Skip to main content

Women in Prison

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2009

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what reforms in the treatment of women in prison are likely to be in place by the end of 2009.

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to hear from the Minister how plans for the different treatment of women offenders—the Corston approach—are progressing. I am also looking forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords speaking this evening, all of whom bring important expertise to this debate. My own background as chairman of an inner London juvenile court for over 20 years, and a member of the Parole Board, has left me with a firm belief in prioritising two aspects of penal policy that are of particular relevance to the way in which we treat women offenders: first, prevention—that is, early intervention—with deprived and/or chaotic families, where the potential for children offending is obvious; and, secondly, for those children that we have already failed, and who are already in prison, rehabilitation.

It is precisely for these reasons that the proposals in the excellent Corston report are so important. Corston makes it clear that the dominant male ethos of prisons is particularly inappropriate for women offenders. This theme is equally emphasised in no fewer than six other reports on this subject over the past 12 years, including two from my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. He will no doubt refer to these in his speech.

Women still comprise a small percentage of the prison population; 20 per cent of known offenders, but no more than 6 per cent of the actual prison population. What is alarming, however, is the fast growth of the number of women in prison. Between 1992 and 2002, the male prison population grew by 50 per cent, while the female prison population increased almost four times as fast, by 173 per cent. Increasing prison overcrowding has meant women offenders being housed even further than male prisoners from their families, at least 60 per cent of them outside their home region with an average of 58 miles for families wishing to visit.

Then there are the different characteristics of this growing number of women prisoners that, again, call for urgent action. For example, there are acute mental health problems, often resulting from a background of violence—physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse—endured as children and continued when older by a current partner; 50 per cent of women offenders fall into this category. Unsurprisingly, 40 per cent of women prisoners self-harm. In Styal prison alone, self-harm has leapt in the past five years from 376 to 1,324 incidents.

Then again, 70 per cent of women imprisoned are in for short sentences of less than 12 months because the vast majority are convicted of non-violent crimes, such as theft and handling stolen goods. Theft accounts for 60 per cent of female offending, but only 34 per cent of male offending. However, short sentences—even remands in custody, of which there are far too many—do harm enough. Two-thirds of women who enter prison, remanded or otherwise, are mothers. A third have children under five years of age. No less than 40 per cent of women offenders lose their accommodation while in prison, which destroys not just their homes but those of their families as well. The Children's Commissioner for England reported that only 9 per cent of children whose mothers are sent to prison are cared for by their fathers, with only 4 per cent remaining in their own homes. How can we then be surprised at the resulting, almost inevitable, cycle of deprivation that this will activate in their children? Corston herself estimates that at least 17,000 children a year are affected in this way.

I have mentioned only a few of the important issues that Corston sets out in supporting her overwhelming case for an entirely different road for the majority of women offenders. Essentially, that requires locally provided community and/or community payback sentences for the vast majority. Crucially, however, this must also be combined with treatment and help for a range of problems: mental health, drugs and drink, housing and parenting skills, and, not least, education and training to enable flexible working when their children reach an appropriate age.

I have at least four areas on which I hope the Minister will be able to provide some answers. The first is equal treatment for male and female prisoners. Is it now accepted, as Corston so clearly argues, that the gender equality duty allows different treatment for men and women prisoners? I ask because during our debate last year there appeared some hesitation about adopting the Corston route in case it was in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act. It is my view, speaking as a non-lawyer but as the first deputy chairman of the EOC, that the Sex Discrimination Act's legal concept of indirect discrimination could more than adequately justify the Corston route. Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to confirm that that is so.

My second question is about the various pilot schemes that are now under way. The Together Women projects were commended last February by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, as having potential for providing a route back into the community for women offenders and reducing reoffending rates. Moreover, they are certainly value for money with the cost of a place at one of them—the Asha centre—costing no more than £750 a year compared to the £77,000 cost of a prison place. Can the Minister tell us how many of these Together Women projects will be operational on a local basis by the end of 2009 and how many more Together Women or similar projects are planned and within what timescale?

The Ministry of Justice published a Corston progress report a month ago with some promising initiatives, but timescales, numbers and priorities are harder to find. I have to agree with the Howard League for Penal Reform’s briefing which states:

“The visionary, radical proposals at the heart of the Corston review have either been sidelined or completely abandoned”.

