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Justice: Women’s Centres

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes in the justice system.

My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to introduce this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have agreed to contribute to it; I am especially grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for choosing to make her maiden speech in it. I know that her extensive experience in business and the charitable sector, as well as her time working on the Youth Justice Board and as a magistrate, will inform many excellent contributions to this House. I look forward to her speech.

My interest in this issue flows not least from my experience in the diocese of Gloucester, which has one of the country’s 12 women’s prisons—HMP Eastwood Park—and the women’s centre, run by the Nelson Trust, whose work is exemplary. I now support the Bishop of Rochester in his role as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons with regards to the female estate, and I recently visited Anawim, the superb women’s centre in Birmingham. As a Christian, I believe that our humanity and flourishing is rooted in relationships. I also believe that transformation is possible, both in the lives of individuals and in systems. I will come back to these themes.

There are approximately 4,000 women in prison, which is about 5% of the total prison population. Although this is a relatively small percentage, these women present a distinct set of needs and their imprisonment has a significant impact on communities and society as a whole. The long-awaited female offender strategy recognises the vulnerabilities and challenges of women in prison. It builds on the tireless work of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. I would like to express my sincere thanks to her and to those who contributed to that strategy, not least Dr Phillip Lee, prior to his resignation. However, I fear that, 11 years after the Corston report, the strategy simply does not go far enough. We know that women’s centres work and it is time for proper investment.

I want to return to those themes of relationships and transformation. People of all ages thrive and flourish in healthy, loving relationships. Unfortunately, the majority of women offenders have experienced some sort of abuse, whether from a partner or a family member. According to the excellent organisation Women in Prison, 53% of women in prison report having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse during childhood; 46% report having suffered domestic violence; and over 30% spent time in local authority care as a child.

Where healing and rehabilitation take place, it comes from a place of trust in a relationship. As a member of the clergy, I have often been trusted with people’s most intimate personal information and it usually takes a strong relationship of trust for a woman to discuss an abusive relationship, a problem with drugs or alcohol, or a mental health problem. To that end, prison is rarely the most appropriate or effective place for these issues to be addressed, not least because so many women are assigned short sentences. On the other hand, a short stay in prison can dramatically affect a woman’s relationship with her children, harming both the mother and the child. Of course, that has an impact on the wider community. I am particularly grateful to Dr Shona Minson for her research and all that she is doing to inform magistrates and judges.

Women’s centres provide an opportunity for a different path. The Nelson Trust recently shared Sue’s story with me. Sue was sentenced to eight months for theft. She had been taking cash from the shop where she worked, in order to pay off her debts and fund her alcohol and drug addiction. She had a painful history and her daughter had been taken into foster care. While Sue was in prison she was fortunate enough to make contact with the Nelson Trust. She began to develop a trusting relationship. When she came out of prison the Nelson Trust worked with Sue. It obtained rented accommodation for her and she began participating in various courses, including on crime and its impact, preventing relapse, and self-esteem and confidence building.

When Sue was investigated for another offence, committed at the time of her initial offence, she immediately admitted it and was supported by her key worker through meetings with solicitors and another trip to court. She pleaded guilty and the women’s centre was able to give the court a full picture of how Sue had been engaging with services. Instead of going back through the revolving door of prison and risking undoing months of hard work, Sue was given a community order involving unpaid work hours, many now spent at the women’s centre where she is making a difference to the lives of other women. Sue has not used drugs since she left prison 18 months ago. The Nelson Trust is supporting her towards potential future contact with her daughter.

This example shows that women’s centres can give judges and magistrates the information they need to make effective sentencing decisions and give women the tools they need truly to transform their lives. None of this would be possible without the relationship Sue has with the women’s centre—doing things with her and not to her. This is just one of many stories from the Nelson Trust and Anawim.

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, will be conducting an independent review into how we can better support female offenders’ relationships with their families. All too frequently, magistrates do not have informative probation reports before sentencing. Action must be taken to review how women interact with the justice system and how they are sentenced, particularly by magistrates. It may be that a presumption against short sentences, as in the Scottish system, would be desirable, particularly given that in 2017, almost half of such women were given a short custodial sentence for shop theft.

