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Female Offender Strategy: One Year On

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

[Joan Ryan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the female offender strategy one year on.

It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I start by thanking the charity Women in Prison, which visited Parliament earlier this month to lobby MPs and to speak about its #OPENUP campaign, along with my own women’s centre, WomenMATTA, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Crest Advisory, the Magistrates Association, of which I am a life member, and women who have told me stories of their experience of criminal justice over the years. I also thank National Prison Radio, which is carrying a report of this debate because it knows that women in our prisons take great interest in the policy decisions we make here that affect them.

The House has long taken an interest in female offenders, especially since the seminal report by my noble Friend Baroness Corston in 2007. That report highlighted the special circumstances surrounding women’s offending behaviour and the fact that many women who offend have a history of trauma and are vulnerable. The Government’s female offender strategy, published last year, recognised that these important factors underpinned women’s offending and that custody should be a last resort. It was welcome, if late in coming. The strategy included a number of positive measures to encourage the use of alternatives to custody and to help to address the causes of women’s offending, with a focus on early intervention.

Thanks to the Corston report, we already know a lot about the characteristics of women offenders. We know that their needs are often highly complex. Issues include substance misuse and poor levels of education and employment, and many have been victims of abuse themselves. Some 60% of women offenders have experienced domestic abuse, according to the Prison Reform Trust. Many have a history of self-harm and 49% of women prisoners report mental health needs, including anxiety, depression and psychosis. Crucially, many women in our penal system are mothers; over half the women in prison have dependent children. The Prison Reform Trust says that that means around 17,000 children a year will be affected by having a mother spending time in prison.

How do these women come into the criminal justice system? The obvious route is that they will be arrested by the police and taken through the process. Indeed, 103,000 women were arrested by the police in 2017-18. Strikingly, black women were twice as likely as others to be arrested. The most common offences include theft and fraud; shoplifting accounts for 43% of those sentenced for indictable or either-way offences.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the speech she is making. On that point, women are disproportionately represented in the prosecution of offences such as non-payment of council tax or TV licences and truancy. Does she agree that we need to end the punishment and prosecution of poverty?

I do agree, and indeed my hon. Friend makes the important point that not all cases that come into the criminal justice system come via the police. They might come via other prosecution routes. Women are disproportionately likely to be represented in those routes. For example, 70% of those sentenced for TV licence offences are women. That disproportionality is also seen in relation to offences such as council tax fraud and truancy.

Most important of all, in terms of the characteristics of women offenders, is the fact that the vast majority are not violent. Crest Advisory has shown that 83% of women in prison are imprisoned for non-violent offences.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, but that is clearly not true. According to the Ministry of Justice figures, of the 3,294 women in prison, 943 were imprisoned for violence against the person. That is almost a third, and over a third of that number were in prison for homicide. Quite clearly, the figures she cites are invented and they are not actually true, are they? Can she stick to the official figures, please?

It is important to recognise the circumstances in which women commit offences, the nature of the violence and offences against the person for which they may be convicted, and the level of violence and threat that these women present to society. I will certainly look again at the figures that I have been given, because clearly they are widely different from the figures the hon. Gentleman quotes. I am not disputing his figures; I will check my source. In my experience, the women I have met in prison are more of a danger to themselves than to anybody outside custody.

Has my hon. Friend seen another set of statistics, which are taken from work done at Drake Hall women’s prison in Staffordshire? Some 64% of women prisoners who had been screened for brain injury showed up as having had a brain injury before their first offence. Their brain injury was likely to have been part of what led to their offending behaviour in the first place. Some 62% of those brain injuries had been caused by domestic violence. Is there not a real danger that the original victim of the crime is ending up in the criminal justice system quite unfairly?

My hon. Friend makes a good point; we know that traumatic brain injury is one of the routes by which women come into custody, and we see disproportionate representation of women with brain injury inside our prisons.

What sentences do women receive? Fines are most common and their use has been increasing. They are often seen by criminal justice practitioners as an effective and swift means of justice. But as the Magistrates Association points out, many women cannot afford to pay the fines that are imposed, which leads them into debt or pressures them into reoffending.

By contrast, the use of community penalties has been falling since 2015, with community penalties representing only 5% of sentences received by women, which is half the rate we saw a decade ago. While there has been a welcome fall in the number of women sentenced to custody, three quarters of those who received custodial sentences were imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months. I believe that short custodial sentences have been shown not to be effective and not a good use of money. Some 70.6% of women receiving a custodial sentence of under 12 months in the period from April to June 2016 went on to reoffend. Such sentences are not achieving a reduction in reoffending.

Many women are in custody now as a result of being recalled to prison following release and during a period of post-release supervision. That has been exacerbated by transforming rehabilitation changes, which introduced post-release supervision for those who had served short custodial sentences. In practice, the failure of such supervision arrangements to recognise women’s caring responsibilities, their lack of access to transport and their anxiety about leaving the house is leading many women to miss appointments. They are therefore in breach of the terms of their release and find themselves going back in through the revolving door of recall.

I contend that our system is clearly not working for women or for wider society. That was understood by the Government too, because the 2018 female offender strategy sought to address a number of those concerns and issues. What specifically did the strategy introduce? It introduced some £5 million over two years for investment in community provision, including £2 million for programmes to address domestic abuse, and a pilot to introduce five residential women’s centres. The strategy was explicit in its ambition to reduce the number of short custodial sentences served by women. It introduced new guidance for the police on dealing with vulnerability, and guidance on whole-system approaches, such as we have had for a number of years in my home city of Manchester. It also sought to introduce a national concordat on women offenders.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the £5 million is wholly inadequate? I have heard from Nottingham Women’s Centre, which provides the CHANGES—Creating Hope, Achieving New Goals, Experiencing Success—programme for women who are leaving prison, or to help women to avoid prison. It says that

“we had a total of 12 days to bid for the money with a partner. We ended up being funded for a six week pilot project.”

The total amount that it received was just over £11,000. The representative of the women’s centre said:

“The evaluation was so huge for a tiny piece of work…we are being asked to track the women after the end of the project for the next 6 months too. I would say if anything it detracted from our work rather than increased our offer and certainly hasn’t helped to shore up what we already have.”

It simply is not fit for purpose.

WomenMATTA, which is my local women’s centre, has also spoken of the inadequacy of funding, which I will come on to, and of the complexity of the application procedures. As my hon. Friend rightly suggests, spending time on preparing the applications detracts from the good work that the centres could be doing in working directly with women offenders.