Can the Minister update the House on what priorities and timescales for implementation the interdepartmental ministerial group for women has identified and is working to? What about the women’s offending reduction programme—WORP—set up in 2004? What role does it now play? What priorities was it working to before it became part of the ministerial group and are they still the Government's priorities? With all these schemes, is there a planned and guaranteed budget to ensure these plans materialise? On 10 December, the Minister in the other place stated:

“The Ministry of Justice is committed to providing additional resourcing in the new year”.

Can the Minister tell us how much it is and assure us that it is indeed extra resourcing?

Lastly, acknowledging the cost of what is proposed and the likely impact of the economic disasters we face, how do the Government now view the Titan project? Many parliamentarians and penal experts well beyond these portals have expressed grave concerns, which I certainly share, about government proposals to spend huge sums on building untried Titan prisons. The vast majority believe it would be far better value for money and more effective to modernise the existing capacity and, when and if necessary, build small local prisons. Surely, the time must now have arrived, not least in light of the current economic crisis, when the Government seriously have to reconsider their hugely expensive Titan prison programme. They would certainly have backing across all political parties and none if they decided to abandon that plan altogether. If not, at the very least, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, and all her supporters need to be reassured that any Titan prison—I believe the Minister prefers to call them prison clusters—will definitely not include a women's prison unit within its site. Again, this was a reassurance that she asked for in your Lordships' debate in February last year. Can the Minister please give the House that answer tonight?

I end by paying tribute to the invaluable support and briefings supplied by the many charities and voluntary organisations as dedicated as your Lordships to achieving Corston's recommendations and especially to Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust. They can rest assured that this House will continue to keep the pressure up.

My Lords, this is an important debate with a large number of speakers. I remind noble Lords that if they stick to the time limit of three minutes, which is when the clock hits three, it will allow all noble Lords an equal opportunity to speak within the hour.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Her commitment is second to none and her effectiveness in debate is similarly powerful. I add a tribute not only to the voluntary agencies but to many prison staff who are doing fantastically difficult work in very challenging circumstances. I always find it significant that such prison staff have told me how they are disturbed by the inadequacy of the system. They despair of what progress can be made and talk challengingly about the need for a completely different approach and for support for women when they go back into the community. That point cannot overstressed. As they often put it, they think their work is to protect these women for at least a short time from the intolerable pressures that ruin their lives outside. One hears so often that these women’s lives are chaos.

It is against this background that the report by my noble friend Lady Corston was so important, and it is necessary to look at how the Government are responding. Trying to look at it dispassionately—I can sometimes look at this issue dispassionately, but I do not usually feel dispassionate about it—it is encouraging. There has been action on strip-search. It is difficult to think of anything that was more humiliating for women. It also had disastrous psychological overtones for staff and prisoners alike and was crudely used as a method of control. That the Government have acted on this is laudable.

The Government are firmly resolved to move forward on one-stop shops to divert women from prison. That is positive news. I support the noble Baroness in saying that we now need evidence of the resource muscle behind all this. Precisely how much will be provided? Will it be additional? Where will it be used? What are the priorities? When will it all happen? I hope my noble friend can enlighten us this evening.

Whether we are talking about women or anybody else in prison in debates of this kind, we ought to ask ourselves what is the purpose of penal policy. It is surely to save society from the cost of reoffending—hence rehabilitation is at the top of the league—and to see these women as people, as women with great potential trapped in appalling social circumstances. The need is to release that potential and let it become stabilising and constructive. Think of the effect on already dysfunctional families of women experiencing prison and being separated from their children. If rehabilitation is to be achieved, I am convinced that it has to be done in small, purpose-built units. Smacking women into impersonal prisons gives no basis for moving in the right direction. I hope we can have reassurance from my noble friend on that this evening.

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to being dispassionate. I do not feel remotely dispassionate on this subject; I feel passionate about it. I commend the noble Baroness, who has always identified a just cause, for bringing this matter to the House in the footsteps of many other distinguished Members. Long ago, we served together in the juvenile court in Camberwell and Lambeth, and even then the level of disadvantage, deprivation and social exclusion of all those appearing in court was all too evident. Our behaviour with regard to the criminal justice system and women is simply to compound the problems that these already frequently damaged women have and ensure that their children suffer even greater trauma and distress. The situation is simply not acceptable and there must be action, as the noble Baroness says, in 2009.

