prisons and met too many women who have been appallingly let down by the welfare and judicial systems in this country—women who have been punished when they should have been supported. In my own city of Swansea, I spent two weeks during the summer recess talking to women who for whatever reason had served time in prison, and too many of those had suffered as a result of their time in prison. I heard harrowing stories that rendered me speechless; I desperately want to help these women. Yes, they committed crimes—they have never disputed that—but their punishment far outweighs the level of criminality. Prison sentences are harsh, but the subsequent loss of their home and, very often, their children is bitterly unfair.

Almost 4,000 women are in UK prisons, but only two are serving whole-life sentences: Rosemary West and Joanna Dennehy. For the vast majority of women in prison, there is life after prison, but there is a lack of support for them. The struggle they face on release is a grave concern. Housing is a huge problem: almost two thirds of women leaving prison will not have anywhere to live. Women released on the condition that they live in approved properties have the added difficulty of integrating into an unfamiliar community that is often hundreds of miles away from their family and loved ones.

Women who have served prison sentences often struggle to find work, and 90% are still unemployed a year after being released—a much higher figure than for men in the same position. All too often, money is tight and they find themselves reoffending because they cannot afford not to. I met a woman who had to sell her body to pay for a hotel room for the night. That should not be happening in modern society.

Too many women’s and children’s lives are being destroyed because of the judicial and rehabilitation system in this country. Women are sent to prison because there are no more suitable alternatives. When they are released—often after a very short time—they are homeless, unemployable and desperate ex-offenders with no support and little option but to reoffend to survive. These women need the Government to radically overhaul the support and the facilities available to aid their transition back into the community. They need help with housing, employment and social wellbeing to ensure that their lives do not become a vicious circle of reoffending, old mistakes and ruined futures.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this debate and succinctly setting the scene. I congratulate the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on their contributions as well.

Many prison officers in my constituency have told me that things need to change in relation to women released from prison. The hon. Member for Ogmore referred to Northern Ireland, where ladies have a section in the dual prison for men and women. I understand that the Minister will talk specifically about England and Wales, and I will comment on the policies there.

The statistics about women in prison somewhat surprised me when I read them. The Library debate pack states:

“There were 6,442 women admitted to prison in England and Wales after receiving an immediate custodial sentence in 2016/17. 40% were admitted for Theft offences, 19% for Summary non-motoring offences and 10% for Miscellaneous crimes against society… Of the 6,495 women sentenced admissions to prison in England and Wales in 2016/17, 4,035 (62%) were there to serve a sentence of less than or equal to six months”.

The statistics add the facts to the case that hon. Members have already made, and that other hon. Members will make. The debate pack also states:

“Of the 6,669 women released from prison in England and Wales in 2016/17, 63% had been serving determinate sentences of less than or equal to 6 months… Between October 2014 and September 2015 around 84,277 women offenders were cautioned, received a non-custodial conviction at court or released from custody in England and Wales. Around 15,662 of these offenders committed a proven re-offence within a year. This gives an overall proven reoffending rate of 18.6%”.

That is less than the rate for men, which was almost 25% in 2014-15, but still indicates that something needs to be done differently. Other hon. Members have indicated in their constructive and helpful comments—we are not here to criticise, but to be constructive—some of the changes that they would like to be made.

I was interested to read the following in the debate pack:

“In September 2015 the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) published Better Outcomes for Women Offenders, its commissioning principles for women offenders.”

Those principles, which I agree with, are based on seven identified priority needs. The first is substance misuse, a malady and a difficulty that many people are subject to:

“Stabilise and address individual need, in particular address class A drug use, binge and chronic drinking.”

As hon. Members have pointed out, if we do not address substance misuse in prison and follow up on it afterwards, we will not be doing anything to solve the problem or help.

The second identified priority need is mental health, which I have a particular interest in and have often spoken about in the House because it is so important:

“Expedite access to services that address mental health need, in particular anxiety and depression, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and trauma.”