On 27 June, in a written ministerial statement, the Government set out progress to date. I am grateful to the Prison Reform Trust, which has produced a helpful and comprehensive matrix to track progress against the strategy. It is fair to say that both documents show a mixed picture, although I acknowledge that there has been some good progress. For example, we have recently had the Farmer report on maintaining family links, which makes many welcome suggestions. We have had changes in housing policy so that a tenancy can be maintained for up to six months while a mother is in prison. More police forces are developing and using trauma-informed approaches. Liaison and diversion schemes now cover 90% of forces in the country, and the ambition is to achieve 100% coverage next year.

I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), the last Lord Chancellor—and, if I may say so, a much-missed Lord Chancellor—speaking positively about his intention or wish to see a presumption against the imposition of short custodial sentences, as already applies in Scotland. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) says, women’s centres still lack sustainable funding. Will the Minister say what has happened to the proceeds from the sale of Holloway Prison? That delivered some £80 million into the Treasury’s coffers, but only £5 million appears to have been released to go towards services for women.

It is welcome that the Government, in their strategy, called a halt to the building of new women’s prisons. Many of us had spent much time urging them to take exactly that step. But what evidence can the Minister show for the efficacy of residential women’s centres? Surely priority should be given to funding core women’s centre provision in the community. No prison has to wonder whether it will have the funding to exist after 2021, but that is the case for most women’s centres, with Lord Farmer himself describing their funding as “desperately precarious”.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in this area, on which she has campaigned over many years. With regard to the location of women’s centres, she will be aware that Wales does not have any women’s centre; it does not have a women’s prison. To be clear, we do not want a women’s prison, but we are in desperate need of a women’s centre, because the closest place that women can go to, in terms of custodial sentences, is Gloucestershire. Does she agree that, in addition to her list of questions for the Minister, he might want to consider the fact that a women’s centre is desperately needed in Wales and would be an important part of improving outcomes for female offenders?

I do agree. If there is no women’s centre in Wales, that is shocking and there needs to be. Indeed, I would say that for any part of the country that does not have a women’s centre.

May I build on what my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said? For Eastwood Park Prison—it is just outside my constituency, but I visit regularly—the problem now is that because there are a number of women’s centres growing up in the west, there is a disparity with those places that do not have women’s centres, particularly south Wales. It should be remembered that that prison covers the whole of the south-west as well as south Wales. There is such a difference in the ways in which women being released are now treated. We have to get some continuity in the way in which they are looked after, but more particularly some certainty that women’s centres will develop all over the country. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I agree both that we need women’s centres to develop all over the country and that they need certainty of funding so that they are sustainable.

We have seen other problems with delivery of the strategy. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I describe the transforming rehabilitation programme as a total failure. It has not been able to deliver, for example, specialist provision for women through community rehabilitation companies, and at the moment we do not know what the new probation model will look like for women. Through the Gate simply has not happened as envisaged.

There are even basic things such as women not being able to apply for universal credit in advance of their release date, or to apply for housing. They will not get a house because they do not have their children living with them, which means that they cannot have their children living with them because they do not have a house when they are released. It is the case that 13% of women are released to no fixed abode—a truly terrifying prospect—and only 22% to secure permanent accommodation, according to Her Majesty’s inspectors of prison and probation. As a result of the lack of a safe destination to release women to, many will be forced to return to the abuser, who may be the root cause of their offending, and will turn to alcohol, drug or other substance misuse and to reoffending.

Pre-sentence reports are still being prepared without full information and without being informed by gender considerations. Sentencers are not always taking account of the interests of children when sentencing a mother to or remanding her in custody, yet the impact on children of a mum going to prison is absolutely dire. Fewer than 10% of children remain in their family home when a mother is imprisoned.

What do we want to happen, and will the Minister offer us assurances that some of these suggestions will happen? First, will he look at what can be done systematically to ensure that the police, wherever possible, divert women away from arrest? That is being considered now by the all-party parliamentary group for women in the penal system, which I have the honour to co-chair with Baroness Corston and the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), whom I am very pleased to see present at this debate.

Will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to spread retail diversion schemes such as we have in Bury, in Greater Manchester, across the country? Will he say how the Government are working with non-police prosecutors, so that we can end the use of custody for TV licence offences, truancy offences and so on?

Crucially, what will the Government do to secure sustainable, adequate funding for community provision and particularly for both women’s centres and the range of partners that work with them? Can the Minister say what role he envisages for the new probation service? How will it develop women-specific programmes, or will women’s centres become the default model for provision? What can be done to build sentencer confidence in community provision? I would argue that one step that the Government must take is to ensure proper information for sentencers and proper training for them on the outcomes from community and custodial sentences. Will the Minister ensure that gender-sensitive, gender-informed, pre-sentence reports are made mandatory and that there is suitable training for report writers? Will he say what the Government can do to put more emphasis on, as part of community sentences, treatment orders, including, as the Magistrates Association has suggested, financial planning support?

All stages of the process must take account of the best interests of children, so will the Minister ensure that sentencers do follow the guidance, which exists, that they should consider the impact on children in sentencing a mother and that they should ensure that arrangements are made for them prior to sending any mother into custody? Better still, in my view, would be ensuring that alternatives to custody are considered in all cases for primary carers.

Will the Government now move forward to legislate for a presumption against short sentences as a matter of urgency? Will they also adopt the suggestion, from the Committee that scrutinised what is now the Domestic Abuse Bill, to introduce a statutory defence in that legislation?

When transforming rehabilitation was first proposed, I thought that post-release supervision was a good idea, but having seen it in practice, I have changed my mind. In 2017, about 1,000 women were recalled to prison while on supervision following a custodial sentence of under 12 months. In the context of the female prison population as a whole, that is a lot of women. Its use appears to be ill judged, disproportionate and harmful.

Will the Minister consider ending post-release supervision and replacing it with holistic support, including housing, education, mental health and employment? No woman should ever be released into homelessness—can the Minister guarantee that that will not happen? Can he guarantee that no woman—or man—will ever be released on a Friday, when services are not available on the weekend to receive them? Will he once again press the Department for Work and Pensions to expedite the ability to start the universal credit application process before a woman is released from prison? Finally on my shopping list, will he ensure that a women’s centre link worker is placed in every single women’s prison?

I urge the Minister to continue the roll-out of the full-system approach across the country, because it works. In Cleveland, where they do not have it, 67 in every 100,000 women offenders are imprisoned, in Greater Manchester it is only 25 per 100,000. A whole-system approach should not be criminal justice driven. We need place-based, gender-informed, holistic preventative services in every local authority accessible to every vulnerable woman. That is the women’s strategy I would like to see; I urge the Government to embrace it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who has long had a passionate interest in the area of women’s justice. I lost count of the number of times that I sat in the Minister’s position listening to her make as good a contribution as she has just made.

