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Support for Women Leaving Prison

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for women leaving prison.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. When you look at the female prison population, you are faced with the stark reality that, for the most part, it is nurture, not nature, that has led these women down the path they are following: a path of destruction; a path that embodies a lack of self-worth; a path that has been created for them by life experiences and subsequent complex needs.

Nearly 60% of women who come into contact with the criminal justice system are survivors of domestic violence, and more than half report having received emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. Both of these figures are likely to be underestimates. If we add issues such as poverty and addiction to that, we can start to see the full picture of how past trauma leads to crime, conviction and imprisonment.

I could talk—and I have talked—at great length about the need for alternatives to prison for many women in the first place. The female offender strategy gave me a sense of real hope that more would be done to advocate for women’s centres, with the emphasis on supporting and rehabilitating women in a more constructive setting. In the strategy, the Government signalled a commitment to a new programme of work for female offenders, driven by three priorities: early intervention, an emphasis on community-based solutions, and an aim to make custody as effective and decent as possible for those women who have to be there.

I was therefore shocked and disappointed by the Ministry of Justice’s announcement earlier this year of 500 new prison places for women, at a cost of £150 million, particularly when co-funding for women’s centres, which are proven to reduce offending, is being cut.

Today, I want to look at what happens to women when they finish their sentence. What support is available to them to help them rebuild their lives? What more needs to be done to reduce the number of women whose initial conviction becomes a catalyst for a lifetime in the criminal justice system?

I recently met representatives from the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative. Shockingly, they told me that over half of all women leaving prison have nowhere safe to go. They walk through the gate with three things: the paltry £46 prison discharge grant, a plastic bag full of belongings, and the threat of recall if they miss their probation appointment. For some, the simple fact that they have been in prison a long way from home means that they have no local connections when they are released. For others, who are victims of abuse, returning to their homes, and consequently the perpetrators, comes at a huge personal risk. Yet what other options are there?

A lack of secure housing is a significant barrier to rehabilitation. According to a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation, between 2019 and 2020, 65% of men and women who were released from prison without settled accommodation reoffended. Without somewhere to live, the chances of finding employment are minimal and the impact on mental health is devastating. A return to familiar surroundings, harmful behaviour, substance abuse and crime is almost inevitable.

The duty to refer in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is failing vulnerable women leaving prison. The Government must take urgent action to change this and improve the Act’s effectiveness. Although the announcement of dedicated staff to act as brokers for prisoners in order to give them faster access to accommodation on release is welcome, having this resource in only 11 prisons around the country will not come close to solving the problem. These staff need to be placed in every women’s prison in the country and be fully trained to address the challenges faced by women when they leave prison.

Likewise, the new pilot announced by the Government of temporary basic accommodation for prison leavers at risk of homelessness does not go far enough. It has been launched in only five of the 12 probation regions in England and Wales. It is limited to a maximum of 12 weeks’ accommodation and does not address the particular needs of women at all. This needs to be a national scheme that takes into account the specific issues faced by vulnerable women with complex needs and offers safe and secure permanent accommodation to enable them to achieve resettlement and rehabilitation.

Leaving prison should be the chance for a new beginning, but the way things stand, it is just the start of another battle for many women—a battle to find somewhere safe to live, to get a job, to stay clean and to not reoffend. It is a battle to avoid being recalled, because that £46 was just not enough for a fresh start.

Will the Minister look again at the Government’s commitments in the female offender strategy? Will they make commitments to take an approach that addresses vulnerability, follows the evidence about what works in supporting them to turn their lives around and treats them as individuals of value? Will he consider what could be done to improve women’s life chances on release, be it an uplift in the prison discharge grant; a pledge to look again at additional prison places, given that it is clear that women’s centres provide better outcomes; extending dedicated support across the whole female justice estate to help with accommodation before release; making available guaranteed accommodation for all those leaving who are at risk of homelessness; or perhaps all these things?

We know that the majority of women with convictions have experienced trauma. We have all heard the harrowing stories of abuse, addiction, coercion, and self-deprivation that have led these women to commit crimes in the first place. We need a system that supports their rehabilitation and offers them freedom from the past, to help them avoid recall and allow them to choose a different path; not a system that is set up for failure from the very start.

If we are to see an end to this injustice, so much more needs to be done to offer women the support and tools they need to build themselves a better future. I talk to very many women who started on this vicious journey because of the environment in which they lived. I have met women whose original crime was not having a TV licence. Unable to pay the associated fine, they ended up in prison. I have met women whose children refused to go to school. Again, unable to pay the fine, their punishment was prison. When they are released they have lost their family, their home and their dignity. They now live on the streets, and too many are working the streets and financing the pimps and the drug dealers. We have to break this cycle. The Government must act now to prevent this cycle of inevitability.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to follow the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I agree with every word she said. There are some people who, when they come to this place, like to play to the gallery, and there are some who come to do the right thing. The substance of this debate is one where we need to make sure we do the right thing, because the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable people.