The evidence has been repeated time and again that 60 per cent of these women are mothers. There are 8,000 children a year affected by their mothers’ imprisonment. It is clear that, for the most part, male prisoners can expect the other parent to care for the children, but women’s children often go into care or are cared for by friends or neighbours—and we understand that many come from families and social networks that are far from ideal. We know that many of them lose the home that they were renting or buying. The damage is unacceptable.

At the department of criminology at the University of Hull, where I have the privilege to be chancellor, Dr Liz Walker has been doing some extraordinarily interesting work on offending fathers and the price they pay—the shame, the humiliation and the embarrassment of their children as well as the collateral economic damage, such as the loss of income and the cost of visiting. If that relates to fathers, how much more does that evidence apply to mothers?

I would like the Minister to report to us in particular on the report by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, on offender health. It was good news in 2006 when the NHS took over healthcare in the Prison Service. The outline of the consultation made it all too clear that women in contact with the criminal justice system,

“suffer an excessive burden of disease, experience poor health and have restricted access to healthcare and social services whilst possible simultaneously being single parents, possibly carers for older people and/or someone with a disability. The risk of suicide in prison is much higher for women and self harm is a huge problem and 56 per cent of all recorded incidents were in women’s prisons”.

We were promised a response by 2008. The Government have set up pathways, guidelines and much else besides, and I believe that if joined-up government is to work we can use that lever.

Finally, I draw attention to one practical project that brings hope. At Send prison for females, the Watts Gallery has a wonderful programme of encouraging the inmates to become involved in the work of George Frederic Watts, a socially reforming artist, concentrating particularly on homelessness and the exploitation of women. The evidence of that small project is a light in a wilderness, and we need far more such lights. We need action, and we need it this year.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the current president of the Howard League for Penal Reform. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on securing a debate on this important and, in my view, neglected subject. I agree with every word of her excellent speech. This subject is neglected not because we speak of it rarely—some of us speak of it a great deal—but, unfortunately, because real action by Government is in inverse proportion to the sound advice that they receive.

In opening this debate, the noble Baroness referred to the huge increase in the number of women in prison over recent years. With that increase in his mind, I ask the Minister to ask himself the following five simple questions and answer them to this House. Has the increase to which the noble Baroness referred led to a decrease in crime? Has it led to greater public confidence? Has it led to a more constructive prison regime? Has it led to less recidivism? Has it led to more rehabilitation? In reality there is a gloomy answer—no—to every one of those questions. If I am right that the answer is no, what next?

It is noteworthy that a number of women in custody, 64 per cent in 2007, have been serving sentences of less than six months. I ask the Ministers to tell the courts the truth: that very little is achieved by these short sentences other than the increased social exclusion of those who serve the sentences and, perhaps even worse still, their children and other members of their families.

I urge the Government that paramount attention should be given now to implementing the key recommendations of the Corston review that have already been referred to, particularly that prison for women should be limited to serious and seriously violent crimes and that women in prison should be dispersed, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested, to local prison centres in a new women’s prison estate, with small prisons near to their homes.

I turn to a specific issue, and I apologise for the short notice I gave the Minister on this earlier this afternoon. None the less, he has had a little notice. It relates to the public inquiry gained by the Howard League into the treatment of a young woman called SP while in custody and into her background. It is an unusual case because SP survived. This is therefore not an inquest but an opportunity to hold a public inquiry, which has been decided upon, where SP can give her own account of her life and times and what happened to her in local authority care before and after prison. She is articulate—I have met her—and she is a very abused young woman.

In June 2008 the Prisons Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, resigned as the nominated chairman of the inquiry. He made it quite clear why he resigned: his intention as to how to run the inquiry, he complained, had been interfered with unacceptably by the Prison Service, and he felt that he could no longer conduct an independent inquiry. So what did the Government do? I do not know the person concerned and I dare say that he is a splendid man, but they nominated as the new chairman of the inquiry a career senior Prison Service manager whose last job was running no fewer than 10 prisons in his area to be the so-called independent chair of the SP inquiry. He may be thoroughly capable of being independent, but it really looks appalling.

I invite the Government to recognise that this new appointment has been thoroughly insensitive and inappropriate and will devalue what could be an extremely useful inquiry. The credibility of their commitment to reform is undermined by that appointment and by the three-year delay that has resulted from wrangling, mostly by the Government, over the inquiry. We ask the Government to demonstrate their commitment to reform of the women’s estate in the round by accepting what has been said already by most speakers in this debate, and in particular by appointing a new and entirely independent person to chair the SP inquiry.