For those who do not know, I was the Minister responsible for commissioning the women’s justice strategy. I held on to that position as long as I could, to see the strategy published before resigning over Brexit. In the end, I could not hold on any longer and it was published two weeks after I resigned. It had been ready for a few months. I was fighting hard—I lost the fight—internally for the funding that the hon. Lady alluded to. I do not blame anyone in particular for that; I blame the broader political scene and its short-termism, in which it is believed to be better to fix a few toilets in a prison than to invest long term to try to reduce the number of women in prison.

In response to likely challenges from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I viewed the women’s justice strategy as a Trojan horse. The principles underpinning it are applicable to men, but the political reality is that doing it for men is much more difficult, because there are more prisoners in the male estate, and given the types of crimes that men are committing, with a few obvious notable exceptions, managing the media and public opinion is more of a challenge, so I thought it was sensible to concentrate on women first.

In the main Chamber there is currently an urgent question on a youth institution for which I was responsible for two years. The youth justice system is also crying out for a revolution in the way it manages people in custody. I tried to do that, too. I have a deep understanding and respect for the Minister, who faces challenges of trying to reform this area. It is difficult, because it only takes one headline in the newspaper for everyone to get the jitters. As a consequence, it is a tough Department to work in and in which to bring about reform.

This strategy went quite some way towards achieving reform. I would like to put on record my huge admiration for the civil servants involved in the process. We worked extremely hard on this. I view this as the biggest piece of work that I achieved in two years. It involved a hell of a lot of evidence gathering, and I had to visit every women’s prison and a number of women’s centres across the country. The strategy, which was published last year, was the culmination of a sizeable piece of work and everyone involved in writing it should be congratulated.

When I became a Minister in 2016, the first thing I read was the Corston report. I had already booked a summer holiday when I was appointed Justice Minister. I did not expect to be a Justice Minister, although I am glad that I was, because I think a doctor in the Ministry of Justice was exactly what was required. I took away a lot of things to read that summer. Most people are currently looking at their phones waiting for news of ministerial appointments; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is doing so. Those who are appointed should go away and think, and spend two to three weeks reading before immersing themselves in the Department. The problem for Ministers is—with the greatest respect to the civil servants present—that the Department sucks them in and they cannot think, and work out what they want to do and what should be a priority.

When I came back after that summer recess, I decided on three priorities, including women’s justice. I inherited a challenged relationship with the women’s justice lobby. It took time to work on that. Everyone in that group, which used to meet quarterly, worked extremely hard, because we could see that this was the right thing to do on a number of levels. Anyone who visits a women’s prison and speaks to prisoners—whatever they have done—is immediately struck by how often they are vulnerable. They often have tell-tale signs of self-harm on their wrists, poor eye contact and a history of coercive relationships, domestic abuse and drug use. Often, as has been alluded to, they tend to be those who are charged for not paying utility bills because they are the homemaker, so their name is on the account and they are disproportionately affected when those bills are not paid.

Visiting those institutions, one thinks, “If they have done things wrong, there needs to be a punitive element.” In fact, I have never met a female prisoner who has not admitted that they have done something wrong and accepted that there should be a punitive element to their sentence. However, prison and custody must be a road back to not offending, and that is quite clearly where we fall down, not just in the women’s system but in the men’s and, particularly, the youth system. Every time I came away from visits to those institutions, I thought to myself, “Continuing to do the same thing is the definition of madness.” We have to try to find a way of making these women law-abiding citizens, supporting them in that process and breaking the cycle that means their children are disproportionately likely to become offenders too.

The idea that came about was residential women’s centres, which is within the strategy; suffice it to say that it was going to have a more prominent place there. The original plan was to build 10 women’s centres, including one in Wales—I say that for all the Welsh Members of Parliament who are present. We recognised that there were some regional disparities in the provision of services for women offenders, which the strategy sought to address.

We also wanted to explore a different way of funding public services, and we got some way with that idea, but it never made it into the strategy. I think private finance initiatives are a disgrace. I was responsible for one particular PFI contract as a Minister—there is a former Minister present who knows which contract I am referring to—which was signed under the Labour Government 12 or 13 years ago. I did not want to go down that path of a quick fix and building some new buildings. Rather, I wanted to put in place something that was sustainable. I had some pretty detailed conversations with charities and philanthropic donors about them covering the capital investment, while the Government would have been responsible for the revenue costs. The idea was that if I could persuade various institutions to build or to extend existing institutions that are often charitable, the Government could step in and guarantee the maintenance costs. I think the idea has merit across Government and I was frustrated at how difficult it was to get people in the room to discuss the concept. The original plan was to do some match funding across the country and to commit revenue. We thought we could create a virtuous circle—starting with 10, moving on to 15 buildings—and, at the same time, selling off prisons that would have been released, as the number of people in prison was going to fall away.

Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that six other Members have applied to speak in this debate? If he speaks for much longer, they will have less than four minutes each to speak.

Okay. Forgive me; I was not aware of that fact. My point is that a hell of a lot of thought went into the strategy, most of which made it to publication.

If we could make progress in this space with women—reducing the prison population by half by 2030 was my internal private target—and if we could make a success of it, we could move into the male estate and apply exactly the same approach and principles and reduce our prison population across the board. That requires some thought on sentencing, tagging and various other punitive in-the-community options. It is difficult because of an uptick in violent and sexual crimes among men and women in recent years, which we obviously must address, but if we were to do this, we would get to a situation where our prison system, for men, women and young people, would be functioning, and doing what it should be doing—rehabilitating. Then we would get to a society with reduced crime and, more broadly, a society that we could all be proud of.

I welcome this debate, which has been sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). There is a cross-party dynamic here today and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who progressed this issue during the two years that he was in post. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who I am reliably informed has just resigned. Their approach got buy-in from across the political divide.

I had the fortune, although perhaps “misfortune” is the word, to visit a women’s prison, at Eastwood in Gloucestershire, with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about 10 or 12 years ago. It was a depressing experience. The women in the prison freely gave evidence through their dinner time; they were rewarded by getting leftovers for their meal. We sent them a box of House of Commons chocolates as a reward, and they were not even allowed to receive that present. We need to treat all those who are in the criminal justice system with respect.

There is compelling evidence to indicate that custodial sentences of six months or less do not work. The Government have, at last, recognised that and have proposed to do something about it.

All women in prison are disadvantaged, but women in Wales are doubly so. Throughout 2016, 62% of sentenced women entering prison across England and Wales were serving sentences of six months or less. The comparable figure for men was 45%. In Wales, a massive 74% of women prisoners are serving sentences of six months or less. The cost of keeping a person in jail is a massive £50,000 a year. Some of those women are in jail for not paying their TV licence. It is £154 for TV licence; it costs £150 a day to keep that woman in jail. Women are put in jail for not paying their council tax. I am really pleased that the Welsh Government took the initiative earlier this year not to pursue people who have not paid their council tax for a custodial sentence.

