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Criminal Justice: Women

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 7 February 2008

rose to call attention to the report by Baroness Corston entitled Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System, and the Government’s response (Cm 7261); and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity today to discuss my report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. The background to my report was the increase in the deaths in custody of women at the beginning of this decade. In 2003, there were 14 such deaths. In 2004 there were 13. Six of those were in HM Prison and Young Offender Institution Styal over a 13-month period. Toward the end of that period, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, Stephen Shaw, was given responsibility for conducting an independent investigation into deaths in custody and he did so for the last woman who died in Styal, but he took account of the other deaths.

Concurrently, there were calls for a public inquiry and the then Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Charles Clarke, decided that a public inquiry would not reveal anything not recommended or discovered by the ombudsman. But he was particularly struck by a letter from the coroner for Cheshire, Nicholas Rheinberg, who said in conducting the inquest into the deaths:

“I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died”.

This led the then Home Secretary to decide that such a review would be appropriate. I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland and my honourable friend Fiona Mactaggart MP, who were both Ministers in the Home Office at that time, and who asked me to conduct the review. I express my thanks to Jenny Hall and Nigel Hancock from the Safer Custody Group and the members of my review group for giving so generously of their time and expertise in helping me with my work.

This was a practical piece of work drawing on research dating back to 1971, all of which pointed in the same direction, and setting out a blueprint for change involving seven government departments. It is impossible to do justice today in the time available to a 100-page report making 43 recommendations and a comprehensive response from the Government. I will concentrate on a few key issues. In 2002, 12,650 women were received into custody, and 4,100 of them were sentenced. Some 8,350 were remanded, and 66 per cent of them did not even get a custodial sentence. The average stay in prison was 42 days, which was long enough to lose their homes and their children, and they generally got neither back.

The profile of women in prison is characterised by mental illness, drug and alcohol misuse, lack of educational qualifications, suicidal tendencies, no life skills and domestic and sexual abuse. In fact, I concluded that we are rightly exercised about paedophiles, but we do not seem to have much sympathy or give much attention to their victims, many of whom end up in prison. They are looked after by staff whose preliminary training was eight weeks’ training in priorities for a male prison, such as security. Over two-thirds of the women were mothers living with their children prior to prison. Indeed, 17,000 children a year are affected by their mother’s imprisonment. These women generally pose no risk to the public and are in prison time after time. They are imprisoned at a considerable distance from home because of the relatively small number of women in prison and the geographical dispersal of the prisons.

At the start of the inquiry in March 2006, I made it clear to officials with whom I worked that I started from a simple premise that has guided me ever since I became a women’s organiser 32 years ago; women and men are different but equal, and if you treat them the same, the outcome is not equality. It is my passionate belief that the Prison Service has been run on the basis that it is right to treat people the same and that equality will be the outcome. But prisons are for men. That is how they are configured and run, and that is where the training comes from. Women’s priorities are different. Let me give a couple of examples.

For most prisoners, it is assumed that the most important thing on leaving prison is work. Employability is a high priority, and I do not quarrel with that, except that for women housing is a great priority. Time and again, women said to me, “All I want is somewhere for me and my children to live, and I do not want to be stuck in the Catch-22 of having no home so I cannot get my children back, and not having my children so I cannot get a home”. Last April, the gender equality duty was passed into law by Parliament, putting an obligation on public authorities to ensure that their policies and practices do not have a differential impact on women. But I found in the Prison Service with regard to the women’s estate that there was no one in charge and no corporate memory.

The Government’s response is a curate’s egg, which is very good in parts. There is an acceptance in principle that custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. A high-level champion for women who offend or who are at risk of offending—which I recommended—has been identified by my honourable friend Maria Eagle, a junior Minister in the Home Office. She is leading a subgroup of Ministers working independently but reporting to the interministerial group to reduce reoffending. I felt strongly that had been left with the interministerial group itself it would always have been the last item on the agenda, because that is what happens with women’s issues.

My honourable friend Maria Eagle is working with my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General, Vera Baird, whose professional life was almost exclusively concerned with women suffering domestic abuse and before the courts, and Barbara Follett, the Equality Minister. That is extraordinarily important because she is one of the Women’s Ministers and their second priority as Women’s Ministers is women offenders. They are joined by junior Ministers from the Department of Health and the Home Office and there is input from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I say to the Government that the task of those Ministers that must be supported will be to ensure that the agenda is embedded throughout government so that it survives changes in Ministers and officials. As to the gender equality duty, the National Offender Management Service, NOMS, is due to publish a national service framework for women on 1 April. It has been a long time coming. When I started my review two years ago I was told that its publication was forthcoming. This is their opportunity to disprove those civil servants who say that NOMS stands for “Nightmare on Marsham Street”. The NOMS leadership must ensure that, in the understandable focus on violent and dangerous offenders, women offenders are not forgotten, and we will judge it on results.

The Government have decided not to establish a commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending, as I recommended, but intend instead to set up a new cross-departmental criminal justice women’s unit headed by a senior civil servant. I hope that this person is very senior and can command authority. My experience is that all too often such initiatives start with good intentions, then members of a group send deputies to meetings and we end up with a group of junior note-takers who have no authority. My central recommendation revolves around the Together Women project and the opportunity it provides for establishing a network of women’s centres taking a woman-centred approach for women who offend or are at risk of offending.

I visited three such centres: the Asha centre in Worcester, the Calderdale in Halifax and the 218 centre in Glasgow—funded by the Scottish Executive, incidentally—which is active in the courts and has a secure facility within its premises, often for women on remand. What I saw there was inspiring. I saw women who had been in and out of prison, and some who had not been in prison but might have ended up there, like some of those women who were murdered in Ipswich the year before last. I saw those women being able to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, three things that women prisoners do not generally have and which are the basis of good citizenship and turn people into good neighbours.

It was inspirational, and cost effective because a place at the Asha centre costs £750 per year. I was told by senior officials in the Home Office that the total cost of keeping a woman in prison is £77,000. I know which is the better value for money. I also recommended small custodial units for women to replace the current women’s prison estate over a 10-year period. All I say to my noble friend and to our colleagues in the Treasury is that it has been agreed that £1.5 billion is to be spent on prison-building. I came across rather hidebound attitudes to what was considered to be an appropriate prison building. If we are going to spend that money, I suggest that at least one small custodial unit for women should be included in that £1.5 billion and that perhaps it should be in Wales because there is no such facility for women in Wales. They have to go to Eastwood Park near Bristol, which makes family ties difficult.

I want to emphasise that women’s prisons should never be on shared sites. I say to my noble friend Lord Carter that the proposal for Titan prisons—a number of prisons on satellite sites sharing services and facilities—is an issue for a future debate, but there should never be one women’s prison on a Titan site where the other prisons are male because there will be one ethos on that site and it will be a male ethos. All experience has shown that. I do not want that to happen and for people to say afterwards, “We didn’t know that”. It is vital to have cross-government action.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has a huge job in sorting out housing, social exclusion and intentional homelessness issues. I am pleased to say that I met my noble friend Lady Andrews in November, and I am impressed at how passionate she has become about this subject. I know that her department is now sponsoring an “Adults facing Chronic Exclusion” programme. There is a great challenge for the Department of Health to implement its own women’s mental health strategy to improve detoxification services. Everywhere I went I was told that these services have improved in recent years, but much more is needed.

With regard to routine strip-searching, I was persuaded by prison governors on how inappropriate it is. It wastes staff time; it is corrosive of relationships between staff and prisoners; it is deeply humiliating and it is a terrible thing to do to women who have been sexually abused, who represent a considerable proportion of women prisoners. Having been persuaded by prison governors to put this in my report, I am pleased that pilots are going on and that routine strip-searching will change into a slightly more acceptable mode. I hope that the pilots will lead to strip-searches in future being carried out on an intelligence-led basis.

One thing that the Government did not accept in my report, to which I draw your Lordships’ attention, is the right to life in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. When the state takes somebody into custody it has an absolute obligation to preserve life. I feel strongly that when that obligation is breached and a person dies, the family should be given equality of arms at law and offered public funding to enable them to be represented at inquests. In their response, the Government said that legal representation was not a requirement. I found that breathtaking. If that is the case, why are the Government always represented by senior counsel and barristers? I feel very strongly that that should be addressed. I met bereaved families and was humbled and moved at their plight. Why should they have to spend their money because the Government are at fault?

I received a letter from a magistrate on an issue that I want to raise towards the end of my comments. He wrote:

“Regarding your report on women in prison, I think it is important that magistrates are challenged in their training about their attitudes to women offenders—especially from the conviction aspect.

I found as an operating magistrate for nearly 20 years that frequently a submerged view was that the fact that a woman was guilty was worse than if a man had committed the same crime and consequently there was a marked tendency to be harsher in administering punishment. I’m of the view that this is, unfortunately, some sort of inbred, cultural phenomenon. I didn’t find evidence that it was a deliberate position—or even a conscious one”.

I think he is right. We have to ensure that in the training of sentencers a different attitude is taken. One of the women who took her life was in prison for a first offence of wounding with intent. She had been given a life sentence. I cannot imagine that that sentence would have been given to a man.

What I am suggesting is popular. Towards the end of last year SmartJustice commissioned a survey by ICM, which showed that 86 per cent of people support community alternatives to prison—centres where women are sent to address the causes of their crimes while doing compulsory community work. The Government can rest assured that that flies in the face of some of the stuff that we read in the press, and that taking a more sensible, civilised and cost-effective approach to these women can turn them into better citizens and enable them to fulfil their family obligations. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on securing this debate, and inevitably also on chairing such an excellent commission. It is rather a shame that this debate comes quite so soon after our discussion last week, and that we could not have delayed it for a few months until the Government’s action plan is ready. However, it could be argued that it is an issue that can never be discussed too much. On that basis we must count our blessings and take every opportunity that we can.