Many colleagues on my side of the House have a very “Hang ’em and flog ’em” approach to criminal justice—locking people up and throwing away the key. There is a place for that. However, many people who end up in our criminal justice system or in custody are themselves some of the most vulnerable people, and they are symptoms of state failure. That is particularly true of women prisoners. As we all know, quite often people who have been in the care system are over-represented on the prison estate, as are people with addiction problems, and people with literacy and numeracy issues, and that is the state failing those people.

How we deal with people once they enter that cycle of offending and reoffending is how we should judge our success in rehabilitation and making sure that we give people a second chance. We should not be writing people off forever. We know that if we do not give them the support to be rehabilitated, they will continue a cycle of reoffending. That is not good for society at all, or indeed for the taxpayer, because putting people in prison is quite an expensive solution. We need to grasp this debate head-on. We should not be letting our criminal justice system pick up the price of state failure.

Women who have been let down by the state are particularly over-represented in the prisons system. As the hon. Member for Swansea East has alluded, many are victims of abuse, whether domestic abuse or sexual violence, and trauma is symptomatic. In fact, for some of those women, prison is probably as safe and secure an environment as they have ever been in. What a travesty for our society that we let that happen.

We know that there have been many moves in recent years to recognise that prison is not the right place for people who are vulnerable and suffering the consequences of trauma. For a long time, we had a move towards different, more community-based solutions. In particular, talking about women who are also parents, what good is there to be done by putting women in prison and putting their children into care? What is going to be the positive outcome for society of that? Other solutions can be pursued, such as treatment orders combined with community payback schemes. I think we should look at that.

The direction of travel was very much in favour of this more enlightened way of treating women in the criminal justice system, but we seem to have had a change in emphasis. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the announcement of 500 new prison places comes at a time when the women’s prison population has gone down by 600. We are talking about an increase in capacity of 1,100. We ask ourselves: what signal are we showing about how we are going to deal with people who, frankly, need support to not reoffend?

In not too recent a time, the then Cameron Government had very big ambitions for prison reform and emphasis on rehabilitation, but they seem to have died with that Government. It is easy to be populist and easy to play to a gallery that wants to lock people up and throw away the key, but we need to think about what the best outcome for society is. Surely the best outcome for society is to make sure we do everything in our power to support people to get out of that cycle of reoffending.

I often say in this place that there is no public policy issue that cannot be solved by a housing solution, and that is also true of this. It is clear that some kind of security in accommodation when people leave prison is fundamental to making sure that people do not reoffend. As the hon. Lady mentioned, there are pilots in place to give that support in housing, but I helpfully suggest to the Minister that perhaps we should have more focus on those kinds of step-down solutions for housing for people who leave prison, and that perhaps that might be a better value-for-money investment of taxpayers’ money than simply expanding the prison estate.

As I say, the more we can do to divert women away from simply being incarcerated, the better it will be for society. It will prevent some children from going into the care system, and prevent that generational flow of history repeating itself in families. We also know that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, some of the offences committed by women for which they end up with a custodial sentence are not ones that justify such a sentence. In particular, they can often be with reference to debt, and again, I think we can find much better solutions for supporting people out of that.

I have little more to add, other than to reaffirm my support for everything the hon. Lady has said. We as political leaders perhaps need to give more leadership to our communities, and to be more understanding and more forgiving of why people end up the way they are. It is when people feel excluded from society—when they feel that society is not giving them a chance—that they end up in this cycle of crime and reoffending, in and out of prison. As I say, that is our failing. We need to make sure that when we pick people up for the first time, we do what we can to help them address their problems, whether that is debt, poor literacy, or all the other traumas that they may have suffered. As we know, mental health difficulties are a big characteristic of this prison population too. Let us do our bit and not simply rely on more prison places.

It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. First of all, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this incredibly important debate today; it is particularly timely, given that yesterday was International Women’s Day. It is important to see from the first two contributions that women from both sides of the House can find common ground on this really important issue. I for one am grateful that there are these issues that, as women, we can potentially work together on.

It is important to remember that as many as 70% of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse, and that women in prison are also five times more likely to have mental health difficulties than those in the general population. However, sadly, in many cases they are simply not receiving the support they need on being released from prison. According to the Ministry of Justice, in the year ending March 2020, one in 25 women were sleeping rough on release from custody, and nearly half of women left without settled accommodation. Data from the independent monitoring boards for women’s prisons and the prisons themselves suggest that the figure is actually as high as 60%. This is a huge problem, not least because 65% of women released from prison to no fixed abode go on to reoffend. Failure to provide safe and secure accommodation is therefore preventing rehabilitation and fuelling reoffending.