I pay tribute to the women’s centre in Rhyl, run by the wonderful Gemma Fox: it does fantastic work on a shoestring budget. She only has about nine volunteers at the moment, and they look after 300 women a year. One hundred of those women have gone through the penal system. The women’s centre is not given the resources it should be, and more women are ending up in custody; in fact, North Wales is the worst police authority of the 43 in the country for sending women to prison.

Some 80% of austerity cuts have ended up on the shoulders of women. That has a consequential effect on their world view and on their ability to provide for their families. As a last resort, many of them have committed crimes, such as shoplifting or not paying their bills, and they have ended up in prison because of that.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the reasons why women end up in such positions is that they are not receiving the benefits that they are entitled to? Nottingham Women’s Centre told me that, in the last 12 months, its welfare rights adviser recovered £463,000 in benefits that had been lost to women. Would it not help if we sorted that problem out?

Absolutely, and I will finish on this note. The women’s centre in Rhyl is not just for female prisoners or women going into or coming out of the criminal justice system. It has a holistic approach to giving advice to women on parenting, domestic and sexual abuse, housing issues, finance and employment. Women go there to recover their confidence. There is a social mix there, with middle-class women as well as working-class women and those who have no job. These centres should be funded by central Government, not least with the £80 million that was saved from Holloway.

It says in the Bible that people should

“beat their swords into ploughshares”.

We should be turning our women’s prisons into women’s community centres.

I will be brief. I want to urge the Minister to preside over a system where the courts are blind to the gender of a defendant and blind to their race or their sexuality. I was brought up with the belief that everybody was equal before the law, and that is the system that I want the Minister to preside over. It quite clearly is not the case at the moment. For every single category of offence—every single one, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures—a woman is less likely to be sent to prison than a man, is likely to be sent to prison for a shorter period and will spend less of their sentence in prison.

We have today a “belief in equality only when it suits” brigade. They do not want equality in sentencing or how the courts deal with people. They want to plead for special circumstances. All the things that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said at the outset about women in prison with trauma, mental health problems, domestic abuse or self-harm issues apply to many male prisoners in exactly the same way. This is not unique to female prisoners. Many male prisoners have exactly the same troubled backgrounds. She also talked about children—when sentencing, the impact on children should be considered when sentencing mothers. What about considering the impact of sentencing fathers on those children? Men have children too. Many women, it has to be said, have already had their kids taken off them before they are sent to prison because they are unfit to be mothers, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Well, they have already had their kids taken off them, so why on earth is that a factor in whether they are sent to prison? They are deemed to be unfit mothers. We cannot have a get-out-of-jail card for people to say, “Oh, I’m a mother; I can commit any crime I like, but because I am a mother I shouldn’t be sent to prison.”

No. I was in Bradford Crown Court recently, where a woman was convicted of a serious offence. Between being charged and her appearance in court, she had deliberately got pregnant in the hope that that would stop her from getting a custodial sentence. [Interruption.] The judge, who pointed out to her that she had deliberately got pregnant in order to avoid a custodial sentence, was not taken in, thankfully. [Interruption.] I want the Minister to make sure that we have equality in sentencing.

I recently made a complaint about Judge Buckingham, who, when sentencing a woman, said that if Miss Parry was a man, he would have been “straight down the stairs”, serving a custodial sentence. The judge decided not to send that woman to prison, even though she made it clear that if it was a man he would have gone to prison.

I will end with a check on the females in prison at the moment. This is a snapshot from the Ministry of Justice of 3,300 prisoners: 943 are in prison for violence against the person, including 338 homicides. Should those people not be in prison? There are 480 in prison for violence with injury; 21 are in for rape, the victims in all cases being other women; 87 are in prison for other sexual offences; 284 women are in for robbery; and 229 for burglary. Which of those should not be in prison? Who will say to their local communities that they want those people out of prison, free to commit crimes? It is an absolute disgrace.

Why can we not have the principle that whether someone is a man or a woman, the court will treat them exactly the same? That is what British justice should be about, and I hope the Minister will preside over that system.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this debate and I add my tribute to hers. Mine go to the women’s centre, Eden House, in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol East, and to the women who generously told me about their experiences. I will try to concentrate my remarks on my reactions to the written statement and will cut out the bits that hon. Friends have already mentioned.

The vision, established a year ago, stated that the Government wanted 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;”


“better conditions for those in custody.”

However, a recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston shows that the total number of women in custody has increased slightly over the past year. It also shows that the number of women coming into prison for the first time has decreased slightly. A report by the Prison Reform Trust last December showed that the number of women recalled to prison has more than doubled in the past year, and that has happened since the introduction of the Government measures supposedly designed to support people on release. The report reveals that more than 1,700 women were recalled to prison in England and Wales in the past year and that reforms are making things worse, trapping women in the justice system.

I will group bundles of questions together for the Minister; I am also happy to report to him in writing because I understand that he is covering for a colleague. First, what comments does the Minister have on the numbers? Why has the number of women increased in the past year, contrary to the aim of the strategy? What are the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system as a whole? That is also important if we are to evaluate success. How is the Minister learning from the lessons of the very welcome decrease in numbers of women entering prison for the first time? How is he using that information to inform the ways of reducing the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system in the first place?

We all want to prevent more crime. That also means we would prevent more women coming into the criminal justice system. What is the Minister doing to reduce the numbers of women returning to prison owing to lack of support? What progress can the Minister report on in providing them with better conditions while they are in prison?

The statement also mentions the new policy framework. I was glad to read that that was to include duties, rules and guidance and so on, particularly on issues such as caring for perinatal women in prison. I am pleased about that, but I want the Minister or a colleague to tell us how many babies have been born in custody since the policy framework was published and the extent to which their care followed the policy framework and guidance. What was the impact and what lessons can we learn? I apologise to the Minister, but I still have a lot of questions.

Another action is Lord Farmer’s review for women, a welcome development commissioned by the strategy and published recently. It looked at how supporting female offenders in custody and the community to engage with their families lowers recidivism. Whatever anyone says about why we might treat offenders in a particular way, if it lowers recidivism and crime, why would we not want to do it?

Our noble Friend in the other place, Jean Corston, already made those arguments 10 years ago. The Women in Prison report reiterated the case recently in “Corston + 10”. The recently published research evidence briefing, “Why Women’s Centres Work” by DMSS Research, also summarised the research evidence on the benefits of women’s centres to female offending, which is surely something we all want to promote. Why did that review take so long, and why are we not able to see a clear timetable for when the Government will consider the recommendations and the findings? Perhaps it is because we are between Governments.