We know that women get caught in the so-called revolving door with short prison sentences. They lose their homes and often lose custody of their children, even to adoption. This often exacerbates that downward spiral into more serious offences and an inability to secure employment. This is why a focus on women’s centres is needed: in their daily provision and where possible, appropriate residential provision, they can provide that place of relationship and trust. Properly resourced women’s centres can provide everything from early intervention right through to supporting women through the entire criminal justice system. For women who are already in prison, centres such as the Nelson Trust and Anawim have teams who engage with women in prison and then through the gate.

This is not simply about tackling the presenting offending—the “what”—but rather, providing a holistic trauma-informed approach which focuses on the “why”. Caseworkers in a place of relationship focus on getting to the heart of the women’s story in order to address what are often complex needs. A number of reports have shown that women’s centres offer an inspiring and effective alternative to custody, not least in their multi agency work. However, they have been operating on a shoestring and, at present, there simply is not enough resource. If the Government are committed to transforming the justice system, as the female offender strategy suggests, they need to commit and invest in it. We know it costs approximately £47,000 per year to keep a woman in prison, and yet we know that women’s centres can work effectively with approximately £4,000 per year per individual. Moreover, the benefits of women’s centres are multiplied if they can operate as a network so that women can stay close to their families. If we do not have a whole network of women’s centres, we will not see the fruit of provision.

I would like to encourage the Government to dream a bit bigger and be a bit bolder. Similarly, I hope that all parties will commit to properly funding this network. In 2017-18, we spent more than £400 million on probation and services for women; £5 million for women’s centres is a drop in the bucket and will not be enough to transform the system. Let us give a proper network of women’s centres a proper go.

Shortly after Dr Phillip Lee’s resignation, when the female offender strategy was published, he shared his concerns about the failure to secure all the funding required. He also made it clear that he had full faith in the Secretary of State to navigate the Government’s spending review in order to benefit vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system. I am hugely encouraged by this and by the appointment of Ed Argar, and I look forward with hope to seeing the funding for women’s centres secured.

There need to be enough women’s centres, and they need to be appropriately funded so that magistrates and the public can trust that they can improve outcomes in the justice system. I hope that the Government will back this strategy with vision and proper investment, and with a focus on relationship and transformation.

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on securing this debate. I was absolutely delighted when she was appointed Bishop to women’s prisons. It is a post that she has embraced with commitment and enthusiasm.

There are currently just under 4,000 women in our prisons. They serve short sentences. In 2016, 271 of them served sentences of less than two weeks. Some 45% of those on remand do not get a custodial sentence. Six weeks on remand is long enough for them to lose both home and children—and they often get neither back. Nearly three-quarters of them have a mental health condition. Their addictions encompass alcohol and prescription and illegal substances, and sometimes a combination of all three. At least half of them are victims of sexual and domestic violence. They are 30 times more likely than women in the general population to commit suicide on release. In 2016, 22 women took their lives in our prisons, the highest number for years. Their self-harm rates are shocking. Every year, 17,000 children are affected by their mother’s imprisonment. These women are troubled, not troublesome. Prison does not and cannot do anything for them.

My report was published 11 years ago, in 2007. I recommended that our women’s prisons should be closed and that we should have a network of women’s centres and small custodial units. There was a handful of centres in 2006. When Jack Straw was the Home Secretary, £15.6 million was committed as seed corn money to build a network of women’s centres, and there are now more than 50. The reduction in the subsequent numbers of women in prison enabled the following Government to close two women’s prisons and save a lot of money. Centres have admirable recidivism rates, which were acknowledged by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years after my report. Centres deal with all the issues arising from these women’s chaotic lives all under one roof: debt, mental health, addiction, parenting, abuse and cooking. It is harder than being in prison; let no one think this is a soft option.