Many women in prison have needs that fall into those categories. We can try to assist them while they are doing their time, but where is the follow-up once they get out? Without it, anxiety, depression and other problems with personal circumstances will take over.

The third identified priority need is emotion management:

“Help women to build skills to control impulsive behaviour and destructive emotions.”

Again, we can give some help in prison, but we need the follow-up afterwards. Teaching anger management and self-control can help to change lives. It is not about dictating change, but helping people to create it within themselves.

The fourth identified priority need is a pro-social identity:

“Be positive towards, about, and around women, and encourage them to help and be positive towards others.”

If we always tell people off and do them down, they can never lift themselves up. It is important for society to give people who have made terrible mistakes and ended up in prison the chance to rebuild their lives.

The fifth identified priority need is being in control of daily life and having goals:

“Motivate women to believe that they belong and fit in to mainstream society, where they can work to achieve their goals.”

We need to encourage them, be positive and give them employment and training opportunities and a chance to be part of society and move forward.

The sixth identified priority need is to improve family contact:

“Help women to build healthy and supportive family relationships, especially with the children.”

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also referred to family contact. Family can help people so much to cope with life.

The final priority need is to resettle and build social capital:

“Help women to find somewhere safe to live, to learn how to manage their money, access education, and improve their employability.”

All these things tie into giving people a second chance and making sure that they can be part of society. Sending people back where they lived before sometimes means sending them back to the same problems, so in some cases they may need to go somewhere different.

I look to the Minister for a positive response. I feel that we are missing the targets that we should be aiming for. How does he intend to address and implement the changes to help to rehabilitate offenders and secure family units with a mother at home who is aware of how she can do things differently, with plenty of the support that is so necessary?

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Order. I shall call the first Front-Bench speaker at 5.9 pm, in order to give the mover of the motion time for a brief response at the end.

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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this important debate.

At Justice questions in September, the prisons Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), told me that,

“the Government have a duty of care to everyone we hold in custody.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 21.]

I wholeheartedly agree. Yet the loss of 316 lives in our prison system last year, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) referred to, shows that too often that duty of care is not being met, and that our prisons are sometimes not fit for purpose.

Deaths in custody lead to the headlines when we talk about health and wellbeing in prisons, but when we read between the lines we discover a more startling picture of the fragile state of healthcare within the prison estate. Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population, 46% of them reporting having attempted suicide at some point. Also, in some prisons around half of healthcare appointments are being missed due to a lack of prisoner escorts.

Last week, in the main Chamber, I spoke of the difficulties of accessing services when someone has no fixed abode; the same can often be said of women leaving prison. At least four in 10 women leave the justice system having no accommodation arranged for their release, and having no accommodation often leaves these women facing difficulty in finding employment, a battle to gain local authority help and support, and even a struggle to do something as simple as to obtain a mobile phone.

I know from my experience as a GP that many women leaving custody find themselves alone and destitute, with no support networks in place. Due to the lack of transitional support, I myself have even had to resort to funding overnight accommodation for those left homeless upon release from prison, so that they do not have to risk their life by sleeping rough.

It does not have to be that way. Prisons literally present us with a captive audience and a host of opportunities to help people to transition back into society. If instead of locking up women as a punishment we invested in unlocking their potential, we would have more of these women out of custody long-term, we would have more mothers back with their children and—crucially—we would have more women contributing to our economy instead of contributing to the cost of the prison estate.

A prison system fit for purpose would ensure that we equip those in custody with the education and skills they need to get back on their feet and into employment; a prison system fit for purpose would provide better support on housing, linking those in custody with charities and other housing providers to keep them off the streets; and on healthcare, a prison system fit for purpose would ensure that prisoners’ health conditions are addressed, prevented, supported and brought under control, so that we would reduce the burden on our NHS in the longer term and have a healthier society.

We should not have to hear horror stories of women leaving prison with nothing more than a cheap sleeping bag and a list of problems that is larger than when they started their sentence. The challenge is not straightforward —we can all accept that—but tackling it requires a better joined-up approach from the Government and other partners. It cannot simply be an afterthought or something that we leave to charities alone to solve.