The statement goes on to say that there should be a women’s residential centre pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. It also mentions partnerships with other agencies, multi-agencies and whole-system approaches. But why only a pilot? Why all the scoping and consultation? The implementation of the Corston report and the evaluation of Corston projects has provided us with all the piloting we could possibly need, especially in a time of low funding. The cuts and the privatisation imposed by the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government really undermined the sustainability of the Corston project in Bristol, Eden House, which was once a great example of a holistic service.

I know I need to close, Ms Ryan, because I have had my four minutes, but I want to urge the Minister and his successors, whoever they may be—perhaps the Minister will be among them—to work with the women’s centres, because what we really want to see is the gender and trauma-informed work across the country, with a proper national network of women’s centres. They do such great work. We want engagement with the members who have experience of such work so that we can do it as well as possible for all of our sakes, but particularly for the women and children.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that I am sure everybody has noticed that four Members—from the Labour Benches, sadly—have made interventions in the debate and have now left the Chamber. That is not acceptable. I hope that the Whips in the room will take up the matter.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Ms Ryan. In the short time that I have, I want to place on the record my support for the female offender strategy. It builds strongly on the work of the Corston report, which I had the honour of receiving as Minister in the then Labour Government in 2007-08.

We accepted 40 of the 43 recommendations. We appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) as the champion to see the issue through, but then we ran into the blockage of democracy: the Government were removed from office in 2010. I fully support the efforts of the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) to bring together a strategy to reduce the number of women in custody where possible. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—that some crimes demand custody—but, where possible, we should reduce the number of women in custody, look at early interventions to support women in avoiding custody in the first place, and tackle some of the causes of offending with drug and alcohol services.

Only last week, I mentioned that the number of drug and alcohol treatment orders in the community has been halved in the past four years by the Government.

Some 62% of women in prison are serving short sentences. My right hon. Friend talks about drug and alcohol programmes and early interventions. Does he agree with me that it would be better to invest in early intervention and community sentencing, and introduce a presumption against short sentences to make sure that women get the support that they need, rather than custodial sentences?

It is very important that we try to support women who have committed offences. Sometimes they have committed them because forces have driven them to it. We need to find an appropriate way to remove them from prison because prison has an impact on family life as well as on them. I welcome the efforts of the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) on short prison sentences, and I hope the policy will continue with any new Minister in due course.

If I may focus on my own area of north Wales, there were 37 women on any given day last year in Styal Prison—40 miles from the border, and perhaps 100 miles from the north-west of Wales. I was asked last year by the Welsh Assembly Government to do an inquiry into the treatment of prisoners with regard to education and other services. It is important to note that in the female offender strategy, only four of the 179 paragraphs deal with Wales. It establishes a need for a blueprint. A female offender blueprint is being published by the Welsh Government, and it has very good aspirations. I would welcome an update on progress from the Minister, either in writing or when he responds at the end of the debate.

For example, in the work that I did last year in Wales, I found that there was limited access to Welsh language education for women whose first language was Welsh. There was limited understanding in the Welsh Government of how many female offenders would return to Wales, how many were linked into the labour market of Wales, and how many dependents people had. There was limited understanding of how much would be needed in the way of ongoing support requirements, to reintegrate women back from custody into the community in due course.

My hon. Friends have demanded a women’s centre, and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) will reiterate that. Wales is one country, but north and south Wales are two regions, where there are different demands on people. We need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, to look at what provision there is for a women’s centre in Wales. Those 37 women need to return to the community in due course.

I welcome the document overall, but I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity about a one-year update to the female offending blueprint, and a six-month update to the implementation plan being worked on by the Welsh Assembly Government in conjunction with his Department.

I thank the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for setting the scene, and for her contribution. We live in a world where “equality” is a buzzword. We should strive for equal pay for equal labour, for the right person to get the job regardless of their gender and for all jobs to be open to any gender. However, being equal does not mean being the same. That is why we need a dedicated strategy for female offenders. That is what I want. The pressures and outcomes are vastly different and need specialised attention.

The issue is complex and I can see where difficulties arise in a family scenario. Whether we like it or not—we probably do—there is a need for compassion and understanding in the process. There is the option of a curfew. That causes difficulties if an offender’s child gets sick and needs to go to hospital. Another issue is the burden of fines and the effect that they can have on the child. It is difficult to find alternatives to prison, but we must look for them. However, I firmly believe that if dependent children are a factor, we must strive to do what we can for the family unit while still ensuring that the duty to justice is met. We do not say it should not be met; we are saying it needs to be looked at differently. We must ensure that any punishment dished out to female offenders affects their children as little as possible.

Figures show that 54% of female offenders have children under the age of 18. Having their mother in prison can be a difficult experience for children. Those are complex issues, but some families have to face them; that is what the debate is about. However, we can and should explore alternatives to prison to ensure that children are affected as little as possible. I agree with Lord Farmer’s report citing the importance of maintaining family ties for female offenders to ensure that they do not reoffend. He says that prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend and that that is even more important for women than men. Women make up just under 5% of the prison population in England and Wales, yet they are more likely than men to reoffend. For that reason it is paramount that we focus, in the time they are in prison, on trying to prevent female offenders from reoffending.

There is a problem that needs attention. Serving short sentences could cause women to lose their jobs and could have other big effects on their lives. Reports indicate that in that situation inmates are more likely to be exposed to mental health issues and to self-harm. Those issues are specific to the female population. I do not say those things do not happen to men, but the numbers I am aware of through the stats and information we have indicate to me that we have to do something for them. If we want to stop them reoffending, we must ensure that prison does not seriously damage female offenders to the point where they do reoffend. Damaged people are more likely to break the law, owing to a sense of hopelessness. That is a fact.

It is, however, striking to read the stories of women finding prison an experience of being treated better inside than outside. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of women prisoners have experienced domestic abuse. Prison can therefore be both a positive and a negative experience. It is important that the Government work to stamp out domestic abuse in the UK and help women escape from their abusive partners and find an alternative to resorting to prison to escape the abusive partnerships they are trapped in.

I concur with the Magistrates Association, which has highlighted the importance of making appropriate community sentences available for all. It has said that the justice system must be part of the process of early intervention, by supporting proper signposting or diversion where appropriate—not simply for women, but for all of those for whom it is suitable.

Time has beaten me, so I shall say only this. We have to do better at intervention, especially when statistics tell us that there is less chance of reoffending and more stability for children with the approach in question. I sincerely believe that the punishment must fit the crime regardless of gender, but there must be a red-line standard that is not crossed for female offenders.

I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate.