I remember visiting a centre and meeting a woman who was 41. She had been in and out of trouble with the police since she was 15 years old. I asked her why she was there, and she said that some magistrate had realised that it was pointless to keep sending her to prison. She said that she had forgotten how many times she was in prison, but every time she had been in prison there was someone she could blame: “If my mother had protected me, if my stepfather hadn’t done that to me, if I hadn’t had to run away from home, if I hadn’t been pimped into prostitution, if I hadn’t become a drug addict, if I hadn’t started assaulting people in the street for money—every single time, I could blame someone else”. She said, “Coming here, the centre has challenged me and said, ‘But what is your role? What have you done that makes you end up here, losing two of your children to adoption without consent and the possibility of living with your little boy of three?’”.

I asked her what her experience had been. She said, “It is much, much harder than being in prison”. A lot of people think this is a ridiculous question, but it is one I often ask women in prison. I said, “Have you always liked yourself?” She said, “No”. “Do you like yourself now?” She thought for a bit and said, “Yes”. I said, “In that case, you are going to be all right”.

About seven years ago, I was listening to “Weekend Woman’s Hour” on a Saturday afternoon. There was an item about two women who had been in women’s centres. They were asked about what happened and they said that, on reception, they had to fill in a form which they thought was total rubbish. It asked questions such as, “What did you want to be when you grew up? Are your children proud of you? Are you still in touch with your school friends?” They went through the women’s centre regime, and one was now in full-time education and the other was in work, in her own accommodation with one of her children. The interviewer asked the right last question—lawyers know that sometimes your last question can defeat your case. This interviewer asked, “You told me that these forms were rubbish. What has happened to them?” One had it on her fridge, and the other had it on her bedroom wall. I think that illustrates that those women understood what those centres had done for them.

When I was conducting my review, I asked the number cruncher in the Home Office—the department then responsible for the women’s estate—how much it cost to keep a woman in prison for a year. He told me £70,000. At that time, a place in the Asha Centre in Worcester—which has since closed because of the effect of Transforming Rehabilitation—was £750 a year. I know which was the more effective. Unfortunately, Transforming Rehabilitation has had a dire effect on many women’s centres. The contracts which community rehabilitation companies impose on them are oppressive, with gagging clauses and £10,000 fees to alter a clause. Many, such as Alana House in Reading, have stopped working with women offenders because they cannot comply with this regime. We need this Government to acknowledge the success of women’s centres and to recognise that, in Scotland, they are doing what I suggested and that they are working.

Finally, I offer my very best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for her maiden speech.

My Lords, it is an honour and I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate today, which touches on many issues with which I have been closely aligned before coming to this House. First, I would like to thank everyone in this House from all sides for their kindness and support. Black Rod and her staff, the doorkeepers, the attendants and the police officers have been incredibly helpful and given me so much guidance and direction. I cannot thank them enough.

My induction into this House, although a nerve-wracking and humbling experience, was made less stressful by my wonderful supporters—the noble Lord, Lord Carrington of Fulham, who has been a friend and mentor to me for too many years to mention, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, who not only took on the role of supporter but wanted even more punishment as my mentor. Thank you both. I am truly grateful.

I have been involved with the justice system for nearly a quarter of a century, much of it as a magistrate. One of the most difficult duties of a JP is, where there is no alternative, to send an offender to custody. It is not a decision that is taken lightly. This is particularly the case when imprisoning women because of the impact that such a sentence has not just on them but, all too often, on their children and families.

None the less, in order to ensure that public safety remains a top priority and to address the rightful needs of victims, prison is and will continue to be the only appropriate option for those women who commit the most serious crimes. For other women offenders—those who commit the less serious, non-violent offences—there are alternatives. This is why I believe strongly in the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes in the justice system. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for introducing this debate, not least because we know that the reoffending rate, after a custodial sentence of less than 12 months, is far too high.

All too often, I have seen at first hand, not only as a magistrate but as a former trustee of Addaction, the impact on women and children of not having had the start or support in life to help them with the many difficult challenges and trauma that come from being victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, or from suffering from poor mental health or addiction to drugs or alcohol. Regrettably and sadly, these circumstances often lead to a downward spiral into criminality. Women’s centres provide specialist treatment services to help precisely those women whose lives have taken a wrong turn and who need to get back on track.

