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Women's Justice Board

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

rose to call attention to the case for the setting up of a Women’s Justice Board; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am conscious that the Minister has already been in action for three and a half hours on war powers. As a former military man, I am not going to deny that I am also interested in war powers—but war powers in a completely different circumstance. I am interested in war powers for the war against the unacceptable and inappropriate treatment of and conditions for women in prison. I am particularly concerned with one of the principles of war—the maintenance of momentum—and, as I detect that a window of opportunity has opened with the announcement by the Secretary of State for Justice of reforms to the National Offender Management Service and the announcement of an action plan on the treatment of women within six months, it is appropriate that we should address ourselves to how the momentum that is needed is to be changed.

The background to the debate is the report published by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, in March 2007, which was a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. I pay particular tribute to Chris Clarke in the Library, who has produced an excellent Library note on the debate. I am sure that your Lordships would like to join me in congratulating him on that and thanking him for it.

I had planned a debate on that report in May 2007, but I was persuaded by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to delay it because she had not yet completed her response. She said that there would be a debate on it later, and that was endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, who could not have been here on that day. In the event, however, in June neither the Home Office nor the noble and learned Baroness had any further interest in the report. It then became the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, and it was not until December, long after the statutory three months’ response, that the response to the Corston report was published. The Minister, Mr David Hanson, in effect accepted 39 and a half of the 43 recommendations and recommended in particular the importance of improved governance. Central to that, he said, was the appointment of a ministerial champion for women and criminal justice who would ensure that the actions to address issues for women were given the necessary priority and that commitments were delivered, as well as the appointment of a cross-departmental unit responsible for women and criminal justice, headed by a senior civil servant, to co-ordinate, drive forward and monitor the work on behalf of the Minister. It is on that proposal—a Minister as champion—that I am declaring war, without doubting in any way the commitment of the nominated Minister, Maria Eagle, whom I know to be totally dedicated to the task, as indeed are her ministerial colleagues.

My interest in this subject began two minutes after I entered the Home Office on 1 December 1995 as the new Chief Inspector of Prisons. I was met by my then deputy, who had been a governor of Holloway, the largest women’s prison in the country at the time. There he had defeated a strike by the POA, as a result of which he was removed from being governor and made an inspector, which struck me as being very silly. He told me I had to make an immediate decision because conditions in Holloway were so bad that the board of visitors had been making reports for six months to Ministers and the Prison Service and nothing had happened. He endorsed the idea of us going in and asked me when we would go. I said that I needed a week to find out what my job was about, so we would go the following week.

That week is seared into my memory, and I shall never forget it. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I shall repeat three aspects of it. The first was a conversation in the mother and baby unit with a young mother who said, “Do you think it was right that I was in chains?”. I said, “Chains when?” and she said, “When I was having him”, pointing to her six week-old son. I said, “Are you telling me that you were in chains when you were in labour?”, and she said, “Yes”. I turned to the governor and said, “Am I hearing correctly?”, and she said, “It’s regulations”.

Then I was shown diagrams of women’s injuries on diagrams of a man’s body. The reason for that was that no diagrams of women’s bodies were printed by the Prison Service, which told me that something was wrong in the direction. When I went to see the director-general of the Prison Service and asked to see the director of women who was responsible for treatment and conditions everywhere, he said that there was not one. I said, “Who is responsible for telling people what to do?” and he said, “A civil servant in the policy department”. I asked who was responsible for going out and seeing that treatment was consistent everywhere, so that women in Kent were treated in the same way as those in Lancashire. He said, “No one”.

It struck me that, if that was England in 1995, it cast doubts on the word “civilisation”. I decided that something had to be done and that the inspectorate could play a part. In 1997, I published a paper entitled Women in Prison, recommending that a director should be appointed, responsible and accountable for what happened to all women anywhere, with budgetary and other responsibilities. I also recommended that instead of these monster places like Holloway, to which women were brought from all over England, there should be smaller units all over the country. I described one in Minneapolis that seemed to be the sort of model that we could follow. Recommendations accepted; nothing happened.

In 2000, the Prison Reform Trust published a report, Justice for Women and the Need for Reform, recommending the establishment of a women’s justice board on the lines of the recently established Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, charged with developing and implementing policy for all women offenders. Recommendation accepted; nothing happened.

In 2001, I published a follow-up to Women in Prison, repeating my earlier recommendations, particularly for the director, and supporting the idea of a women’s justice board. Accepted; nothing happened.

In 2004, on the Floor of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who had previously been a Home Office Minister, admitted that, while he supported strongly the idea of the women’s justice board for precisely the reasons given by the Prison Reform Trust, the Home Office had still not got around to implementing it. Also in 2004, the Fawcett Society published the report of a commission on women in the criminal justice system, calling again for someone to be responsible and accountable for implementing policy. Again, there was no action.

We then come to 2007, when the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, called for a commission,

“led at director level, with a remit of care and support for women who offend or are at risk of offending”.

It must be cross-departmental, she said, reporting to an interdepartmental ministerial group,

“to drive forward the Commission’s agenda within their individual departments”.

She admitted that she called it a commission for largely semantic reasons, because the word “board” did not seem to be acceptable in government parlance. Yet what she was describing in what she called her commission is precisely what the Prison Reform Trust was calling for earlier, which others had endorsed.

We then have the Government supporting the appointment of a commission—in principle only—but wanting to appoint a champion Minister. Why do I object to that? First, you only have to go onto the Ministry of Justice website to see all the other responsibilities that Maria Eagle has. Therefore, with all the best intentions that she might have, how much time will she be able to give to being the champion? Secondly, we all know how frightfully busy Ministers are anyway with all the other demands on them. We also know that Ministers seem to change with bewildering rapidity, so for how long is she likely to be in post? The record shows that Ministers come with their own ideas; there is no reason why they should not, but that is no way to achieve consistent development of anything like an action plan.

As I have indicated, we have so far had countless recommendations and reports that have been accepted. There have been publications by the Home Office and the Howard League; there have been initiatives and intentions. Yet so far, while there have been individual improvements in certain places, all that has been inconsistent because what is lacking is someone with direct responsibility for maintaining consistent improvement. In any week, if one intercepts this situation one finds inconsistent delivery all over England between all of the prisons, because nobody is responsible. Yesterday, in her annual report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons drew attention to that yet again. She pointed to the inconsistencies that existed, the lack of appropriate treatment for women and the failure of people to listen to the reports made by the inspectorate, year after year, saying exactly the same thing and for exactly the same reasons.

Today, the Children’s Commissioner has published a report on mother and baby units, a most important aspect, drawing attention to the fact that there are too few of them and that they are very thinly spread around the country. That means that far too many women who are going to have a baby in prison are miles away from where they come from. There is only one unit—at Rugby in Warwickshire—for girls under 18. It is in the Rainsbrook secure training centre, and it only has three beds. That is another aspect that has been ignored, but again the Prison Service was directed to—and promised to—carry out a review of mother and baby units as long ago as 1999. Nothing has happened, and nobody appears to have chased it, because there is of course nobody there to do the chasing.

I now come to the present, since the past is the past. I have said that there is a window of opportunity, and my purpose in putting down this Motion is to suggest ways in which that window can be used. The Ministry of Justice has announced, really, a reversion to the situation in 2001, when there was the equivalent of a commissioner of corrections’ responsibility for the prison and probation services—I do not argue with that. However, where I do argue with the Ministry of Justice is in its making probation subordinate to prisons. That is a most regrettable step. One of the keystones of the Corston report is that, to reduce the appalling number of women in prison who should not be there and whose situation so dismayed the noble Baroness when she started her report, one needs proper community sentences and programmes to provide a satisfactory alternative to the sentencer. Therefore, the Probation Service must be right up in the hunt: not subordinate to but equal with the Prison Service, because it has an equal responsibility for what is going on. Today, another report has been published by the National Audit Office, drawing attention to the poor quality of community supervision and stating that there are all kinds of reasons for it, not least the lack of direction and resources in the Probation Service. It is all very well saying that we accept the recommendation for greater use of probation and community sentencing, but, if the resources do not exist, one will not get it.