My Lords, like other speakers, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for giving the House this opportunity to review the progress being made following the historic report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. The progress reports from the Government in June and December last year contain a wealth of detail, but closer inspection raises questions about the scope of the changes that are under way. In the brief time I have, I shall give two examples.

At the heart of the noble Baroness’s report was a strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with small custodial centres providing a range of services. The working group that examined this recommendation accepted the principles behind it, but held that the units of 20 to 30 would not be workable because they would not achieve economies of scale, and that the prisoners who would be most suited to them would be better dealt with in the community. Instead, we have the proposal to test the model of smaller units in larger prisons by means of a 77-place wing at HMP Bronzefield, which is still to be opened. The June 2008 report concluded:

“In the longer term, we will utilise any headroom gained from increased community provision to re-configure the prison estate if necessary, and if resources allow, so that women’s establishments are of optimum size and specification for meeting women’s needs”.

That sounds to me like an admission of defeat.

The problems identified by the working group need to be explored, and it may be that better proposals are needed. However, to accept the principle of multifunctional provision while rejecting its implementation through smaller self-standing units risks sinking the alternative strategy and reabsorbing vulnerable women into the failures of the current system.

The second example is women prisoners’ mental health needs. These are central to their vulnerability and must be tackled by any reforms. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, made a number of recommendations for an integrated approach to health and well-being led by the Department of Health, embracing community health services as well as prison health. It is clear that these matters overlap with the review on the diversion of mentally ill people being conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, and it is reasonable that they should be dealt with in the emerging offender health and social care strategy for women. However, there must be anxieties that, as with the noble Baroness’s report, bold plans for a new approach will shrivel before the organisational complexity and force of radically redesigning services.

The noble Baroness’s report gives the opportunity for far-reaching changes to provide holistic, individual treatment to women offenders. However, unless painstaking attention to detail is backed by a bold strategy and firm leadership, the opportunity for change will die the death of a thousand qualifications. That would mean that women would continue to suffer unnecessarily, with damage not only to themselves but to their children, their communities and the whole of our society.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Howe on obtaining this important debate. If noble Lords detect traces of anger and frustration in tone of my contribution, they are absolutely correct. The much welcomed and rightly applauded Corston report is not the first but, as my noble friend said, the sixth report on women in prison since 1997, all of which have said much the same thing. Nothing happened to any of the others, because the Government appear to listen only to what they themselves commission.

In their recent National Service Framework: Improving Services to Women Offenders, the Government stated that the intention was to put in place a long-term and sustainable system to deliver a co-ordinated approach to addressing the issues identified in the Corston report. But if anything is to be sustained, it must be consistently directed and led, and such direction and leadership of those responsible for such a system remains something that the Government and the Prison Service seem stubbornly to resist introducing. I admit that this is a song I have been singing since I first went into a women's prison 13 years ago, finding not only that women were routinely chained while in labour, but that there was no way of ensuring that good practice in one prison somewhere could be turned into common practice everywhere.

Unless the Government adopt the common practice of every organisation that I know of in the world, with the exception of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, nothing short or long term can be put in place, let alone sustained. It is not the job of Ministers, champions or otherwise, however well intentioned, to exercise the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-per-year direction and oversight of the treatment of, and conditions for, women in prison that is required. The reason we are here tonight, debating yet again a situation that could and should have been resolved years ago, is that the Prison Service is simply not structured to deliver what the Government say they desire. Implementing Corston requires not just commissioning services but, above all, consistent leadership, direction and resourcing of those people who have to work with and for women prisoners. What, in the continued absence of anyone responsible and accountable for actually ensuring that things happen, makes it more likely that we shall see more reforms in the treatment of women in prison in 2009 than in any of the other 12 years during which they could have been introduced?

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on her determination to keep this matter on the agenda so that the Government are never in any doubt that they still have a lot to do.

I have just looked at Dame Anne Owers’s report on Peterborough prison for women. It looks as if nothing much has changed since the Corston report. The same sort of women are in the same sort of prison with the same sort of problems—but at least the strip-searching on arrival has been stopped, and we must all welcome that.