The Ministry of Justice has recently announced £70 million of funding to support former offenders at risk of homelessness, including a pilot to provide prison leavers with temporary accommodation for up to 12 weeks. However, that pilot is limited in scope, as it covers only five of the 12 probation regions and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East pointed out, does nothing for women in the other seven probation regions. There is also uncertainty about whether those vulnerable women leaving prison will be supported beyond the 12 weeks’ temporary accommodation to find long-term, safe and secure accommodation. That is the type of accommodation that is desperately needed, not a 12-week temporary fix.

That funding is also incredibly low, compared with the £150 million recently pledged to build 500 new prison cells for women. While Ministry of Justice figures published in November last year show that the female prison population is projected to rise by around two fifths by 2026, it is important to remember that, in the main, we need to focus on community sentences and the use of women’s centres instead of prison, especially given that 80% of women are in prison for non-violent offences. Indeed, a series of inquiries and reports in recent decades have all concluded that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who offend. The Government’s own female offender strategy promises a focus on early intervention and community-based solutions. Why are the Government not following that female offender strategy? Why are they investing in prisons, when actually the money is needed in women’s centres?

Specialist women’s services are best placed to address women’s complex needs, to divert women from the criminal justice system, and to prevent reoffending. The Women’s Budget Group further found that a place at a women’s centre costs between £1,223 and £4,125 per woman, depending on needs, while a place in a women’s prison costs £52,000 per year. Better investment in and use of women’s centres would therefore yield huge savings on the costs incurred directly by the criminal justice system, and on those incurred indirectly by the health, mental health, housing, welfare services that would otherwise be used by a previous offender. Instead, these specialist providers face a £10 million core funding gap from this March. The Government should provide proper ring-fenced core funding to ensure the long-term sustainability of those services.

We also seriously need to look at the presumption against short sentences. Fifty-eight per cent. of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. That figure rises to 73% for sentences of less than 12 months. Meanwhile, the proportion of women sent to prison to serve very short sentences has risen sharply. In 1993, only a third of custodial sentences given to women were for less than six months. In 2019, the figure had nearly doubled to 62%. The problem with short sentences is that there is no time for any form of rehabilitation, and it often means that during that time women lose their family ties, any job they may have, and their housing. Statistics show that women are more likely to reoffend when they are given a short sentence. A review of the purpose and use of short sentences for women offenders, and their value to victims, offenders and the taxpayer is needed.

We know that women are more likely to reoffend if they are released from prison to no fixed abode. We know that women released from prison are more likely to reoffend than those serving community sentences, and that women are more likely to reoffend if they are given a short sentence in prison rather than a community sentence. Despite that, the Government are not seriously looking into a presumption against short sentences, are leaving women’s centres at the risk of closure through underfunding, and are not investing enough in measures to prevent homelessness. Instead, they are investing more in prison places, which is the one thing that has been shown to not be of use for the majority of female offenders.

Without action on those issues, the Government simply condemn many women to a cycle of crime. To truly support women in the criminal justice system we need a much more holistic, understanding approach, which ultimately would cost less to both the taxpayer and to society.

It is very nice to be in the new Westminster Hall and to make a contribution. It is certainly different and does not have the ambience of the original, but it is nice to have the debates back.

I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on setting the scene so well, and I thank those who have contributed. It has been good to hear all the valuable contributions.

Obviously, I am very pleased to make a contribution on this issue, because—like the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price)—I have a passion to help those in society who are probably less well-off and need help. My heart’s desire and my position here is to help those who perhaps are not able to help themselves. The hon. Lady outlined the issues very clearly and I want to speak about them as well.

I thank the organisation Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prisons for its sterling work to highlight the problems that exist within the rehabilitation process for women leaving prison. When I read through the briefing notes, it was clear that we can and must do better to rehabilitate these women properly rather than their leaving prison with no support, which makes it much harder for them to make the change in their lives that they need. That is why we are here today. I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place and I know that he will be able to answer the questions that we put to him.

The briefing highlighted that each year thousands of vulnerable women really need follow-on help from whenever they leave prison. The hon. Member for Swansea East said at the beginning of the debate that people leave prison with £46—my goodness—and a plastic bag with their clothes in and probably all their life’s possessions, and with nowhere to live, which, of all things, I really worry about. There is also the threat of recall if they miss a probationary appointment. Is that the level of preparedness that is needed for the outside world? I would say not; indeed, that is why this debate is happening. Instead, they are left at the mercy of those evil and wicked people out there who take advantage of others, and who the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Thurrock both referred to.