The Minister should realise that the reason that nothing has happened for so long is that nobody has been responsible for doing it. Until one makes somebody responsible and accountable to the Minister for implementing the plan, it will not happen. The tragedy of that is that all the wonderful stuff in Corston, which is her regurgitation of what many of us and others have been saying for years, will join those reports as paving stones on a road to the future that is littered with good intentions. None of us wants that. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for securing this debate. The usual suspects are on the speakers list, which gives the message to the Minister that, unless changes are made and the issue goes away, we will be back again.

A number of public debates have identified the need for a women’s justice board. I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for her support for the establishment of such a board. The Corston review was commissioned by the Home Office and was published in 2007. In March 2008, we will again celebrate International Women’s Day. It is sad that hardly any movement has been made by the Government despite their admission that too many women are in custody.

We must accept that factors which affect women offenders are complex. In many cases, the use of more non-custodial options seems to bypass women offenders. How on earth have we produced this anomaly? Unless positive action is taken to remedy the situation, we will be back here again, reflecting the same concerns, in future years.

The Government’s response, as spelt out by the former Minister in your Lordships’ House, is wholly inadequate—and to an extent misguided. We are told that we do not have a separate framework in law for women because we have a different structure for them. We are further told that to go down the route of a women’s justice board could risk marginalising women further, when what is needed is to mainstream provision for women and ensure that, under the national offender management structure, sufficient priority is given to service provision for, and management of, women offenders.

This is absurd. The Government’s approach, taken at face value, is at variance with other policy areas. For example, if women do not have special and specific issues to face, why do we need a Women’s Minister? Why did we put on statute the Sex Discrimination Act 1975? Why do we have a Commission for Equality and Human Rights which tackles women’s issues as part of its overall brief? We do so because the fact remains that there are shared issues, special issues and specific issues that affect women. If the mainstream provision cannot meet these—and the evidence is that it cannot—there is no reason why we should not look at alternatives, and a women’s justice board is a viable option open to us.

The national offender management structure deals with service provision for women only when they have been sentenced. It cannot deal with the increase in the severity of offending, or why are our courts using custody for women more frequently and for less serious offences than before?

I should spell out in what ways women offenders’ characteristics and needs differ from those of male offenders. First, a much higher proportion of women prisoners have mental health problems than male prisoners. Surveys show that more women prisoners have a psychiatric history before entering prison. Many more have histories of self-harm than male prisoners. More have personality disorders, neurotic disorders, learning disabilities and problems of substance abuse—and more have more than one diagnosis. Many more women prisoners have suffered past physical or sexual abuse at the hands of adults or partners.

Secondly, a much higher proportion of women prisoners are sole carers of young children. In most cases where male prisoners are parents of young children, the child’s mother is looking after them on the outside, but in only a quarter of cases of mothers in prison are the children looked after by their current or former partner. Thirdly, because there are far fewer prisons holding female prisoners, women are much more likely to be in prison a long way from their home areas. This makes visits from their children and other relatives more difficult and reduces the practicality of visits by probation officers from their home areas. With the mounting pressure of numbers, this problem has increased as women are increasingly transferred to whichever prison anywhere in the country has a vacancy.

Over the last 15 years the courts have responded to the growing mood of toughness in penal policy by adopting a more punitive stance towards women offenders. During that time the number of women prisoners has risen more than twice as fast as the male prison population. Yet most women sent to prison are neither violent nor dangerous and the majority have few previous convictions. Against this background we should look seriously at the case for establishing a women’s justice board.

There is no doubt that the Youth Justice Board has significantly improved the arrangements for dealing with juvenile offenders. It has done this by setting standards for provision for young offenders. There is an equally strong case for the establishment of a women’s justice board. The needs of women offenders are sufficiently distinct to justify establishing a board with the task of ensuring that provision for them meets their special needs. Because women offenders are a minority of those coming before the courts—and a smaller minority of those in prison—their special needs are much more likely to be overlooked if they remain an afterthought, tacked on to a system which is largely geared to the needs of men.

In short, the establishment of a women’s justice board could be the single most important step we could take towards improving the treatment of women offenders. We are faced with confused thinking on the part of policy-makers. Today’s announcement seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a serious crisis emerging in our prisons. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, identified a way forward. My advice to the Minister is to take up the challenge and advise his policy-makers to come up with a rational approach to women offenders.

My Lords, we are debating a subject of profound importance in which the need for action, not options, is critical. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, whom I warmly congratulate on his tenacity on this subject, talked about the need to maintain momentum.

There have been many champions but none has yet been effective. I also endorse the work of Dorothy Wedderburn—I was pleased to see my noble friend Lord Hurd in his place earlier in the debate—that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on women in prison, and that of the Fawcett Society and many others.

We are in an extremely dispiriting situation. There is a growing understanding of the problem. It is widely accepted that women who have committed crimes are doubly punished. They have broken not only the law, but the accepted societal norms of feminine behaviour. This experience of punishment is then multiplied within the female prison estate, which is an adapted male model. The one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate for women and operates in a system where the male prison population predominates. The family and social backgrounds of women who are sent to prison display significant problems with relation to mental health, drug use and a history of violence and sexual abuse. There is a broad consensus that women in prisons have different needs from men. Sending women to prison usually is a highly damaging and destructive way of dealing with female offenders, who in most cases have committed non-violent crimes and are not a risk to the public. I am indebted to the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Hull, where I serve as chancellor, for the advice it has given me in synthesising some of the literature, and in particular to Dr Helen Johnston. I also add my congratulations to Chris Clarke on his Library note.

Up to 50 per cent of women report having experienced violence at home compared with a quarter of men. One in three women in prison has suffered sexual abuse. Some of the most deprived women in society end up in prison. If their needs had been identified earlier, incarceration should and could have been avoided. Most worryingly, the incarceration of women compounds the problems for their children. If ever the sins of the parent were being visited on the child, it is the case for women in custody. Many of the women are relatively young—only 16 per cent are over 40. Two-thirds are mothers and 45 per cent had children living with them when they were imprisoned. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 17,700 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment each year. Only 5 per cent of children—one in 20—remain in their own home when their mother receives a sentence. They are losing not only their mother, but their surroundings—the context in which they live. Is it surprising that those children, according to the evidence from Action for Prisoners’ Families and the Howard League, face disruption to their education and have difficulties coping at school? They end up being cared for outside their immediate families. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made the point about the difficulty in visiting. Recent evidence suggested that at HMP Cookham Wood 33 per cent of mothers were not receiving visits from their children. That is appalling. A quarter of mothers are held more than 100 miles away. The children lose their mother and their home, and it is almost impossible for them to visit the mother.

On the issue of emotional distress, the Minister in another place yesterday corrected the questioner who asked whether it was true that 70 per cent of women in prisons suffered from mental health problems. The Minister’s evidence was that it was 80 per cent. This is not an acceptable state of affairs. Women face appalling problems on their release from prison. A third of women lose their home when they go into prison, so are we surprised about the difficulties they have resettling in the community? I pay tribute to the Surrey Community Development Trust. It organises an excellent post-release scheme but it is minute. It is a beacon—a centre of excellence—but it is inadequately funded and not available to the vast number of women. It is time for us to act. I am encouraged by the activities of the shadow justice team which, as is right in opposition, is having a programme of re-evaluation and thought. I shall ensure that Nick Herbert, the Member for Arundel and South Downs, sees our deliberations today and I shall speak to him about what we believe now needs to happen—and needs to happen fast.