During a recent visit to the Nelson Trust women’s centre in Gloucester, it was evident that female offenders are frequently among the most vulnerable individuals in society with very complex needs. I was extremely impressed by the successes achieved as the result of the tireless work of those working at the trust. There are many others like them who dedicate their lives to helping vulnerable women in need and I pay tribute to them all.

I therefore welcome the Government’s decision to pilot residential women’s centres. They will provide an additional option to manage women in the community on a sentence that is more intense and robust but that enables them to maintain their ties with their families and support them to stay in stable housing and employment. Such centres can provide the wide-ranging and holistic services that are now the norm for young offenders, both female and male.

Of course, the ideal would be to tackle issues before they lead to criminality. During the three years that I recently spent as a member of the Youth Justice Board, I worked to improve early interventions and rehabilitation for children and to give them an opportunity to live crime-free lives. One area that I believe offers great benefits and potential for both adult and child offenders to find new opportunities as well as to improve their health and well-being is sport. In my case, tennis played a significant part in my childhood, growing up in Wales. Playing competitively provided life skills and confidence from which I have benefited greatly, even if I was no Virginia Wade.

In turn, I have been keen throughout my career to turn my personal sporting experience to the benefit of others, not least to provide them with similar opportunities to get on in life and to reach their full potential. It was through the Youth Justice Board, under the chairmanship of my friend the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that I was introduced to StreetGames and subsequently became its chairman. The charity delivers sports into disadvantaged communities, giving children real opportunities to develop life skills and confidence and eventually to improve their prospects of employment. If we can help youngsters before they take the wrong turn, how much better off they are and how much better off society is.

For now, though, we must accept the reality that there are young and adult women who have, for whatever reason, committed offences. It behoves us to treat them as individuals and provide the most appropriate place to address their needs. Women’s centres can and should play a critical part in their rehabilitation. It has been a privilege to contribute to the broad criminal justice system, whether as a magistrate, working with those with addiction or affording opportunities through sport. It is an honour now to have the opportunity to play a role, however small, in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, the House will need no convincing that my noble friend Lady Sater has made an outstanding maiden speech, and we look forward to her further contributions in the weeks, months, years and decades ahead. Her speech was based on personal experience, pragmatism and principle. She has courage and compassion. I have known her for some years, and I was delighted when I heard that she was to come to this place. We will benefit greatly from her and all that she can offer. Her being a Welsh national or a county tennis champion daunts me somewhat, but it suggests she has a great deal of stamina and power in her, and we should all beware—as well as greatly appreciating her words.

I share much of her experience—at Addaction and the British Lung Foundation, which are important charities. She has been on the Youth Justice Board with the noble Lord, and the Metropolitan Police Authority. She has a commitment to StreetGames and the Queen’s Club Foundation, and most particularly as a magistrate. I was a magistrate for many years before I joined another place and had to step down because I did not feel it was compatible to have a party-political role as well as being chairman of a juvenile court, in my case. But it really prepared one to understand the realities of life for those who were given a short straw: a chaotic upbringing, few resources and few champions in their life. That will benefit us all as she continues to speak.

Let me also join others in my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate. She will always be a heroine in my mind for being the first female Lord spiritual to take her place in this House. She was a long time a-coming and for me she can do very little wrong. Just being here is such a triumph and a step forward.

This is an extraordinarily important debate on a critically sensitive subject. Many points have been made. Some 60% of female offenders suffer domestic abuse. They suffer substance abuse, mental illness and trauma. They have few role models and few champions. The situation for women in the criminal justice system is appalling. I pay tribute to the fact that the numbers have fallen so far: 5% of prisoners, 4,000 people. It was 17% at the beginning of the last century.

But women do pay the double penalty. William Shakespeare said:

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”.

Well, the sins of the mother are laid upon the children, and those 17,000 children caught up in this pay a price that is not justified. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Farmer is reviewing family ties—the quarter of female offenders who have dependent children. The shocking recidivism rates have been mentioned—70% compared to 62% for people who have been in prison for less than 12 months.