I believe that we should give these women the dignity that they want and need, and the confidence that comes from that, so that they can leave prison well. If someone gets out of prison and they do not have a house, the first thing that they need is a house, or accommodation. But that should not be provided just as a one-off, leaving all the other things to fall into place, or hoping that that happens. It is about the follow-on help.

Who addresses the mental health issues? We have lived through a year of coronavirus, and many people in my constituency and indeed in all our constituencies have experienced mental health and wellbeing at a lower level than ever before—at least, I cannot remember in my lifetime there being a lower level. Mental health issues are affecting lots of people. Multiply that by those who are stuck in prison for the sentence that they have been given for the crime that they have committed, and for those people the mental health issues are really overwhelming.

What we do to provide follow-on help matters. Housing is the No.1 priority, as the hon. Member for Swansea East said. The next stage is to provide follow-on help for any mental health issues. We can help with simple things, for example, managing budgets and the moneys people have. Even those small things matter.

I watched a TV programme with Simon Reeve, who I quite like; he does a trip to different places. On Sunday night, my wife and I watched it together. He was doing a trip around the Americas and he went to a place in Colorado; I hope that I am right on that. It was a prison town—there were nine prisons in that town. But what they were doing in that prison town was getting people prepared for whenever they left prison.

We all have our own opinion of the US justice system. It is quite a complicated system, where someone can start off with a fine for a broken tail-light but things can multiply and they can end up being in prison, because they do not have the money to repay a debt and get themselves back in credit. However, what they were doing in this prison town was get people prepared for the outside world. The prisoners were being taught simple things, such as going to a restaurant. These are people who perhaps do not have the educational standards that they need; they probably do not have the social skills, either. For them, the outside world is a scary place and they are vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

I believe that the practice that we are debating today is a devastating one, which places vulnerable women at risk and prevents them from rebuilding their lives after a prison sentence. Safe and secure accommodation is essential for rehabilitation, but 65% of prisoners are released to no fixed abode. Basically, they go out the door of the prison and they are on their own. If they have no family, the situation is even worse, because they really are singular and alone with what happens to them. And, yes, the potential for them to reoffend emerges very quickly. Let us consider that figure I just gave; it is an incredibly significant figure. It is 65%, and this figure alone prompts calls for action to be taken.

It is only right that we give the Government credit for recognising that women have a very different experience of the criminal justice system from men, but because of that, while the Government have done some things, they have perhaps not done enough. They have committed to improving outcomes for women in contact with the criminal justice system across England and Wales, but I just wish that we in Northern Ireland had the same pilot scheme that the Government have looked at. Has the Minister had the opportunity to speak to the Justice Minister in the Assembly in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long, to discuss these things and see what we can learn from the UK Parliament to make this thing happen in Northern Ireland as well?

I also highlight that, despite that recognition, the Government have not set out any gender-specific measures to address support for, in particular, the complex needs of vulnerable women prison leavers in their new pilot scheme to house prison leavers in temporary accommodation. I welcome the pilot scheme, which really gets us to the stage where we really want to be—the first stage of trying to rehabilitate and bring people into society with better opportunities and life potential. I would love to see that, and if that that is the intention of the Minister and the Government, it is to be welcomed. However, at this stage, the Government have missed that opportunity, so I ask again whether the Minister will set out how this pilot will cater for the specific and complex needs of vulnerable women prison leavers. I really want to make sure that, when the pilot scheme is in place, what comes forward after that gets people ready for the next stage of their lives. Further, there is a question to be asked about whether this will be extended across all probation regions in England and Wales.

I also asked whether the information will be shared with Northern Ireland to ensure that new designated prison officers acting as brokers for housing are appointed in every women’s prison—I think the hon. Member for Swansea East referred to this in her contribution at the very beginning—and receive specific training on the challenges facing women prison leavers.

Back in 2019, I read an incredibly interesting article that included excerpts from a study carried out by the criminology lecturer Gillian McNaull as part of research for Queen’s University Belfast. What she said sums up this issue very well:

“Many women are not remanded due to the severity of their crime, but instead due to their vulnerability.”

If society puts people away because they are vulnerable and not because of the severity of their crime, there is something wrong. If Gillian McNaull at Queen’s University Belfast can recognise that, I am absolutely sure that Members who speak in this debate and the Minister recognise it. She also says:

“I found that a significant number of women are being arrested and remanded to custody for issues relating to mental health crisis, suicidal ideation, alcohol use issues and homelessness.”