Yesterday’s report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, was a wake-up call if ever there were one. Suicide and self-harm in women’s prisons remain a significant problem. It is troubling that the number of self-inflicted deaths among women more than doubled from three to seven last year, reversing the trend of previous years. Women make up only 5 per cent of the prison population but account for 11 per cent of self-inflicted deaths. Women are 16 times more likely to self-harm than men and account for nearly half of all self-harm incidents. Some 31 per cent of women in custody had self-harmed, compared with 6 per cent of men. The statistics for young women are particularly shocking—89 per cent of girls and 69 per cent of young adult women had harmed themselves. As we all know, in the wider population, the suicide rate for men is twice that for women. That shows the way that the prison environment exacerbates the difficulties that these women face.

It was of course the high number of suicides at Styal prison in 2003 that at last forced the Government to act and set up the Corston inquiry. We are really disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, is not with us today. We have just seen the evidence on another female inmate—Lisa Marley, aged 32, took her own life at Styal. I would be interested to know whether the Minister could confirm that she had been recommended for parole.

The figures go up and up. They have almost doubled in the past 10 years, and can now be seen in the context of a prison crisis that Anne Owers said was predicted, predictable and fuelled by legislation and policies that ignored consequences, cost or effectiveness, together with an absence of coherent strategic direction.

We have to act. We want clarification about the Titan prisons—great warehouses for prisoners—that go in totally the opposite direction to small, accessible prisons. Furthermore, women’s prisons are being reroled for men because the crisis in men’s prisons will always take precedence, as we all know.

I share the noble Lord’s problems regarding the machinery of government. Ministerial groups, interdepartmental groups and official-led groups come and go. If I were told that an official group would be led by Helen Edwards, I might have some confidence. She worked with me many years ago when she was at Nacro and I was chairing a committee for the Children’s Society on alternatives to justice for 14 year-olds. I have been involved in these matters for more than 30 years, led by the speaker who will follow me, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote.

As the noble Lord said, we knew then that alternatives to prison would be the ideal way of avoiding incarceration. I speak rarely in this place and only when I have a profound conviction. We need a champion, such as my late aunt, the former mother-in-law of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. On Monday, we went to the funeral of Peggy Jay on what would have been her 95th birthday.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. As she said, we have spent a lot of time in this area of juvenile courts, among other things. I thank my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham for bringing this important issue before us. He is an inspiration in the whole of this area, The excellent Corston report is the latest document to stress the need for a radical change of approach in this area. As we know, it is not the first. The case for change was crystal clear well over 10 years ago and we have heard about my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham’s two thematic reports—one published under one Government and another under the following Government. Both Governments who have been in charge of this system have failed to do what needs to be done.

There have been many reports since then, including the Wedderburn report of the Prison Reform Trust which made a major call for a women’s justice board. In 2004, the Fawcett Society examined the problems faced by women throughout the criminal justice system. I must say that I have become tired of seeing this matter brought to debate again and again, but taken no further. Despite all this, the Government have failed to begin making the changes that are desperately needed. Continual delay has certainly reinforced my noble friend’s case for the establishment of a thoroughly independent—I stress, independent—board to ensure action. I have no objection to any ministerial team doing its stuff, too, but we need an outside board to ensure action.

A prison system designed on military lines by men and for men is, as we all know, inappropriate for women. The crimes committed by women are largely non-violent—30 per cent of female inmates are being held for drug offences—and their sentences are correspondingly shorter. Sixty-three per cent are serving sentences of six months or less. What meaningful, rehabilitative work can be done in such a time, even without the catastrophic overcrowding referred to in Anne Owers’s annual report, published yesterday?

Secondly, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, women are far more likely to be the primary carers of children. More than half of women in prison have a child under 16, more than a third have a child under five and 20 per cent are lone parents. The social cost of imprisoning women in terms of family breakdown is incalculable. I am glad that a number of organisations are trying to work out what some of the more preventive measures would save the nation.

Women in prison are disproportionately vulnerable. Many are victims themselves. I suspect that the true percentage is much higher than is recorded. I have mentioned drug offences. Among the foreign women imprisoned in this country, a high percentage are serving very long sentences for acting as mules—bringing in drugs, no doubt under the auspices of organisers who are paying no penalty at all. Seventy per cent require clinical detoxification, as against only 50 per cent of men. More worryingly, up to 80 per cent have diagnosable mental health problems. So it is unsurprising that the rates of self-harm and suicide among women in prison are far higher than those among men.

The increasing severity of sentencing under this Government has caused the number of women in prison to rise. On 20 November 2007, the number of women in prison was 4,510. In the past decade, that figure has more than doubled. It is in this light that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has argued for a radical restructuring of the way that women are treated in the penal system. It is good news that the Government are committed to implementing the gender equality duty and that there is more enthusiasm among Ministers for community sentencing. But, as other noble Lords have said, it is hugely disappointing that the Government have so far failed to commit themselves to the central proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. It took the Government nine months to respond to the noble Baroness’s report.

In contrast, the review by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, published in December 2007, was met with immediate endorsement and the promise of a huge sum of money for the construction of three Titan prisons, each designed to hold up to 2,500 inmates. Surely this is quite the wrong direction—not just for women, but for all members of the prison estate. Men today are increasingly playing a role in their children’s upbringing. This should be encouraged in the penal system as well. There are good examples of where this is beginning to happen—Wandsworth is one of them. Placing prisoners, whether male or female, in enormous prisons far from home can be only detrimental to the maintenance of family ties and to the possibility of reintegration into the community. More resources for projects to prevent offending and early help for vulnerable families are crucial. Where that fails, more help is required to prevent reoffending.

The recommendations of the noble Baroness must, for all our sakes, be given the attention and funding they deserve. I hope that the Minister will at last be able to reassure us on this point.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham for this Motion and I agree entirely with previous speakers that we urgently need to study the state of women in our prisons. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone, has run through the whole gamut of the facts and figures and I need not repeat them.

The facts about women, who constitute only 5.5 per cent of the total prison population, are extremely alarming and they underline the need for rapid reform. That is why the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, is so important. It made three radical—one might say almost visionary—recommendations. It proposed multi-purpose women’s day centres in our main cities. Through voluntary attendance at such centres, much would be done to prevent crime among women. The centres would provide for early diagnosis of addictions and mental ill-health, and they would provide help with debt and housing problems. Attendance could also be made compulsory by court order. This would enable a whole range of community sentences to be properly supervised and enforced. Such centres would support women at risk of offending and others who had actually offended. They would link both categories with the existing services that they need.

The second proposal was for residential women’s centres. These would provide for “conditions of residence”, curfews and tagging during non-custodial sentences. In addition, they would accommodate women remanded in custody or given short prison sentences. Once again, they would connect their residents directly to much needed services and training. Such residential centres would probably need to be semi-secure but should also have provision for small children to remain with their mothers.

Women’s centres of the kind I have mentioned would allow for professional assessments of women in trouble. They would also allow women to do their own self-assessment in a place of safety with a modicum of support. Such self-assessment can be crucial when life seems to be going wrong. It is a first step to finding meaning and purpose and to discovering a person’s hidden talents. In the centres, there would be much scope for reformed ex-offenders, whether as volunteers or staff members.

Finally, for really serious violent or dangerous convicted women, there should be small local custodial units holding perhaps 30 people each. These would be staffed by people experienced in working with women and should come under the commission for women offenders, or whatever it is to be called.

I regret that the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, are far too little known by the public and I trust that this debate will publicise them, among both men and women. Of course, there will be implications for resources. These, however, should be seen in the context of the huge cost of conventional prisons, the current 64 per cent reoffending rate among women and in the light of the costs of childcare for mothers in prison, not to speak of the risk of prisoners’ children themselves taking to crime.