I shall use my time to show the House what can be done, through the example of a women’s prison in Perth, Western Australia, which I visited three months ago. It holds about 60 women, which is a quarter of all the women in prison in Western Australia. It was set up after an analysis of the shortcomings of women’s prisons in Western Australia, which reached many of the same conclusions as the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. The women there live in one-storey houses with a large garden; in each house there is a living area with a kitchen, five bedrooms and two bathrooms. Each of the women has a single bedroom and some of them have camp beds, which they can pull out for their children up to the age of 12 to stay the night. Those who have small children living with them—and there were 12 at the time—have bigger rooms.

The women are responsible for seeing to all their own cooking and eating. In the administration building there is a small supermarket; the women get five dollars a day for food, which they have to pool with the others in the house. The supermarket is run by a number of women prisoners who are undertaking a course in retailing. In the main administration building, there is a restaurant used for eating out when families come to visit, and for training in restaurant and bar work.

The children who live in the prison with their mothers go each day to outside daycare while their mothers work. The library is like a small public library, with a children’s corner and lots of children’s books. The health centre is, similarly, like a very good health centre in a small community, and the reception area is like the reception of a small, quiet hospital. On arrival, there is no strip-searching; there is a waiting room—a sitting room—where the women who have arrived sit while various people come and talk to them and explain what it will be like to be there. There is a stringent selection procedure for staff and those who apply must go through a fairly intensive process before their names even go on a list of those eligible to apply.

I give the House this information to make the point that women’s imprisonment can be reformed. You just have to want to do it.

My Lords, this debate demonstrates how well my noble friend Lady Howe serves society, both through this House and outside. I want to address, briefly, the drug and alcohol programmes for these women and a Cardiff-based programme for community integration of offenders.

Overall, there is ongoing inadequacy of medical services for women in prison, including mental health, and inadequate links to other appropriate specialist services. Within the criminal justice system, women with alcohol-related problems are about five-fold in number of those with problems from drugs, yet the need to deal with the consequences of alcohol addiction is largely ignored. Primary care trust funding for targeted alcohol and drugs services is poor. Programmes run by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust have proven highly effective on evaluated outcomes. After seven years of staying in touch with offenders the re-offending rate is almost zero, representing a huge economic saving to society overall. That applies to women, not just men, prisoners. So why are the numbers progressed through ineffective programmes taking preference for funding over those programmes with proven outcomes?

I also want to mention the Cardiff-based Women's Turnaround Project, funded by the Ministry of Justice and hosted by Safer Wales, which provides practical support to women offenders as well as those potentially at risk of offending. The service is focused on the specific needs of women, aiming for a sustainable reduction in women's offending and a reduction in incarceration of those who pose little threat to society. This is particularly important because the biggest problem for women offenders is separation from children and family, particularly small children. Separation undermines any parenting that is beginning to be undertaken and undermines the self-esteem of the women who already usually have very low self-esteem.

The project, now in its second year, has served around 250 women. It neither applies a “one size fits all” policy to the women, nor forces them into rehabilitation programmes. Rather, the project aims to deliver simple, practical, often low-tech solutions to the real problems faced by the women. I shall give an example. Yesterday a project officer received a phone call from one of the women as she needed to collect her crisis loan payment by 4.30 pm, but had no transport. So a helper at the Women's Turnaround Project lifted her into town to collect the money.

About 65 per cent of women re-offend upon their release from prison, so resources should be focused on schemes that help women to pull themselves out of the criminal downward spiral. I look forward to hearing how the Government will ensure that resources are targeted at efficacy of outcome, not just at processing numbers.

My Lords, I want to come at this issue from a slightly different angle. To that extent, I may be thought to be adding what is essentially a footnote to the central thrust of the debate, so it is perhaps appropriate that I should be speaking immediately above the gap. I hope that what I have to say may not be without importance, none the less.

When we discussed the Offender Management Bill some 18 months ago, I moved an amendment to subject the prisons to the specific disability equality duties. At the time, the treatment of prisoners with physical, sensory or mental disabilities was governed by a Prison Service order, PSO 2855. It left a good deal to be desired, as did the treatment of disabled prisoners.

In April last year, the Prison Service published a new and much enhanced version and, if practice follows policy, things will improve. The new Prison Service order was the Government’s alternative to my suggestion of imposing the disability equality duty on the prisons.

There are also PSOs dealing with race and, coming to the present topic, gender. These are all areas where the Prison Service continues to struggle and where it can seem that the only way to get equal treatment is through the courts. Later this year the equality Bill will be introduced, which will eliminate the current gender, race and disability equality duties and create a new single public sector duty. The question is, does it make sense for the Prison Service to continue to deal with the issue under separate and disparate frameworks rather than be subject to the new duty and able to take an integrated approach?