As the noble Baroness knows, in last week’s debate there was a great deal of support for her proposals, but equally it became clear to me—and a number of others—that, as welcome as are all those champions who have, as the noble Baroness outlined, now been appointed to look after the interests of the Corston report and its proposals, the delay in the Government’s response underlines the need for a specifically independent women’s justice board to ensure that sufficient action, resources and trained staff for the plan’s rollout are available. To use the words of my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, we need somebody in charge to make things happen.

I want to spend my few moments emphasising just why the proposals of the noble Baroness are so important—not only for women and families, but for the whole community. Increasingly, I see them as relevant to quite a number of male offenders. I stress this because I was concerned by something that the Minister said last week, and I hope that he can give noble Lords a more positive answer today. He implied that the Government’s commitment to implementing the gender equality duty within the UK penal system meant that, if different prison arrangements were made for one sex only, that could be seen as sexual discrimination and would therefore be illegal. If there is any doubt about this, we should call in the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who is the expert on that legislation and could, I hope, give a much clearer definition.

The Corston recommendations were made with the aim of redressing rather than entrenching inequalities. It is abundantly clear how women prisoners are currently at a disadvantage in the system. As the noble Baroness rightly said, it was designed for men a long time ago, rather along military lines, and, almost inevitably at that time, it was designed by men. Currently with prison overcrowding, we all know that a number of women’s prisons have been taken over to accommodate the increasing numbers of male prisoners. Many more women offenders with children are placed further from their homes. Prison Reform Trust statistics tell us that the average distance women have to travel is 58 miles and that 60 per cent of women prisoners are placed in institutions outside their home regions. This understandably makes visiting even more difficult. As the noble Baroness said, many women in prison lose their homes and reclaiming some sort of home on their release is a major priority. One study reported that half of the women surveyed had had no visits at all. It appears that male partners are rather less active in taking children to visit their mothers.

Even though the Corston report’s recommendations are specifically aimed at women, as noble Lords heard last week—because of their complex needs, and their role as the primary carers of children—they are increasingly relevant to male prisoners. Only very few dangerous, violent women offenders must be in secure settings. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has already stressed this. The Corston proposals for non-violent women offenders, which she has described, will include better co-ordination of resettlement pathways, a greater emphasis on community orders and the rollout of interdisciplinary centres that can tackle complex problems, including mental health problems and substance—meaning drugs and alcohol—abuse. We know this from what has already been spelled out by the Government.

The case for this kind of approach becomes overwhelming when one considers the potential savings to the public. A recent study by the Prison Reform Trust, in conjunction with the New Economics Foundation, estimates that, including the value of crimes prevented, the lifetime cost-savings of early intervention, with focused support, for the 2,000 non-violent women offenders would come to £19.5 million, or around £10,000 per female offender. Extra government resources and support from business and the third sector are essential for the primary targets—those areas of prevention, rehabilitation and resettlement—if we are to make any real progress. I notice, too, that the policy update refers to some 70 partners in business, who are already helping. Thus, £13.9 million is to be given, over the next three years, to funding six intensive alternatives to custody projects. We really must congratulate the Government on that, even though we would press for more.

It is an infinitely more constructive use of funds than earmarking £2.3 billion for prison building, including plans for three Titan prisons. With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, this proposal has been almost universally condemned. I am rather tempted to think of the fate of the Titanic, and hope that the British criminal justice system is not going in the same direction. Surely, if prison is necessary, funds should be directed towards schemes that rehabilitate inmates and help them to lead useful and fulfilling lives on their release. Instead—and I quickly refer to the horrors, if people would read them, outlined on page 4 of the Corston report—women are self-harming and continuing to self-harm, and babies are being taken away. All these things have been going on.

The alternative, and a recent example of good practice, is the Inside Job project, set up by Media for Development, which operates in Wandsworth and Downview. It has also had excellent success in a number of juvenile units across the UK. The production company provides inmates with the experience of a work environment, encouraging and developing communication skills, which they often lack, along with self-confidence, and enabling participants to obtain a BTEC award in media production. One participant, imprisoned at Downview following a domestic dispute and separated from her children, described how the project turned her life around:

“I can’t describe to you how different I feel since I studied for my BTEC and started working at Inside Job Productions. The feeling that people trust me and are prepared to give me responsibility means so much. I feel more confident than I have in years and I am looking forward to the future for the first time I can remember”.

The Corston report points us in the right direction. Please let us follow it quickly.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on securing today’s debate and for her comprehensive and visionary Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. I declare an interest as the author of Securing the Future and a member of the board overseeing the implementation of that report.

The report of the noble Baroness highlights, often graphically, the particular issues involved in the imprisonment of women. She reviews the dramatic rise in the prison population, and the issues, which have been described, of abuse, substance abuse, mental illness and low educational attainment. We find ourselves in the same situation as a country such as Canada, where the female prison population is 5 per cent of the size of the male prison population. Interestingly, in France it is only 3.7 per cent of a much smaller population. What really shocked me was the revelation that 18,000 children are affected every year when their mothers are sent to prison. That is totally shocking. It would seem that the lower French incarceration rate for women reflects the unwillingness of the French judiciary to separate mothers and children. This is something I support, and which we should look at.

Many issues are dealt with in this excellent report, but I would like to concentrate on four: namely, sentencing; the environment in which women are held; the programmes and support they receive, both inside and beyond the walls; and, finally, some of the conflicting priorities of stakeholders. On sentencing, many of us agree that there are simply too many women in prison. It is that simple. The only way to alleviate this is to send fewer women to prison, and to send to prison for shorter periods those whom we do send. This is easily said and frequently called for, but we are rather lacking in mechanisms to bring it about. I certainly agree with diversionary schemes, which have a key role to play, but proportionate and consistent sentences are essential. I hope that Lord Justice Gage in his Sentencing Commission review will be able to consider the needs of women specifically. The noble Baroness refers a separate sentencing framework for women; women’s issues are so distinct that I hope this is looked at.

The right sentencing framework and, if we can get it, a consensus between the Government and the judiciary should, in the long term, provide us with what I hope will be an appropriate and lower prison population for women. There will be those people whom we have to imprison, and we have to make sure that we get the right physical environment. The key issue, which has been referred to, is proximity to home; 58 miles is a long way and we should be better at moving people close to home. We are, however, doing somewhat better than the state of Hawaii, which sends its women to Tennessee, 4,000 miles away. The very thought of it leaves us cold.

We also have to concentrate on making sure, in the short term, that the prison capacity we have is up to scratch. I was particularly struck by a comment of Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, when she went to Bulwood Hall. She described it as being cramped, shabby and lacking in privacy. There is something going on here. The shortcomings in the prison estate are not new. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when he was chief inspector, noted the same thing, I remember. We have made some progress. The women’s unit at Peterborough is a move in the right direction, but what we really need are these smaller units, close to home. We have to be realistic. Ten years is probably the right length of time, but we have to set about it now. I wonder if the Minister would consider setting up a competition to stimulate new design, so that we can call across the board for what people can think of by way of design and operational plans for those people we have to incarcerate. I hope that the judging panel will have a majority of women on it. I was very taken with the point about men designing buildings for women. We want women to say what women need, and to make sure that they oversee that.

Thinking about what we do in the prisons, we have all seen bad buildings and good regimes, and good buildings and bad regimes. One does not guarantee the other. What we have to get right is what happens inside the prisons. We have made some progress. I suspect that there is less bullying. Many of the chief inspector’s reports point to increased feelings of security. These are some of the achievements of recent years, but, as ever, there is more to be done.

Beyond the issue of decency, it is important to equip women through rehabilitation to re-enter society when they leave prison, even if that is after 42 days. Above all, the key is to give women the ability to raise their self-esteem, so that when they leave prison, they can cope with the temptations of substance abuse and peer pressure. Various programmes that are in place are beginning to give us evidence that that is happening. The programme referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, is a start in the right direction. We have two pilots, but that is not enough. We need to go faster and to make sure that we are doing these things. I strongly feel that we need to get a move on.

Then we need to know the efficacy of each programme and to understand what does and does not work. Sometimes, we could do better. Some years ago, I was very taken by an observation made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. She said that Her Majesty’s Prison Service had done everything right “once”. The secret is how to get scalability of those programmes and make sure that a broad range of women benefit from them. We should not pursue just filling course places, but also focus on outcomes.

It is difficult for the Government to reconcile the needs of stakeholders, which are very pressing and rather difficult. Most of us probably would agree that there are four functions of prisons; namely, to punish, to prevent reoffending by incapacitation; to deter; and to rehabilitate. We do not have the time today to argue about the efficacy of any of that, although there is some doubt about the validity of those arguments in each case. But we have to recognise that there is some popular pressure to up-tariff, to give longer sentences and to have more people in prison. There is clearly some political debate between the parties on this. We have to weigh the rights of victims, prisoners and, above all, their families. One of the most significant points probably is the maintaining of the independence of the judiciary to make sure that the public have confidence in the sentencing structure and give it their support.

On top of that, there is the matter of money and the competing needs of other government departments’ spending plans and getting enough money into the system, because there is never enough. Getting that balance right probably is the greatest challenge facing government and being able to do the right thing. Most governments want to do the right thing; the difficulty is turning it into action. On these proposed reforms, I support very much the need for someone to be in charge. There must be a point of responsibility.

When we look at what we want out of getting the balance right, the great win is returning women to the community with a strong chance of not reoffending. Last year, I was talking to a female Congressman in the United States. She explained that she had to persuade her electors to vote on money for prisons. It was a matter of direct contact. She made a very good point when she said that when she campaigned, she gave people a simple message. Referring to prisoners in general, she said, “Whatever we do, one day, these people will come out of prison. When they come out, what do you want them to do? Do you want them to do something useful; or do you want them to deal drugs to your children, rob you or burgle you?”. We have a great responsibility to make sure that, particularly in the context of today’s debate, women leave prison equipped in the right way. We should be optimistic. In her report, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, sensed that there is a will for change and that the Government have accepted it. Let us make sure that the will turns into reality. In the end, wills are measured in deeds.

