Today marks the first anniversary of the publication of the Government’s female offender strategy. With its roots in Baroness Corston’s seminal review of vulnerable women in the justice system in 2007, our strategy set out plans to improve outcomes for women at all points of the justice system, based on our vision to see:
Fewer women coming into the criminal justice system;
fewer women in custody, especially on short-term sentences, and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully; and
better conditions for those in custody.
Female offenders can be amongst the most vulnerable in society, in both the prevalence and complexity of their needs. Many experience chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems, homelessness and offending behaviour, which are often the product of a life of abuse and trauma.
Frequently, women in custody are sentenced for non-violent, low level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time. If we take the right approach to female offenders, one that addresses their vulnerability, follows the evidence about what works in supporting them to turn their lives around, and treats them as individuals of value, it could have substantial benefits for victims, families, and offenders themselves. The strategy launched a programme of work that will take some years to deliver. On this first anniversary, I should like to celebrate the improvements that are already taking place, including on our key commitments below:
We published, last December, a new policy framework for prison and probation staff working with women. This sets out duties, rules and general guidance for staff, and includes accompanying guidance covering a range of issues, such as “caring for perinatal women in prison”.
Lord Farmer’s review for women, commissioned by the strategy, was published on 18 June. I am immensely grateful to Lord Farmer for undertaking this review, which looks at how supporting female offenders in custody and community to engage with their families can lower recidivism, aid rehabilitation and assist in addressing the issues of intergenerational crime. We will look closely at how we can best give effect to Lord Farmer’s findings and recommendations.
We committed to develop a “residential women’s centre” pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales, offering a robust alternative to short custodial sentences. We have recently concluded our first phase of consultation with local voluntary and statutory agencies, partners and providers from a range of backgrounds and specialisms across England and Wales to inform the scoping of this project. We will continue to consult with partners as we refine the design and delivery of the pilot.
Our strategy recognises the valuable role that sustainable community services, such as women’s centres, can play in supporting vulnerable women to turn their lives around. We have invested £5 million in community services for women in 2018-19 and 2019-20. This funding is helping to sustain and enhance existing services, as well as supporting the development of new services in areas without provision. I am looking at opportunities to further increase sustainability of this sector, and would like to see agencies coming together to provide much needed multi-year funding.
Partnership working is a key theme of our strategy, and yesterday we held a major conference to promote multi-agency, whole system approaches (WSA) for local agencies including health, police and crime commissioners and local authorities, to provide them with tools and information to enable them to develop a WSA in their local areas. We are working with other Government Departments, stakeholders and local justice, statutory and voluntary agencies, to develop and publish a national concordat on female offenders by autumn 2019. This will facilitate better joined up working and collaboration at both national and local level to improve outcomes for female offenders.
Work is under way to improve outcomes for female offenders and women at risk of offending across the justice system, aimed at taking a gender and trauma informed approach to female offenders, such as trialling a new checklist for pre-sentence reports on women, to ensure that sentencers receive high quality advice addressing all relevant issues, including details of dependent children, and a new training package, POWER, so that staff working with female offenders have the skills and knowledge they need.
I am grateful to those parliamentarians who continue to take a close interest in this work. I would also pay tribute to the members of the advisory board on female offenders, who provide invaluable advice and challenge on implementation of the strategy’s aims. Together, we can make a real and lasting improvement for these often vulnerable women, and their families.
The female offender strategy is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/female-offender-strategy