The hon. Member for Thurrock referred to that. We really need to know the reasons why people are in prison. If it is because they have committed a crime of such severity that warrants prison, that is okay, but it is not if they are in because they are vulnerable or have nobody to turn to or are really down on their ankles.

Gillian McNaull added:

“This sees an unacceptable use of prison as a place of ‘safety’ and ‘containment’ for women—an issue exacerbated by deficits in community resources, such as a lack of gender-appropriate hostel accommodation, adequate community mental health support and social care provision.”

The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) made a similar reference. What can be done to help to achieve successful and secure hostel accommodation, community mental health support, which is really necessary, and that social care provision? If we get all those in place, I believe we can help in a more constructive way and give people hope for society for the future. That is really important.

At this time, the Justice Minister is committed to carrying out a review. I ask the Minister to ensure that all information, practices and pilots are shared UK-wide—we are very much part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and want to be, and we want those pilot schemes and practices shared in a way that we can take advantage of them as well—to inform what changes can be made to prevent offending and the improper use of facilities. More support is clearly needed and I believe that the effort will bring reward. I know it is the intention of everybody here, including the Minister, to lessen reoffending. It is vital that more women will be able to change their lives with the support that they are crying out for.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. This is an important debate, on which there is much agreement, and I will add to many of the things that have been said today.

If the Government are serious about reducing reoffending by women, they need to support specialist services, such as those offered by women’s centres, to help them stop offending in the first place and, if they have offended, to give them support afterwards. Providing accommodation is key because being homeless is one of the biggest factors in reoffending.

Many women who have committed crimes and are therefore in the criminal justice system are disproportionately victims of crime themselves. They also tend to be imprisoned for crimes less serious than those committed against them. Addiction or being in an abusive relationship are also factors for many of those women.

Short sentences are very disruptive for women, especially if they have children. Most women serving short prison sentences are back in prison within a year. Reoffending levels are staggeringly high, with 48% of women reconvicted within a year of leaving prison. That rises to 61% for sentences of under 12 months.

The Minister will know that women released from prison are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend earlier, than those serving community sentences. Women receiving short sentences often lose their accommodation, with many needing to be rehoused with children, as they are primary carers. As we know, such accommodation is very limited for local authorities and there are huge waiting lists.

If women are victims of domestic abuse, they cannot go back to the place where the abuse happened. There is already a chronic lack of suitable housing, including for women with complex needs. Many women imprisoned from previous addresses, to which they cannot return, lose that local connection and their ability to be rehoused.

I welcome the recent announcement from the Ministry of Justice of £70 million funding for a pilot scheme to house prison leavers in temporary accommodation for up to 12 weeks. That is in only five of the 12 probation regions. I understand that that is a pilot but I would very much welcome its extension much further. I am also concerned that the Government are spending £150 million to build 500 new prison cells for women. That clearly indicates that the problem will not be solved, that there will be more women going to prison. That addresses the symptom, not the cause.

We need to get to the heart of what will stop women offending. For me, that is support for women’s centres. We know that women’s centres are very effective in helping women who are vulnerable not to offend in the first place. A survey showed that for every £1 spent, £2.84 was saved in costs, if the money were invested in women’s centres.

When women leave prison they are given only the discharge grant of £46, which is clearly not enough. Having to survive the first week out of prison on less than £7 a day is not going to get anyone very far. We need to ensure support networks are there for women when they leave prison.

To conclude, we need to provide more accommodation for women leaving prison, increase the discharge grant and invest in women’s centres. I thank Women in Prison, Agenda and Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison for the excellent work they do and for their briefings for today’s debate.

It is a genuine pleasure to see you and serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for calling this important debate and for her stonking speech. There have been excellent contributions today from Members on both sides of the House.

This Government’s female offender strategy set out some very clear principles, and we agree totally that we need to address vulnerability, acknowledge the role of gender, treat women as individuals with the potential to make a positive contribution, and break the cycle of reoffending. To do this, the strategy made it clear that

“Short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders”.

It acknowledged the essential role of women’s centres and made it clear that when women leave prison, the support they receive has to respond to their complex needs. Again, we agree. However, it has been almost three years since the strategy was published and, as we have heard, as many as six out of 10 women leaving prison are being released into homelessness—60%. The strategy is simply not being successfully implemented.

We know that without a home, it is so much harder to find work. Reuniting with children and family is even more difficult. Meeting probation commitments and accessing healthcare and substance misuse treatment is that much harder. Not having a stable home damages mental health. It destroys life chances and lives. It kills hope. This Government have acknowledged that the likelihood of reoffending can be as much as 50% higher for those released into homelessness. Between 23 March and 31 August last year, during the height of the first lockdown, more than 3,500 prisoners, including 275 women, were released into homelessness. During those first terrifying months of covid, 65 women were sent out to sleep rough on our streets on their very first night out of prison. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society were effectively sent by the Government to sleep on the streets, when the rest of us had been told to stay home, to stay safe and to protect the NHS. It beggars belief.