I urge the Minister to listen to these concerns and to work with his colleagues in Government to bring about the changes needed within our justice system, to ensure that women are better supported upon release from it.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on obtaining this debate and on putting the issues so succinctly, especially highlighting the fact that we need to question whether incarceration is always the right response to female offenders, and indeed to all offenders. Clearly there are serious offenders who must be incarcerated, but for less serious crimes we need to consider alternative modes of disposal.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) spoke very strongly about the issues, based on her own hard work in and long experience of this area, and she spoke very movingly about the very real issue of deaths in custody and female suicides. She also spoke about the need to transform the way that we rehabilitate women, and about the need to address the issue of the funding that is required to do so. Topically, given today’s debate in the main Chamber, she also spoke about the need to address universal credit issues for women leaving the prison estate.

The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) again emphasised the importance of resources for support and counselling, and raised the genuine issue of the homelessness of many women who leave our prisons across the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the point that prison officers in his constituency who serve in the system see the need for reform, and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) emphasised the duty of care that is owed to these women, as well as the great importance of tackling mental health issues.

This is a devolved matter, and in Scotland we have faced similar challenges. The Scottish Government have worked to support the effective reintegration and rehabilitation of women released from prison. To do that, they put together the reducing reoffending change fund, which funds a number of services that provide mentoring support to women in the criminal justice system—in particular, to women leaving prison. They also looked closely at the issue of short custodial sentences, and there is now a presumption in Scots law against short custodial sentences for all prisoners. The idea is that it is easier to rehabilitate people if they do not serve a short custodial sentence. The Scottish Government are doing work in that area.

Let us be frank: Scotland has a serious problem with the number of people incarcerated. In 2015, women made up more than 5% of the prison population in Scotland. That is the second-highest female prison population in northern Europe. Only Spain has a higher female prison population. In response to that issue, a commission was set up under the former Lord Advocate of Scotland—my boss in another life—Dame Elish Angiolini, who looked into how to improve outcomes in Scotland for women in the criminal justice system. She published a report in 2012, which made many wide-ranging recommendations, including the establishment of community justice centres, which offer a one-stop support network for women, the introduction of nationwide mentoring services to support women’s compliance with court orders, and alternatives to remand—a disproportionate number of women end up on remand. She also recommended that the women’s prison—the main women’s facility in Scotland—be replaced with a small specialist prison for women serving long-term sentences and smaller units for women on shorter-term sentences. The Scottish Government have begun to implement those changes. We should pay tribute to the campaigners for penal reform and feminist groups that called for those changes over a long period and were able to influence the system in Scotland.

When we discussed the issue of prisons in England and Wales in the Chamber recently, I invited the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), to visit the prison system in Scotland to see the reforms we are carrying out there, and he very generously did so. I extend that invitation to the Minister. I am not saying the situation is perfect, but we have moved forward and taken the Angiolini report’s recommendations on board. Hon. Members have argued today that the UK Government should similarly take on board the Corston report’s recommendations.

The Scottish Government are also supporting rehabilitation services in the community. I would like to mention Willow, which services women in my constituency and across Edinburgh and the Lothians. It provides a range of services for women who are returning from prison to the Edinburgh or Midlothian area. It is a partnership between NHS Lothian, the City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. It aims to improve the health, wellbeing and safety of women leaving prison, enhance their access to services and reduce their offending behaviour. It is an excellent facility—one of many that are springing up in Scotland. I am interested to hear from the Minister whether similar facilities will be funded by the sort of cross-government and local government partnerships that have been set up in Scotland.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this very important debate. I understand that time is short, so I will get straight to the point.

After release, six out of 10 women have no home to return to, nine out of 10 women have no job, and one in two women sentenced to less than 12 months reoffends within a year. That is an appalling record, but, looking at the Government’s policies and decisions, it is clear why women released from prison are let down so badly.