Good things are happening in England and in the rest of the world. Earlier this year I spent a day as the guest of Sheriff Wade in Henrico County, Virginia. I spent several hours in a small unit of 30 women, which was set in a larger prison. The women’s stories would not have been unfamiliar to readers of the Corston report, including stories about drug use, prostitution and causing death by dangerous driving when drunk. But, unusually, this facility was largely run by the women. I sat in a circle with the women and listened to how they support each other and how the unit works. The outcomes were most impressive. As regards the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, it was a cheaper solution and was a very good service. If anyone is going to the east coast of the United States, I counsel them to look at this unit—it can be done. The cost was US$67 a day, which is £12,000 a year. It costs a bit less than the £49,000 a year in Holloway and the £36,000 a year at Styal. We should find better ways.

In all my years working in and around the prison system, that day was one of the best. The women were sitting around in their blue uniforms and most of them were aged under 35. One of them, who had been in prison many times, said, “For the first time, I will be leaving prison feeling better about myself and I will not be back”, and I believed her.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness speaks, I hope that she will forgive me, as will other Members of the House, if I remind noble Lords that, if we are to hear properly from the Minister, it is important to realise that when the number 9 appears on the clock, that means that the noble Lord has taken a little too long, because that is the tenth minute. I am sorry to have to remind the House of that, but we are quite tight for time.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for introducing her report entitled, Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System, which, with its detail, must have taken a great deal of work, energy and time to put together. The noble Baroness met and interviewed many people. It was most interesting to hear about that today.

I shall concentrate on chapter 7 of the review, which deals with the health of those vulnerable women. In the report, there are many challenges to address and I can think of no better Minister to do that than the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. He has years of experience in health. Now, as a Minister of Justice, he could not be better placed to tackle and improve these most difficult matters.

We are discussing a topic that should be considered a priority for many reasons. There is a crisis in the prison system. The prison population is rising at about 400 a week. No one wants that, but it just seems to go on happening. Some of those prisoners will be women. On Tuesday, a meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs was told that, because of the crisis, prisoners will be locked up from Friday lunchtime for the weekend, which means that activities will be cut as well. If that happens, it will be a disaster for vulnerable female prisoners who often suffer depression and are at risk of suicide.

I hope that the Minister will look at women in prison as being different from those in the male establishment. They are different and have different pressures. In 1997, I was asked to chair a committee which produced a report on young people, alcohol and crime for the Home Office. We had 50 recommendations. The same problems that we found then seem to be worse today. Chapter 7 of the Corston report mentions the problems of substance abuse. The number of young female binge drinkers has become widespread and alcohol abuse should be high on the agenda of public health. The alcohol strategy for prisons was long awaited, but when it came it was disappointing.

Drug treatment in women’s prisons has improved and there are some very committed people working in this field. Again, in Chapter 7, the problem of mental health in women prisons seems to be a serious problem. But even more difficult are the problems of dual diagnosis. I do not think that enough has been said about this in the report. Unless those people who have a mental illness and an addiction to alcohol and drugs are treated in a holistic way, they may fall through the net of treatment. There needs to be trained staff who can treat this dual condition.

During a visit to Holloway prison, some time ago, I met two nurses who said that they did not have the correct training in mental health, and they pointed out some young women who, they said, should not have been there as they were mentally ill. I ask the Minister what is to be done about this. These vulnerable women will have to be reintegrated into the community at some stage. With different PCTs involved, what systems are in place to do this? When I was on the Yorkshire Regional Health Authority and many of the hospitals for mentally ill patients were closing, I remember saying, “Unless there are adequate facilities to deal with them in the community some will land up in prison”, and that is what has happened. It is not a satisfactory situation. The report says that many women coming into prison have poor general health and many are not registered with a GP, and that:

“Registration with a GP should be an integral part of the resettlement process”.

I agree with that.

There are some interesting characteristics of the female prison population. Women tend to commit less crime and their offences are generally less serious. In 2004, 36 per cent of sentenced women had committed drugs offences and 17 per cent were convicted of violence against the person, as well as theft, handling and robbery. Just over 19 per cent of the women in prison are foreign nationals compared to about 12 per cent in the male estate. Of the female estate, 30 per cent are from ethnic minorities in comparison to around 24 per cent of the male estate. Women tend to have a different type of drug use from men, with higher levels of hard drug use. Women are normally the primary carers of elderly relatives and children. Around 55 per cent of women in prison have a child under 16, 33 per cent a child under five and 20 per cent are lone parents. Because of the relatively small number of women’s prisons and their geographical location, women tend to serve their sentences further from their homes than do male prisoners. That can place additional pressures on important links with the family. Up to 80 per cent of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems, with 66 per cent having symptoms of neurotic disorders; in the community, it is less than 20 per cent. Up to 50 per cent of women in prison report having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Self-inflicted deaths are not easy to predict. The incidence of self-injury among women in prison is significantly high, given that they make up roughly 6 per cent of the prison population. Approximately 30 per cent of female prisoners self-injure, compared to 6 per cent of males. The proportion of young offenders who self-injure is higher. Those are some of the reasons that female prisoners should not be locked up from Friday lunchtimes. They also present a much lower security risk than men.

I agree with all the recommendations at the end of Chapter 7. The report stresses what makes these women particularly vulnerable; many will have experienced childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, emotional and violent abuse, substance addiction and self-harm. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has also stressed several times that the NHS should provide healthcare services to police custodial suites in busy areas. That will require a 24-hour presence and, ideally, a registered healthcare worker. I hope that the report will not only be discussed but that action to improve matters around those women with particular vulnerabilities will happen soon.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Corston for producing this excellent, profound, humane and much-needed report. I am also grateful to her for emphasising in her speech the need for government departments to work together on the issues. The report has produced some positive responses from government and I know that those speaking in the debate will be following the promised progress.

I wish to speak about women who offend who also have drug-related problems. I declare an interest as the chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. In this regard, I was pleased to see in the government response to Recommendation 31 that a detailed action plan for the development of the national service framework for women will be drawn up, and that it will include arrangements to ensure appropriate linkages and co-ordination with other commissioning frameworks, such as health, communities, drug services, local services and local authorities. Women, and particularly women in trouble with the law, need, more than most, collaboration between support services, particularly if they are drug users, have suffered abuse, have mental health problems and poor educational achievement, as many have.

Progress is being made. There is good news on drug courts; four more have been set up and there will be a pilot study to examine the concept of a mental health court. Over the past few years, there has been a tenfold increase in investment in drugs work in prison. By the end of April, 29 prisons will have introduced the integrated drug treatment system. That will be extended to a further 20 prisons over the next 12 months, with the Department of Health. Primary care trusts now provide prison health services, including treatment services. That is relatively new, but we hope that prison healthcare in general will improve. My noble friend Lord Carter called for us to get on with reform, and I agree.

In relation to drug abuse, my organisation, the National Treatment Agency, will be responding to the report of my noble friend Lady Corston on a regular basis. I will mention that further in a moment. First, I shall state a few facts on women and drug use. The report points out that drug addiction plays a huge part in all offending and that that seems to be disproportionately the case with women. Around 70 per cent of women coming into custody require clinical detoxification, compared with 50 per cent of men. Some women have a £200 a day crack and heroin habit and many are alcoholics. That is on top of mental health problems. More than one in five women in prison are foreign nationals and 80 per cent of them are convicted of drugs offences. I ask the Minister how many of those foreign nationals are drug mules exploited by traffickers to carry drugs between countries.

In 2006-07, female prisoners undertook 527 intensive drug treatment programme starts and had 384 completions. That is a completion rate of 73 per cent, which is very high. National Treatment Agency research on the impact of treatment consistently shows that in drug treatment in terms of retention, completion and self-reported satisfaction, women do better than men. Black women do particularly well. The National Treatment Agency is undertaking work to develop the women offender health strategy, a work stream within the Improving Health, Supporting Justice strategy that is currently out for consultation. We are doing that analysis to review how effectively the drug intervention programme is engaging women offenders. The evidence that we have so far suggests that women are experiencing a slightly better rate of engagement and retention than men. We hope to undertake a more detailed analysis of that.

As with all drug treatment programmes, continuity of care—what we call the treatment pathway—is vital if people are to succeed in controlling a substance misuse habit. Issues around support for families, education and employment opportunities, housing and social care are essential to support treatment outcomes. For women, that issue needs particular attention. My noble friend Lady Corston and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, pointed out that the dispersal issue militates against women performing well. Due to the smaller number of female prisons, prisoners are often held a long way from their homes and families. That makes resettlement and maintaining contact harder, especially if they are substance misusers.

I have had correspondence with the Nottinghamshire County Council drug action team, which points out that, in Nottinghamshire, the criminal justice intervention team has a women’s worker in the aftercare team, who has a significant role in arranging advocacy for her clients. Through this and other good practice, the council states that the number of women going into prison is falling, with an increase for those in the women’s treatment service receiving community treatment services. There is good practice around. I ask the Minister how this good practice is being shared so that there is a continuous learning cycle.

In Chapter 6 of my noble friend’s report, she points out the need for holistic women-centred approaches and the need to make better use of community provision. The government response has been positive about this with regional offender managers now having to consider the needs of women in their regions as part of the service level agreement negotiations with probation boards. Substance misuse must be a feature. Again, we must look to developing good practice, monitoring progress and sharing what good practice emerges.

There are intensive drug rehabilitation programmes for women: for example, a cognitive behaviour therapy programme in Low Newton offering 24 sessions over eight weeks; a short-duration programme aimed at women on remand, or on short sentences, in five establishments; a 12-step abstinence programme delivered in one establishment; a therapeutic community programme in Drake Hall; and a programme called choices, attitudes, relations and emotions—CARE—is being piloted in another. This programme is concerned with women in custody convicted of violent and/or substance misuse related offences. Again, it will be important to monitor these interventions and learn from any good practice which emerges.

