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Criminal Justice: Women

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2008

My right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Maria Eagle, has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 6 December 2007, my right honourable friend the Minister of State, David Hanson, published a Command Paper—the Government’s response to the report by Baroness Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System (Cm 7261).

The paper detailed how the Government planned to respond to the 43 recommendations made by my right honourable and noble friend Baroness Corston in her report. I am today updating Parliament and publishing a report on progress made over the past six months in taking forward the Government’s response, detailing the Government’s continued commitment to bring about real improvements for women offenders in both custody and the community. I have placed copies of the progress report in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. Copies are also available on the internet at www.justice.gov.uk/news/announcement 240608b.htm.

Since being appointed as the Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice matters, I am pleased to report the significant actions which we have been able to deliver against the commitments made in the Government’s response:

in respect of the recommendation that the number of strip searches in women's prisons be reduced, it has been usual practice for women prisoners to be strip searched on leaving and entering prison. This can be intimidating and distressing, particularly for women who have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse. Pilots are now running in five women's prisons testing a new kind of search which does not require the removal of underwear unless there is intelligence or suspicion at any stage that an item is concealed in the underwear. The pilots are going well and the impact of the new model women’s full search is now being evaluated. The early results are encouraging and I am confident that new arrangements will shortly be in place in all women’s prisons;

the Ministry of Justice will issue guidance to probation areas on making greater use of capacity in the current female approved premises. Areas will be encouraged to consider placing more women in them, who may not necessarily present a high risk of harm to others, but who could benefit from the supervised, structured environment and the support that an approved premises can provide. I expect this guidance will be issued in July 2008;

a site in Bristol has been identified for piloting an integrated approach providing access to a range of community-based services and residential facilities. The target group will be women involved in the criminal justice system, particularly those who may have a range of vulnerabilities or who may be at risk of ending up in custody. The project will be delivered in partnership with other agencies;

the Ministry of Justice has supported financially the establishment and continued development of the women’s Turnaround Project in Wales. The project clearly demonstrates the value of multiagency, multisector work and has rapidly achieved an excellent reputation for working with women offenders and women at risk of offending;

the Ministry of Justice is looking at diverting women offenders from custody into community provision where that is appropriate. Above and beyond Baroness Corston’s recommendations, more pro-active steps need to be taken to reduce the number of women going into custody unnecessarily. Options will be developed over the coming months to create a deliverable plan of action to achieve this;

the Government aim to make better use of the conditional cautioning scheme for women as an alternative to court proceedings. National rollout of this scheme has just been completed and provides offenders who have admitted committing a low-level offence the opportunity to be diverted from court by accepting a caution with conditions. Consideration is being given to testing out a rehabilitative condition for women as part of their caution. In this instance, the main condition will be to attend a women’s centre for assessment. This will link with the Together Women Programme sites to test the benefit of combining a caution with access to the supportive wrap-around services available;

a short project was set up to consider the recommendation advocating small custodial units for 20 to 30 women. The Government accept the principles Baroness Corston developed, but the findings of the project identified significant issues that suggest standalone units of that size are neither feasible nor desirable. In addition, it would not be possible to deliver the range of services required to meet the full range of women’s specific needs. The design of a new 77 place wing at HMP Bronzefield (due for completion in 2009) will provide an opportunity to implement, test and embed a new approach to the physical environment and delivery of regimes that could test out these principles;

the Ministry of Justice Gender Equality Scheme was published on 1 April 2008.  The scheme sets out what is being done to promote gender equality and eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment in all our business areas, decisions and activities. The principles in the Gender Equality Scheme underpin everything we do as a department and will ensure fair and equal treatment for all;

on 30 May 2008, the Ministry of Justice published a national service framework for women offenders. The framework clearly lays out the Government’s strategy for addressing the needs of women offenders, and represents a significant step forward in the Government’s efforts to make the delivery of Baroness Corston’s recommendations a reality;

on 30 May 2008, the Ministry of Justice also published the Offender Management Guide to Working with Women. The guide details some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities that need to be considered when working with women offenders at all stages of the offender process, including the importance of promoting and developing community-based alternatives to custody;

the Prison Service has introduced a set of gender-specific standards for women’s prisons. The standards, which were published on 28 April 2008 in a new Prison Service Order (4800), will ensure that prisons provide regimes, programmes and support that are sensitive and appropriate for women;

a cross-departmental Criminal Justice Women’s Unit has been established with a senior civil servant appointed to head up the unit. This will manage and co-ordinate the work on Corston across all relevant departments; and

the interministerial group (IMG) on reducing reoffending now provides overall governance, ensuring cross-departmental commitment to the actions required. I have convened a sub-group to the IMG to drive the work forward and monitor progress against our commitments. Members include the Solicitor-General and Ministers from the Government Equalities Office, Department of Health, Department for Innovation Universities and Skills, Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office.

Another key commitment is to improve health and social care services for women in contact with the criminal justice system. Health-related commissioning guidance specifically focused on services for women and their families will be developed by December 2008. The Government will also have reviewed and set out recommendations for improvements in the healthcare provided to women in police custody, in court cells and during transportation to prison.

I would like to thank my ministerial colleagues and officials in their departments who have contributed to the progress made and I look forward to continuing working with them, and our non-government stakeholders, in taking forward these commitments further. As the Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice matters, I will continue to make sure that everything possible is done to ensure that we have a system that is properly responsive to the needs and characteristics of women.