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Women: Custodial Sentences

Volume 754: debated on Thursday 26 June 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures are being taken to reduce the number of women given custodial sentences.

My Lords, I have asked for this debate because we have one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in western Europe. The human, social and financial costs are considerable. Women in prison are 10 times more likely than men to harm themselves, most women are in prison for short periods and they have very high reconviction rates, which demonstrate that for many women prison is neither rehabilitative nor a deterrent.

There is a growing consensus that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, secure housing, debt management, education, skills development and employment. Community services enable women to take control of their lives, care for their children and address the causes of their offending. I am quoting the Prison Reform Trust, for whose briefing I am most grateful.

The statistics are worth highlighting. On 20 June this year, there were 3,899 women in prison, accounting for 5% of the total prison population. Last year, 7,008 women were sentenced to custody in England and Wales. The number of women remanded to custody is disproportionately high, with 60% of women received into custody each year being on remand. There were 715 in March this year. Yet 70% of these women do not go on to be convicted or to receive a custodial sentence. They and their families will have suffered serious disruption by being put on remand for an average of four to six weeks. The type of crime committed by women is mostly non-violent. In the last quarter of 2013, eight in 10 women entering prison under an immediate custodial sentence had committed non-violent crimes. Theft from a shop is the primary driver of women’s imprisonment, accounting for 35% of all custodial sentences. In 2013, the average sentence for this offence was less than two months. In 2013, more females were received into prison under an immediate custodial sentence for theft and handling than for the offences of violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, burglary, fraud and forgery, drug offences and motoring offences combined. More than three-quarters of sentenced females received into prison for theft and handling offences in 2013 were serving sentences of six months or less.

It is now accepted that short sentences have the worst reoffending outcomes. More than half of all women leaving prison are reconvicted within 12 months. Of those serving sentences of less than 12 months, the reconviction rate rises to 62%. The extent to which community sentences outperform short spells in prison with respect to reoffending is greater for women than for men. The Government, in recognising the high rate of reoffending following short sentences, are attempting to address this by offering mentoring and through-the- gate supervision on release through their Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but there remain concerns, as stated by the Prison Reform Trust, that proposals to extend the statutory monitoring and supervision to offenders serving sentences of less than 12 months will disproportionately affect women as the nature of their offending means that they are more likely to be imprisoned for the shortest periods. Unless there is specific provision for women, there is a significant risk that the changes will have an adverse impact on the majority of women who commit minor offences. Section 2 of the Act introduces a 12-month statutory supervision period on release for all those sentenced to custody for however brief a period, so sentencers may view short spells in custody as a gateway to accessing the support and supervision services women need in the community. There is a risk that more women will end up in custody for breach—that is, for failing to comply with the terms of the supervision period. When will Section 2 commence? Will the Minister undertake to monitor the impact on the number of women who are sentenced to custody or imprisoned for breach? If the Sentencing Council, which is consulting on a new theft offences guideline, could discourage reliance on custodial sentences for shoplifting and other theft, it could dramatically reduce the number of women in custody.

When we look at the lives of those women who commit crimes, it becomes clear that many are victims as well as offenders. More than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, while a similar proportion have been victims of domestic violence. When in prison, women account for 25% of all incidences of self-harm, and the number of such incidences is even higher among those on remand. Nearly half of women in prison report having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use—women’s crimes are more likely to be financially motivated than men’s. Most worryingly for the greater good of society and future generations, women prisoners are more likely than men to be primary carers of children. The survey found that six in 10 women in prison have dependent children.

The recent report from Barnardo’s, On the Outside: Identifying and Supporting Children with a Parent in Prison, estimates that 200,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent, with an increased likelihood of facing family breakdown, poverty and isolation. Barnardo’s points out that there is currently no requirement for courts, local services or government to ask questions about these children, who therefore do not receive appropriate support. It calls on the Government to appoint a lead Minister to have responsibility for children of prisoners, and I ask the Minister to respond to that.

