Skip to main content

Prisons: Women with Dependants

Volume 791: debated on Monday 11 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what percentage of women in prison have dependants under 16 years old; and what is the average length of stay in prison for such women.

My Lords, we recognise the significant impact that the imprisonment of a parent has on their children. Approximately 60% of women in custody have children but we do not collect data on the age of the child or whether they were dependants at the time of the mother being taken into custody. The average length of stay for women in prison recorded as having children is 1.5 years, versus 2.6 years for women not recorded as having children.

I thank the Minister for her reply but is it not the case that we have more women going to prison, the vast majority of them for non-violent offences and many of whom have dependants? These children are being sent out of their homes to stay with relatives or into the care system. The cost of these broken homes to the children and to society as a whole should surely be of concern to us all. I urge the Minister to reflect on more family-friendly policies in future.

My Lords, as at 8 June there were 3,886 women in custody. That is approximately 5% of the total prison population, and that figure has remained relatively stable over recent years. So it is not the case that there are more women in prison, but it is true that most—73%—are there for non-violent crimes. When an offender gets to the court they are asked whether they have dependent children and, if they do, that is taken into account in sentencing.

My Lords, when can we expect the strategy on women in prison, which we have been expecting since last year?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is of course our aim to provide the best rehabilitative regimes, specifically tailored to women’s needs. To that end, the noble Lord is quite right that we have a female offenders strategy in progress at the moment. The department is working very hard on it and it will be published as soon as we are able.

My Lords, is it not the case that there are a number of women who have been sent to prison for very modest offences—for example, not paying their TV licence—and their three or four children have then been taken into care?

My noble friend raises a number of complex issues. I shall address the issue of TV licences because this is very important: 109,000 women are given a fine for not paying their TV licence, versus 42,000 men. It is not the case that they are then put in prison for not paying the TV licence; that happens occasionally if they do not pay the fine, and many poor decisions have to be taken in order for them to go to prison. I agree, though, that it is wrong that more women than men are being given fines for this offence, and we know that the BBC will be updating the Public Accounts Committee on this issue very soon.

My Lords, the Ministry of Justice has produced clear evidence that women’s centres are effective at reducing reoffending, provide joined-up community services to support physical and mental health needs and give more opportunities to women to have access to their children. What assessment does the Minister make of the need for increased funding to sustain and open more women’s centres?

My Lords, women’s centres and women’s services in general play an incredibly important role in supporting female offenders, many of whom have hugely complex needs. Over 50% of female offenders were abused as children and 60% experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. I think noble Lords will all agree that female offenders are on average potentially more complex than male offenders and need a wide variety of well-funded support.

My Lords, 17,000 children are affected by their mother going into prison and only 50% of them stay in the home where their mother was. Moreover, one in four women sentenced to imprisonment serves only 30 days. Is it not time that the Government and the judiciary looked at the effectiveness of imprisonment for these women, taking into account the fact that there are only 12 women’s custodial establishments? This puts a further geographical distance between the child and the mother. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will act to rectify these difficulties?

The noble Lord will have seen recently that the Lord Chancellor is focusing on short custodial sentences for both women and men. It is important that we increase the confidence of judges and magistrates in community sentences. We are working hard to improve this. The noble Lord is right to say that there are 12 female prisons across the country. The average distance from home for female prisoners is currently 54 miles—down from 68 miles in 2016. We are making progress and some of those numbers will be boosted by certain offenders needing to be far away from home to access specific services, such as psychological services.

My Lords, the Howard League for Penal Reform recently found that only 5% of children whose mothers are sent to prison remain in their home. I wonder who is being punished here. Will the Minister take back to this long overdue strategy for female offenders a presumption against prison for short-term sentencing of women?

My Lords, there is already a presumption against short-term sentencing. Custody is imposed only when an offence is so serious that only custody is merited. We are looking at how we can strengthen this particular guideline. Families as a whole play a very important part in a child’s upbringing so of course we must look at getting rid of short sentences for women, but we must also look at getting rid of them for men too.

My Lords, 94—or maybe 96—women have died in prison since my noble friend Lady Corston’s report was published. This recommends precisely what the Minister has just talked about—that custodial short sentences for women should be stopped and phased out. Has the Minister read the recent report from Inquest on the deaths of those women? How often in the last year have Ministry of Justice Ministers met the families of those who have died in prison?

If the noble Lord is happy for me to do so‘, I will write to him with the information he requested. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to read the report he mentioned, but I certainly will do. Female suicide is a very serious and tragic issue. Thankfully, we have had just one death in custody in the last 12 months; in the previous year it was 10. However, we are talking about a smaller number of female prisoners as a whole. There is also the issue of self-harm. Women are five times more likely than men to self-harm in prison. We are well aware of this and are doing whatever we can to make sure that they are protected.