I regret that the Government’s response to the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, although quite detailed, has been worthy but not sufficiently strategic. I trust that the Minister, if he is not completely overwhelmed by his duties today, will be able to be far more positive when he replies. I would love to see justice for women leading the way to reforms for young offenders and then for all offenders.

All parts of the prison system are, I suggest, in varying degrees of mess and muddle. We should start by reforming the smaller and more manageable sections as a step on the way to improving the whole system.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for initiating this debate on the need for changes in the way we deal with women in trouble. I said much the same to him when I spoke in his debate on this subject in June 2006 and I said much the same to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, when I congratulated her on her debate in October 2004. Many of us who are here today participated in both these events. We are now in 2008 and we have someone else to thank. I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. Her report is very good, a model among such reports, and it is already seen as a standard text around the world.

First, it is a model because of its starting point. It starts by finding out what is the purpose of the service being analysed. Who is it for? The noble Baroness started her work by finding out about the women who are imprisoned. She also sought the views of those who are doing the imprisoning and she builds up her conclusions from them.

Secondly, she consulted widely and looked at all the research that has been done over many years. I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, for speaking in the debate and for so ably summarising the research for us. Thirdly, the noble Baroness’s report is imbued with a strong sense of justice and a very strong dislike of injustice. She accepts that efficiency and good administration are important, but in the Corston report justice is the bedrock. Would that others who produce reports for the Government bore in mind these three essential points. First, what is this service being provided for? Who are its recipients and does it serve them and society well? Secondly, what is already known about it? Thirdly, what are the ethical values that should underpin it?

It was through that process that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, reached the conclusions that are common knowledge and widely accepted by all those who have studied this subject. These conclusions are, first, that imprisonment as an intervention in women’s lives is often highly damaging; secondly, that the separation from their children that this often entails is, to use the noble Baroness’s own word, “catastrophic”; thirdly, that most of these women are highly vulnerable and they should be getting the help they need, particularly for mental health and substance abuse in the places where they live; and, fourthly, that there should be more of the centres whose work is already proven that can help them. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, described very clearly a model of such a centre. Finally, when they have to go to prison, they should be held in small units near their homes.

As the noble Baroness said, those conclusions are not new. They are what every report on the subject concludes. One has to ask the Government what the problem is with reforming the way we deal with women in prison. Or, if I may put it another way, why is it that when we want now local centres to which women can go to be helped, we get a “cross-departmental unit”? When we want now better access to local services, we get a “ministerial subgroup”. When we want as soon as possible small custodial units, we get a “project to examine”. When will another centre like the Asha Women’s Centre in Worcester, so much praised by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, open? Will it be this year or next year? I will not go on to say “some time, never”. When will a diversion scheme be set up in a court so that the women who should be in treatment can get into treatment? Will that be this year or next year? When will sites be sought for the small custodial units that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommended? Will it be before sites are found for the Titan prisons—I understand that that search is already under way—or will it be afterwards?

I, too, am very impressed with the stamina of the Minister, which is wholly remarkable. I apologise that I have asked so many questions and I look forward very much to his reply.

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. He and all the other speakers have brought great statistical insights to the debate and have helped us to understand how dreadful and compellingly awful the problem is. I had not intended to speak in the House this afternoon; it was not until I heard the excellent Julian Dee in the Cross-Benchers’ office regale us with some of the facts that my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham would use in his opening speech that I felt that I wanted to add my voice to those championing and campaigning voices that we have heard today.

This is an issue of great shame, on which we have to feel that action not only is long overdue but has been carelessly disregarded by the Government. We all know the facts, which have been cited in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who led us through a despairing litany of statistics. We feel worse when we hear them and more fed up when we wonder why action is so far away. Report after report does not seem to change the intention to deliver.

We know what the facts tell us. Between 5.5 per cent and 5.8 per cent of prisoners in the English prison system are women; the figure is 4.4 per cent in Scotland and 2.2 per cent in Ireland. I do not want to distract us in any way from the subject of the debate, which is unbelievably important and must be acted on. Nor do I want to diminish the significance of focusing entirely on the need for a women’s justice board, to which I add my voice and my intention to give support. However, I will highlight just one sub-statistic. Behind the 5.5 per cent figure of women in prison, most of whom come from the majority population, is the fact that 21 per cent of women prisoners are black, even though black women make up just 1 per cent of the total population. About 13 per cent to 15 per cent, depending on the statistics that you read, of male prisoners are black, but 21 per cent of women prisoners are black.

A particularly difficult issue applies to black women as opposed to the general female population. As I say, this is not an occasion to distract from or undermine the significance of a women’s justice board, but we should recognise that we seem more able and willing to put away a particular coterie of our population and to treat them more harshly.

In 2003, the then Lord Chancellor and our first Justice Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said in response to a report that looked specifically at the circumstances surrounding black and Asian incarceration:

“The statistics show that people from the black and minority communities have a different experience of the criminal justice system both as defendants and victims. Whilst we have the data, it does not tell us why this is the case. The extent to which experience is caused by prejudice or because black and minority ethnic communities suffer from other factors which increase crime is unclear”.

This article on the BBC News website says that the report also includes figures, originally published in 2002, showing that blacks were eight times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police and that Asians were three times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.

We all know of the frenetic and divisive exchange that took place yesterday based on who could put out the latest stop-and-search proposals. Of course, the victims of inappropriate stop and search remain largely those of the non-indigenous cultures.

All I wish to add to this critical and compelling point about the need for a women’s justice board is that at moments of reform and opportunity—my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham is calling for action, determination and reform—we should focus on the particularly difficult wrinkles of the problem. What about the possibility of a black Britons’ justice board that could recognise the difficult and painful additional circumstances of minorities in this country when faced with the police or the criminal justice system? That is a bone I throw to the Minister for him either to chew or to throw away.

As the chairman of Crime Concern, I have been pleased to work for many years with the Youth Justice Board and have seen how significantly it has changed the landscape of opportunity. It is, of course, underfunded, like any other government sub-department, and on many occasions underrecognised. But it has brought about essential advice on prevention and intervention, focus awareness, appropriate punishment and successful rehabilitation options. On the needs of black women, there is additional advice on sensitivity and sentencing that is not current in our system. I suggest to the Minister in the context of this vital debate that we take that factor into account.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with his vast experience, for introducing this debate.

In 1972, my former wife, Judith Garfield Todd, was imprisoned in colonial Rhodesia by the Smith regime. There was no question of a charge or a trial, and she went on hunger strike. She was taken to another prison, where she was force fed. Then she was put under house arrest. Judith was in prison for five weeks; for me, those five weeks were very, very long. The episode left me with an abiding interest in women prisoners.

Judith wrote that the superintendent of her first prison and his wife,

“were, on the whole, thoughtful and pleasant”.

That is precisely the impression I have of the prison staff at Holloway. My noble friend Lady Corston writes authoritatively in paragraph 2 of the Executive Summary of her admirable report:

“I pay tribute to the many dedicated, caring staff working throughout all of the criminal justice agencies, who strive every day to provide a decent environment and improve the well-being of the women in their care. I have been very impressed by much of what I have seen”.

As everybody who has spoken has said, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, many of us have long advocated a women’s justice board, as proposed in the Wedderburn report in 2000. Now the Wedderburn report has been supplanted by the Corston report of March last year. At the heart of this report, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, lies the proposal for a commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending. My noble friend Lady Corston says,

“there needs to be a strategic top level cross-departmental commission, headed by someone very senior—director level”—

I stress those words—

“with authority to direct work in hand relating to women in the criminal justice system, supported by sufficient staff from the various departments and agencies involved”.

Then, at paragraph 4.14, my noble friend writes that the Youth Justice Board has,

“been central in shaping and coordinating the complex web of agencies involved and has brought leadership, coherence and consistency to youth justice”.

It is now time to do the same for women, by establishing a strategic commission with the power to make things happen—I stress those words.