Around 18,000 children are separated from mothers who have been imprisoned, 34% of whom are lone parents. It has been estimated that imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences costs the state more than £17 million over a 10-year period as a result of the increased likelihood of their children becoming NEETs—not in education, employment or training—and therefore having poorer long-term prospects.

Non-custodial sentences would lead to additional savings to the state. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy points out that, of those almost 18,000 children, only 9% are put in the care of their fathers, leading to most being placed in care. Children of prisoners are three times more likely to be at risk of developing mental health problems and/or conduct disorders, while 72% of children in care have behavioural and emotional problems.

The economic arguments are compelling. The average annual cost of a woman’s prison place is £56,415, compared with a community order, costing £2,800 per year, and an average of £1,300 for stand-alone community-based services. The New Economics Foundation found that if alternatives to prison reduced reoffending by just 6%, the necessary expenditure would be recouped in a year.

We need to act urgently to reduce the number of women in custody. I of course welcome this Government’s published strategic objectives for female offenders:

“Ensuring the provision of credible, robust sentencing options in the community that will enable female offenders to be punished and rehabilitated in the community where appropriate”,

but I ask the Minister how much in government resources is going into reconfiguring the women’s custodial estate, compared with providing community alternatives to custody. Now is the time to implement the 2007 report of my noble friend Lady Corston on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. As the Justice Select Committee said in 2013:

“Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety”.

It called for,

“a significant increase in … residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres”,

as proposed by my noble friend Lady Corston.

Women’s services that have been funded by their local probation trust will continue to receive funding from community rehabilitation companies until March 2015. However, after that date, funding will depend on the commissioning decisions taken in each contract package area for offender services. Considering the proven success of these centres in cutting reoffending, helping women to rebuild their lives after prison and offering support to women at risk of offending, what assurances can the Minister give that these women’s centres will receive adequate funding to ensure their continuation post-March 2015? I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent report by the Prison Reform Trust, Brighter Futures, which recommends:

“Central government should fund a national network of women’s centres, projects and services as these are critical to improved outcomes for women in contact with the criminal justice system”.

There is still much to do and I hope that the Government’s Advisory Board on Female Offenders and the transforming rehabilitation programme will now focus on cutting the number of women in custody in this country, because the numbers are unacceptable and unnecessary.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on securing this debate. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Women’s Justice Taskforce, established by the Prison Reform Trust in 2010 to consider the needs of women in the criminal justice system and to further look at how women’s justice might be reformed, both in terms of economic benefit and helping to reform lives. We published a report, Reforming Women’s Justice, in 2011.

Although, as the noble Baroness said, women form a very small part of the total prison population, over the past 20 years the numbers have doubled to 3,899 women in prison on 20 June last week. It is said that going to prison often ruins people’s lives. Nowhere is that more true than for women—and not only for the women themselves. They are often linchpins of families so it can also ruin children’s lives. For women on the breadline, even a short spell in prison can mean losing everything they have.

The task force believes that those who commit crimes should be punished. Clearly, some women’s offending is so serious that there is no other option but prison. However, punishment should be appropriate, proportionate and support rehabilitation. As the noble Baroness pointed out, most of the women held in prison are serving short sentences or are on remand for non-violent crimes—usually petty crime such as theft or handling stolen goods, often to feed their children or their drug habit.

In 2009, two-thirds of all women sentenced to custody were serving sentences of six months or less. More than half of women entering prison do so on remand. They spend an average six weeks in prison and 60% of them do not then go on to receive a custodial sentence. Worryingly, one-third of women prisoners lose their home and often all their possessions, which makes it difficult for them to restart their lives when released. Some 41% of women leaving prison did not have accommodation arranged. They come out with almost nothing and have nowhere to go. We heard at Holloway that some women would return voluntarily to prison and beg to come back, or reoffend the same day to ensure a return to custody.