I think that all of us feel that the Secretary of State for Justice, in the female offender strategy, holds out a great promise for recognising the issues involved in this uniquely complex group of people. I bear great hope from the first woman President of the Supreme Court, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. All those years ago I used to say that we needed an evidence base in the juvenile court. I sat with a stipendiary who was always saying that “in the public interest” some youngster should be sent to a detention centre. As a social scientist, I would say, “What is the evidence that this is in the public interest when we know that 80% of these young people will reoffend within the year?” Anyone who reads the President of the Supreme Court’s Longford lecture of 2005 will feel confident that her sensitivity for women and girls who fall foul of the criminal justice system is a great encouragement.

Women’s centres are a great step forward and I would not in any way detract from them. The splendid Centre for Criminology at the University of Hull produced a report in 2015 by Brennan, Green and Sturgeon-Adams. They attributed great value in diverting low-severity female offenders from custody to a women’s centre. The Together Women Project in Sheffield evaluated a 46% reduction in the reoffending rate for women who attended its project over a 12-month follow-up period.

We have talked about the huge cost of incarceration compared with the cost either of help in the community or of a women’s centre. However, it is very often the case that the women—like children and others—who drift into the criminal justice system are those who have been failed by their own social services, health or education departments. There is a real danger that the Ministry of Justice begins to pick up the cost that the services in their home area should have been funding. I have long advocated a penalty on local authorities who have females or young people in a custodial provision, because there is a great deal of cost shunting and magistrates such as myself can remember that the social reports had little to offer—in other words, they needed to go to an institution to save the great cost locally. So there are serious financial components in how these decisions are made.

I want to refer to three other organisations that I think make a splendid contribution. Working Chance, run by Jocelyn Hillman, is a recruitment agency—I declare an interest—for helping female ex-offenders and care leavers. Working Chance is extraordinary: it places 200 women each year into quality paid work, maintaining a consistent reoffending rate of less than 3%. Some 85% of its candidates are still in work after six months. Jocelyn Hillman complains that, too often, women are described as victims. Yes, they want to feel stronger, but they also want paid work to restore their dignity in the community. Similarly, Pimlico Opera, founded by Wasfi Kani, and the Watts Gallery, which does art work in prisons, help people to grow in confidence, excel and feel proud of their achievements.

This is a critically important debate. I believe that we are seeing real progress and I welcome the Government’s commitment. As the Minister knows, there are many in this House, especially my noble friend Lady Sater, who are going to be pushing for consistent progress.

My Lords, I echo others who thanked the right reverend Prelate for drawing our attention to the important contribution that women’s centres make in society today. I would also like to congratulate my noble friend on an excellent maiden speech; she will bring great energy and experience to this House.

We have around 3,800 women in our prisons, the vast majority held for non-violent offences. Many of them are serving short-term sentences; many go on to reoffend; and many are mothers. It is a destructive and costly cycle for the victims, the women involved, their children and society as a whole. The reoffending rates alone are truly shocking. The Prison Reform Trust says that 48% of women are reconvicted within a year of leaving prison, and that rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months. Many of the women we speak of are among the most vulnerable in our society and face a range of problems: financial trouble, homelessness and debt dependency. Some 60% have experienced domestic abuse; 66% are also mothers, many in sole charge of their children. What happens to those children when their mothers are sent to prison? Kate Paradine of Women in Prison suggests that only 5% of them remain in their own home, so a sentence for a mother often spells a broken home for her dependants. Evidence shows that the children of offenders are often more likely to go on to offend themselves, thus entrenching the problem for future generations.

There will always be a balance between punishment, protection of the public and rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. In the case of these women, we seem to be failing on all fronts. It is right, therefore, that we ask ourselves how best to break the cycle. That is a question the Government’s female offender strategy rightly seeks to answer. I commend its ambition and welcome its support for women’s centres. I also look forward to hearing more from my noble friend Lord Farmer on the strengthening of family ties, where fresh thinking would be welcome.