It is 12 years since Baroness Corston published her review, which looked at the vulnerabilities of women in the judicial system. In that review she highlighted the disproportionate and inappropriate sentences that women face for minor, non-violent offences and the chaos and disruption experienced by their families. She spoke about the many women who were, and still are, victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction and childhood neglect and who end up in prison because of a lack of support. In 2017, 10 years after the Corston review, 74% of Welsh women in prison were serving sentences of less than six months—double the number serving such short sentences when the report was published. With no female prison in Wales—and we do not want one—those women serve their sentences an average of 101 miles from their family. What help is that to a woman who is in turmoil, or to a child who desperately misses their mother? In April, the Welsh Labour Government scrapped outdated and disproportionate prison sentences for those getting into council tax debt, who more often than not are women. It was clear that sending those women to prison for perhaps 12 weeks because they could not afford to pay the money they owed was going to be of no benefit to anyone.

One of the key necessities is an increase in the number of women’s centres as an alternative to prisons; it is essential. Earlier this month, I visited the Nelson Trust in Gloucester. It was like a breath of fresh air for me. Women offenders were being supported, educated and counselled in a suitable environment, enabling them to remain with their families and preparing them for a future away from the criminal justice system.

The Government have committed in the strategy to developing five more women’s centres as a pilot across England and Wales. I ask them please not to forget Wales. Women’s centres are central to the success of the female offender strategy. They make financial sense and will benefit society as a whole. Not only will female offenders be supported in a trauma-informed environment, but when they complete their sentence they will be in a position to move on with their lives with a positive outlook for their future. At the moment, too many women leave prison in dire straits after serving short sentences. They are often homeless, unemployable and desperate, which is why reconviction and recall rates are so high for female offenders.

The key to all that I am describing and to the strategy as a whole is, as with most things, funding. None of the recommendations or promises in the strategy can happen if the Ministry of Justice does not commit to them financially. We know that there will be money available from the sale of HM Prison Holloway. That should unquestionably be used to improve specialist services for women across the criminal justice system, such as the Treasures Foundation, founded by Mandy Ogunmokun to provide a safe female-only recovery environment to support women to overcome their issues and equip them with the tools needed to live a healthy and happy life. We need further settings like that, across the UK, to transform women’s lives. We urgently need the Government to make a commitment showing that they are serious enough about the strategy to make the funds available. We have to get it right. We owe it to society and to the women we should be supporting.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to follow the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I want to compliment the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate and on all the work she has done in the area for many years.

The Scottish Prison Service is of course devolved. This afternoon I will say a little about the female offenders strategy in Scotland, but in response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I want talk about the good international evidence base for treating women offenders differently.

I am glad to say that Scotland has come a long way in its approach to female offenders in recent years. Until the mid-2000s, women found guilty of failure to pay fines for non-payment of television licences could face a custodial sentence to be served alongside women who had committed far more serious crimes. We do not do that in Scotland any longer. There are far more options for dealing with female offenders, and the procurator fiscal, the prosecutor, has the option of a fixed penalty.

More generally, in 2011 the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, recognised that Scotland needed a new female offender strategy, and he commissioned my former boss, then Lord Advocate for Scotland, Elish Angiolini, to look into the position of women offenders and the prison estate in Scotland. Her commission reported in 2012, and recommended major changes to the way we deal with women offenders in Scotland.

There was only one exclusively female prison in Scotland. It is a big prison outside Stirling called Cornton Vale, which I visited in my previous profession. It was described by the commission as “not fit for purpose”, and I would agree with that. It was designed to house approximately 300 women, but there were often far more women than that, and they were not getting the services and support they needed. The commission also said that a significant number of women who were sent to prison on short sentences reoffended after release. It pointed out that women offenders tend to have complex issues and needs, with many having experienced domestic abuse, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addictions, most of which were not getting treated during their incarceration. Importantly—this refers to what the hon. Member for Shipley said—the Scottish commission did not completely condemn the use of prison for female offenders, which it recognised is necessary for serious offenders, but it highlighted the need for prisons to try to rehabilitate female offenders. As a result of that commission, plans to build a new women’s prison in Scotland with the same capacity as Cornton Vale were ditched, and my friend and colleague, the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, opted for a different approach in light of Elish Angiolini’s recommendations. He based that approach on the fact that short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending by women, and said that we needed to consider a more effective way of addressing the problem.

Instead of building a large new prison, he decided that the existing Cornton Vale would be knocked down, and that a small new prison with the capacity for 80 women should be built. Work on that has started already. In addition to that new prison, it was decided that five community custodial units should be built across Scotland, each able to house around 20 women offenders, and with a focus on addressing the underlying issues that they faced. The first two custodial units were commissioned in Glasgow and Dundee, and it is hoped they will be operational within the next two years. That will introduce a more personal and intensive approach that is more relevant to the needs of the individual. Interestingly, the BBC reported that women in Cornton Vale supported those plans, recognising that there is still a need for a custodial estate.

Let me deal with what the hon. Member for Shipley said by returning to Elish Angiolini’s report and the international evidence base that supports the view that there should be a distinct approach for women offenders. As Elish pointed out, such an approach is compliant with domestic and international law and obligations. Her commission identified three broad areas that support the case for a separate approach: the profile of women offenders, the predictors of reoffending by women, and what works to reduce reoffending among women.

For the profile of female offenders, the evidence base shows that, compared with men, women are more likely to pose a lower risk to public safety and to be in prison for dishonesty offences. They are more likely to be placed on remand and to have higher rates of mental health or drug problems. They are also more likely to have histories of physical and sexual abuse and victimisation, and to have dependent children. The commission did not say that such factors do not exist for male prisoners, just that, compared with men, women are more likely to experience them.

Scotland is down the road on this. Can the hon. and learned Lady assure me that the Government in Scotland are auditing everything and building an evidence base for doing this? If one thing might move the dial south of the border, it is if the Ministry of Justice reads the evidence. I looked at this issue in Scotland when I was a Minister, and I was deeply impressed. Is it possible to guarantee that we collect the right evidence so that we can change things in England and Wales?

I have no doubt that my colleagues in the Scottish Government are doing that, and I know that in his former role the Minister visited the prison service in Scotland. We have done some things well in Scotland. I do not say it is perfect or that we have got everything right, but it is internationally recognised that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland is changing patterns of reoffending.

I have dealt briefly with the profile of women offenders, but the predictors of reoffending for women are different. For example, research shows that certain factors are much stronger predictors of reoffending for women than for men, such as dysfunctional family relationships—especially family or marital conflict—and poor parent-child attachment, especially for young people. Poverty, deprivation and debt are also bigger reoffending predictors for women than they are for men.