Why make women a special case? First, as we heard, a high percentage of women prisoners have been victims of violent crime themselves—domestic or child sexual abuse. Women are often primary carers for disabled or elderly relatives and, as we heard, an estimated 18,000 children per year are affected by their mothers being sent to prison. Only 5% of those children remain in their own home. While many are cared for by friends and relatives, some are taken into care. Taking a child into care all too often condemns them to a life of underachievement. Research suggests that children with an imprisoned parent are three times more likely to have mental health problems or to engage in anti-social behaviour. How can you learn in school when you are frightened and confused about what is happening at home? Nearly two-thirds of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves.

The consequences for the woman herself are devastating. There is a very high incidence of self-harm in prison. Visiting Holloway, we met the “listeners”—those prisoners there for others to talk to—and got some understanding of all this. Imagine, as a mother, what it is like to be in prison and hear that your small child is unhappy and missing you or, even worse, that they will be removed from the family and never see you again. It was felt that, for both social and economic reasons, alternatives to prison should be sought at every opportunity. Economically, robust community orders for low-level offences make more sense, costing between £10,000 and £15,000 per annum as opposed to more than £50,000 for a prison place, not to mention the unquantifiable ongoing social costs of, for example, children in care, creating future offenders, mental healthcare, et cetera. The positive work of the voluntarily run women’s centres was highlighted to us.

One of the most important recommendations made by the task force report is the need for sustained government leadership and oversight of women’s justice. The ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders is a step in the right direction but dedicated government infrastructure such as a women’s justice commission would probably enable us to halve women’s prison numbers, thus enabling some closures of prisons and the reduction of reoffending. This model has already proved transformative with youth justice.

This subject is not new. The 2007 review by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommended reducing the women’s prison population. I hope that some progress can truly be made. I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Healy on securing this debate. It is an unusual day today, or it seems so to me at least. We have at least two debates in Grand Committee dealing with this sort of issue and there is a debate in the Chamber. It is a bit difficult to decide where you should be at any particular time, but life was ever thus.

I declare my interest. I chair an organisation called Changing Lives, which is based in the north-east but now has responsibility for women’s centres around the country and in Wales. I will mainly say what I have learnt from them in the north-east.

I am not going to repeat the staggering statistics. I am sure the Minister has them in his briefing too. The reality is that too often the criminal justice system treats women as if they are men. I remember, as a Member of Parliament, going into Durham prison. It was a fairly grim, Victorian, old place, and in those days they had the women in the middle of the prison. They had some very serious offenders who had to be in prison. It was a terrifying experience for me to go in because the men would watch what was going on and shout. The food came from there, and the women knew that various other things were in it apart from what was supposed to be.

I have seen some of the worst of what goes on, but I have also seen some of the very good work that can go on. The litany of statistics should be telling the Minister that there is something wrong. We have not got it right. The reality is that women need to be looked at in particular ways. They are different. Their childhood will have been different to many of the men, leading to particular issues and challenges. By continuing to send women to prison, we are compounding the problems that women and their families have and, indeed, that society has. We also know that it is the most expensive option by a long way. It is expensive financially but it is also hugely expensive socially, emotionally and in terms of the health of communities in this country.

Changing Lives supports women across England and Wales but our specialist knowledge of engaging female offenders originated in the north-east. We were one of the first organisations to receive Ministry of Justice funding following the Corston report. Our interventions demonstrated a 44% reduction in frequency of offending, and after two years at least 20% had stopped their offending and had stopped their addiction, and so on. The figures are very significant but also offer hope. In other words, there are alternatives which work. The Ministry of Justice continued to fund that and saw it as one of the most successful programmes.

We have a model which we are now rolling out in other women’s centres—but I have to tell the Minister, it is exceptionally challenging. I do not get this briefing from my charity because it never wants to be controversial—but it is challenging. The funding comes on an annual basis. The new funders do not look at historic experience and knowledge of what works, and therefore we have to find additional funding. The reality is that there are models that work. I hope that the Government will have another look at getting more stability in funding—one year is simply nonsense —and that they will also work with the judiciary and the magistracy, so that they understand that there are alternatives that will work better and be more effective financially and socially in our local communities.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on obtaining this debate, not least because it maintains the momentum on an issue that has been raised countless times on the Floor of the House but always seems to be marked by a lack of progress. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned the difference with men, because one thing that I shall never forget is finding on my initial inspection of Holloway that women’s injuries were recorded on a diagram of a man’s body, as there were no diagrams of female bodies available in the Prison Service.