What are the solutions? I certainly agree that short custodial orders should be a last resort, that we must seek alternatives in the community where appropriate and that, in an ideal world, we would see fewer women come into the justice system in the first place. To make this a reality, we need to build a support structure around these women, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. For many women that is at the point of release, when they may have no job or home to return to. Women’s centres have a great deal to offer here. No doubt they could do more, providing support on a wide range of issues, including sensitive ones such as mental health, about which women often feel reluctant to share too much with the criminal justice system.

Evidence shows the worth of women’s centres: recent Ministry of Justice data shows a 5% reduction in reoffending rates among women who have used them. However, if we are to lean on women’s centres, we need to get behind them. We must ensure that they offer a consistently high standard of care across the country and are joined up with the criminal justice system, so that referrals are made and best practice is shared.

With this in mind, I was greatly impressed by the Government’s proposals to pilot five new residential centres; 24/7 support of this nature may well help women at their most vulnerable. Do these pilots include provision for women with infants, who may also benefit from support at this crucial time? Overall, I believe that we should do more to support women who are caught up in the criminal justice system or on the verge of being so, especially those with dependants. Through women’s centres and other schemes, we should give them and their families support in the community where we can, try to keep them out of prison in the first place and support them if we fail. We should try to break the destructive cycle for their sakes, for those of their family and for that of society as a whole.

My Lords, let me thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for securing this debate. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for her excellent maiden contribution.

We are told that at any one time, there are around 4,000 women in prison, but we are not told that the number of women in prison has doubled since 1993. Most of these women are not serious offenders. The available statistics are very frightening: more than half received short sentences of six months or less; more than one third had no previous convictions; a substantial number are in prison for non-violent offences; and around a quarter of the women imprisoned each year are jailed for shoplifting.

Women in prison typically have a wide range of serious welfare problems. Imprisoned women are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than women in the general population, with 78% showing signs of psychological disturbance when they enter prison. I have checked the latest available figures, which are seriously concerning: 75% of women in prison used illegal drugs in the sixth months before imprisonment; 58% used drugs every day during those six months; 37% previously attempted suicide; over half have suffered domestic violence; and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.

The incidence and, to a lesser extent, the nature of crime may vary from place to place and from generation to generation, but crime is something with which all societies have to come to terms in their own way. The underlying causes of crime and the effectiveness of punishment and treatments will continue to be debated. We now have ample evidence that overreliance on prison as a way of dealing with offenders has not helped. Priority must be given to crime prevention in its broadest sense and to schemes for diverting as many young offenders as possible from the criminal justice system. There is nothing soft about this sort of approach: it is an entirely realistic appraisal of the strictly limited contribution that courts and prisons can make to reducing crime. Equally, we as a society should be aiming to send fewer people to prison.

I was delighted by the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. There was a strong message in her review about vulnerable women in the criminal justice system:

“Community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm … There must be a strong consistent message right from the top of government, with full reasons given, in support of its stated policy that prison is not the right place for women offenders who pose no risk to the public”.

We should endorse this principle, backed by many Court of Appeal judgments that the courts should send to prison only those whose offending makes any other course unacceptable, and that those who are sent to prison should not stay there any longer than is strictly necessary.

In last week’s debate on rehabilitation, secured by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, we were clear that one of the prime concerns of prison was to prepare inmates for their eventual release. Prisons have a poor record on reducing reoffending. Nearly half of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. The record for women is not inspiring: 48% are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. Short prison sentences, as almost every speaker has said, are less effective in reducing reoffending than community sentences.

Public confidence is shaped by the quality of service that our prisons can provide. Recent reports on our prisons are a matter of serious concern. Locking up inmates for a long time daily is unlikely to build the confidence that is needed to achieve effective rehabilitation.

The number of prisoners in our institutions and the lack of resources required to maintain decent standards calls for a strategy to look at alternatives to the slogan, “prison works”. It does not. The Government’s commitment to seeking community solutions for most women offenders is welcome. However, the limited resources allocated to support women’s centres and the lack of a timetable to drive progress remain matters of serious concern.

