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Prisons: Women

Volume 789: debated on Monday 5 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the suitability of bids for replacement services for women prisons made following the closure of HM Prison Holloway.

My Lords, women formerly held at HM Prison Holloway were transferred to other prisons from July 2016. Where equivalent provision was not already in place at the destination prison, HM Prison and Probation Service managed the transition of services from Holloway, giving due consideration to the needs of both service providers and the prisoners that they support. As a result, bids for replacement services were not undertaken.

My Lords, 11 years ago, the Corston report stated that the Government should create a strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multifunctional custodial centres within 10 years. As the noble and learned Lord has pointed out, Holloway is now closed and female offenders are being redistributed, even on short-term sentences, all over the country, which negatively impacts on the stability of their family life. Is the Minister saying that this policy is not now going to be pursued by the Government?

My Lords, with regard to the dispersal of prisoners from HM Prison Holloway, there were at the time of the move 241 prisoners who had to be transferred to other prisons. Of those, 114 were transferred to Downview and the remand prisoners, extending to about 56, were transferred to Bronzefield. Both those establishments had suitable facilities and services for the prisoners who were transferred. We are, of course, engaged in looking at and renewing the entire prison estate at the present time, which is one reason for the disposal of HM Prison Holloway.

My Lords, it is nearly two and a half years since the closure of Holloway was announced and 20 months since it closed. As we have heard, prisoners have been moved outside London to Surrey, Kent, Peterborough and beyond, with serious effects on staffing and the well-being of prisoners now further away from their families. More efforts appear to be made to develop the former site than to replace the prison. Why was the closure implemented before accessible, suitable and permanent provision was secured?

My Lords, accessible and suitable provision was secured for those prisoners who were transferred from Holloway. I have indicated that they were transferred to Downview, in particular, Bronzefield and one or two others. There were individual interviews in respect of all prisoners in order to determine the suitability of their transfer. In addition, 24 service providers at Holloway transferred to Downview and a further 12 were replaced with equivalent provision at Downview. We consider that suitable provision was made in respect of these transfers.

My Lords, Brazil’s Supreme Court recently ruled that pregnant women and mothers with children under 12 accused of non-violent crimes will not be held in prison on remand but detained at home. Do the UK courts consider the presence of dependent children when determining whether women awaiting trial for non-violent crimes will be allowed bail?

My Lords, that is a relevant consideration because, since the Bail Act 1976, it is already presumed that a defendant will be bailed. That is the starting point in consideration of each defendant and that presumption has to be overcome. In looking at the presumption, a court will have regard to the personal circumstances of the defendant, including any caring responsibilities they may have.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on the response he gave to my noble friend’s Question when he said that the women from Holloway were being dispersed around the country, some as far as Peterborough. He made no mention of what is happening for women in London. Holloway was the largest women’s prison and had been in London for many years. What has happened to the women who have a base, families, dependents and children in London, as has just been mentioned?

As I indicated, the vast majority of those at Holloway were transferred to Downview, which is accessible in that context, and to Bronzefield. We are in the process of renewing the entire prison estate, but that cannot be done overnight.

My Lords, for some time we have been promised a strategy on women in the criminal justice system. Can the Minister tell the House when this strategy is expected?

At the present time there is in development a strategy in respect of female offenders. I am not in a position to say when that will be delivered but we are carrying it through as swiftly as we can.

My Lords, the Government have two choices. One is to speed up the process of modernisation of our jails; the second one is to reduce the number of people who are sent to jail. Is it not time they took one of those options on board and took action on this matter?

My Lords, in relation to the strategy that is under development, can the Minister assure the House that this will include what happens to women upon release, perhaps with particular mention of women’s centres? Some of the most vulnerable people in our society are often released even into homelessness and into places where there is no support.

My Lords, we are seeking to invest in what is termed the whole system approach in respect of female offenders who are released from custody in order that we can develop a female offender strategy. By 2020 we will have invested £1 million in seed funding investment for community provision.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that in dealing with female prisoners it is most important that great attention is paid to the need for offenders to have regular contact with their children? Otherwise there is a danger of repetition by succeeding generations of what happened in the case of the offender.

I entirely agree with the observations of the noble and learned Lord. We are concerned to ensure that such contact can be maintained. At another level, of the 12 prisons currently located throughout the country for female offenders, six have mother and baby units.

My Lords, of the women who were moved from Holloway when it closed, and aside from those who have since been released, how many have remained where they were sent in the first instance? This is relevant in respect, for example, of contact with families. How many, if any, were moved again after that first move?

I am not in a position to give specific figures in response to the question from the noble Baroness, but I will undertake to write if they are available and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has mentioned mother and baby units. Am I right in thinking that those are units for newborn and very young babies? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, referred to older children and the importance of maintaining family connections beyond the age of six months or so.

My Lords, I fully acknowledge that, which is why I added the addendum with regard to the number of mother and baby units because contact at that stage is also very important. Clearly we understand the need for contact between female offenders and their families in general.

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend entirely confident that sufficient attention is being given to community restorative justice? Would not many of the women who are given custodial sentences be of better use to their families and society if they went down that route?

My Lords, we are looking at alternatives to custody right across the prison estate. I would add this in response to my noble friend: I am never entirely confident about anything, let alone this issue.