We have got to acknowledge that outcomes for women leaving prison are frankly terrible. One reason is clearly the lack of accommodation, but another significant reason is the lack of continuity of care for those in need of drug or alcohol abuse treatment when they leave prison. Last year, the national average of continuity in care in England was just 35%. When drug-related deaths are at an all-time high and when a third of people in prison are there for reasons related to drug use, surely to heavens continuing treatment outside of prison must be a priority? I am told there is an ambitious Government target to go from this derisory 35% to 75%, but there are simply no details of how that will happen. I am hoping that the Minister will tell us today how and when that 75% target will be met.

It cannot be a surprise to anyone listening to this extremely well informed debate that reoffending is rife. Of women who have served a sentence of under a year, 73% will be convicted of another offence within a year. If we are to tackle reoffending and if we want fewer victims of crime, we have to tackle the root causes of that crime. The Government’s own research tells us that often women in prison are dealing with enormous trauma caused by sometimes years of abuse.

That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East was absolutely right to highlight the need for women’s centres. The evidence is clear that they slash reoffending, they cut crime and they help many women to heal and create better lives—and, unlike short prison sentences for women, they are great value for money. Some women’s centres have managed to demonstrate that they save £2.80 for the public purse for every £1 invested, so why are the Government planning to spend £150 million on women’s prison expansion when they have committed just £2 million to women’s centres? That is 75 times more to be spent on something they have admitted does not than on something that does. Why?

Let me touch on one aspect we have not yet discussed: the specific needs of black, Asian, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women and all of those from other minority ethnic communities. We know, and the Government know, that projects led by women from a community are best suited to develop effective resettlement within that community. There are excellent examples like the Khidmat centres in Bradford, but there are not nearly enough of them across the country. Why?

As we recover from covid, it is even more important to have additional support in place for women leaving prison. It is good to see that the Government plan to take some action on homelessness among prison leavers, but, as we have heard, only five of the 12 probation regions—less than half—are likely to receive some funding for temporary accommodation pilots, even though the value-for-money case for better accommodation is overwhelming. Why? May I gently point out that London and the south-east are two of the areas where the problems of prison-leaver homelessness are greatest, yet neither is included as a pilot?

I have been doing this job for less than a year and I have already worked out that the Ministry of Justice is, frankly, addicted to pilots, but there is no follow-through. Time and again, projects are proven successful but they are simply not rolled out. The truth is that, when it comes to women prison leavers, we need ambition and commitment. We need to provide accommodation, and that accommodation needs to be fit for purpose. Women domestic abuse survivors may need to relocate away from their area. Homes often need to be able to accommodate women’s children. If those needs are not met, women do not get a second chance, their families do not get a chance, and reoffending becomes even more likely.

Despite all those facts, in their announcement on temporary accommodation the Government went out of their way to trumpet just how basic and temporary the planned accommodation for prison leavers will be. I ask the Minister gently: how will the new accommodation address the specific needs of women leaving prison and the needs of their families? How will it stop the very expensive revolving door? I have to ask: is the priority cutting reoffending and cutting crime, or is it about dog-whistle politics and cutting costs? If it is about cutting costs, the Minister should know that that is a false economy. His own research shows that. The lack of approved premises for women around the country has been a huge problem. How many of the 200 new places planned will be in specialist women’s hostels? When will they delivered? Where will they be located? Perhaps the Minister can inform us today of the progress of the approved premises for women in the south-west.

Another public relations announcement was that of a paltry £6 million for through-the-gate support for prison leavers. Only one of the 16 prisons receiving that funding will be a women’s prison: New Hall in West Yorkshire. Why?

Frankly, when women are put into prison but are not supported to deal with the trauma and violence that they have experienced in their lives, or with the addiction that has put them there, and when they are released knowing that their only option is to sleep on the street, and they are condemned to the revolving door of reoffending because support services for drugs and alcohol just are not there, that is an injustice. It is Government failure. Women are not being given a fair chance to change their lives, or their children’s lives, for the better.

The Government must demonstrate that they truly understand their own research. They need to demonstrate real commitment to and ambition for their own strategy. They need to begin to create a criminal justice system that truly understands the root causes of women’s offending, and that starts to treat women fairly.

It is a joy to appear under your moderating hand once again, Sir Charles. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for this important debate in the aftermath of International Women’s Day. I ought to start by reassuring her and other hon. Members, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), of my long-standing commitment to smart justice over tough justice.