My noble friend Lady Corston’s formal recommendation about the commission begins:

“I recommend the immediate establishment of a Commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending, led at director level, with a remit of care and support for women who offend or are at risk of offending”.

The Government’s response of December 2007 accepts this recommendation in principle, and continues:

“The Government has agreed to the establishment of a new cross-departmental Criminal Justice Women’s Unit headed by a senior civil servant”.

I stress that last phrase. I applaud that the criminal justice women’s unit is already being drawn together, as I am informed. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I applaud the Government’s announcement of a ministerial champion for women prisoners in the person of Maria Eagle, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice; although, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, rightly pointed out, she has so many duties that she will not have much time for championing women prisoners.

However, the great shortfall in the Government’s response concerns the leader of the commission. My noble friend Lady Corston’s linchpin was that the full-time champion for women prisoners must be at director level; in other words, a grade 2 or 3 civil servant. However, the Government have downgraded this to “a senior civil servant”. That could mean a grade 5 civil servant who simply would not have the clout or authority to make things happen, where a director-level civil servant would have. I ask my noble friend the Minister to explain why the Government have rejected my noble friend Lady Corston’s explicit and convincing recommendation of a director-level leader. Why have they substituted “a senior civil servant”? Will the Minister take this key matter back to his ministerial colleagues and ask them to think again?

My Lords, towards the tail end of this debate, in which so many of your Lordships have spoken so eloquently, I shall reflect on a few things that have been said; notably, what the noble Lord, Lord Acton, has just said, and what my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham said about the leadership required.

I was put in mind of the Government’s decision in 1998 to appoint Louise Casey as the tsar for homelessness. The Government set her a clear target: to reduce homelessness to one-third within three years. Louise Casey was absolutely ruthless: she knocked together the heads of all the organisations involved. I spent time in a winter hostel for homeless young people. Before her arrival, much was to be demanded and better was to be expected of it. A year after she had been in post, it had been transformed: the best professionals were looking after these vulnerable young people. The Government are much to be commended on this.

It was clear in this case that a large amount of political capital was laid on the outcome of achieving this reduction in homelessness. Louise Casey is quite an exception as a civil servant because she is prepared to be so outspoken. I think that the Government have recognised her unique qualities by placing her at the head of the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit. That is one reflection on what has been said so far.

My second reflection is on two related things: one is sentence inflation, to which my noble friend Lady Howe alluded. I remember being in your Lordships’ House as we debated increasing the tariff for adults who commit murder—I hope I have that right. It was argued that by doing so one would ratchet up sentence lengths throughout the system—I hope I have that right, too. The question then was: since we are raising the tariff for adults, should we not raise the tariff for children? The Government were very serious about increasing the length of sentences for children who kill. The psychiatrists and other experts working in this area told me that if this was done, all the good work that they do with children under 18 in special provision would be undone when they entered adult provision. We had to try to prevent this from happening. Fortunately, we were successful. Two things come from that; if there is a separate arrangement for women, there is at least a chance that they might be separated from any further ratcheting-up of sentencing for men. This is another example of what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said; women are lumped together with men and treated as if they had the same issues, and it is just not right to do so.

Action for Prisoners’ Families, led by Lucy Gampell, provided me with the words of a mother:

“On Thursday 14th June 2004 I was sentenced to a 7-year jail term. Within 48 hours my son was bedwetting again, within 96 hours he was too scared to go to sleep in case his Grandmother left him whilst he slept. Children with a parent in jail go through a sense of almost-bereavement however the stigma related to having a parent as a criminal takes away their dignity to mourn.

“Within a month of my sentencing he went from being the brightest in his class to falling behind so badly that he was almost kept back a year … During my time in prison I was fortunate enough to be able to call my son every other night and write to him the days I didn’t speak to him. His father brought him to visit me once a month but best of all we had children’s visits in prison every school holidays. These allowed us to spend time together as mum and son, to talk, to play, to hug and just to be. These were so important to me but I could never express in words the extent of the importance of these days to my son Maxy. He would count down the days between these children’s visits and would actually save up things to tell me and to talk about. These were Maxy’s special time, his time to know and feel my love for him, his time to recharge his self esteem and security, his time to be my little boy.

“I was released on 13 August 2007 … I am delighted to say that Maxy chose to live with me upon my release. I can place my hand on my heart and say that if it hadn’t been for the Children’s days we’d had together, when I was at Send and Downview I would most definitely have lost my son’s love, and my dream of him wanting and actually living with me as he does now would never have come true.

“On Monday just gone Maxy came top of his class in his maths examination … But he still sees a child psychologist once a month to help him rid the demons of his nightmares that my stupidity created but he’s getting there and I am so proud of him … Today there are tens of thousands of children with a parent in jail hurting just as much as Maxy if not more so, there are likely to be even more children in this position tomorrow, many have no one to hear them and no one to love them, we need to help these children for they have done nothing wrong”.

I draw the attention of noble Lords to another letter forwarded to me by the APF written by a 16 year-old female whose mother is in prison:

“I didn’t tell anyone, not friends or school. Teachers know now, because my behaviour deteriorated. A social worker got involved and informed the school. I told one friend who then told the whole school, who then stopped talking to me. Another girl supported me because her mum was in prison too. I dropped out of school for six months and left early without taking my GCSEs. I then got a job in a nursery”.

This is a letter from two sisters, aged 15 and 13, whose mother is in prison:

“She mustn’t think we don’t love her … if we don’t keep in touch she will think we don’t love her and she will harm herself again”.

Children have a right to contact with their parents under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. All our instincts tell us that this is so. Only today the newspapers and Lord Justice Munby have reminded us of the gravity of separating mother and child. Why then do we permit our criminal justice system to do it apparently so frequently and freely? We need an independent commissioner for women’s justice to right this wrong.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap, which I think is due to a computer glitch. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham for what he has said today. I wholeheartedly support his thesis and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, whose report we have all so admired in the debate. As a psychiatrist, noble Lords will not be surprised that I want to talk about mental health and drug misuse problems, which are often the cause of these women’s criminal activity and a consequence of the abused chaos of their lives. I will not spell out the epidemiology because the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone, have done that so admirably, and besides, I am speaking to a group of noble Lords who are very well informed and wise about these issues.

We cannot take away the tragedy of the abusive and unloving childhoods that often precede addiction, chronic distress and inadequate personal relationships. We do not have any miracle cures for many of the mental health problems these women face, but we can at least try to stop making them worse. We can take seriously the notion that we need to innovate and find different ways of intervening, and then evaluate them properly. Perhaps I may describe a handful of problems that have been mentioned to me in the past few days. As we try to tackle them, we realise that we know far less than sometimes we pretend about the research into what works. The recommendations of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, are very sensible and are based on the current evaluations of small and community units, but I want to stress that we need far more co-ordinated research into interventions.

A huge amount of thinking and considerable investment by both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice, and before that the Home Office, have gone into initiatives to reduce harm. Yesterday I talked about some of these issues with my colleague at St George’s University of London, Dr Annie Bartlett, the lead clinician on mental health at Holloway prison—not perhaps the most typical prison; indeed, it is a rather unusual one—where serious efforts have been made to try to address some of the most difficult issues. Among many of the overarching problems, she pointed out the difficulties of engaging these women in treatment programmes. It is no easy matter. For some women, the comfort zone of abusive relationships is as addictive as the drugs they have come to depend on. The drop-out rate on the outside from what start out as good counselling relationships inside prison is very high. It is a difficult problem. More investment in extra time and places in the community with increased numbers of staff are required to try to engage with and keep these women in treatment.