The clearest of the policies affecting women after release is the privatisation of the probation system and the formation of community rehabilitation companies. CRCs have not simplified the provision of services and have done nothing more than reduce the effectiveness of the probation system in preventing reoffending. That has led them to be criticised, rightly, across the political spectrum, including by the Justice Secretary, as not fit for purpose.

The impact of CRCs is specifically felt by female offenders as probation has lost the vital one-to-one support that the Women in Prison campaign sees as crucial to reducing reoffending and securing better services and employment. Instead, the focus is on cheaper group work, which simply fails to provide the same benefits and leaves women without the tailored support that they need. However, rather than address the concerns raised about CRCs, the Government are rewarding failure by awarding them a further £277 million in funding. The decision to privatise probation has also meant an end to the ring-fenced funding for women offenders who leave prison, leaving provision dependent on local commissioning arrangements and creating a postcode lottery of post-release support.

Women are also being let down by the penal system before release, with a shameful lack of support in prisons, which makes it no easier to find homes or employment on the outside. Between prisons, there is significant variation in the quality of training courses, with many failing to offer wide-ranging vocational courses, and many that do nothing to overcome gender stereotypes. Many do not provide enough IT-related courses to teach skills that are vital to obtain employment in the 21st-century marketplace. That provision may be bad, but 70% of women in prison—those serving less than six months—have little to no access to courses at all, leaving them without enough support to find secure employment.

Although recent changes have led to all women’s prisons being labelled as resettlement prisons, progress on shifting the focus is slow and there is no overarching system to help offenders into employment. The housing support provided to offenders after release also varies dramatically between prisons. Although some women may have somewhere to go, the rules surrounding housing, the lack of provision and the absence of joined-up services mean that some do not. Some women may try to get into approved premises, but they are only available for specific offenders and are limited in number. Others may try to secure council housing, but there are shortages and specific criteria. More may attempt to find accommodation in the private rented sector, which is unaffordable, with landlords often unwilling to rent to ex-offenders. More worryingly, women who have suffered domestic or sexual violence may return to their abusive partners. The lack of support for housing is putting those women in grave danger.

What runs through the heart of the rules is a failure to take on board the Select Committee on Justice’s acceptance that women face very different hurdles from men. The Government are doing nothing to provide a distinct approach to the specific needs of female offenders, and are instead continuing with badly managed programmes that are often not fit for purpose in the first place, let alone fit to meet specific needs.

The Government say that they will produce a long-overdue strategy for female offenders. It must be specifically tailored to women’s needs, and not just be a rehash of existing policies with a female spin. It has to look seriously at whether prison is the right place for some women. The many cases in which women reoffend because of the appalling lack of support do not serve the best interests of women or of society.

I want to hear from the Minister what he is doing to ensure that women have access to a greater range of employment courses and that those serving short sentences have access to them, so that they can get a job; what he is doing with colleagues to overturn some of the ridiculous housing rules and biases against female offenders, so that after release they will have a roof over their head; why the follow-up report to the Corston report has been so damning; and what the Government are doing to fully implement the report’s recommendations to prevent women from reoffending. When will the Minister or his colleagues publish their strategy for female offenders? Crucially, what will that strategy entail? Can he assure me that it will look seriously at the range of sentencing options available for female offenders?

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing a debate on such an important subject. He and many other speakers have made thoughtful and informative contributions and have raised several pertinent points that I will respond to.

I share many of the concerns that have been raised today. Female offenders are some of our most vulnerable members of society and often have complex needs. A significant number of the female prison population are indeed victims of difficult circumstances. They often face mental health issues, substance misuse problems, domestic abuse and homelessness. Those are all issues that need to be addressed during and on release from prison if we want to reduce reoffending and enable the women to have a chance to reintegrate back into their communities.

Our statistics show that almost half of women reoffend after leaving custody. That is not acceptable. I do, of course, recognise the concerns raised by the September 2016 Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation thematic report on women’s services in the community. The report acknowledged that there were examples of excellent work, but that it was inconsistent. It was also encouraging that the majority of women interviewed felt that their involvement with probation services had helped reduce their likelihood of reoffending.