If we take PSO 4800, entitled Women Prisoners, we find sections dealing with race, age and disability. That is welcome, as multiple discrimination is hard to tackle. However having distinct policy frameworks for the different areas does not help. Furthermore, the requirements of that order and of PSO 2855, which covers disabled prisoners, are quite different. Yet each is meant to reflect the equality duty. Although I cannot demonstrate this in detail, it seems fairly clear that when the equality duties are harmonised one or both will be out of step with the new public sector duty. Therefore, I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government are now prepared to recognise that the new single equality duty, which offers the best legal framework for implementing the recommendations of the Corston report, will effectively supersede the system of Prison Service orders and apply that duty to prisons.

During the passage of the Corporate Manslaughter Bill, the Government accepted the principle that prisons should not be exempted from the provisions of that Act. It seems hard to maintain that they should not be similarly subject to the public sector equality duty.

My Lords, we must all be extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for bringing forward this debate. The Corston report insists that radical change is urgently necessary. Prisons are designed for men, and women’s needs must be met differently. The arguments are overwhelming and the Government reaffirmed last December that 40 of the 43 recommendations of Corston have been accepted in principle.

The debate rightly challenges the Government and the Minister to dispel our doubts and to commit to a timetable of change. So far, progress takes the form mostly of relatively small-scale local pilots, projects or simply recommendations, excellent though many of these are. What is needed is determined action nationally, backed by the necessary funding, instead of any more evidence showing us what we already know—what works and what needs to be done. That means gender-specific, community-based provision, which can focus on individual needs and causes of offending. It must be of a range and quality which represents effective, appropriate alternatives to custody, available to every court in the land.

The role and approach of sentencers, who make the decisions on custody or its alternatives, are key to change. I declare an interest as chairman for the past seven years of Rethinking Crime and Punishment. An inquiry we commissioned in 2005, called Crime, Courts and Confidence, was drawn on by Corston. It discusses the crucial place of alternatives to custody and concludes that it is vital that sentencers have first-hand experience of what they consist of and that they are available to them in their area. Without such contact, it is impossible to have a proper understanding of, let alone confidence in, the appropriateness of the community penalties on their doorstep. The Corston recommendation quotes from our inquiry and states that,

“community solutions for non-violent women should be the norm”

and designed to take account of their particular circumstances.

Of course, we welcome the funding for Together Women in Yorkshire on pre-sentence reports and Women’s Turnaround Project reports for the courts in Wales. But it is the commitment to such provision nationally and to engagement with the alternatives that is of the essence. The £40 million made available to the Probation Service to develop robust alternatives is welcome but is a drop in the ocean without national implementation and realistic resourcing.

The Government’s response makes reference to the work we did at RCP over three years in the Thames Valley, Cheshire and London with Crown Court judges, magistrates and district judges, demonstrating what connecting sentencers successfully with their local alternatives can achieve; namely, that judges and magistrates become deeply interested and involved in what they find on their doorsteps. As the response states, this work and the findings have been written up as a handbook. It is a model for government.

In their response, the Government say they will,

“provide information about the full range of disposals and interventions available for women offenders within and beyond the criminal justice system throughout each stage of their case”.

I ask the Minister to tell us how this will be implemented and precisely how,

“NOMS regions are working to improve communication with sentencers”.

Ultimately, it is a question of political will. The knowledge of what works and is needed is there, as is acceptance of the urgency of what should be done. Have the Government the will to see it through?

My Lords, I hope, like all other speakers, to be brief in my response to the debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote. I start by saying that I hope the noble Lord will have noticed that nine Back-Bench speakers have wished to speak in the debate. I hope he will take that back to the Government Chief Whip and suggest that this subject might warrant a further debate in due course. It is a matter that should be discussed with the usual channels because obviously it is something that more time could be devoted to in due course. I have two points to put to the noble Lord.

My first point—one on which the noble Lord has heard from me before—relates to Titan prisons. He has heard about that from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and, this evening, from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. We all have our doubts about how Titan prisons will work. However, we have even greater doubts about how Titan prisons will work as regards women prisoners. Bearing in mind that there are fewer women prisoners, how on earth will the Government be able to provide suitable coverage throughout the country? We have to ask whether that is the right approach. The noble Lord will want to reflect on that and will no doubt give us an answer in due course.