All those in prison should have access to appropriate and well-designed drug treatment programmes and good follow-up. Otherwise, we will have the continuing problem of the revolving door, with people leaving prison but being back very quickly, or dead from a substance misuse overdose. There is much being established in relation to women in the criminal justice system and many approaches to substance misuse are being tried out. I wonder if my noble friend, to whom we are indebted for this debate today, will consider bringing this issue back in a year’s time so that we can assess progress. I sense there will be all-party consensus and concern, so let us look at this issue again. In the mean time I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, it is a joy and a privilege to congratulate the noble Baroness on the debate, on the excellence of her address to this House on the matter and particularly on her report. I believe it to be a report of monumental significance and I congratulate her on the assiduity and thoroughness of its research, the warm and sensitive humanity that permeates it throughout and the boldness and courage of its recommendations. There was a report about a century ago by Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary of the day, which changed the whole ethos of society in relation to prisons generally. Future historians may well say that this was a most significant watershed, in so far as the incarceration of women is concerned.

I should like to confine my remarks to the question of sentencing. There are so many other matters that I agree with—indeed, I agree with almost every word that has been spoken, and spoken with such authority and conviction, by all who have taken part in this debate. On sentencing, one of the most intriguing and unsatisfactory of phenomena has been this sharp rise in the percentage of women who appear before the courts who have been sentenced to imprisonment. Between 1992 and 2000—and I suspect that the figures are no better post-2000, but perhaps the Minister can confirm that—the percentage of women who appeared before the courts and were sent to prison went up by 500 per cent. During that time, the increase in relation to men was of a very different scale. I think it is extremely significant that during the same years, the percentage of women who were made the subject of remand in custody, pending trial or pending sentence, increased by 196 per cent, as is mentioned in the report. In the case of men, the increase was 52 per cent.

Is this due to an increased predilection over the past 15 years on the part of women to criminality, or is it due to other factors? Is it due to some ethos which proclaims that incarcerating women is more proper and popular than it was some years ago? I fear that the psychology of the situation is responsible for that increase more than anything else.

The thrust of the report is to appeal for equality. I am sure that everything that has been argued for in the report is an appeal for equality, rather than for precedence or some special privilege for women. I am sorry that I was unable to attend the excellent debate on Thursday initiated by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham.

In reading the Hansard report, there seems to be attributed to the Minister a statement in relation to gender equality considerations, which suggests that he would shy away from considering many of the robust recommendations in case that line is breached. I suspect that that does not do the Minister justice and I look forward to his dealing with the matter rather more fully when he comes to wind up. The justice of the situation demands not a common policy in relation to women, but a different policy. That is the only way in which equality can be brought about.

My own experience as a judge and as counsel before that, is that whereas men go to prison for a number of obvious reasons—you can see the causal connection between the attitude of that person to life and the offence committed—the situation is very different for the vast majority of women. I felt, as did so many of my colleagues, that there was a cohort of misery and despair that women fitted into. The reason for the criminality was not the desire to commit criminal offences—it was that they were led in one way or another through strange and miserable paths to that situation. Often the pressures stem from the responsibility of family life, sometimes there is coercion from a partner and very often there is a mental disturbance, drug or solvent abuse, and so forth. Unless one accepts this to be the basis—and this is the reality of the situation—we will never get anywhere near doing justice to women in relation to criminal offences.

In seeking to tackle that situation and therefore to remove the massive imbalance that already exists, I appreciate that in so far as reform of the criminal law is concerned, very little can actually be done. The last thing I would advocate would be passing a comprehensive Act of Parliament dealing with hundreds of criminal situations—

My Lords, I am most obliged to the Minister. We should not go through hundreds of criminal offences and give an alternative sentence in each case that would be applicable to women rather than men. That is not the situation at all. There are serious offences committed by women and they must go to prison for them. When women commit dreadfully violent offences; or when women commit offences in relation to the peddling of drugs and invest, as regards hard drugs, in the death and ruination of other people; or when women commit cold-blooded offences that prey upon the vulnerable, then of course prison is the proper disposal. But in the vast majority of cases, that is not the situation that leads women to prison. They are there for petty offences.

A very experienced, able and imaginative governor, Derek Warner, some 25 years ago, said that Her Majesty’s prisons should not be dustbins for the inadequate. Nor, if I may say so, should they be a repository for those persons who are more often sinned against than sinning.

The question therefore remains: what does one do? Recommendation 18 in the report advocates that custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. That has been accepted by the Government. In passing, I congratulate them on accepting 39 and a half of the 43 recommendations. How you get a half a recommendation, I do not know. You can get a half in golf, but I am not sure how that is worked out. Be that as it may, here is a recommendation that is quite epoch-making and is accepted in principle by the Government.

The Government then go on to say that they advocate action to maximise the use of the community order. Perhaps I may issue a word of warning here. Many of the women in prison are there for trivial offences because they were the subject of a community service order which they breached more than once, which led to their imprisonment. I am sure that that word of warning will be accepted in the spirit in which it is given.

Then there is mention of advice being given to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Time is very much against me, so perhaps I may put it in note form in the following way. It is not advice that is needed, but under Section 168 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 instructions can be given by the Secretary of State to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. It is the most powerful body, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice. The guidelines that it issues have the force of law under Section 172 of that Act. It is not an unlawful sentence if it breaches those guidelines, but there is every possibility that the Court of Appeal will intervene.

My Lords, I join all those who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for giving us this opportunity to discuss her excellent report, on which I warmly congratulate her. As I said last week, over the past 12 years I have been particularly concerned about the position of women in prison. The position was brought to my notice literally within two minutes of taking over as Chief Inspector of Prisons when I was alerted to the problems in Holloway. On inspecting it 10 days later, I discovered that women in labour were routinely being chained, and all sorts of other things that I simply could not equate with the word “civilised” as it is understood in any country.

During my years of inspection I was continually alarmed by the fact that the Prison Service resolutely refused to make anyone responsible for women in prison. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, referred to the fact that no one is in charge and there is no collective memory. When I found that some other prisons were totally and utterly unacceptable—Wormwood Scrubs, Feltham and Wandsworth to name but three—we adopted the procedure that the Prison Service area manager had to produce an action plan which contained a list of our recommendations on what should happen. We named the person who was responsible for doing something about it and stated by when it should be done. That programme was copied to the Home Secretary and to me and it was updated at six-monthly intervals. After about two years I would go in as chief inspector to see what had happened under the plan.

A follow-up inspection was essential to ensure that progress had been made and was continuing to be made. In my debate last week I called for a women’s justice board—a word which the noble Baroness rejected in favour of “commission”, which seems to be the in-word. However, she was asking for exactly the same thing as I have recommended: an action body that has responsibility for ensuring that the recommendations are brought to pass. I have looked back and read the recommendations in my 1997 report Women in Prison, and I find that many of the recommendations are the same. Not only did we recommend small units around the country; we actually gave as an example one such unit in America and described how it worked. But nothing happened.

The statistics I produced included the number of women who had been abused, and people were shocked. I concluded that to handle these women properly, the Prison Service should begin with the understanding that every woman might have been abused and to behave accordingly, not the other way round. That applied particularly to male prison officers. When I went, for example, to a women’s unit at Risley prison, I was concerned that it was completely and utterly excluded from everything that could be described as progress or decent humane treatment. It was an island of misery and deprivation which again shamed the Prison Service. I was extremely glad that the women were moved—a move prompted by an extremely concerned member of the board of visitors telephoning me at five o’clock in the evening to say that the arrangement could not go on. I was there with my inspectors by nine o’clock in the morning because I was so concerned to get things moving.

I mention that because when I hear from Ministers—who are excellent and of course have something to say—that the action is being devolved to a Civil Service unit, my heart sinks. That is no comment on civil servants, and certainly not on the civil servant I remember doing wonderful work as senior probation officer in charge of the unit in Holloway; there is no question of that. But the arrangement will not work as regards taking action, as we have learnt time and again.

When I have seen things happening in the women’s estate, I have often wondered what would have happened had there been a director of women’s prisons who was able to make objections. Would Bullwood Hall have stopped being a women’s prison, when it was in many ways a centre of excellence for dealing with juvenile and young women and there was no other prison like it? Would Brockhill have been re-rolled when it was the only women’s prison in the West Midlands with a mother and baby unit? Would Cookham Wood have been re-rolled the other day when, if anyone had bothered to go there and look round, they would have found marvellous programmes, the result of considerable investment by the voluntary sector? It now feels a very demotivated place because all its efforts have been wasted and the programmes are gone. The trouble with not having a director is that the good practice identified somewhere is not turned into the common practice everywhere. Inconsistency is therefore added to the other problems because no one is ensuring that what happens to women in Lancashire is happening—or not happening, as the case may be—to women elsewhere.

I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, mentioned training. I have always thought that this training provision is absolutely miserable. I remember asking the staff at Holloway about training during my first inspection. They had not received appropriate training in working with women. Three weeks ago I had to go to Trinidad as an expert witness in an extradition case, and I asked about training. I discovered that in Trinidad women have six months’ training before going to work in women’s prisons—a three-month course followed by three months of supervised on-the-job training. If Trinidad can get that right, why can we not? And we complain about these things.

This excellent report is one in a long line. I did mine in 1997. In 2000, there was the Prison Reform Trust report. I published a follow-up, A Call to Action, in 2001. We had the Fawcett Society report in 2004. When this report was announced to us by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, I rather cynically wondered whether, because she is such a senior figure in the Government, there might at last be some hope of somebody taking some notice of it. I am sure she recognises the volume of support that exists for all that she has said, because people have been saying it over and over again. It is therefore disappointing to find that, yet again, the Government seem not to be listening to the one thing that is absolutely needed; namely, to have someone take real action to get it done. I also welcome the number of noble Lords who have suggested that we must have a further debate to follow up on the action plan and to make certain that we maintain the momentum, even if nobody else does. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her report and I hope it will lead to the action we all desire.

My Lords, I, too, join with other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend on her extremely thought-provoking report and on securing this debate which allows us to discuss it.