I am afraid that I am going to sound a hobby-horse that I have been sounding ever since 1995 when I walked out of Holloway because I had found, among other things, that women were in chains while they were in labour. I found that there was absolutely nobody in charge of women’s prisons. I went to the director-general, whom I had never met, and said, “Please may I meet the director of women?”, and he said, “There isn’t one”. So I said, “Well, who is responsible for what happens in prisons in the selection and training of staff, and the organising of programmes and of making good practice somewhere into common practice everywhere?”, so as to make certain that what happens in Durham is the same as what happens down in Gloucestershire. He said, “There is a civil servant in the policy department”, but I said, “That’s no good. Who is responsible for overseeing that it actually happens?”. There was no one and there still is no one today.

In the two reports that I wrote on women in prison in 1997 and 2001, I recommended that there should be someone. The Prison Reform Trust recommended in 1999, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, has just repeated, that there should be a women’s justice board like the Youth Justice Board. The three reports of the Fawcett Society all recommended that there should be a women’s justice board or somebody in charge. All that was before the Corston report. Nothing has happened. After I had walked out of Holloway, the Government produced an action plan for that prison, which I supervised by annual inspections, to see how it was being maintained. That was fine while the action plan lasted but, after it had finished, there was nothing. So Holloway has zigzagged up and down, as have all other women’s prisons ever since.

Why have the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice consistently refused to put people in charge of different types of prisoners and be responsible and accountable to Ministers for what happens? That is what happens in schools, in hospitals and in businesses, but it does not happen in the Prison Service and it is why nothing has happened. We do not need any more reports or lists of good practice. They are there in spades and have been coming out for years. What we need is action to put it together.

I include the women who are out of custody in all this because I am worried about the future under the new system of community rehabilitation companies. The previous Government’s proposal for custody plus failed because, among other things, people were concerned that magistrates and others would take advantage of the system and award short custody because supervision would follow. I know that this is a worry about men but to me it is much more of a worry about women because of the number of short-sentenced women. I say that because I am concerned about the content of the community service that is then required and what is actually done for the supervision. Many of these women come from a dysfunctional background and have pretty chaotic lives. What therefore ought to be done during the community sentence is management to enable them to live their lives better, to look after their children better and to prepare better food. Masses of things could practically be done in a proper community service that was aimed at preparing the women to live more useful and law-abiding lives in future.

There is therefore an opportunity but, again, I see it all going on as a sort of discussion point rather than an action point unless somebody is made responsible for ensuring that it happens and for driving it through. That somebody is not a Minister. I have lost count of the number of Ministers for Children and Ministers for Women whom I have met and who have all come and gone. They have produced a strategy and disappeared and nothing has happened. What you need is an official who is accountable to Ministers for making it happen. They should be held to account and, until that happens, I am afraid that I can see this debate being repeated over and over again.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for initiating this debate. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that a number of the points that I was going to make have already been made, so I will resist the temptation to make them all over again. Indeed, many of your Lordships will have had the briefings from various organisations that give the statistics, and so forth.

It is undoubtedly the case that the female prison population disproportionately includes those who face huge challenges in their lives. It is also clear that prison is not the best place to address many of the issues that these people face. I speak as one who is married to a person who used to be the head of healthcare in a prison in a female estate and saw it at first hand. That was a few years ago and, sadly, the problems are clearly still there.

We have heard reference also to the effect on the children and wider families of women in custody. The cost is immense. We have heard about the financial cost of the custody element. The cost of the care of those children, many of whom have to go into care, is also huge. Therefore, there has to be an answer that will be good not only for social well-being, for the children and for the women themselves, but also for the public purse.