The Angiolini commission found that to improve outcomes for women offenders it is crucial to understand what works to reduce reoffending. Although at the time, due to methodological constraints and the small numbers of subjects, there were few rigorous outcome evaluations of interventions in Scotland, international evidence showed that a number of factors were critical to reducing reoffending by women. One of those was effective intervention, including the thinking skills that need to be in place to challenge antisocial attitudes among women. Another was empathetic practitioners who develop good relationships with women offenders and provide practical and emotional support. The evidence base also supported holistic, rather than stand-alone interventions, and basic services to address women’s needs while in prison. That is just a taste of the international evidence base. It is not discrimination to treat women offenders differently; it is a recognition of the different factors that contribute to women ending up in prison, and that is my answer to what the hon. Member for Shipley had to say.

I look forward to the position in Scotland developing and improving. It is good to know that the Government for England and Wales and the Scottish Government are on a similar track and recognise the clear evidential basis for a different approach to dealing with women offenders.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this important debate on the first anniversary of the Government’s female offender strategy. She and other members of the all-party group for women in the penal system do excellent work in this field. They are tireless campaigners for a better, fairer, justice system, and I pay tribute to them.

I suspect that my neighbour, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), will disagree with a lot of my speech, but as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) pointed out, numerous reports and studies recognise that female offenders face several additional complex challenges that are separate to those faced by men and that act as drivers of offending and reoffending. Those drivers are key to understanding how we can deliver a criminal justice system that is fair and just and that acts in the best interests of society.

As Members have said, both today and in the past, a woman in prison is more likely to have experienced domestic abuse or to be homeless before entering custody and after leaving. She is more likely to suffer from substance misuse and to experience mental health issues. She is also more likely to have committed a non-violent offence—most probably an offence due to poverty, where meeting a need rather than material gain was the objective—and to be serving a short sentence. The vast majority of those women are not dangerous. They are deeply troubled, and it is clear that, for many, prison is not the best place to address their needs and challenges or the drivers of offending. That is particularly clear considering the high level of reoffending by women released from prison compared with those serving sentences in the community.

I have some stuff to put on the record, so on this occasion I will not.

The Corston report and others have stated that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who offend, and I completely agree. There is no reason why we should be locking up so many vulnerable women who have committed non-violent offences that are, in many cases, crimes of poverty.

Prison, regardless of the length of sentence, even if it is just a matter of weeks, takes away a woman’s job, home and family—everything that has been proven time and time again to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. For those who have committed dangerous offences that leave them a danger to the public, of course, custody is still necessary, but for many, many women, that is simply not the case. Indeed, the Government themselves have recognised the complex challenges that women face and acknowledged the need for change, setting out in their much-delayed female offender strategy that criminalising vulnerable individuals has broader negative social impacts, that short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders and that good community management works.

To address those issues, the Government set out three main objectives in the strategy: 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. However, despite their warm words in the female offender strategy, we have seen little from the Government about turning vision into reality.

At the end of June, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is not here today, issued a written statement on the progress that the Government had made. While he stated that he wishes to celebrate what he calls “improvements”, he should be doing anything but celebrating. What the Ministry of Justice has achieved is simply unacceptable for a year’s worth of work. It just is not good enough.

The first problem that the strategy encounters is woeful underfunding, setting out just £5 million over two years in community provision for women, including an initial £3.5 million grant. Not only is that money already earmarked and allocated elsewhere as part of the violence against women and girls funding, but it is well short of what experts have said is needed.

The Government’s own Advisory Board on Female Offenders told the Justice Secretary that the strategy requires at least £20 million, a view shared by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), himself a former Minister, who has confirmed that the strategy is £15 million short. We often disagreed on things when he was my opposite number, but on this issue he had passion and vision, and I thank him for that.

Nor have we seen any progress on the development of the promised residential women’s centres, despite their forming a core part of the female offender strategy. The hon. Member for Charnwood told the House in his written statement that the Ministry of Justice has

“recently concluded our first phase of consultation with local voluntary and statutory agencies”,

but added:

“We will continue to consult with partners as we refine…the pilot.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2019; Vol. 662, cols 54-55WS.]

That is far from good enough.

The Corston report of 2007 made the recommendation to deliver the first network of women’s centres, and the Labour Government delivered it. We acted. We helped to develop and nurture that network, which has proven itself time and time again as a real, productive alternative to custody and has been met with praise by all those working with it.

Yet despite this body of evidence and the fact that their proposals are just a revision of the last Labour Government’s policy, the Government still feel that there is a need for an extended trial. They do not need to conduct a trial. We know that women’s centres work. Instead, they should either be getting on with their residential centres, or investing back into existing women’s centres and those who operate them to expand the network. Over recent years, it has been devastated following a series of cuts imposed by the Government’s reforms to probation, which led private probation providers to see their obligation to women as a requirement not to provide holistic support, but just to provide the option of a female supervisor.

Despite their stated desire to see fewer women in custody and on short-term sentences, the Government have also made little progress on reforming sentencing for female offenders. Women are still being sent to prison for non-violent offences where they are absolutely no danger to the public. They are still being sent to prison for poverty-related offences such as shoplifting or, quite disturbingly, for petty offences such as TV licence evasion—a point made earlier. The hon. Member for Shipley will want to know that women are sent to prison for that at a greater rate than men are.

Is that the society we want, where vulnerable women are sent to prison for petty offences such as TV licences? The Government are also still locking up vulnerable women whose needs and challenges cannot be addressed in prison. In particular, they are still locking up women who are homeless, and at a greater rate, with the number of homeless women sent to prison rising 71% from the 2015 figure.

In conclusion, last year we were promised a strategy that we were told would change the way women are treated in the criminal justice system, building on the highly influential Corston report. But a year on—a year in which the MOJ could have radically transformed the criminal justice landscape for female offenders—we have seen nothing of the sort. The Government should be ashamed of the lack of progress that they have made in the past 12 months. There is an overwhelming consensus among those who work with women and among hon. Members here today that we should be doing more to help female offenders. If this Government will not do it, a Labour Government will.

Of course, Mrs Ryan. I am grateful for the reminder, because the mover of the debate, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and I served on the Justice Committee together for some years. I pay tribute to her for this debate and for her work.

I will just address the remarks by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), for whom I have very high regard. I think he is a little unfair when he suggests that all the work that needs to be done under this strategy, or the progress that he envisages, could have been achieved in just one year. Those of us who have worked closely with the criminal justice system for many years know that the best and most sustainable reforms take time. We are dealing with a developing cohort of prisoners—men, women and children—who have differing needs and who need to be managed sensitively. It is not an easy task.