A glance at last week’s debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and at the speakers list for today reveals the strength and depth of expertise in your Lordships’ House on this subject. I speak with no comparable authority so I shall restrict my remarks to one matter which, in the great scheme of things, may seem marginal, but I believe it has its place and should be considered along with other strategies for improving the lot of women in the criminal justice system. It is the contribution that the arts can make in the range of rehabilitation programmes referred to by, among others, my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles.

My noble friend refers in her report to the vulnerabilities that most women offenders have in common. She describes them as follows:

“First, domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, child-care issues, being a single-parent; second, personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse; and third, socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and unemployment”.

We have heard a great deal this afternoon that goes to the truth of that analysis. My noble friend continues:

“When women are experiencing a combination of factors from each of these three types of vulnerabilities, it is likely to lead to a crisis point that ultimately results in prison. It is these underlying issues that must be addressed by helping women to develop resilience, life skills and emotional literacy”.

She also observes of women prisoners whom she met personally:

“They were noisy and at first sight confident and brash but this belied their frailty and vulnerability and masked their lack of self-confidence and esteem”.

The development of resilience, life skills and emotional literacy is hard enough for any of us to achieve, even those of us who live privileged lives untouched by the horrors endured by many women who wind up in prison. Life is challenging, but there are experiences that can help us manage difficulties and give us some perspective on and insight into human relationships. My noble friend’s report shows that damaged or damaging relationships often lie behind behaviour that leads women into contact with the criminal justice system. Some of the most effective experiences can be delivered through engaging the imagination and creativity which debilitating life events can often stifle.

While I was preparing for this debate I came across an article published a year ago in the Guardian called “Can opera save our prisons?”. I imagine the tendency in your Lordships’ House would be to assume that the answer to that question is no. The article was written by a former prisoner, Rosie Johnston, who was reporting on the wonderful work of Pimlico Opera, which has been presenting musical theatre in prisons since 1987 using mixed casts of inmates and professional performers, and of Music in Prisons, funded by the Irene Taylor Trust, which runs intensive courses in prisons up and down the UK during which prisoners, male and female, work with professional musicians who, for example, help them to write songs which are then performed in front of an audience of guests, other inmates and sometimes family members.

Rosie Johnston emphasises the importance of this kind of work when she says of her own experience in prison:

“Days stacked up; units of boredom ticked off on a calendar. I went on a DIY course on which I was told how to switch on an electric light. I would have put up with a lot for an opportunity like Pimlico Opera”.

The founder of Pimlico Opera, Wasfi Kani, a highly respected figure in UK music and herself brought up in difficult circumstances, says:

“If things had gone slightly differently for me, I could have ended up inside. I'm still doing the prison projects because I've seen people change”.

In the section of my noble friend’s report on education, training and skills, she observes:

“Respect for one another, forming and maintaining relationships, developing self-confidence, simply being able to get along with other people without conflict must come before numeracy and literacy skills”.

That is perhaps a controversial observation but it is an honest one. As Rosie Johnston points out, many prisoners find conventional courses hard, fail to complete them and become demoralised. Consider, therefore, the fact that Music in Prisons was set up in response to arts programmes being phased out of prisons in favour of key-skills education. Music in Prisons recognises that completing a project is vital to self-confidence and notes that prisoners who cannot engage with mainstream prison education courses will often do well on Music in Prison courses. Music in Prison’s work in Holloway with a group of prolific self-harmers, for example, resulted in no incidence of self-harming among course participants while the course was running and a low incidence for some weeks thereafter.

I could give many more examples of the excellent work being done for women offenders through the arts, but I shall just mention the theatre company, Clean Break, whose achievements I have extolled before in your Lordships’ House. Clean Break has been working for years with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system, both in prisons and outside. It has warmly welcomed the Corston review, seeing it as,

“a unique opportunity to effect real change in the way vulnerable women offenders and women at risk of offending are dealt with by society”.

I think we can all agree with that view. Some of what my noble friend's report has revealed does our society no credit. We should not tolerate the physical conditions she describes, nor should we fail to make available proper resources to address the special difficulties that women offenders often have to face. I believe that organisations such as Music in Prisons, Pimlico Opera and Clean Break demonstrate the importance of including the arts in our thinking about how we create a more humane, enlightened system of delivering justice. My question to the Minister is a simple one: will he ensure that the Inter-Ministerial Group on Reducing Re-offending takes seriously the potential value of arts programmes to offender management and works with all relevant departments, NDPBs and the voluntary sector to ensure that funding for them is sustained?

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on her often shocking analysis of the treatment of women by our system of criminal justice, especially our prison system. That analysis was powerfully and movingly underlined by the speeches of many noble Lords in the debate on women’s justice initiated last week by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. The debate today has been commendable for its focus on what we need to do rather than simply bemoaning what is wrong, important as that is. I cannot add anything to the analysis without repetition, but thinking about what could usefully be added has turned my thoughts in the direction of institutional reform and the way that we develop policy. That will inevitably take me somewhat wider than the Corston review. I hope that that will not detract from my words of welcome for the report; rather, I hope it may be seen as a tribute to the report that it has stimulated me to think about wider issues.

My starting point, as I reflect on the discussions of criminal justice which we have had since I entered the House, is that the system is not working—indeed, that it could be said to be in crisis. There is evidence of this over a range of fronts and much disquiet among your Lordships, of which the Minister will be aware. I could cite rates and levels of imprisonment, at eastern rather than comparable western European levels prison overcrowding; reoffending levels and levels of suicide in prison; and the treatment of young people by our penal system, which has attracted criticism for falling below international standards and has led some of your Lordships to question whether it entitles us to be regarded any longer as a civilised country. And that is just for starters.

The impression of disarray has been compounded by the Government’s response, which seems sometimes to be bordering on panic. Prison overcrowding is met with hand-to-mouth responses, such as early release. The only response bordering on strategy has been to build more prisons, and large ones at that, which can only intensify the problems of institutionalisation. Like building more roads to deal with traffic congestion, it is ultimately self-defeating. It is already beginning to look as though, even before they are built, those 8,000 extra places will not be enough.

The Government, to their credit, are anxious to give the system a degree of coherence. But their instrument for doing so is NOMS, which appears to have been ill starred from its inception. It has already had to be reorganised, and the Minister still cannot tell us about its management structure. As we discussed the other day in the debate on Second Reading, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill provides further evidence of policy-making on the hoof.

It is not, however, my intention to be adversarial. I am sure that the Minister is an excellent Minister with the best of intentions—indeed, with the right intentions, as we have seen in recent days as he has made clear his commitment to the welfare of the child, with an emphasis on rehabilitation, resettlement and community sentences—but he has an impossible task in wrestling with a system that is in many ways out of control. At all events, the closest we have come to a strategy is an attack on the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. As I say, though, I do not wish to be adversarial—quite the reverse. Debates where we bash the Government—however forensically and analytically—and Question Times, where we have a bit of sport, simply cause the Minister to put up the shutters and dig in. That may not be the best way of developing a more rational criminal justice policy.

What has all this to do with the Corston report? As I listened to the debate last week on the need for a women’s justice board, it was clear to me that the treatment of women in the criminal justice system is a problem. But it is only a part of the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, called for a women’s justice board, and that prompted the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, to throw out the suggestion of a black Britons’ justice board. It seemed to me that this could not be the way to go, with a justice board for every particular problem area in the penal system. Such a piecemeal approach does not seem to make a great deal of sense.

It seems clear to me that we need institutional reform in our approach both to policy-making and to managing the penal system. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers here or a neat solution which I can commend to Ministers with a lively sense of a job well done. I had an academic involvement with the penal system at an earlier stage of my career, but that was over 20 years ago, and since entering this House I have been all too well aware of just how out of date my knowledge has become and how much work I have to do to get back up to speed. But I ask the Minister and the Government to think seriously about the point I am making.

A number of possible approaches have been or could be suggested. There is the model of a royal commission. A number of people have been thinking along the lines of establishing a royal commission on the prison system, but I am inclined to think that a fundamental principle of anything we do in this area should be that it is comprehensive, holistic, overarching—however you want to put it—and with a view to giving coherence to our efforts in the field of criminal justice.

A royal commission would have pros and cons. On the positive side, it would be able to undertake a fundamental and comprehensive review of an area of policy that has proved intractable for successive Governments. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has helpfully reminded us of the Gladstone report’s impact in the late 19th century. A royal commission could also be much more inclusive than the present system of policy-making seems to be. Would it not be better if the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, were working with the Government on the solution to these problems instead of beating them about the head from the Back Benches? It is important for the Government to be part of any mechanism adopted if there is to be any hope of their owning the solution. It is all too easy for the Government simply to ignore recommendations from bodies that are wholly outside government.

On the other hand, royal commissions are not always effective in setting a clear direction and enabling a fresh start with decisive action. As the late Lord Wilson used to say, royal commissions at their worst sit for years and take minutes.

If we persisted down the justice board route, rather than flirt with a multiplicity of justice boards for different aspects of the criminal justice system, perhaps the idea of a single overarching justice board with subsets for different areas could be investigated. Mention was made in last week’s debate of a tsar. There could be more than one tsar to cover different aspects of the penal system. The important point is that any arrangements set up should include a capacity for decisive executive action to get things done.

If the Minister is prepared to give some consideration to my suggestion that we should try to find a better way of doing things, he should bear five principles in mind. The first is that anything that is set up needs to be holistic and overarching with a view to designing, building in and underpinning coherence. Secondly, it should be inclusive. Thirdly, it should have some independence from government, with a view to bringing the best brains and experience to bear on the problem but consistent with significant government ownership. Fourthly, it should be able not only to advise but to make policy. Fifthly, it should have the capacity to make things happen.

My Lords, at the outset of my remarks I wish to make two observations about what has been said so far in the debate. First, I was delighted that my good and noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall made the point about music and opera. I never miss a Pimlico opera in prison if I can avoid it; it has a tremendous impact. What I like about the approach of Pimlico Opera is that it is aware there could be an awful anti-climax when a performance is over and it continues to do workshops and so on with prisoners. It makes a tremendous contribution to rehabilitation, the restoration of personality and so on.