We have heard reference to one community-based initiative that addresses these points. I will share one other of which I have some experience, the Anawim Project in Balsall Heath in Birmingham, a city where I lived and worked for 18 years. It is a project supported and sponsored by two Roman Catholic charities and with a project leader from an Anglican mission society; therefore, apart from anything else, there is a bit of ecumenical working, which is no bad thing. One of their interventions, the specified activity requirement, has produced a reoffending rate of 1% in those who go through that programme—that is, one in 100 reoffend. That has to be the right way to go forward. In other community-based initiatives, reoffending rates are in the 3% to 6% range. Surely that has to be the right way. It makes sense financially as well as making sense for the well-being of individual women, their families and the wider society.

We have heard concerns expressed as to how the working out of the transforming rehabilitation programme will affect some of this, particularly the community rehabilitation companies. I join others in urging the Minister and the Government to make sure that this issue does not get compounded rather than cured by the way in which the new programme works its way out.

Reference has been made to sentencing guidelines. Clearly, it is important that the judiciary and the magistracy are aware of the alternative responses and of their undoubted efficacy in addressing some of these issues. They should also be aware of the wider effects, particularly on children, when they decide to sentence a mother to a custodial sentence.

Could we cut that figure of 3,899 by 50%, as one contributor has suggested we might be able to do? I do not see why we could not, with the kind of attention that different contributors to our debate have suggested. It should result in a gain for all parties: for the women; for their families, especially their children; for the wider well-being of society; and for the public purse. It is one of those things that should just make sense and I trust that, as a result of this debate, we may see some progress in ways that really make sense.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Healy for bringing this important debate before us.

Many noble Lords have said that giving custodial sentences to women who commit petty crimes does not work. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, the numerous reports and inquiries on this topic all recommend alternatives such as those suggested in the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Corston. Women in prison have special needs which include childcare responsibilities, often poor physical and mental health, self-harm and domestic abuse. One in three has experienced sexual abuse, and about 25% were in care during their childhood. A number will have attempted suicide.

These are inadequate women, made even more so as a result of being in prison. We know that the majority of women in jail have committed not serious but petty crimes. Do these offences really require a prison sentence? There are other ways, mentioned by other noble Lords, which would be of greater benefit to the women and their families. There is a good economic case for looking at alternatives to prison.

The average annual cost of a prison place in England and Wales for the financial year in 2012-13 was just over £36,000—although I have seen other estimates that suggest that the average cost of keeping a women in prison is more than £56,000, compared to the cost of a community order of £2,800 per year and an average £1,300 for stand-alone community-based services. I should have thought that the Government would be very interested in that as it makes good economic sense to look at alternatives, especially given all the budget cuts.

What are the alternatives? The House of Commons Justice Committee report, Women Offenders: After the Corston Report, states:

“Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety … we recommend a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, coupled with a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres, as these are likely to be more effective, and cheaper in the long-run, than short custodial sentences”.

The Government’s response said they would set out a new approach to managing female offenders, including setting up an open unit at Styal to accommodate 25 women, and providing support work outside the prison. The aim is to make each custodial establishment in the women’s prison estate a resettlement prison, and to support women though the gate on release. This will be driven by the Advisory Board on Female Offenders.

In its most recent report in March, the Ministry of Justice gave an update on the Government’s delivery of strategic objectives for female offenders. It sets out its objectives for the year ahead, with the idea of supporting women in maintaining links with their children and family; helping women to find suitable housing on release; ensuring that women’s prisons have the strongest possible focus on employment; using the Advisory Board on Female Offenders; and, this year, starting with a particular focus on Wales. We do not have women’s prisons in Wales, and we certainly do not want any, but we would welcome the community approach that we have in Cardiff. What does the focus on Wales mean?