Just over 10 years ago, I became devotee of Mark Kleiman, a remarkable academic in the United States, who sadly died a couple of years ago. He wrote a seminal book, which I would recommend to hon. Members if they can get hold of it, called “When Brute Force Fails”. It is an examination of the American criminal justice system, where many years of locking up more and more prisoners for longer and longer in the hope that it would do something about crime actually produced the reverse. It proposed a series of smarter, more innovative approaches towards criminal justice, which were, a decade or so ago, showing some potential.

I am pleased to say that one of those proposals—sobriety tagging for those for whom alcohol is driving their criminal behaviour—is now rolling out across the country. It has started in Wales, where just the other day we managed to tag our 100th offender with a sobriety tag rather than sending them for a custodial sentence. Compliance in that particular project is running in the high 90th percentile. It will be rolled out in England at end of this month. I hope that for all kinds of offenders—male, female or other nomenclatures—it is the kind of smart approach that will have benefits beyond the positive and negative of incarceration.

I will start by reaffirming what the hon. Member for Swansea East referred to as our ambition and commitment to fully delivering the female offenders strategy, which was published, as she said, back in June 2018. I am pleased that she expressed real hope about that strategy. As she said, it has three main aims: fewer women coming into the criminal justice system and reoffending, fewer women serving short custodial sentences, with a greater proportion managed successfully in the community, and better conditions in custody to enable rehabilitation and improved outcomes.

The strategy clearly articulates why we need a different approach for female offenders. They make up less than 5% of the prison population, but are among the most vulnerable in society in terms of both the prevalence and the complexity of their needs. Many live chaotic lives, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, and have experience of abuse, as well as of mental health issues, substance misuse, accommodation needs, and debt and finance problems. Female prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to have been taken into care and to have witnessed violence in the home as a child. More than 60% of female prisoners reported having experienced domestic abuse, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, compared with 7% of male prisoners. Outcomes for women in custody are worse than for men, including high levels of self-harm.

Women are also more likely than men to be living with dependent children before imprisonment, and the consequent impact on families is therefore greater, increasing the risk of intergenerational offending. Each of the strategy’s aims is equally important, and each one is equally relevant to the subject of the present debate on support for women leaving prison. Clearly there will be fewer women leaving prison and requiring support if we can successfully reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system and reoffending. Equally, if more women are managed effectively in the community, there will be fewer serving short prison sentences. For those women who must be sentenced to prison because of the severity of their crimes and to protect the public, providing better conditions in custody improves the chances of effective rehabilitation.

A number of Members mentioned the Government plans to build 500 more prison places in women’s prisons. Many Members argue that this proves the Government have abandoned their female offenders strategy, particularly the aims of having fewer women in custody serving shorter sentences, and more being managed successfully in the community, but I hope that my comments thus far make clear that that is not the case. However, the impact of the extra 20,000 police officers, with the likely increase in charge volumes, cannot be ignored and doing nothing is not an option. The long-term prison population is expected to increase over the six-year project horizon.

While custody should remain the last resort for most women, in line with the female offenders strategy in meeting projected demand, the expansion of the women’s estate will provide better conditions for those who do require custody. Our design principles include requirements around being trauma-informed and gender-specific, ensuring suitable visiting spaces are provided, greater in-cell communications options informed by the covid learning, and in open design the potential inclusion of rooms to support overnight visits for mothers and their children, currently available in only two women’s prisons. If we succeed in reducing demand for prison places, we will be able to close older, less suitable accommodation. Having reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to fully delivering the female offenders strategy, I would like to highlight our activity in two specific areas of support raised by Members this afternoon specifically for women leaving prison: accommodation and employment.

Offenders face significant barriers to securing suitable accommodation, often linked to their lack of access to the necessary funds, availability of local authority housing supply and affordability of or access to the private rented sector. A £70 million investment programme was announced in January to provide stable accommodation to these prison leavers. The investment will bring together the work on approved premises and the Bail Accommodation and Support Service with a new tier of provision for prison leavers at risk of homelessness.

To reduce reoffending and provide health and wellbeing support, we are launching a new accommodation service providing up to 12 weeks of basic temporary accommodation for prison leavers who would otherwise be homeless. This will launch in five of the 12 probation regions in England and Wales, and all individuals aged 18 and over released from prison and at risk of homelessness will be eligible, as will those moving on from approved premises who are also at the same risk. It is anticipated that the new intervention will begin in summer 2021 and provide support for approximately 3,000 service users, who will be subject to supervision by probation and have ongoing support from their community offender manager.