My second point is where is Corston? Obviously, I do not mean by that where is the noble Baroness. She obviously has other things on today, and we all appreciate her being here on other occasions. What we want to know from the Government is when they are going to give us a proper update on the implementation of her very excellent report, which came out last summer. What has yet to be implemented, and can the Minister set out a timetable for carrying out those reforms?

I hope those brief questions will be sufficient for the noble Lord. He will have a whole host of other questions from other speakers in this debate. From these Benches, we are now looking forward to hearing what the noble Lord has to say on this matter.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, on securing the debate and thank her for choosing this subject. I take the opportunity of thanking all other noble Lords who have spoken on this very important subject, albeit that in many cases their speeches were too truncated. This is an important debate. As ever in discussing penal policy, your Lordships’ House is at its best. It has a wide variety of experience and expertise on which to call. This is an area to which the Government are committed and I argue that we are making, if not significant progress—however, I argue that we are making significant progress—certainly some progress, which, I believe, some noble Lords have acknowledged.

As has been said, this debate comes just five weeks after the Government made their second Written Ministerial Statement on progress in their response to the deservedly praised report of my noble friend Lady Corston, Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. That Statement focused on our continued progress in delivering the commitments made in the Government’s response to that report, and on the wider work we are planning to drive this agenda forward beyond those original commitments. Today’s debate invites us to look ahead to progress over the coming year within the context of the women whom the courts have committed to prison.

Two important principles underpin the Government’s response to the Corston report. The first is that women should not end up in prison unless it is absolutely necessary. Statistics show that the majority of women offenders—70 per cent, compared with 47 per cent for men—are imprisoned for non-violent offences and that they are serving short sentences. That point was made powerfully in this short debate. Indeed, 2006 figures show that 75 per cent of women prisoners served less than 12 months. That is why the Ministry of Justice is committed to providing additional resources this year to divert from custody vulnerable women who are not serious or dangerous offenders. We plan to reduce the number of women in prison. I say in passing, although this is just one figure, that at 9 January 2009 the number of women in prison was 3 per cent down on that of a year ago. I do not make huge claims for that figure but the House should be aware of it. However, I accept that in previous years the figure has risen.

As I say, we plan to reduce the number of women in prison and to provide additional services in the community for women offenders and women at risk of offending. In addition to all the other powerful arguments, there is a strong economic argument for diverting women from custody. These resources are preventive. They will be used to build the capacity of the one-stop shop at women’s centres, which my noble friend fully supported in her review, and to develop further bail support services to better meet the needs of women. It is proposed to invest in existing third sector providers to enable them to work with courts, police, probation and other statutory agencies to provide support to vulnerable women.

This work builds on the significant progress we have already made to improve services for women offenders in the community. In October last year a probation circular was issued providing guidance and encouraging greater use of female approved premises. It introduced flexibility into the admissions criteria to include women who may not present a high risk of harm to others. We are expecting to see an increase in the number of women accessing them in the near future. The Offender Management Guide to Working with Women Offenders was officially launched last month and will not only provide advice on how the guidance links with the national framework for women offenders but will inform various agencies about the full range of appropriate interventions, including supportive mainstream community services available for vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system.

For example—I am grateful for what the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said in this regard—the Ministry of Justice has financially supported the continued development of the one-stop shop Women’s Turnaround Project in Wales. A full evaluation of phase 1 of the project, published in October last year, found that the project was making excellent progress. Noble Lords will have heard the noble Baroness’s comments in that regard. The Ministry of Justice-funded Together Women demonstration projects in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside regions are also being evaluated. The first phase of the evaluation, published in August 2008, found that, overall, Together Women had been efficiently implemented and welcomed by stakeholders and service users alike. The Together Women centres are also part of pilots on a conditional caution specifically for women, developed in co-operation between the Government, local police and prosecutors. The pilots present a chance for diversion at an early stage. They are running in Leeds, Bradford, Keighley and Liverpool for six months and early indications are positive. The condition attached to the caution commits the woman to attend a Together Women centre for a full needs assessment.

The second important principle embedded in the Government’s response to Corston is that the services we provide to women prisoners should reflect the nature and characteristics of that group and meet their gender-specific needs—an essential part of what my noble friend argued. I am afraid it is a sad fact of life that many women entering prison have been physically or sexually abused or have a history of mental health problems, combined often with histories of self-harm and drug abuse. Others face the anxiety and pain, even agony, of being separated from their family and children. I stress that the Prison Service is thoroughly committed to meeting the challenges presented by those needs. I visited Holloway last week for the first time and was hugely impressed by the dedication of the staff, whom my noble friend Lord Judd praised. I met staff and prisoners. There have undoubtedly been great improvements in that prison over the past few years.