What is happening with Askham Grange in Yorkshire and East Sutton Park in Kent, due to be closed? They are regarded as having successful records in encouraging rehabilitation and enabling mothers to remain with their children. Because of protests, the closures have been halted for some time. Although the closure of prisons is to be welcomed, we should not be closing women’s prisons before all the alternatives are set out, otherwise we will have overcrowding. Can the Minister also say how the ambitious aims of the MoJ in its year-ahead objectives will be achieved?

My Lords, I join the chorus of congratulations for the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, in achieving this very valuable discussion. Most of the ground has already been covered in the preceding speeches. I do not resent this in any way; they were ably saying what I would have tried to do on the subject.

I declare my interest as chairman of the Prison Reform Trust, a post I am extremely proud to hold. One of the recent achievements of the trust was contributing to the campaign to get general recognition in legislation that women prisoners are different and need special consideration. I am very glad to say that, as a result, and with the Government’s acceptance, Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act now makes that clear. I will use my limited time to say why that could now be the catalyst which is needed for what should have been achieved so long ago, in consequence of the excellent reports there have been. I am sure there is truth in what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said about the lack of an individual to drive a programme of reform. However, I am happy that Section 10 gives hope to those who want a special programme for women offenders.

Things are already happening which could be significant for the future. First, there is the Prison Reform Trust’s three-year programme involving a number of those operating in this field, particularly the Pilgrim Trust, with the sole aim of reducing the imprisonment of women. It focuses on the particular difficulties that women in prison undoubtedly have, and I am sure that it will lead to beneficial results. I also refer to another, more recently initiated, programme which is spearheaded by the Mayor of London, the Prison Reform Trust and others. This focuses on finding out what really works, over time, for women prisoners in London. There is potential funding for this programme from lottery sources. If these funds could be made available, this could transform the situation. If the lottery makes this one of its primary targets—as I hope it will—it would be just the sort of initiative which is needed. I am sure the Government will respond positively to any of its recommendations and give it their backing.

Those who have ever had anything to do with prisons know that there are particular problems both because of the needs of women prisoners and because the female prison population is small, relative to the male one. The very small number of women who should be in custody need to have sentences which allow them to maintain connections with their children and the locality to which they will return after they complete their sentence.

Somehow we must recognise that fulfilling the requirement of Section 10 means that the sort of centres that have been talked about today are the obvious option. Where we must imprison women, we should do so in small centres in the locality so that they can maintain, as far as possible, the links with their family. I very much hope that when we come back to this subject—as we will, almost certainly—we will find we are progressing along that path.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, just said about the need for small prisons and prisons near to women’s homes. That is very important.

This has been an excellent debate. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Healy. Like others, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Corston—who is unfortunately unable to be here this afternoon although she very much wanted to be. Her invaluable report in 2007 focused on,

“the need for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.

Seven years on, there is still much more to be done to prevent the lives of women and their families being torn apart by the lack of action to address issues connected with women’s offending before imprisonment becomes a serious option. The decline in the number of women prisoners is welcome but there are still far too many women in prison. Why are so many women prisoners on remand? As my noble friend said, much more needs to be done with the magistrates and judiciary.

As a result of the Corston report, much was done with the support of the last Labour Government. There was funding to start building a network of women’s centres, mandatory strip-searching in prisons was ended and governance structures, including a cross-departmental women’s team, were established. I recognise what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. When women first enter a prison, they are now treated with dignity and are able to make contact with their children to ensure they are being properly cared for.

Sadly, this Government have not maintained the momentum. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, where is the sustained government leadership on this issue? As the Justice Select Committee report on the Corston agenda said:

“In the first two years of the Coalition Government there was a hiatus in efforts to make headway”.

The reforms put in place were, it said, clearly designed with men in mind. As my noble friend Lady Armstrong said, too often prisons treat women as if they were men. Instead of a proper women’s strategy, we have a government agenda which the committee judged to have been,

“produced in haste with insufficient thought”,

and that fails to make progress or commit to improve the rehabilitative services and outcomes for women offenders.

