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Female Offender Strategy

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

The female offender strategy launched an ambitious programme to improve outcomes for female offenders and make society safer by tackling the causes of offending. It will take several years to deliver, but, two years on, we are making good progress. We have invested over £5 million in 30 women’s services across England and Wales, and we are in the process of allocating a further £2.5 million to increase the financial stability of those providing these important services.

Under the Bail Act 1976, the courts can remand an adult to prison for their own “protection” or a child for their own “welfare”. This even happens when the criminal charge cannot result in a conviction. We are restricting a person’s liberty—usually someone with complex mental health needs, and often women—because of the failure to provide the appropriate treatment, care or support in the community. Will the Minister support the repeal of this outdated, offensive and draconian power, which is contrary not only to human rights, but to human decency?

The hon. Member will know that we are looking at the Mental Health Act 1983 provisions and reviewing them. We never think that it should be appropriate to use prison as a place of safety. Combined with that, we recognise the need to tackle mental health issues in all those who come through the justice system, particularly women, because women have a high incidence of mental health needs. We will be looking carefully at how we can commit further funds to ensure that women and men get the services they need to help to turn their lives around.

We know that the majority of women sentenced for non-violent crimes are given short prison sentences, which are totally ineffective in rehabilitation but can split up families, put children into care and lead to eviction from the home—all things that we should not want to happen. Women’s centres are successful, as we know in Greater Manchester. They are cost-effective, but also much better in human terms and better for society. Can the Minister guarantee that we will enhance the investment in those centres and get women who should not be in prison out of prison and into the kind of care that makes a difference to them and to society?

The hon. Member makes a very important point: we need to ensure that we support women not only in custody, but outside it. He will have heard me mention that we are in the midst of a £2.5 million funding exercise, in which some of the money will go to community centres. However, we are doing other things as well, such as improving pre-sentence reports to ensure that women get the right order and go into the community, not into custody, where that is appropriate. He will also have heard me announce recently our first residential women’s centre, which will be in Wales and which we are progressing with. It is for those women who are on the cusp of custody, but whom we do not want to put in custody where we can avoid that, so that they can instead be ordered by the court to go into a residential women’s centre, which will better look after their needs.

The female offenders strategy published in 2018 by the then Justice Secretary and Prime Minister got it right. One woman in every three in prison self-harms. They are twice as likely as men to have mental health needs and more likely to have drug problems. According to those Ministers, short-term prison sentences

“do more harm than good”,

but last year, half of all women’s sentences were of less than three months, and the plan is to increase the women’s population by 40%. Why have these Ministers so quickly abandoned the promises made by their predecessors?

I refute the claim that we are changing our policy in any way. As the police are funded to search out and investigate further crime with our 20,000 additional officers on the beat, it is inevitable that some further women will go to prison as a result, and it is our obligation to ensure that there is a safe place for them to go. We, too, are concerned about women coming through short sentences, but the judiciary makes those independent decisions on short sentences, and we are ensuring that when people do come through on short sentences, they will have specific probation officers looking after them in the new, reformed probation system to ensure that those women, and men, get the support that they need.