During 2008, the National Offender Management Service published the Prison Service Order 4800, incorporating gender-specific standards for women prisoners, and 2009 will see us bringing to fruition a great deal of work building on those foundations. We believe that the introduction of gender-specific standards is a momentous development in the history of the women’s prisons estate. For the first time we have laid down nationally produced standards covering every major aspect of regime provision, designed to ensure that women prisoners receive as much benefit as men from the services delivered to them while they are in custody. All 14 women’s prisons are required to implement the standards by this coming April. Alongside the implementation of the standards, or as part of it, NOMS centrally will be driving through major improvements across the women’s prisons estate during the year.

New arrangements for the full searching of women prisoners were published in October last year, following successful pilots, which the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, was kind enough to mention. This new model search, again a key Corston commitment, dispenses with the need—often, of course, distressing for the women concerned—to remove their underwear unless there is intelligence or suspicion at any stage that an item has been concealed.

The new arrangements also involve reducing the frequency of full searches—which is itself important—in favour of an approach relying on intelligence about when a search might be needed. This is a radical departure from previous policy and practice, and it underlines our commitment to meeting gender-specific needs. The new full search arrangements are already in place in six women’s prisons, and the remainder will be on stream by 1 April this year. I am conscious of the time; I realise that I have at most three or four minutes to finish.

The Government have already put in place seven “pathways to resettlement” in the reducing re-offending national action plan for men and women. Now there are two additional pathways for women: support for women who have been abused, raped or who have experienced domestic violence, and, secondly, support for women who have been involved in prostitution. I must move forward quickly. Many other national decisions and actions have been taken which I do not have time to talk about tonight.

The newly developing offender health strategy, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, which is led by the Department of Health, will have a distinct pathway for women offenders and will look at improvements in health provision throughout the criminal justice process, from arrest and in court to more generally in the community. My noble friend Lord Bradley’s report and the Government’s response to it will be published during the first few months of this year. I know that the House is eagerly awaiting what he has to say.

Staff training on working with women prisoners will receive a considerable boost this year. The two-day women awareness staff programme was developed, as a result, to meet the awareness needs of newly qualified staff in the women’s prisons estate, as well as existing women’s estate staff and volunteers. Following an initial pilot, that programme is now being delivered across the women’s prisons estate. Those are some of the nationally run initiatives. I can mention local ones that have been referred to in the debate, but I cannot answer all the questions asked. The noble Lord, Lord Low, gave me good notice of his question about the single equality duty. That duty is being developed; if and when it is enacted it will apply to NOMS. In anticipation of that and to ensure full compliance with the existing gender equality duty, NOMS will publish a single equality scheme by 1 April. This will include an assessment of organisational priorities on gender equality and a programme of work to address them.

Women will not be housed in prison clusters and what others call Titans, which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked about. That is not new information, but it is important that I should give it in this debate, as I was specifically asked to do so.

The projects to which I have referred are not exhaustive, but they underscore the programme of change in 2009, which will be a significant year, providing better quality and more gender-specific services not only for women offenders and women at risk of offending in the community but for what is a small but very significant part of the prison population. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, asked whether we had the will to see it through. I assure her that we do, and I have no doubt that if we, as it were, slip on the way, this House will remind us of what we have said tonight and on previous occasions.

I have been asked to continue for a moment or two, and I make no apologies for doing so. It gives me the chance to talk about one or two of the local initiatives that will be rolled out during the coming year, which will have an impact across the whole women’s prison estate. Eastwood Park prison will enhance its drugs treatment provision by opening an additional facility for women who require structured methadone maintenance and detoxification—we heard tellingly about those problems—in effect creating a dedicated residential rehabilitation facility.

Two prisons, Bronzefield and New Hall, will be combining their segregation units with their healthcare facilities to provide a more holistic and integrated approach to supporting women in need in those areas. Lastly, very much in the spirit of Corston, Morton Hall will be opening a 13-bed independent living unit outside the main prison, providing open conditions in which the women will work either in the community or in prison projects.

I have spoken for long enough. Undoubtedly we will come back to this subject. I thank the noble Baroness.