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Criminal Justice: Women

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

On 28 March 2006 I made a Statement to announce that my noble friend Lady Jean Corston had agreed to undertake a review of women in the criminal justice system with particular vulnerabilities. I am delighted that Baroness Corston's report is being published today and wanted to make a Statement to welcome her report and to give an undertaking that the Government will now give serious and detailed consideration of the issues it raises and the recommendations it makes for change.

The Government invited Baroness Corston to conduct this independent review following the tragic series of deaths of six women at Styal prison in 2002-03. The purpose was to look at the measures in place to ensure that we are doing everything possible for women who come into contact with the criminal justice system who have particular vulnerabilities, such as mental health problems, drug addiction or a history of abuse. The scope of the review was, therefore, very wide and considered the services and interventions available to such women on each occasion they come into contact with the criminal justice system, and to those women at risk of offending.

I thank Baroness Corston for producing such a comprehensive and thought-provoking report and welcome the honesty and directness with which she addressed her remit and the recommendations she makes for more to be done. Her report tackles some of the most difficult, complex and entrenched issues and provides valuable insight into the reality of the problems faced and presented by many women offenders.

I am particularly grateful for the support and assistance that Baroness Corston received from all those who contributed to the review, especially the families sadly bereaved by the deaths at Styal and other prisons, and women offenders themselves, who have spoken so powerfully about their experiences. I also thank the voluntary organisations that gave their valuable time and resources to support the review.

The 43 recommendations are wide-ranging and propose action by a number of government departments and other organisations to address together the complex and multiple needs of women both in the criminal justice system and at risk of offending. The recommendations will be carefully explored with all the departments and agencies concerned, and the Government will develop a detailed response and set out an agreed way forward.

Baroness Corston also makes some overarching recommendations for how the management of women in the CJS should be co-ordinated across government. I agree that, to drive forward this important work, high-level commitment and effective inter-departmental working are needed. We will, therefore, look carefully at what mechanisms and governance arrangements would be possible to achieve this, and I will discuss this with my ministerial colleagues.

Baroness Corston's report also highlights the work and initiatives already being taken forward to tackle issues for women offenders and ensure that their needs are met, in a system that has primarily been developed in response to the majority of male offenders. She refers in particular to the Women's Offending Reduction Programme and the Together Women Programme, which is using an injection of government funding to test out how a more integrated, community-based approach can effectively tackle the multiple needs of women and reduce the use of custody for women who do not present a significant risk and do not need to be held in prison. She also highlights the importance of the gender duty, which comes into force in April 2007, in supporting this agenda.

In developing the detailed response, we will consider how the lessons learnt and recommendations in Baroness Corston's report can be used to build on the work already under way.

I commend this report to anyone with an interest in, or working with, women in the criminal justice system. I know that it will be an invaluable resource in taking forward our agenda to tackle the issues that can lead women into crime and avoid the damaging effects that this can have on women and their families.