We know that half the women leaving prison have no GP and that GPs are reluctant to take women on after their release from prison, yet they desperately need that supportive primary care which is now available to quite a lot of women inside prison. Perhaps we have to coerce GPs to take them on with direct funding, as we so often do in other areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, rightly emphasised the need for a community-based alternative, and my noble friend Lady Stern gave us a marvellous example that I would like to see repeated. But we must also remember how we approach seriously addicted drug misusers who at present often get an opportunity to detox in prison. We must think about what kind of appropriate residential treatment facilities are needed to help at that point. Creative thinking is required about needle exchange programmes, which have been successfully introduced in a number of women’s prisons on the continent. I believe that Hindelbank prison in Switzerland provides syringes on a one-for-one basis by automatic dispensing units. This does not help addiction, of course, but it does help to reduce the harm of infection spread.

We know that cutting and self-harm need a whole-prison approach but it is difficult to do that across the wings in a place like Holloway and some of our other prisons. We know, too, that we need a whole-prison approach for the prevention of suicide. That means the engagement of every single member of staff, not only those in the mental health units. Tinkering around the edges and trying to establish therapeutic regimes in an alienating punitive environment is unlikely to make much headway.

We need to get one group out of prison fast, and that is the 10 to 14 per cent of prisoners who have a psychotic illness—an horrendous figure. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and I are uncertain about this. He would like to see the Mental Health Act recommendations implemented in prisons; I am ambivalent about that. Far better, it seems to me, would be to get them out into proper units where they can be treated in a therapeutic regime. A custodial environment cannot be right for someone with a psychosis. That is what forensic units are for. They must accept not only Crown Court cases but women who have a psychosis, however it was determined that they should receive treatment.

For most of these women we do not know enough about how best to help them and how to help society by reducing their reoffending. We need to allow a thousand flowers of alternative types of provision to bloom. We do not know enough to say that one only is the alternative. We need much more evidence-based research.

I am rapidly running out of time. I suggest that the only way we are going to get a comprehensive strategy is to think through what we pilot and where and what problems should be tackled, on a comprehensive basis, before offending, during offending and in aftercare. A women’s justice board could look at these problems across the piece, carry out trials and encourage innovation in the whole area of the criminal justice system for women.

My Lords, we, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his tenacity, energy and clear-sightedness in pursuing this matter over the years that he has been in this House. I am grateful because he has given us an opportunity to look at this case.

We need to ask why we are having two debates within a week of each other on this issue. The answer is quite simple but it will not be welcomed by the Minister. In my book, there is a distinct lack of will within government to address this issue, and that is why we are having the two debates. Let me spell it out: the evidence is in the chronology of that excellent Library note to which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has already paid tribute. It bears repeating, so I shall repeat it. Wedderburn came out in 2000 and various Ministers and senior judges gave their endorsement, but not very much happened. There were consultations but they led nowhere. The increasing numbers of women in prison—and the increasing numbers of women dying in prison—then brought the issue to the forefront. That is the way it happened.

The result was that the Corston review was commissioned in 2006, was asked to report by the end of that year and did so in early 2007; the Government’s response, as many noble Lords have commented, came out nine months after the report was published. Now, nearly a year after the Corston report, we will have a debate next week—instigated, I understand, by the noble Baroness herself and not as part of the Government’s priorities for action.

After 10 years of power, after eight years of obfuscation on the calls for a women’s justice board, after 19 months spent before we have a debate on the proposals that are on the table now, one does not have to be a genius to work out that there is little will here to do something about one of the most vulnerable groups in society—women in prison.

As we have a debate on the Corston report next week, I shall save my detailed observations until then and concentrate here on some broad-brush reasons for why we must move forward to a separate, stand-alone body to deal with women in the criminal justice system. We have heard compelling accounts from some of the most eminent experts in the country today—most of them in this Chamber—about why this step is necessary. The facts speak for themselves but are wholly counterintuitive; for example, more women are incarcerated in penal institutions than men, yet considerably fewer commit crimes. We are frequently told that crime is going down but, at the same time, that we need more prisons for more people to be locked up. We are told that the rights of the child are paramount—as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, just said—yet we see 18,000 of them separated from their mothers who are sent to prison, many to be made homeless as a result.

It is as if that simple strand of logic, cause and effect, is completely suspended in this area of government policy. It is as if the recognition that women have separate, specific personal and environmental factors that bring them into the criminal justice system—it runs through the Corston report—did not exist. It is often the case that they have drawn the short straw in life. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, drew our attention to the severity of sentences for foreign women. It is a mixture of gullibility and poverty that makes them become criminals. Locking them up far from home cannot be the answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, told us about the levels of prejudice that result in the large numbers of ethnic minority women prisoners. A further problem faced by some ethnic minority women—those from Asian communities—is that within those cultures there is real stigma attached to imprisonment, hence the almost inevitable break-up of family as they are spurned by those nearest and dearest to them on release.

I turn now to the compelling and well thought- through case for a women’s justice board. I have indicated that I will not speak on the Corston report today, but I must make reference to it as it might be offered up as the alternative. For me, the argument of principle that gender equality and mainstreaming are the answer is profoundly wrong. It is rare for me to call for special treatment for women as I am a champion of equality, and I wish there were no need to do so. I wish we had a situation where equality of respect, as identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, was sufficient, but it is not.

Women need different treatment because of who they are. The profile is substantively different in terms of their offences, their personal circumstances and the effects on them of incarceration. They may be broadly similar to male prisoners in socio-economic terms, their education or even their drug dependence and alcoholism, but broad similarities of that nature do not address the profound emotional, psychological and physiological differences that affect the outcome of a mainstreaming regime. Hence the need for different approaches, all the way from risk of offending, through court systems, to probation and resettlement.

The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, appears to believe that these substantive differences call for a different approach. So far, so good. The problem arises not with her diagnosis, which is insightful, but with the therapy advocated. The logic of leaving the strategic direction in the control of politicians through myriad interdepartmental committees and sub-committees is flawed. No strategic change can be delivered by the same people in the same position but now sitting in different rooms and on different chairs. That is not to say that there is a flaw in having interdepartmental oversight and direction per se; an interdepartmental committee formed to work through the practical implementation of change, which is needed through different government departments, makes complete sense, and an action plan is entirely welcome. It cannot, however, substitute for a properly resourced, independent body that reports annually and comprises independent people rather than political representatives of the day. The flaws of that have been highlighted so adequately by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I say that in the particular recognition that criminal justice is not a popular cause; it does not affect large numbers of the population in any positive way, and delivers few bouquets to those who work in it. This area is, therefore, most susceptible to Treasury belt-tightening, to departmental atrophy and to reactive rather than proactive policy.

The Minister is, no doubt, going to tell us that setting up a separate women’s justice board would entail significant time and effort, and that the system advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, provides a more suitable alternative. I am sure that we will hear that that alternative will be easily implemented, and be able to get to grips with the matter almost immediately. That may well be true, which is why we welcome the establishment of an interdepartmental committee. That committee will give political direction to an area badly in need of new policy solutions, many of which, as we have heard throughout our debate, have indeed been on the table for a long time. Yet it will not substitute for the stand-alone, independent voice that a women’s justice board would provide; that is the best long-term solution to a problem that will be with us for a long time, if experience is anything to go by.

My Lords, I offer my commiserations to the Minister, who is about to have to wind up his second debate of the afternoon, having faced, I think, two generals, three former chiefs of staff and, no doubt, a great many other experts earlier. He has come on to this debate on prison matters, which has also produced some of the House’s best experts, and next week alone he has two days in Committee on the criminal justice Bill, as well as a repeat of this debate next Thursday, when we come to debate the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. That debate will follow a fairly similar line to this one, although we shall no doubt see the noble Baroness herself there, since it is her debate.

Secondly, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on bringing in this debate, initially because of its timely nature, being only the day after the launch of the annual report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will also welcome a debate on that report in due course—he nods sagely at that suggestion. In touching on that, what response will his Secretary of State, the Lord Chancellor, be making to that report and when? Will we have to wait another six months?