My Lords, I will not give way, if the noble Lord will forgive me, because time is very short.

My second observation is that while I normally totally agree—almost to an embarrassing degree— with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I do not agree with one remark that she made. I think it is terribly important and urgent to have a debate such as this when a report has been published. We have to build up the momentum of concern so that the level of government response takes into account that the report has a great deal of good will and specific support among parliamentarians of all parties.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Corston. I had the privilege of serving under her when she was the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, where she did a tremendous amount to build up the reputation, impact and significance of that committee. She wrote her report with the clarity and firmness that I found was typical of her in the chair and which were informed by deep research and knowledge. Alongside this were her principles, conviction, sensitivity and values. I do not think that there are many parliamentarians who come up to those standards. What I also like about the report is that it is constructive and positive in saying what should be done—it is not just saying what is wrong.

When we in the Joint Committee on Human Rights were compiling a report on deaths in custody—another deeply disturbing issue—I learned a tremendous amount. The first thing was that there were very many extremely good, compassionate and concerned members of staff in the Prison Service, and I am glad that my noble friend has emphasised that point. But it was interesting that those staff sometimes became almost aggressive to us as parliamentarians—saying, in effect, “What on earth is this system that you expect us to operate? It is completely ill designed for the purpose of achieving rehabilitation and positive citizenship”. Let me give a couple of examples. I was absolutely shocked in Holloway to hear that when the courts closed, male prisons closed their doors and the transport system gave priority to getting the men into prison, so that the women could arrive at Holloway at a very late hour, after the meals were over. It was not just the awful impact on the women prisoners—staff have families and social needs as well, and they would have to stay on to handle the situation. What is more, sometimes it was only then that somebody discovered that there were children at home. I could hardly believe it.

The other example is that I took on one side a senior male uniformed officer in the prison and said, “Let us forget that I am here with the committee. I am a parliamentarian. What, above all, would you like me to think about when I go back to Parliament?”. He said, “Training”. I said, “But one thing that impresses me is that you are getting more training”. He made an incredibly significant point when he said, “Precisely. That has led us to understand how ill equipped we are for the job that we really want to do”. So the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is absolutely right—we cannot overemphasise the importance of training.

The other point made by staff is that prisons are full of people who should not be there at all. We will not go over ground that we have been debating in the criminal justice Bill—my noble friend has been very patient and heard the debate over and again. But I passionately believe that, ideally, we should start again from scratch and design a prison system that is fit for purpose. I believe that, at the moment, we are spending vast amounts of public money on trying to patch up and make work a system that is not designed for the purpose that we now understand and for the objectives that we are trying to achieve. This certainly applies to women’s prisons, and the fact that tremendous things are achieved is a double tribute to the staff who operated within the system. But I cannot overemphasise the sense of frustration that they sometimes feel.

What we are talking about, as the noble Baroness has stressed, is vulnerability. You only have to look at the beginning of the report, page 3, to see listed there the fact that:

“Coercion by men can form a route into criminal activity for some women … Drug addiction plays a huge part in all offending and is disproportionately the case with women … Mental health problems are far more prevalent among women in prison than in the male prison population”.

I pick those points to illustrate the precise nature of the observations made by my noble friend in her report.

I have a daughter who leads a team of counsellors for women with mental health problems in deprived communities. Almost every time that I meet my daughter, I have to put up with a tirade of indignation at the shortage of resources for this work. She and her colleagues can see that this sort of work helps to keep women together and to prevent the development of situations that result in prison. As a society, we have to wake up and put our money where our analysis is. If we believe in prevention, we have to finance prevention. We cannot go on with a health service in which mental health is regarded as a tail-end Charlie, fobbed off with professions of concern. It needs large resources and real priority.

I conclude by drawing noble Lords’ attention to the excellent observation by INQUEST on the report. It stresses my points about the difficulty that women have in accessing support before they end up in prison, the difficulty that families have in assisting the care and support of vulnerable women while they are in prison, and the lack of support for women after deaths in custody. I think that this is a highly relevant, effective and important report. I believe that the Government cannot give it enough priority. I conclude with the observation that I made on one of my amendments last night—that all of us have a responsibility, because we cannot expect the Prison Service to provide by proxy the fulfilment of ideals that are singularly absent in the way that we conduct ourselves in society. We have made a society based on greed and egocentric individualism, in which compassion and care have been marginalised, and then we expect the Prison Service somehow to put that right. We cannot isolate our concern here from the general situation within society and the general values of society.

My Lords, I also thank warmly the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for this report and comment that these women and girls, who have been so voiceless and so victimised, need this sort of attention and care. I am deeply grateful for this report and the opportunity today to look at their situation. A running theme of this debate is that many of these women and girls have been victims throughout their lives. My reflection on this is that unfortunately, and too often, we join in this victimisation—and we should consider how unconstructive that is. A woman who has been brought up in care and separated from her mother eventually ends up in custody. Instead of being encouraged to take responsibility for her actions, what she sees is that, “The state is now taking my children away from me”. That does not encourage her to think, “What harm am I causing myself?”. Rather she will say, “Just as in my previous life I have been the object for others to do things to, now the state is taking my children away”.

What struck me about the words used by the Minister of State, Beverley Hughes, when she launched the Care Matters: Time for Change White Paper on looking after children, was the repetition of “stability, stability, stability”. That is what all of us want for children in care—stability in their lives. One paper associated with this report concerned continuity in care. That was the theme—we want more continuity. It is a theme of the Children and Young Persons Bill going through the House at the moment. We have heard some of the facts, but perhaps I may draw your Lordships’ attention to a report from the Children’s Commissioner for England—his organisation is called 11 Million. The report states:

“For 85 per cent of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of time. Only 9 per cent of the children are cared for by their fathers while their mothers are in prison. Just 4 per cent of women prisoners’ children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced”.

As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, around 18,000 children each year are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. Therefore, on the one hand, we have a Minister heading a department saying that children often very similar to those I have just been discussing need stability, stability, stability and continuity of care and, on the other hand, we are taking 18,000 children out of the care of their parents and causing them to lose their homes at the same time. What sense does that make?

A little while ago, the parliamentary All-Party Group on Penal Affairs heard from a young woman in care. She was in a children’s home at the age of 13. One day, out of the blue, she was told that she would have to remove herself from that home as she was being placed elsewhere. The staff had been advised not to tell her that this was happening because they knew that it would be problematic. She said that that was when her years of crime began, adding: “I fought those people when they sought to take me out of that home”. Therefore, we need to rethink our approach in this area, where we are introducing so much instability into the lives of children who are often the most vulnerable.

I want to comment on what has been said about the need for someone to drive this policy forward so that we do not have another report landing on our desks in 10 years’ time. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the work of Louise Casey at the Rough Sleepers Unit a few years ago. She achieved the specific target set for her by the Government of reducing by two-thirds over three years the number of rough sleepers on the streets. I remember her pep talks in which she described vividly and passionately the need to support these people. She was often controversial. She urged people not to give money to beggars on the streets because they would only be supporting their habit and encouraging them to stay there. That was unpopular with many charities but she drove things through. She was passionate and experienced. She had been a deputy director of Shelter and had worked indirectly with homeless people, supporting their housing. She also described having been a restless teenager herself and having considered rough-sleeping, so there may be some insight from her appointment and success into who might be most effective. She was also directly answerable to the Prime Minister, so there was clearly the political will to see it through.

In her report, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, speaks of the Asha, Calderdale and 218 centres. She says of the women there:

“These women were shining example of ‘victims’ turned ‘survivors’”.

I was struck that, instead of further punishing these women—although punishment is sometimes necessary—and victimising them further, the centres were empowering them. The noble Baroness comments:

“One of the women I met there told me that she had experienced prison many times; it had taught her nothing and she said she was simply able always to blame others for her predicament”.

It does not surprise me that the evidence on these centres shows that they are helpful in reducing reoffending because people take responsibility for their actions and feel empowered. The noble Baroness goes on to say:

“Asha, however, had challenged her behaviour and for the first time in her life she was accepting responsibility for her own actions and thinking about their consequences. Another women at Asha with a similar background told me that no one in prison had ever told her that her criminal behaviour was wrong and she had never faced up to this before coming to Asha … Asha’s founder believes that women can be destroyed by prison, which separates them from their children. Most women want to be good mothers and sometimes this is the only positive thing in their lives. To take it away when it is all that matters to them can cause huge damage”.

I recall research from the Home Office which indicated that, generally speaking, if offenders can be connected with their families and sustain relationships, that is very important in reducing reoffending.

I quote once more from the report:

“Bringing women together at centres like Asha and Calderdale helps them to understand that others have encountered similar problems, feel less isolated and start to find solutions”.

That takes us back very much to a debate that we had on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill concerning alcohol treatment. We discussed the importance of former alcoholics speaking to young people who needed their help in refraining from alcohol misuse. That can be a very helpful approach. When vulnerable individuals meet people who have struggled with the same issues that they are experiencing and have come through the other side, that can be inspiring and effective.

Perhaps I may comment briefly on sentencing, which has been a theme of the debate, although it is difficult to speak briefly on this subject. I encourage the Minister to bear in mind what Socrates said on this, as recorded in Crito by Plato:

“When a man is in training and taking it seriously, does he pay attention to all praise and criticism and opinion indiscriminately, or only when it comes from the one qualified person, the actual doctor or trainer?”.

Crito replies:

“Only when it comes from the one qualified person”.

I know that these issues are very difficult but I think that the Government might do more, and might have done more in the past, looking at the research and evidence of what works and acting on it. I know that that is difficult politically but there needs to be a strong consensus between all parties on what is the civilised thing to do. I welcome the call made by my noble friend Lord Low for some sort of national debate. That echoes what the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, said recently in her report. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I, too, warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on her most excellent report. In the past couple of days during debates on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, we have had a lot of talk about human rights and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. During that time, I have declined to associate myself with the usual gang of suspects, one of whom is here today in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who has served on that committee. I, too, served on it for a short while and, when I knew that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, had been charged with this task, it was evident that she would perform it with not just the diligence but the radicalism, combined with good sense, that she brought to the committee during the time I served on it. Therefore, it was a pleasure to read her excellent work. However—the Minister knows that there is always a “however”—it is a shame that the Government have taken as long as they have to move to its implementation.