Establishing a network of women’s community projects with adequate funding from the Ministry of Justice is a way forward. These projects are run by voluntary organisations in partnership with the probation service. They operate as one-stop-shop centres, providing a range of services, and have proved highly effective in keeping women out of custody while providing the support and help they need to avoid reoffending.

Many women have been referred to the projects since they were established. The analysis of the help provided is there for all to see. Many needed help such as counselling, and with behavioural needs. Help is provided on health, accommodation, employment and training, finance and debts, drugs and alcohol, and children and family issues. A good proportion needed support in connection with experiences of abuse, rape and domestic violence. I hope no obstacles will be placed in the way of this work being carried out.

One of the Government’s successes has been the establishment of the Youth Justice Board. I am delighted that my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was once its chairman. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has advocated a similar arrangement for a women’s justice board. We were told that the reason why we do not have a separate framework in law for women is that we have a different structure for them.

Will the Minister look at this matter again to see whether such a board can be established? This would not marginalise women in the criminal justice system, but rather mainstream their provision and ensure that under the national offender management structure, ample priority is given to service provision for, and management of, women offenders.

My Lords, I first add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on securing this important debate. I also thank all noble Lords, whatever their gender, for their contributions to it.

I particularly wish to note the contribution of my noble friend Lady Sater, who is clearly eminently qualified to make a contribution by way of her maiden speech in this debate. I look forward to her further contributions in this House.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for coming to speak to me. I am grateful for her having shared her knowledge and experience in this area with me. I am equally grateful for her not having shared her severe cold with me, but I hope she is recovering.

Various statistics have been noted, but clearly we understand that, although far fewer women are represented in the criminal justice system, those who are there and who come into contact with it are among some of the most vulnerable women in society. Many face complex circumstances, including histories of abuse, mental health issues, low income, unstable accommodation and, of course, in many cases, the experience of domestic violence and the disruption which that engenders.

It is a recognition of this vulnerability and need that underpins our Female Offender Strategy, which was published in June. I pause to acknowledge the work of my honourable friend Phillip Lee in respect of that matter. Our strategy sets out the Government’s intent for improving outcomes for women in contact with the justice system based on a vision that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system and in custody, especially on short-term sentences. We want to see a greater proportion of women managed in the community and managed successfully. We want to see better conditions for women who, for safety or other reasons, need to be held in custody.

If we are to achieve the aims of such a strategy, then we must recognise that community services lie at the heart of our approach. We know that the third-sector-led women’s centres can offer valuable support to help vulnerable women address their needs and turn their lives around, thereby reducing the risk of offending—examples have been given by a number of noble Lords. Women’s centres are often at the heart of the multiagency whole-system approaches to female offenders. These aim to provide holistic, gender-informed support to women, from first contact with the police and at all points of the justice system.

I referred to gender-informed support, and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised the question of gender-informed probation services. That is a matter of training and experience: it is a matter of ensuring that those engaged in the provision of probation services understand the particular and peculiar needs of women in the justice system. Certainly, that is something that we aim to ensure going forward.

The right reverend Prelate asked what assessment has been made of the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes for women in the justice system. It would be difficult to undertake a full assessment, as women’s centres offer support to women with a wide range of issues and needs, not all of whom have been referred by—or, indeed come into contact with—the criminal justice system. We also know that women may be supported by other local agencies. We estimate that there are approximately 80 women’s centres in England and Wales. More than 50 of these support women in the criminal justice system, with more than 30 being engaged with community rehabilitation company contracts.

I note the comments that have been made about some of the difficulties surrounding those contracts and those engagements. Noble Lords will be aware that we are addressing the issue of existing CRC contracts: they are intended to be terminated and reviewed going forward, and it is our intention to ensure that the community rehabilitation companies understand the need to engage with the voluntary sector, and in particular these centres, as part of their supply chain.

Data from some centres has clearly found the way in which they have been effective. Women supported by women’s centres contracted to CRCs clearly have a lower reoffending rate than those who have no contact with the centres. Data from the Brighton Women’s Centre found that, for every 100 women supported by the centre, there was a reduction in the frequency of reoffending by between 27 and 29 offences.