This debate is also timely because it comes so soon after the delayed government response, which came in December, to the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. I have already touched on the second point on which I wanted to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, which was the very quality of those that he has attracted to speak in this debate. It is welcome, for those of us who are relatively new to penal matters, to have quite such expertise in your Lordships’ House, and he has brought that before us.

I also congratulate the noble Lord on his persistence—or tenacity, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley put it—in taking on this matter and in continuing to do so. He went through the history of it, some of it dating back before 1997, but I think that his first suggestion of a women’s justice board came some time later, in 1998 or 1999. That takes me on to the Government’s position. Like the noble Lord, I congratulate the Library on its excellent briefing note, by Chris Clarke, for this debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I think that it is worth repeating where the Government have, or have not been, over the years in this matter. Reference was made to the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and to statements that he made at an earlier stage. We all know that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is a free spirit in his responses if ever there were one. We remember what he said back in 2004, when he was a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Referring to these matters, he said:

“I supported it from this Dispatch Box when I was a Home Office Minister. It has still not been brought about, but I think that we are doing it in all but name. The proof will be in the pudding”.—[Official Report, 28/10/04; col. 1481.]

Well, some pudding. Perhaps the Minister can let us know a bit more about the development of that pudding in due course when he responds. Two years later, another Home Office Minister—she was in the Home Office then, but she is now the Attorney-General—the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, stated clearly:

“There are no current plans to create a national women’s justice board”.—[Official Report, 1/2/06; col. WA 52.]

We then had the Corston report and the Government’s response to it. As has been made clear, the Government have responded relatively positively in a number of ways, although they have left out some of the more crucial aspects, to which I shall come when I deal with the few questions that I want to put to the Minister. If I cannot get through them all, I have no doubt that I can repeat some of them in a week’s time when we have the same debate again, and when the Minister will, I presume, have a little more time to respond to all those who have spoken.

I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Bottomley not only for stressing the importance of the debate but for offering to relay it to my colleague, Nick Herbert, the shadow Secretary of State for Justice. I also will make sure that he is fully aware of it, and of the Government’s response to it and to the debate next week. I have no doubt that he will take note of it in the review of prisons and sentencing that he is conducting within our shadow team.

I turn to the questions. As has been made clear to the Minister, there has been a large increase—some have estimated it to be threefold—in the number of women imprisoned during the past 10 years. Women now represent a significant minority inside our jails. What factors do the Government think have contributed to this large increase? Does the rise not demonstrate that a distinct, women-centred approach might be necessary given the obvious and peculiar vulnerabilities of women in prison? The Minister can respond to those questions either today or next week, when we deal with the recommendations of the Corston report which his department has accepted.

My second question relates to Titan prisons and women prisoners, and follows on from the questions of my noble friend Lady Bottomley. It has been reported that, in 2004, around half of all women in prison were held more than 50 miles from their home town, and a quarter of them were held more than 100 miles away. Does the Minister concur with the Corston report’s recommendation—to which the Government were strangely silent in their response—that female offenders be housed in small, local jails connected to their communities and families, where they would have a better chance of turning their lives around? What plan do the Government have to implement that strategy now that they are talking about introducing the three, huge, 2,500-inmate so-called Titan prisons? Where are we in relation to the Titan prisons, given the comments made by the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor only yesterday or the day before? All of us would like to know. Initially, the Government responded very rapidly to the Carter recommendations for Titan prisons. However, they seem to be—dare I say it?—watering themselves down by the minute.

Despite the reforms introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003—no doubt parts of that will be amended during the passage of the current criminal justice Bill—community sentences, which are very much recommended, are still breached with alarming frequency and offenders seem to be consistently directed towards disposals that do little to reduce their reoffending. If the Government implement the Corston recommendation that community-based punishment for non-violent offenders should be the norm, how do they intend that magistrates will deal with persistent petty offenders? Why is it that despite the Government having been in power for 10 years, community sentences are still so ineffective that very often magistrates have no alternative but to imprison very persistent female offenders? Again, is this not a matter of lack of resources provided by the Government?

I am approaching my limit. I will want to put many other questions to the noble Lord and I shall no doubt find time to do so in the debate next week, when I hope that we shall all have slightly more time. Certainly, noble Lords have given him quite enough material to respond to in this debate. I look forward to seeing him again across the Dispatch Box in a week’s time, if not earlier on other matters.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his commiserations. I regard this debate as limbering up for next week. I am sure that we all look forward to coming together to discuss these important matters. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his perseverance in enabling this debate to take place today. I very much accept the substance of his comment that we need to maintain momentum. I believe that our response to the Corston report will do that. I also believe that the management arrangements we are putting in place will achieve what he wants to achieve, but we will debate that in a moment and in the months ahead. We shall debate Corston in general next week but clearly it is very important and the progress that we make following its publication will be monitored very carefully by your Lordships’ House.

The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, about the two debates was also made in the previous debate on war powers. The Government do not allocate time for debates; we have the usual arrangements. It is not in the Government’s gift to allocate time.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving me an opportunity to come back on this. When he reads Hansard tomorrow he will see very clearly that I did not use the words “government time”; I said that the Government did not accord this matter priority in the months after the Corston report came out.

My Lords, I am sorry, I misunderstood the noble Baroness. Of course, I do not accept that. Just because some months are taken to respond to a report does not mean to say that it is not important. The report of my noble friend Lady Corston contains many recommendations. The fact that the Government have accepted almost all of them and have commanded more work to be undertaken in certain areas shows that the report is taken very seriously indeed.

As regards having two debates in two weeks, I believe that it would be much better to have a full five-hour debate which would enable us to deal with the matter more effectively. However, the powers that be may learn from this in future. I know that my noble friend Lady Corston is sorry that she could not be here today but we await her next week. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that it is very good to have an opportunity to encourage greater knowledge and awareness of the matters raised in the report.

What has come through in this debate, as I am sure it will next week, is something of the vulnerabilities which characterise many women offenders. We have heard about mental health problems, histories of violent or sexual abuse, drug misuse and anxieties about the care of children. I am acutely aware of the tragic consequences if those vulnerabilities are not properly addressed, not only for those women who self-harm or take their own lives but also for their children. The overall philosophy of the Government is that prison should be reserved for serious and violent offenders. This is particularly true for women. The overall thrust of our response to the Corston report is to improve community provision to make it more appropriate for women and to deal with problems earlier before these women end up in prison. There is no distance whatever between the Government and other noble Lords in this.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that I read the report today with great interest. Obviously community-based sentences are much more likely to work effectively if breaches are dealt with. We need to look at this and see what further improvements we can make, working with the magistracy as well. My experience in the months that I have held this position is that there are many examples where community sentencing can work very effectively. We just have to build on that.

I can see a debate about NOMS coming on us one Thursday soon. On the question of the relationship between probation and prison and the fact that Phil Wheatley—the Prison Service’s current director-general—has been appointed chief executive of NOMS, it is not a question of prison domination over probation. I want to make that clear to noble Lords. It is much more about pulling the services together and giving the kind of integrated provision that noble Lords want. If there is an opportunity to debate NOMS, I will be very happy to do so. I pay tribute to Phil Wheatley for his work, with which I have been very impressed. I also acknowledge the very kind remarks of my noble friend Lord Acton about staff. He mentioned working in Holloway but also in other parts of the Prison Service. I know that we all have concerns about issues such as quality of service and the availability of particular provision, but there has been a vast improvement over the years in the contribution that staff have been able to make. We must acknowledge this whenever we can.

Let me address a number of specific questions before I come onto the issue of governance. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked me about the distance from home of women prisoners. He is right to acknowledge that this is a major concern. I have data showing that the average distance from home of female prisoners is 58 miles. Obviously, that has a considerable impact on prisoners and their families. That is the very reason why my noble friend Lady Corston made her proposals in relation to the women’s custodial estate, particularly the question of small local custodial units.