Since I started shadowing the Ministry of Justice and dealing with prisons, I have discovered that change is the order of the day. The problem is that change seems to be taking place in the absence of strategic leadership and with a decided lack of vision. We heard yesterday on the radio that apparently more than 50 reviews have been ordered since the current Prime Minister took over a few months ago. It would not be entirely surprising if that happened within the first year or two of a new Government. The problem is that it is happening 10 years after they took office, so we must draw our own conclusions.

However, on the issue in hand today, perhaps we need to reinvent the wheel—or to improve its alignment to the rest of the cart quite comprehensively. As I said, we welcomed the report for taking an in-the-round look at what needs to be done and we agree with a good number of the recommendations of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. We particularly like her emphasis on tackling the underlying issues to do with vulnerabilities, such as personal circumstances, familial pressure points and socio-economic factors. However, we have a few reservations. One is that we regret that she sees as a linchpin of her strategy the need for interdepartmental committees rather than a more clearly delineated, stand-alone body with sufficient powers, budgets and staff to make things happen. As it is, the interdepartmental group will consist of seven Ministers or so, on whom this additional remit will be tacked on to their existing functions. A point made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, last week in his debate on this issue, as well as today, is that it will be impossible for these people to do the jobs they are consigned to do well in addition to what they are now charged to do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has tried to reassure us that her honourable friends are up to the job. We have no doubt that they are; the trouble is that they already have a surfeit of jobs. You would have thought that their main jobs, as Solicitor-General, Minister for Equality or Minister for Women, would be sufficiently important in scope and brief for them to need to concentrate on those. It does not sit with the importance that this area deserves to be tacked on the way it is to other roles.

We particularly welcome the recommendation for the immediate creation of a commission for women who offend or who are at risk of offending. This, in our view, is critical to that logic of strategic leadership which is needed urgently to knock heads and to make the seven different departments with interests in this area come together. We would prefer, as per the original proposals, to see the commission for women established as a non-departmental public body or within the aegis of the Ministry of Justice, as we now discover it is going to be. We do not wish to be particularly prescriptive about this but suffice it to say it should be located wherever it is able to provide the strongest and most effective direction. We are therefore disappointed that the Government have only gone as far as to accept this recommendation in principle.

We now await a cross-departmental criminal justice women’s unit, which will be working with other departments. It will, we are told, monitor progress and then report to the IMG. We fear that this unit will soon become encumbered in minutiae. It will be subsumed to different political priorities and will have as its strategic role a subordinate role—we assume—to the direction of travel prioritised by the “prison and penal aspects of policy” brigade rather than the part of the remit which deals with women at risk of offending, which we thought was one of the great innovations in the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston.

I am aware that we also have the IMG for reducing reoffending, but the organisational chart in the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on page 79 does not provide for a link to this group. This underpins why we see the commission for women as the place for strategic direction and leadership.

Let me turn to the more recent changes for, as we see it, they will have an impact on where and how the recommendations of this report will go forward. We heard last week that the flagship body set up only three years ago, the National Offender Management Service, is now to be dismantled. NOMS, as we recall, was to offer management through prison and probation systems to successful release back into the community. We are told that NOMS will be stripped down and a sort of NOMS-lite will be the more focused body but:

“The concept of end-to-end management for all prisoners will be abandoned as the Government looks to impose cuts across the prison and probation services”.

That is from the Observer of 27 January.

This will be the third shake-up of prisons and probation services in seven years. We also have the result of the review by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles. While we have seen his report, we are not entirely clear as to how many of his proposals will go forward in the way that he envisaged. We seem to be getting increasingly fragmented responses through IMGs and action plans while one theme remains constant: that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons continues to highlight the mess that exists in our prison policy. Coming to the fact that we have had two separate debates on women’s justice and prisons in the last two weeks, plus the changes we have seen to NOMS and to prisons and probation services, could we get an indication from the Minister that we will get regular appraisals from the IMGs as to how the changes are bedding down?

I am coming to the end of my time but let me briefly say that it is clear from the debates last week and today that there is much good will and concern to address these issues. We heard the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to look at some of these things and I will draw his attention to this debate. We were intrigued by the views of the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, on prison design. The physical environment is undoubtedly key to issues to do with humanity’s most basic precepts. I wonder if the architectural competition committee that he envisages could also include prison staff and prisoners, as both would be the most frequent users of the system. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, welcomed the national service framework for women. Is its implementation programme still on target to roll out from June 2008?

The debate today has been replete with innovative suggestions to promote life skills such as the emphasis of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on the arts in rehabilitation. These would be the ideal interventions to be funded by the National Lottery. I will support her plea to the Minister.

Let me finish with the thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, on the need for a royal commission. We are always pleased on these Benches for those on other Benches to be reminded of what true reform can look like, and Gladstone would have much to tell us on this issue today. Given the number of piecemeal studies and proposals for change, if this lot of reforms do not work, maybe we should move to a comprehensive look at crime and punishment through a royal commission. The problem is that the royal commission and anything it achieves will have come nearly a generation too late for those currently incarcerated. That will have been our collective failure as a society.

My Lords, I add my voice to that of all others in offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on producing her report all of almost a year ago. I also congratulate her on her patience in waiting for some six months for first the Home Office and then the Ministry of Justice to respond to that report with what I think she described as something of a curate’s egg, even if 39 and a half of her 43 recommendations seem to have been accepted.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, described that response as implementation by the Government. I have a sneaking feeling that “implementation” might be a rather optimistic word to use about what was in fact just the Government’s response.

I also, yet again, offer my commiserations to the Minister, who has had another very busy week with two days on the criminal justice Bill, a number of Questions to be answered at the Dispatch Box, a similar debate to this last week as well as the debate on war-making powers, and so on. It raises one question: if perhaps the Ministry of Justice did slightly less—this is possibly wishful thinking—it might do it slightly better. Yet again, I will make my plea to the Minister that he could start by scrapping the criminal justice Bill and going away to give it some proper thought before bringing it back to this House.

I have a number of questions for the noble Lord. I did not manage to get all my questions out last week but there are one or two I certainly want to repeat this week. Last week I mentioned the timely nature of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in that it came so soon after the launch of the annual report of Her Majesty’s inspector. I asked the Minister when the Secretary of State would be responding to that and whether we will get a chance in due course to debate that matter in this House. I repeat that question and I think all Members of the House would like to hear an answer.

Secondly, I must return to Titan prisons and the recommendation in the noble Baroness’s report, which quite rightly goes in the opposite direction when she writes about the need for more smaller, local prisons. The Government seem to have been strangely silent on that point, although I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, whose original report suggested Titan prisons, was in agreement with her in not going down the route of Titan prisons for women’s prisons but looking for smaller prisons. I also noted the point she made that even if there were to be Titan prisons, they must not be mixed. That would be a complete disaster in provision for women.

The argument that the noble Lord put forward on Titan prisons—as I understand him, and no doubt he will correct me if I have got it wrong—is that they are not really Titan prisons but a number of smaller prisons on the same site. That misses the point in terms of the recommendation made by the noble Baroness that we need more smaller units. It is not so much the size of the unit, but the fact that we need something local for women prisoners if we are to help them maintain contact with their families. This point was made by a number of noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, made it and emphasised the fact that on average each female prisoner is some 58 miles—I cannot remember if that was the precise figure—away from home. The noble Baronesses, Lady Masham and Lady Massey, also stressed this point. I am sure the Minister will accept that what is needed are more local units so that prisoners can be closer to home. I hope he will accept that that is why so many noble Lords have been objecting to Titan prisons. It is not their mere size that is objected to; it is the fact that, by definition, they cannot be local.

I have one or two other points that I would like to put to the Minister, but I am very wary of the time and will make sure that I sit down to give him his 20 minutes to respond. First, I shall ask about overcrowding. Many of the social factors that influence criminal behaviour are broadly similar for men and women. They include mental health problems, drug addiction, education, housing and employment, yet the Government have been exacerbating overcrowding to such an extent that it is almost impossible to rectify any of those issues while women are in prison. Indeed, manifest failures in prison security mean that many offenders are getting on drugs while they are in prison. Do the Government not recognise that tackling overcrowding and reforming prison regimes are vital for reducing offending? The same could be said about the high levels of self-harm by female prisoners that various noble Lords have mentioned. Would the Minister not accept that there is a relationship between overcrowding and the number of women in prison who self-harm or commit suicide?

Turning to bail and remand—I will keep my remarks brief so that the Minister can give a full response—the Minister will be aware that the Prison Reform Trust estimates that six out of 10 women imprisoned on remand are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence. Given that, and the recent high-profile examples of offending on bail, would the Minister accept that the Government’s policy on bail and remand is not being directed at the right people? I ask him to look carefully at that figure of six out of 10 women on remand who do not go on to prison.

I have other questions and still have some three minutes to go, but bearing in mind that we started at quarter to the hour, I think, I should stop now to allow the Minister to make the full response he always makes to the House and to allow the noble Baroness to respond briefly to his remarks.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for allowing me to get my full 20 minutes. I am most appreciative. I am delighted that this morning we have had an opportunity to hear from my noble friend Lady Corston. It is not surprising that her report has been so rightfully praised from almost every quarter. It is excellent, and she made an excellent speech to open this debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, that we should hope that this is a pivotal moment in the development of the right policy and practice for women in custody. Our determination must be to see that that happens.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, made his usual kind remarks about the Ministry of Justice. The Bill is well formed and is now enjoying scrutiny in your Lordships’ House. However, I cannot give him a date when we will respond to the ombudsman’s report. We are bound to respond, as we will, and then I would welcome a debate in your Lordships’ House, but time is not in the Government’s hands in this House, as noble Lords know well.