We accept that aspects of probation delivery, including through-the-gate services, are not meeting our expectations. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), made clear in July, we have already taken action to make changes to the contracts with community rehabilitation companies to better reflect the costs to providers of delivering core services. We are continuing to work with providers to explore further action that we might take to ensure that services protect the public, rehabilitate offenders and deliver the sentences of the court.

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service contract management team has reviewed the compliance of CRCs against gender-specific contractual requirements. Although in general CRCs are adhering to their obligations, we are working with them to identify the necessary actions required to improve delivery and outcomes for women offenders. It is important, too, that women who are being supervised by the national probation service on licence have access to the interventions that will help build and sustain their rehabilitation. HM Prison and Probation Service is looking at the interventions provided to women in custody and in the community to identify any gaps or deficits, but also to ensure that staff maximise the use of interventions that are currently available.

The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms extended post-release supervision to some 40,000 offenders serving short custodial sentences, who previously received no support from probation on release. They also introduced through-the-gate services to help released offenders to resettle in the community. We know that, with the extension of supervision to offenders serving short custodial sentences, the number of recalls of women has increased.

Although it is important that a community order or post-custodial licence is properly enforced, we also need to support women to reduce unnecessary recall. We have therefore taken forward specific work to ensure we engage effectively with female offenders to improve compliance with an order or licence. This includes offering female offenders the option of a female offender manager if that suits their needs best; issuing a practice guidance document on working with women offenders to probation staff to help them to consider issues specific to female offenders; updating our instructions to probation staff on offender childcare to support access to childcare provision to facilitate engagement in supervision and specified activities, thus supporting female offenders to complete the requirements imposed upon them where childcare issues were previously a barrier; better supporting staff by providing additional guidance to inform their consideration of the thresholds to recall by, and, where viable, to make alternative decisions to improve engagement and compliance; and looking at how to best train prison and probation staff on how to most effectively engage with women and to work with them in a way that takes into account their previous experiences of trauma. Evidence indicates that if we do so, we are more likely to achieve effective outcomes and increase their compliance with their community order or post-custodial licence.

Concerns have been raised today about the sustainability of women’s centres. We recognise the important role that women’s centres can play in supporting female offenders, and those at risk of offending, to address their often complex needs and turn their lives around. We are investing £1 million in seed funding between 2016 and 2020 for local areas to develop new ways of working with female offenders by adopting a joined-up multi-agency approach and bringing together services at each stage of the criminal justice system. That model, often termed a whole-system approach, brings together local agencies and criminal justice—statutory and voluntary—to take a joined-up approach to providing the holistic, targeted support that a female offender needs, with shared investment and outcomes.

Women’s centres are at the heart of many of those models. The national probation service and CRCs are key partners, ensuring that female offenders receive targeted, wraparound support, both through the gate and in the community. I strongly believe that locally led services are more effective in addressing the needs of vulnerable women. The first whole-systems approach model in Greater Manchester has been fully operational since January 2015. The model includes police triage, a problem-solving court, and support alongside community orders and on release from prison. Although we cannot conclude that the model has had a direct impact, there has been a reduction in the number of adult women prosecuted, and in the number given custodial sentences in Greater Manchester in 2016. Learning from Greater Manchester and our other grant-funded areas will inform our future work.

There is considerable evidence of a link between a lack of stable accommodation and reoffending, with suitable accommodation playing an important part in enabling offenders to get a job or get into training, and to get registered with a GP. HMPPS has undertaken some initiatives to improve access to accommodation, such as expanding the bail accommodation and support services contract to offer accommodation to offenders on licence. We continue to work with all probation providers to ensure that offenders get the support that they need to find accommodation on release.

Accommodation is, however, a serious problem that requires a cross-departmental response. We are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government on a number of its housing priorities, including the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Through the duty to refer, all prisons and probation providers will be subject to a new duty to refer someone they support who might be at risk of becoming homeless to the local housing authority.