Why have the Government proposed the closure of the open prisons in Askham Grange and East Sutton Park despite both having a proven track record of encouraging rehabilitation and enabling mums to remain with their children? The Government appear to have abandoned the women at risk agenda. Not enough is being done in relation to evidence-based rehabilitation and prevention, without which women suffer. The decline in the number of women given custodial sentences is not sustainable.

As has been said, prisons are rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Of course, there will be cases where women need to go to prison but we must ensure that these environments support and promote an easier transition back into society. Many programmes up and down the country have been mentioned this afternoon. I cite the excellent example of the social enterprise in Eastwood Park prison, where the women make quality and beautifully presented soap. I am proud to be associated with that programme. The women gain skills, dignity and confidence. They leave prison with a little more money in those first days of freedom when they are most vulnerable.

As noble Lords said, good practice should be common practice. Reducing offending is a vital goal but so, too, is preventing women from falling into the criminal justice system in the first place. As the Prison Reform Trust said, most solutions to women’s offending lie outside the prison walls. This is where women’s centres play such a crucial role. They provide support and care for those who have suffered domestic abuse or have mental health problems. Appallingly, this is likely to be the majority of the female prison population. More than half of the women currently in prison have reported suffering from domestic abuse, and women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than women in the general population.

The centres also offer educational and skills support to the 40% of women offenders who left school before they were 16 and the 10% who left before they were 13 years old. When 58% of the women identified unemployment and lack of skills as contributing to their offending, it is crucial that these resources are available to women across the country. What safeguards are the Government putting in place to ensure that the new providers will continue to fund these vital centres?

I hope that this afternoon the Government will demonstrate that they really are taking seriously a reduction in the number of women being given custodial sentences. The women, their children and our society deserve no less. This afternoon, we have heard many fine examples of where the Government and we as a society, and our communities, can do better. We must do better for the benefit of these women and society.

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on securing this debate. Your Lordships have long had an interest in the plight of female offenders. I am sure that noble Lords will not misunderstand me if I say that a number of them who have participated in this debate are very much recidivists in addressing the issues that we must confront.

Noble Lords will, of course, know that the decision to send someone to prison is a matter for the independent judiciary. Courts take into account all the circumstances of the offence and the offender in determining this, including whether the offender is a primary carer, as will often be the case. Courts must consider custody only where they are satisfied that the offence is so serious that neither a fine alone, nor a community order, can be justified—the so-called custody threshold.

I should declare an interest as having sat as a recorder for some 10 years until relatively recently. I can tell the Committee how slow someone in my position is to send a woman to prison, for all the reasons that have been so ably outlined in this debate. In fact, I can hardly think of an occasion when I had cause to do so.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 introduced a new provision which means that people should be released on bail if it is unlikely that they will receive a custodial sentence on conviction. That provision should go some way to dealing with the point made by a number of noble Lords about women who are remanded and then ultimately not sent to prison when their case comes up for sentence.

As was acknowledged by a number of noble Lords, custody must be available where appropriate, but only when the thresholds are passed. I should be absolutely clear that the Government are committed to making sure that all offenders are given the support they need to turn their lives around. That commitment is central to our transforming rehabilitation reforms. We also recognise the need to address women’s specific needs where these differ, as they often will, from those of men.

Noble Lords will recall that the Government published their strategic objectives for female offenders in March last year. These are aimed at reducing the number of women in custody—which is desirable for all the reasons that have been given throughout this debate—by making sure that women receive the support that they need in custody and in the community to address the factors associated with their offending. Those are fine words, but what do they mean in practice?

First, our transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that those serving sentences of less than 12 months will, for the very first time, be subject to statutory supervision, including a licence period in the community aimed at supporting successful community reintegration and rehabilitation. As was rightly pointed out, proportionally more women than men are serving short sentences, so they, in particular, will be beneficiaries of this element of the reform.

