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Prisoners: Women

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have for the 350 women prisoners displaced as a result of the decision announced on 24 May to appropriate HM Prison Brockhill and HM Prison Bullwood Hall for male prisoners.

My Lords, Brockhill and Bullwood Hall had 282 women prisoners allocated to them on the day of the announcement. The Bullwood Hall prisoners have all been transferred to other women’s establishments. The transfers from Brockhill are still in progress. Transfer plans focused on individual assessment and on careful case management of those women identified as having complex needs and vulnerabilities. Closeness to home was a main consideration.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. However, does she accept that in spite of what she has told us, the disruption to the treatment of these 282 women is likely to be considerable? Can she confirm that, in 2004, the Home Office dismantled its separate management structure for women prisoners? Does she agree that such short-sighted policy decisions as the appropriation of these prisons for men might be prevented if there was a senior person in the Home Office with operational responsibility for women prisoners?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness that there has been minimal disruption of treatment for each of the women. A care plan was carefully worked out with each woman prisoner before the move and an assurance made that appropriate arrangements for continuing treatment were available. In relation to the separate management, I think I have said from this Dispatch Box before that the team is specially identified as dealing with the women’s estate. I assure the House that the women’s issues in our prisons are well and fully managed.

My Lords, that is one of the issues that we considered. We looked at distance; we looked at need. The prisons to which the women have been returned are of a good order—the newer prisons have been specifically built—and those issues were very much taken on board.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having carried out an inspection of the treatment of women in prison some years ago for several of the prison NGOs. Is the Minister aware that in 2004 the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, told the House that the case for a women’s justice board to deal with women offenders was very strong? Does she accept that the time has come to establish such a board to prevent women's special needs being subsumed by the overwhelming demands of the men’s prisons?

My Lords, I do not accept that a women’s justice board is necessary at this time, but that is predicated on the changes that we have already made to the management of women in our prisons. Noble Lords will be aware from the debate that we had last week that we have specific programmes now in relation to the rehabilitation and settlement of women, and those issues are being energetically pursued. However, the issue is not closed.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the report from the independent monitoring board of 2005 on Brockhill prison, which noted that the staff there had built up many years of expertise in reducing self-harm? Would she now expect the level of self-harm to rise as a result of the dispersal of the women prisoners from Brockhill?

My Lords, I hope not, because the new regime that we have put in place appears successfully to have reduced the level of self-harm. All the prisons to which the women have been transferred have had those issues highlighted. It is a matter of acute concern which we have monitored with the greatest of care.

My Lords, Bullwood Hall is in my diocese, so I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments on the effects of these hasty decisions on a wider community of people. She may know that, for example, a new woman chaplain was appointed with a view to serving the prison as it was and that dozens of people have been preparing themselves as volunteers to work in the visit centre. What does the local community need now to prepare itself to accept and seek to support? Would she accept that the decisions, made in such haste, can undermine the confidence of the local community in its local prison?

My Lords, of course I can understand what the right reverend Prelate says, but we hope very much that the community will not be undermined. I regret to say that there is a great deal of work to be done with offenders in the community and in our prisons. I hope that good work could be done with those willing volunteers, better to support offenders when they come out into the community and better to support the men who will be going to Bullwood Hall and their families.

My Lords, one problem frequently raised in poor prisons is the standard of training of staff. What has happened to the staff who have been trained to work with women at Bullwood Hall and Brockhill, particularly the staff who looked after the young offenders at Bullwood Hall, whose activities were so praised by the chief inspector in the most recent report?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that there is a clustering process for these prisons, so that a number of officers who were in one prison will be transferred to another. I reassure noble Lords that the use and skill of those trained staff will not go to waste.

My Lords, the Minister has assured us of the steps that she will take to keep the families as close as possible to the prisoners. Can she assure us that the practice of churning, which is so unsettling, particularly to women prisoners, will be abandoned as soon as possible?

My Lords, it is always important to keep the level of churn to a minimum. Your Lordships will know that one of the prisons was used as a remand prison in the main, so people would be moved anyway. Some of the prisoners who were moved are longer-term prisoners who will now be settled in a way that is appropriate. I reassure the House that I ensured that each individual woman was spoken to and that her particular interests and needs and those of her family were considered before any move. I am assured that each and every person got the prison of their first choice, although of course there is a limit to how many one can choose from.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware how delightful it is to hear about such meticulous trouble being taken with regard both to distance and to families? Will she confirm that none of the women with children under 16 is to be held more than100 miles from home?

My Lords, I believe that that is so. The information that I have been given—I will confirm it—is that, although the distance may have increased, the speed with which one can travel to the new prison is greater. I am told that for many of the families the travelling has become easier because of the proximity to arterial roads and matters of that sort. I will write to my noble friend if what I have said is in any way inaccurate.