Today we heard compelling reasons about why we need to implement my noble friend’s report in the way that we are doing. Vulnerabilities characterise so many women in prison: mental health problems, drug misuse, sexual and domestic abuse, concerns about children’s welfare and the number of children affected by their mother being in prison. Those points are very strong indeed. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the impact on children and gave us much food for thought.

That brings us to the question of sentencing policy. Just as I have been saying about the policy of the Government in relation to children in custody, I want to make it clear that we believe that custody should be reserved for offenders who need to be there because of the seriousness of their offending or the risk they present to others. That remains and will continue to be our philosophy. That means that a lot of emphasis must go into community provision. I agree with the points made by a number of noble Lords about the importance of prevention of reoffending programmes, rehabilitation, resettlement and accommodation. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, spoke about the contribution peers can make to help that process. That was a point my noble friend Lord Bach made in relation to the alcohol programmes when there was some confusion two days ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, presented to us a very serious question about sentencing. The figures I have here show that although women still comprise less than 6 per cent of the prison population, in the 10-year period between 1995 and 2005, the increase in the prison population was 126 per cent for women compared to 46 per cent for men. He suggested that there were some psychological factors at play. There is no doubt that the courts have been sentencing women more severely and making greater use of custody for less serious offences. There are some signs that since 2005 that has stabilised. We have not seen another large increase since then.

That clearly brings us to sentencing guidance, about which the noble Lord made some important points. Sentencers have to follow the law and guidelines, which already make it clear that prison is to be used only when an offence is so serious as to merit a custodial term. I also take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and others, about the number of women on bail or on remand. That is a factor that we also need to look at very carefully.

In our response to my noble friend's report, the Government undertook to re-emphasise to courts the whole question of sentencing guidelines and the availability of the community sentencing structure as an alternative. However, I will make sure that my colleagues responsible for this in the department have a clear read-out of the comments made today.

I know that noble Lords think that the Government did not respond to my noble friend’s report as quickly as we should have done. I usually stand here and noble Lords accuse the Government of being too quick to respond to issues and too quick to bring in legislation. In this area, it was important to look carefully at the implications of my noble friend’s report. The fact that we are agreeing 39 and a half recommendations shows that we have been able to respond in as positive a way as possible.

We had a debate last week on governance arrangements. Some noble Lords feel that an interministerial group is not the best way to approach what we all want—which is concerted action to ensure that my noble friend’s report is implemented with vigour and determination. But my experience is that where you have a clear aim and a lot of Ministers are involved, that is a good way to get the kind of ministerial leadership that is required. If you have ministerial leadership and commitment, you can get things done. I understand the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that if you are also Solicitor-General or Minister for Children you have other responsibilities and you may not give the matter your full attention. But the obverse of that is that you have senior Ministers carrying out important roles. They are the very people you want round a table to make sure that the right decisions are made and that those decisions are carried through. Anybody who knows my honourable friend Maria Eagle will know that she is a very determined character. Her office is next door to mine so I know how determined she is. I have every confidence that she will give the leadership that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, so rightfully demanded.

I know that there are questions about the status of the senior civil servant who will lead the joint unit. That is an important question. It is important that that person has the authority to drive through the changes that are required. My belief and contention is that, with the support of the champion Minister, that determination will be shown in evidence as we develop this. That leads us to the question of NOMS, which we have debated in the past 24 hours. I want to make it clear that this is not a question of watering down the integrated approach to end-to-end offender management. It is an adjustment made necessary by the changes we have made in the machinery of government with the creation of the Ministry of Justice. The kind of split that we now have between operational management, which will be the responsibility of NOMS, and the strategic leadership in a separate directorate in the department is just what you need to get the challenge and leverage to make the changes in policy and action that we all want to see.

The noble Lord, Lord Low, made some interesting points about the reform of the machinery of government and had some interesting ideas about a national debate. I am convinced, as I am about the custody of children, that the more informed debate we have, the more enlightened our policies will be in these areas.

I now turn to the question of equality and the law, because I hope that I did not confuse noble Lords last week. I was responding to the question of whether there should be a women's justice board. I said that it would replicate the Youth Justice Board. My point was that there is no separate framework in law for women as there is for young people. There would be a problem in establishing a separate sentencing framework in law for women offenders. That is where the reference to the gender equality duty is relevant, because it would not allow any system to be established that could create inequalities in the treatment of men and women—through, for example, a separate sentencing system. The noble Lord put the point very well.

However, I was not saying that there are not inequalities for women, because as my noble friend identified, the criminal justice system was designed primarily for men. That is where the gender equality duty comes in. We must do something about that and that is what my noble friend’s report is about. I am glad that noble Lords raised the matter and I have had the opportunity to set the matter straight.

Some interesting comments were made about the need to spread good practice. That is an important task for the interministerial subgroup and the officials who will then report to it. If we can spread the good work that is taking place more effectively, we could start to make a big difference at an early stage.

Much can be done to improve community provision. My noble friend mentioned a number of exciting community project works that are being undertaken, such as the Asha Centre in Worcester and the 218 project in Glasgow. My noble friend recommended that these initiatives should be developed and replicated elsewhere, and that is what we wish to encourage. We have a cross-department initiative to examine how the services and support delivered by existing community women’s services could be developed further for women offenders and women at risk of offending.

I now turn to our general policy on population and my noble friend's recommendation about small custodial units. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked about overcrowding. Of course, the report of my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles enables us to deal with this in a comprehensive way, both in terms of supply-side and demand-side management. We will soon be debating provisions—I will not bet on it but I hope not too far away—in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. I gently point out to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that his colleague in the other place, Mr David Davis, said in the Daily Telegraph yesterday that he thought that we should be locking up many more under-18s. I would like to put on the record that that would not help the prison population.

It is dangerous for me to try to link my noble friends Lord Carter of Coles and Lady Corston because they are both sitting behind me. If I get this wrong they will tell me in no uncertain terms. However, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, put that to me and I must answer it. It is clear to say that my noble friend Lord Carter recommended that the Government should continue to develop a strategy that deals with the specific needs of women and suggested that future consideration should be given to reconfiguring some of the smaller prison sites to accommodate female offenders, allowing for a different approach appropriate to their needs.

There is no question but that we believe that the women’s estate must be reconfigured, as my noble friend Lady Corston said. We have set up a short project, which is led at director level, to consider the future of the women’s custodial estate and to explore how the recommendation on small, local custodial units could be taken forward. My noble friend made some very important recommendations. It is a significant change. We will have to look at it carefully, and we will do so in parallel to taking forward my noble friend Lord Carter’s recommendations. I agree with him about the importance of good design. This is an opportunity for us to try to inculcate good design into a future programme. I like the idea of a competition, which I will certainly pass on to my friends.

On strip searches, I say to my noble friend Lady Corston that she knows that we accept that full searching causes distress to many women, particularly those with mental health problems and those who have been sexually abused. We are piloting a new kind of women’s full search. The initial stage of the piloting is expected to be completed in May 2008 and then we will establish whether we can make further progress.

Some very interesting comments have been made about mental health issues, such as dual diagnosis. There is no question that the input of the primary care trust is positive but that much more needs to happen. I take the point that when people leave custody, ensuring continuity of health provision is one way in which one can make resettlement work as effectively as possible. My noble friend Lord Bradley is reviewing a number of these important matters in relation to mental health, and I know that my noble friend Lady Corston will have an input into that work.

I thank my noble friend Lady Massey for her work with the National Treatment Agency. I accept that while considerable improvements have been made to gender-specific drug services in prisons, there is more that we can do, and it must remain a high priority. With regard to drug mules, my understanding is that the proportion of women prisoners under immediate custodial sentences who are foreign nationals is 15 per cent, and 56 per cent of foreign national females are serving sentences for drug exportation and importation, with the largest number coming from Nigeria. Of course, this group of women have considerably different resettlement needs from other prisoners, and more is being done to respond specifically to those needs and to help to equip those women when they return to their home country.

I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh that I was very glad to hear of the work of Pimlico Opera, Clean Break and Music in Prisons. I do not have firsthand experience of that work, but—

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but is the Minister aware that Pimlico Opera was one of the organisations that had its funding cut last week by the Arts Council?

My Lords, those decisions fall to the Arts Council and not to the Government. I am very much aware of the arts in the health service programmes, which have been hugely positive. I thought that there was much in what my noble friend said, and I will bring that to the attention of my ministerial colleagues.

To give my noble friend a couple of minutes to respond to the debate, I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. My noble friend’s report is one of the most important reports to be published in this area for some years. It contains many recommendations, some of which would lead to fundamental changes in the way in which women are dealt with in the criminal justice system. There is no question whatever that in the past women have been marginalised in a system that has been largely designed for male prisoners. We know in terms of the outcomes for those women that we have to do better and the Government are pledged to do just that.

My Lords, earlier this week, a former colleague from another place asked me how I was getting on here, and he said, “The truth is that you have better debates than us”. Today exemplifies that statement. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. I opened my remarks by saying that it was impossible for me to summarise everything that was in my report. It was wonderful to note how many noble Lords today have done that for me and have raised so many different issues to which I drew attention.

I have been heartened by the response of Ministers to my report. My noble friend Lord Hunt will know that it is not my way to get on my feet and make remarks in the Chamber. Over my parliamentary life I have found that it is far better to talk to people one to one to persuade them, because to get on one’s feet can sometimes paint them into a corner, and I have never done that. It has been marvellous to have had voicemail messages, letters and phone calls over the weekend, saying, “Can we talk to you about this?”, “How do you think we should do that?”, “What is the best way of achieving something else?”. In my experience, there has never been such cross-departmental interest, with Ministers from the Department of Health, DCLG, the Home Office all coming to me and saying, “Please can we talk to you about how we make this work?”.

Someone not long ago said to me, “If you are not careful, you are going to be known as the champion for women in prison”. I actually cannot think of a better epitaph, because not many people have been that concerned about women in prison. Lots of people who work in prisons and who work in organisations that deal with women in prison who will read today’s report and be gratified that so many of us are interested. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.