In saying that it is not easy, I am not shying away at all from the nature of the responsibility that I and the Ministry of Justice have to get this right. That is why, in the strategy, there was a refreshing frankness about the need to acknowledge the issue and to get not only the language but the approach right.

[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Today’s debate has been, in great measure, mature, sensible and evidence-based, and I welcome the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is right, by the way, in his figures when it comes to sentenced women offenders; about one third of them are in custody because of offences of violence against a person. He is correct about that. He is also right to remind us that justice must be equal, and that there will be plenty of occasions when, regardless of the gender of the individual before a judge, that person will have to go to prison for serious offences. I think the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), a former Prisons and Home Office Minister, acknowledged that.

We should not shy away from the reality facing judges and magistrates: there will be times when custody has to be the option, bearing in mind the seriousness of the offence. What I want to see from the criminal justice system—I speak at a time of change; we have an interregnum in my Department—is a system that is smart, not just in the use of resources, but in the administration of justice and our penal system, in a way that means that, when people have served their punishment and are released from custody, we end up with fewer victims of crime, not more. That is what reducing reoffending is all about.

There have been a lot of important pieces of information today; I agree with hon. Members who made the point that most custodial sentences for women are short. In 2018, 77% of custodial sentences for women were less than 12 months, compared with 62% for men. Over the same period, 55% of female offenders were sentenced to a custodial sentence length of up to and including three months, compared with only 35% of male offenders. To balance out the correct statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley cited, last year just over one third of immediate custodial sentences for women were for shoplifting offences, compared with only 11% for men, and the average custodial sentence served was just under two months.

I went to Eastwood Park women’s prison a few weeks ago, and the average sentence length there is about 10 weeks, which is not enough time to do much with a convicted prisoner or to do meaningful work, other than to provide as much support and help as possible for women who are often in a very difficult position. We must all understand the point about vulnerability and the evidence base about the female cohort in order to get this strategy right.

Female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems. The figures are stark: it is 49% of women and 18% of men. About 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse. Female prisoners are more likely to have been taken into care, experienced abuse or witnessed violence in the home as a child. Clear evidential facts rightly underpin our strategy.

The figures relating to custody for non-payment of television licences are, I am glad to say, low. Four women were admitted to custody for non-payment of television licences in 2018, and in the same year three women were admitted to custody for non-payment of council tax. It is important that I put that on the record for balance. Sadly, too many people in our country are living in very straitened circumstances, and plenty of people in those circumstances do not end up in the criminal justice system. We must be very careful when we talk about the cycle of poverty and what it means for offending. Having represented many women in very difficult circumstances as counsel, I know the challenges that many of them face. The lives that they have led are not lives that anybody here would choose to lead. I have seen it for myself. Eastwood Park was familiar to me because some of my clients served sentences there. That is why I was particularly interested in seeing its excellent mother and baby unit and talking to the women, some of whom were in for longer periods. Their experiences and what they had to say were profoundly interesting. Some of the younger women I met were in for only a very short period, but even to my unclinical eye some were clearly vulnerable.

The strategy recognises those facts. It recognises the range of women’s need. In setting out the three-pronged aims, it reinforces and embeds what Baroness Corston found in her groundbreaking report of 2007. The aims are that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system in the first place, that fewer women should serve short custodial sentences, and that we should create a positive environment that supports the rehabilitation of women who need to be in custody.

Hon. Members have spent much time rightly examining the work that has been done. Some criticism has been made of the £5 million multi-year funding. Of course, that is not the only part of our response to support women who are themselves victims or in a cycle of offending. I am sorry that an hon. Member who intervened in the debate but is no longer present found the system to be unduly bureaucratic. We must ensure that the way the funding is spent is based on sound evidence, and that it has a positive effect. That funding is being rolled out effectively, sustaining and enhancing 26 services to develop new women’s centres and to pilot innovative specialist services across England and Wales.

I make no apology for piloting initiatives. We have to get this right. The Government were rightly criticised for jumping the gun when it came to transforming rehabilitation and making assumptions that sadly could not be sustained. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar)—who sadly could not be with us today because he is addressing the House on an urgent question—and I feel very strongly about that. This is also about the work that is being done more widely.

Many hon. Members mentioned the £80 million that was raised through the sale of Holloway. That huge sum of money could transform the number of women going into prisons across the United Kingdom. That would save the Government money in the end, too, so it would be a win-win situation. Will the Minister say something about that before he concludes?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me about that. As the Prisons Minister, I am responsible for a very large estate, and it would be difficult to hypothecate that money in the way that hon. Members desire. Having said that, some of the funds that were raised have provided a women’s centre there, and the money is being ploughed back into the estate anyway. It is being used to make our prison estate safer, more decent and much better. It is difficult to hypothecate that money purely for these particular purposes.[Official Report, 9 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 6MC.]

Hon. Members asked many questions, and sadly I do not have all the time in the world to deal with them. I want to talk briefly about the important work of Lord Farmer’s review and the vital issue of family ties. Women are more likely to be primary carers than men when entering the system. Of course, the innocent children of those relationships are the ones who suffer. We are very grateful to Lord Farmer for his review, and we will take his work forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right that the fact that someone might be a carer should not always be a reason for a court not to go down a particular sentencing path. Judges have to have discretion, and it would be bad sentencing practice for one issue to trump everything else.

I will try to deal with the questions asked by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. I feel very strongly about pre-sentence reports, and I have asked questions of my civil servants. There is an improved new checklist to make sure that the probation officer is asking the right question about women offenders, and we will roll it out nationally. Part of my aim is to see PSRs used more widely throughout the criminal justice system. I will write to the hon. Lady on all her other questions, because I appreciate that she needs time to respond.

I am grateful to all colleagues who have participated in this very good debate. There was widespread, if not entirely unanimous, recognition that the experiences of women offenders are different. Their motivation to offend, their vulnerabilities, and the impact of sentences on them and their families are different. The risk that women present is lower than that of men. Although I accept the figures that the Minister and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) cited, I am happy, now that I have found my figures, to share the analysis carried out by the Prison Reform Trust, which led me to the 83% figure. I am afraid that I wrongly suggested that it was a figure from Crest Advisory. It was, in fact, analysis by the Prison Reform Trust. I will write to them, and indeed all Members who participated in the debate, to share that information.

The real lesson that we should take from this debate is that holistic, community-based provision is the most effective way to deal with the vast majority of women offenders, through dedicated, specialist provision. The one message that I want the Minister to take away from the debate is that we must have certain, sustained and adequate funding for a network of women’s centres right across the country. I hope that if he continues as the Minister, he will pursue that agenda. I hope he remains in his role, but if he sadly does not I hope he will pass that message on to his successors.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the female offender strategy one year on.