Alongside the work that women’s centres do, there are many other community services that are effective in supporting the complex needs of female offenders. As set out in our strategy, we are encouraging local areas to adopt new ways of working by developing a multiagency approach to these issues—often termed a whole-system approach. We hope that the whole-system model brings together local agencies, criminal justice and both statutory and voluntary organisations. Together, they should be capable of providing the sort of targeted support that female offenders need. That has to be complemented by the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies, which are clearly going to be key partners in ensuring that female offenders receive targeted support, not only through the gate but once they are back in the community.

To give an example, the whole-system approach set up in Greater Manchester in 2014 has provided effective outcomes for female offenders. We know, however, that the availability of women’s community services across England and Wales does not always match the demand for those services. We want to see a sustainable network of women’s community services and centres embedded as an integral partner in the delivery of public services for female offenders, making better use of their potential as places where support and interventions can be delivered in an appropriate form and at an appropriate time.

Clearly, such a network cannot be delivered without funding. We know that women’s centres have a wide range of funding streams, but that they often face issues of sustainability, creating uncertainty for staff and putting services at risk. If we are to deliver the commitments in our strategy, we need to ensure that we have sustainable community provision that will meet demand. That is why the strategy announced the investment of £5 million of cross-government funding over two years in community provision.

As part of this investment, we have launched an initial £3.5 million grant funding competition for 2018-19 and 2019-20 to sustain and increase community provision, including whole-system approach models, for female offenders. This community provision is intended to include women’s centres and we hope that the funding will also help providers to leverage additional funding from other sources.

Some concerns have been raised at the level of this funding, which builds on the £1 million seed funding that we are investing in the whole-system approaches between 2016 and 2020. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is sufficient funding for the female offenders strategy, and this is the start of a new and significant programme of work to deliver better outcomes. We will have the opportunity to revisit funding issues as we take that work forward.

We know that a truly sustainable network of community provision requires the support and involvement of many partners, not just of government. Our strategy therefore announced that we will work across government and with other partners to develop and agree a national concordat on female offenders. This will set out a cross-government approach to addressing the needs of this cohort of vulnerable women. Importantly, it will also seek to provide the leadership that stakeholders tell us is necessary to bring about change at local level. The concordat will act as a statement of intent, agreement and understanding about how statutory and third-sector services should come together to provide what I would term a joined-up response to supporting vulnerable women in this context. Through early intervention, we want to see fewer women coming in to the justice system.

For those women who do offend, we want to provide support from first contact with the police and at all stages of the justice system so that we can effectively address the factors that lie beneath their offending behaviour and thereby reduce the risk of reoffending. It is important to acknowledge that women’s centres must be supported in their work with female offenders by an effective probation system, which sees offenders regularly, identifies their particular rehabilitative needs and secures access for them to the right forms of support. Equally, it is vital that courts have confidence in the probation services delivering those services in order that they can give proper consideration to effective community sentences, as distinct from custodial sentences.

We also recognise that the probation system needs to improve. We are taking decisive action to stabilise and improve the delivery of probation services by setting out our intention to end the current CRC contracts early and put in place new arrangements, as I mentioned, from 2020. We are consulting on our proposals and look forward to hearing the views of a range of stakeholders, including how probation services can best meet the needs of female offenders.

Alongside that, we want to explore what more we can do to improve outcomes for female offenders. The strategy has committed us to working with local and national partners to develop a residential women’s centre pilot in at least five centres in England and Wales. Through the pilot, we hope to develop a robust evidence base for what could be an effective, sustainable and scalable model for improving outcomes for female offenders. We will take that consultative approach to designing and delivering the pilot models, engaging with potential providers, partners and investors, both nationally and locally. We want to ensure that the models we take forward are appropriate for the local context of each site. I look forward to sharing more details with noble Lords as that work progresses.

For the moment, I thank noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate, and I reiterate our commitment as expressed in the female offender strategy that we recently published.

House adjourned at 7.48 pm.