The companies bidding for contracts under our transforming rehabilitation reforms must demonstrate in their bids an effective approach to the identification and recognition of women’s needs to make sure that those needs are properly addressed. To assist, we have made available guidance which identifies the key gender-specific factors associated with women’s offending and provides signposting to specialist services. The contracts will also require providers, where practicable, to give women the option of being interviewed in a women-only environment, having a female supervisor and not being the only woman in an otherwise all-male group on, for example, unpaid work, subject to any requirements.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, quite rightly drew attention to Section 10 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. I join him in paying tribute to the Prison Reform Trust in this context. Section 10 relates to female offenders and was widely supported across the House. It came into force on 1 June and the new requirement specifically to address the concerns of female offenders will apply both to contracts with CRCs—community rehabilitation companies—and services provided by the new National Probation Service.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger raised the suggestion of a women’s commissioner, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, suggested someone with overall control of women’s prisons, an official or even a Minister. All those points have been made eloquently before. The Government do not think for the moment that that is appropriate. It would be a significant cost at this time. However, I hope and believe that the provision of Section 10 will be something of a catalyst—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said. Together with the other initiatives, it should help to address the many issues that have been identified in this debate.

We are working towards ensuring sentencers have robust community options at their disposal. Under the guidance of the Advisory Board on Female Offenders, we are working with Greater Manchester to develop a pathfinder that will look at how we can provide robust and effective sentencing options in the community for female offenders that may divert women from custodial sentences, where appropriate.

We are also working with the Department of Health, the Home Office and NHS England to develop a model for youth and adult liaison and diversion services at police custody and courts. That service will assess and refer individuals with a range of vulnerabilities, including mental health problems and substance misuse. Those with mental health problems represent a considerable proportion of women who are or might be sent to prison. The Department of Health has committed £25 million this year to test a liaison and diversion model in 10 different areas in England.

For women who are given custodial sentences, we are making changes to the women’s custodial estate to keep women closer to their home. This is one of the issues raised during this debate. It will help them to maintain links with their children and families and also support them to get the skills they need to find employment on release. We are increasing capacity at prisons close to conurbations, including giving priority to Welsh women at Eastwood Park. We are also improving access to interventions and resettlement opportunities across the entire estate, supported by the fact that all women’s prisons will become resettlement prisons.

I was asked questions about Askham Grange and East Sutton Park. I cannot discuss the Government’s intention to close these open prisons as this is the subject of ongoing litigation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, may know. However, we are reconfiguring the estate to allow women to be held closer to home, for the very reasons that have been identified by a number of noble Lords.

In addition, an officials’ sub-group under the Social Justice Cabinet Committee has been set up to examine the relationship between women’s offending behaviour and debt and finance issues. The support of the SJCC for this work is a good example of the progress we are making. We will continue to work with other government departments to make it easier in the future for women to move away from crime.

I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked me about ensuring that community services will be maintained following the transforming rehabilitation plan. As well as the Section 10 requirement, we are continuing to fund women’s community services in 2014-15 and taking appropriate steps. There is not a gap between those existing services and whatever will be provided by the new providers. As the noble Baroness will understand, this is a complex matter, and I will write to her in a little more detail about how we are going to ensure this continuity. I wholly understand her concern about it.

I conclude by saying that the anxiety to avoid sending women to prison is one that is of course shared by the Government and all noble Lords, as is the desire to explore alternative options. We believe that the initiatives we are taking with transforming rehabilitation represent a real opportunity to improve this. As I said, those who are serving a sentence of less than 12 months will, for the first time, be able to get help. I think that noble Lords will be peculiarly aware of the danger that when women, and of course men, leave prison they are lost. They do not know what the next step is and are particularly vulnerable to reoffending and coming back to prison. We believe that this will be significantly addressed by our changes.

We are concerned that the strategic objectives on female offenders will be addressed. The report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has remained extremely valuable. Almost all her recommendations have in fact been implemented; I think it was something like 40 out of 43 of them, so it remains an extremely valuable source. I repeat my gratitude to all noble Lords for their participation in this important debate.

Sitting suspended.