The Government have set up a project to consider this because inevitably there are considerable challenges in establishing those units. My noble friend is recommending a significant change in the way that the women’s custodial estate should be organised. She suggests that it should be implemented over the next 10 years, so we have to see how this can be done and look at the resource implications, but we are taking it forward. I believe that we are doing that in a way that is consistent with the reports of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Of course I have read with interest the comments of the chief inspector. We gave our initial response yesterday, but we will respond further in due course, although I cannot give the noble Lord the date—he would not expect me to, but he always asks me these things.

I realise that the concept of Titan prisons has perhaps not gone down well with Members of your Lordships’ House. It feels like we are debating the Mental Health Act again; one feels rather lonely here. But, as I explained, Titan prisons offer some considerable advantages in being able to develop quickly in areas where there is a population shortage. We see that as building on the success of clustering small prisons together; for example, at the Isle of Sheppey. I have said previously that it is perfectly possible to have smaller units within a campus with the advantage of efficient use of resources and design to get the best of both worlds. I fear another debate on Titans coming one Thursday. We are committed to the Titan project. We will be developing our plans. We hope that we can do it speedily, but that has to be seen in parallel with the review we will undertake in relation to small local custodial units for women prisoners.

The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, made some interesting remarks on mental health and I very much agreed with her comment on the need for more research regarding interventions and integration post-custody. Those were valid points. Like me, she will probably look at the research budget of the NHS and compare it with research in other parts. It would be very good to get access to more research funds. My noble friend Lord Bradley is undertaking a review of how offenders with mental health problems and learning difficulties can be diverted from prison into other appropriate services.

I know that my noble friend Lady Corston will be meeting my noble friend Lord Bradley. I hope that other noble Lords here will take the opportunity to make themselves known to my noble friend. I shall ensure that the contents of this debate are made known to him, because I regard his work as being of great importance, not least because it is a joint Department of Health and Ministry of Justice report. If we can get much more tie-in from the health service, that would surely be a way for us to deal with chronic and persistent problems of prisoners in general, and particularly those with severe mental health problems.

I ought to address the question that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raised on the organisation of government to ensure that the recommendations that we have accepted are put into practice. I have no doubt whatever that we have to produce a set of arrangements to make sure that action takes place. I assure noble Lords that although we may disagree on whether we have a women’s justice board, the need for action is not in doubt. Since I have long experience of restructuring in another part of the public sector, it is not a question of structures that counts here, it is a question of will and determination.

My noble friend Lady Corston did not recommend the creation of a women’s justice board—she said it was neither necessary nor desirable. Noble Lords will know that the Government have previously argued against the need for a women’s justice board. That remains our position, based on the fact that there is no separate framework in law for women, as there is for young offenders. I was very interested in the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on gender equality. I understand what she said, but I am not sure that the Government can go along with her. We believe that the gender equality duty of April 2007 does not allow for any system to be established that would create inequalities in the treatment of men and women. We believe that the creation of a separate sentencing system, with different responses for women who have committed similar offences to men, could not be justified under the gender equality duty. But we do know, as the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has identified, that inequalities exist because the criminal justice system is designed primarily for men. This point was made very well by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. The gender equality duty should be used to redress that imbalance. This will be done partly through governance arrangements but also by the publication of a gender equality plan, backed up by a performance-management structure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, is right—one advantage of the interministerial group is that it can be set up very quickly. It brings together Ministers from the various relevant departments and includes my honourable friend Maria Eagle. I know that cross-government working sometimes produces frustrating cross-departmental meetings and there is some doubt about what it delivers. I understand those concerns, but it can be made to work and anyone who knows my honourable friend Maria Eagle will know that she is an extremely good and determined person who will make it work. The point about having different government departments involved is that nothing will work effectively unless the relevant government departments are all committed. I think that ministerial leadership here is an essential ingredient of success. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, disagrees, but I think that there is real benefit in having a Minister as the champion, to give the drive that is evidently required.

We then come to the question of the sub-group related to this area. It has already met and will meet on a monthly basis. Its responsibility will be to look at progress in implementing our commitments in response to Corston. I know that the work of this group will also be supported by the Attorney-General and my right honourable friend Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women. So we have the right components of ministerial commitment and leadership.

My Lords, does the Minister expect that there will be a specific target for the percentage of women who are put into community settings rather than prisons, and a target for the number of local centres that will be set up within a specific time? Does he expect those targets to come out of the sub-group’s work?

My Lords, I do not think that I should commit myself, because the sub-group has only just started to work. I see where the noble Earl is coming from and I would certainly expect this sub-group to enhance a performance-management approach, where clear objectives are set and where there is then ministerial oversight. I hope that helps the noble Earl.

On the question of the official group that will support Ministers, noble Lords will know that we are proposing the establishment of a new unit headed by a senior civil servant. Again, there will be a debate between us about whether that person should be a director. However, my main point is that there will be a combination of ministerial leadership and a group of officials who will have the ability to make things happen. That is what the Government intend and we will ensure that it happens.

I have no doubt whatever that, if the lessons of Corston are to be put into practice, we must ensure that the official response works alongside the ministerial group and the ministerial champion. That will be enhanced by a national service framework, which will establish national policy for commissioning services for women offenders. I hope that that meets another point that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has often raised with me—it is important to get the right balance between the local autonomy of those running the various services and the national policy and national framework. The noble Lord will recognise that national service frameworks are well known to us in the health sector. They have been extremely useful in getting a very clear picture of what services should be provided locally and in allowing people at the local level a certain degree of autonomy in putting them into practice. I think that that combination, alongside ministerial leadership and a committed group of officials, will lead to implementation of the Corston report.

We all have time to regroup. I am sure that next week we will come back with new and exciting ideas. In the mean time, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his initiative.

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I asked him three specific questions. Would he be good enough to write me three specific letters?

My Lords, I am always glad to help my noble friend. I thought that I had dealt with his points in the generality of my remarks, but of course I shall write to him on any matter that he requests.

My Lords, I began by saying that the Minister had been in action for three and a half hours; it is now five and a half hours. We had a military analogy earlier and perhaps I may close with one. I am very glad for his sake that he is now approaching R&R, which stands for “rest and recuperation”. I thank him for the tone and spirit of his reply. Once again, as so often in this House, we respect and admire the full, frank and meaningful way in which he set about his task. I also thank all those who have spoken for the breadth, wisdom, humanity and good sense that made up their contributions.

In analysing what has been said, probably five general themes have come out of the debate. First, there is a general welcome for the excellence of the content of the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. Secondly, there is a feeling of frustration that this is not a new issue but something that has been raised over and over again by different people, and the frustration is that it is still having to be raised. Thirdly, I detect a universal desire that something must happen to change the situation but, fourthly, a slight feeling of despair that, yet again, it has been suggested that the Minister in charge and the groups of civil servants—we have already had Ministers in charge and groups of civil servants—will deliver. Fifthly, there is a plea for a change in that approach so that at last something will happen.

I conclude by mentioning a precedent to the Minister. In 1994, there were escapes from the high-security Whitemoor and Parkhurst prisons. The then Home Secretary employed two outsiders, Sir John Woodcock, a former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, and Sir John Learmont, who was a general, to write a report. They recommended that the situation that existed in the high-security prisons—it was the same sort of situation that we have been debating—could be solved with the appointment of a director responsible and accountable for what went on in those prisons. The Home Secretary accepted the recommendation and the director was appointed, and there is absolutely no doubt that there is a coherence and a consistency in the high-security prisons that exist in no other part of the system. It is interesting to note what developed in that system as a result of that appointment. I point that out merely because it is a precedent for what we are all seeking for this very vulnerable group which concerns us all.

I thank everyone for taking part and beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.