As part of its response to the covid-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Justice secured £11.5 million to support individuals at risk of homelessness on their release from prison and help them to move on to permanent accommodation. The scheme initially ran between 18 May and the end of August and provided up to 56 nights’ accommodation per individual, meaning some prison leavers were accommodated until 26 October. We reinstated the scheme on 22 October to run up to 31 March, meaning individuals may receive accommodation support up to 26 May this year.

While the scheme is an immediate response to support prison leavers at risk of homelessness, the Ministry of Justice is keen to utilise the learning gathered from the scheme to help develop longer term improvements. We have started to draw together learning with the intention of publishing a report in the autumn. To support the oversight of its covid-19 response, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service set up seven homelessness prevention taskforces to help find accommodation for offenders upon release. These teams have been very successful in securing improved accommodation outcomes and building new local partnerships with local authorities and housing partners. The service is considering how they might be a feature of the future landscape.

On employment, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service’s New Futures Network has a dedicated employment broker focused on partnering employers with prisons across the women’s estate. These partnerships result in work opportunities for serving prisoners that provide training skills, qualification and employment on release. Opportunities are available across a variety of industry sectors.

More recently, to mark International Women’s Day, Sodexo announced the launch of its SheWorks skills-building programme in three prisons. With the support of the New Futures Network, this will be extended to further prisons over the course of the year. Sodexo aims to fill 5% of its job vacancies with prison leavers and those with an offending background by 2023.

Additionally, from the end of April this year, the Clink charity’s kitchen training programme will be expanded to women’s prisons at Eastwood Park, Send and Downview, as part of a broader roll-out of the programme. The training scheme provides the opportunity to transform job prospects by delivering industry-recognised qualifications, training and work experience.

The Minister is setting out clearly some of the good things that can be done. Within those, in my contribution I mentioned social skills. It is important that people can leave prison and interact with people in a way that they can understand and feel the confidence that they need. Is this one of the measures that the Minister will introduce for those who are leaving prison?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In discussions in the Ministry of Justice I have made it clear that my view, which I think is shared broadly by Ministers in the Department, is that there are three foundations for success in life post-prison. They are a job, a house and a friend—effectively, someone to hold your hand. If someone leaving prison has those three pillars in their life, they are much more likely to succeed on the outside. Too often, people have one, or possibly two, but certainly not all three. In the role that I am trying to put in place around integrated offender management—the reboot of that effort—that is what we are going to try to achieve.

The New Futures Network continues to support businesses that are part of the employers’ forum for reducing reoffending, to deliver new, tailored employment for women. Initiatives to be trialled include mentoring and thematic virtual sessions covering the development of soft skills, as the hon. Gentleman said. These will be offered to women serving the last few months of their sentence. The framework of support will be tested in three prisons.

Given the ambition of the hon. Member for Swansea East for the Government to go further, she will be pleased to know that as part of the January announcement to tackle and reduce reoffending, we are seeking to introduce and test new approaches and roles across education, employment, accommodation and substance misuse. HMP New Hall, which was mentioned, has been selected to ensure the specific needs of women are captured, so that learning can be shared across the female estate more broadly.

To conclude, I hope I have removed any doubts about the Government’s ongoing commitment to deliver fully the female offender strategy and that, in the time available, I have been able to provide clear examples of how we are working to properly support women leaving prison. As far as the extra 500 places are concerned, I hope that the hon. Lady and others will understand that, while we have to plan for the worst, and the impact of 20,000 police officers on the prison estate cannot be ignored, we will work very hard between then and now for a much better outcome than an increase in the prison population.

I thank all Members for their contributions—I am pleased to see so many people here. I came to this debate feeling really apprehensive about the subject—it is something I have sleepless nights about. I am leaving terrified at the prospect of 20,000 extra police on the streets spending a large proportion of their time filling 500 spaces for women in prisons in order to justify the money that the Government have spent on this. That is certainly not what we need to be doing. We need to provide a different service for women. We need to recognise the fact that women have specific needs. They are in large part victims, despite the fact that they have been labelled as criminals. Most of them are victims of society and, I am afraid to say, victims of this Government’s disinterest in providing anything for them.

We have to stop perpetuating the cycle of criminality and incarceration, criminality and incarceration. We have a moral duty to provide sustainable, productive, appropriate and holistic support and to encourage these women to be productive and to re-engage with society. That is a far better way of using taxpayers’ money than freeing up spaces in prisons. We have to be more humane in the way that we provide for these vulnerable and all too often exploited individuals. That is where we need to concentrate our efforts, not on putting them in prisons. I ask the Minister to please rethink the strategy. Too many women will lose their life, dignity, children, families and homes. We cannot perpetuate this any longer.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for women leaving prison.

Sitting suspended.