I want to mention the work that we are doing to improve health outcomes. We are looking closely at what more we can do to improve support and continuity of care and treatment when someone leaves prison. One example is the change we made to allow prisoners to register with a GP prior to their release from prison, to facilitate a timelier transfer of information from prison to GP practices. That sounds like a simple change, but I know from my professional experience what a difference it can make.

The number of self-inflicted deaths is thankfully reducing, but six women still died in prison in the 12 months to June 2017. All deaths in custody are a tragedy, and I am acutely aware of the need to do more to meet the needs of women in our care. The incidence of self-harm is also still unacceptably high, and disproportionate compared with men. We are acting on the initial results from the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody’s rapid information-gathering exercise on preventing the deaths of women in prison.

Action we have already taken includes making improvements to prison reception areas and first-night provision. We have also updated and improved the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process for supporting at-risk prisoners, and we have strengthened the suicide and self-harm training for staff, and for ACCT case managers. Juliet Lyon, the author of the report, also looked at what more could be done for women before their release from prison. She noted that the run-up to release could be particularly stressful as women consider all aspects of their life that have been on hold while they have been in prison. I met with Juliet only recently.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) always makes an informed contribution to these debates and I thank her for that. We have been reviewing and, as I have already said, have changed the contracts around CRC. The Department continues to assess the performance of probation, particularly for women because there have been difficulties. I met with DCLG this morning to discuss accommodation.

Regarding the points made by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), I fully recognise the complexity of the women involved and their needs. Every prisoner I have met has appeared vulnerable to me, whatever their crime. The hon. Lady said that there are two whole-life sentences, but there are a greater number of restricted prisoners in the country. It should be noted that more than 2,000 women currently held in custody are there for more than 12-month sentences, so there is no easy fix, and we need to maintain some perspective.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made reference to substance misuse and mental health care access. As a practising doctor, I am aware of that. Indeed, I am fully aware of the difficulties in seeking appropriate mental health care within prisons, continuity of care on leaving prison and access to appropriate substance misuse programmes. I have been doing my bit to go into bat for the Department on that with the Department of Health, which ultimately carries responsibility for those services.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) kindly invited me to visit Scotland, but I am already going. I was going to go last week, but I am now going in December. I was very impressed by the presentation we had by people from the Scottish Parliament and Scottish civil service on the quite impressively bold approach on women’s justice that is being embarked upon in Scotland. I very much look forward to visiting.

Finally, in terms of the Government’s strategy for female offenders, one issue that was raised in the thematic report on women’s services by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation was the lack of a strategic focus on women. I am pleased to say that we have made progress. In April this year, Sonia Crozier was appointed executive director for probation and women. The creation of that role provides an excellent opportunity to focus on the needs of women in a more holistic way across prisons and the community. I am also leading the development of a female offender strategy, which I intend to publish later this year. This debate has been helpful in informing that work and highlighting what else we need to do to improve outcomes for women in the community and custody.

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Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to respond. I start by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for their passionate contributions, which drew on their own experiences through casework and their work in the House through Women in Prison. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who I appreciate is here in her role as a Front-Bench spokesperson.

There has been a reasonable amount of consensus. I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging many of our legitimate concerns, responding in a constructive manner and setting out what the Government are doing. Maybe he could ask some other Ministers to respond in such a constructive manner in other Westminster Hall debates.

There are ongoing accommodation issues that seem to link to lots of other problems. I was glad to hear the Minister respond to that point. I was also glad to hear him acknowledge that there is a lot more to be done. It is nice that he is not suggesting that these things can all be resolved overnight, but I appeal to him to keep Members informed of the work that the Ministry of Justice is doing. I acknowledge that there is cross-departmental work to be done, so he cannot solve everything all the time.

The Minister mentioned suicide rates. There were 10 female suicides last year. The rate is higher than among men. All suicide is unacceptable, as he said, but we still face a real and deep-rooted issue of women being deeply and adversely affected by a prison system that is not working for them. I am glad that the Minister acknowledges that, but we need to do more, which I accept he sees too.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered women released from prison.

Sitting adjourned.