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Female Offender Strategy

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in implementing the female offenders’ strategy.

My Lords, the Female Offender Strategy, published in June 2018, outlines the Government’s long-term vision for improving outcomes for female offenders in custody and in the community. The strategy sets out a programme of work that contains a number of commitments that will take some years to implement. A new women’s policy framework was published last December, and my noble friend Lord Farmer’s review of family ties for female offenders is expected to report in the coming weeks.

My Lords, I welcome that information from the Minister, which follows many positive commitments to the female offender strategy. However, we are still awaiting news of residential pilots, action to strengthen links between probation services and women’s centres, the report from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and a national concordat. Given that many of the strategy’s commitments have no clear timescales—indeed, in some cases the suggested deadline has already passed—how does the Minister plan to effectively monitor progress and stay on track?

My Lords, we are concerned to ensure that these recommendations are implemented as soon as practicable; indeed, the women’s policy framework was implemented as of 21 December 2018. We are taking forward further work in partnership with other groups and parties. I note the work of the Nelson Trust, which I know the right reverend Prelate is directly involved in, which recently put in a bid for additional funding from the ministry to further its community work. We are encouraged by the strength of that and similar bids, and want to take that forward as soon as possible.

My Lords, if my noble friend Lady Corston were here, she would be enthusiastically supporting the right reverend Prelate in pressing for the review to be implemented as quickly as possible, not just on moral grounds but because the additional investment that the Minister has referred to is “spend to save”. We could save an enormous amount of money by diverting into prevention and early intervention, rather than having women prisoners in the kind of conditions that I saw when I was Home Secretary.

My Lords, I entirely concur with the noble Lord’s observations. Indeed, our Female Offender Strategy seeks to build on the seminal report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which of course goes back to 2007.

My Lords, the extension of mandatory post-custody supervision has disproportionately affected women. Recall numbers for men have risen by 22% since the changes were introduced but for women they have grown by 131%. Women are trapped in the justice system rather than being enabled to rebuild their lives. The Prison Reform Trust has called for mandatory post-custody supervision to be abolished. Does the Minister agree that the present system is not working, and does he have plans to review it?

My Lords, the idea of mandatory supervision for those serving a sentence of less than 12 months was introduced only quite recently. There is a disproportion between male and female offenders in that context—I quite accept that. Indeed, that manifests itself in various other parts of the prison and custodial system. At the moment, we are seeking to extend community centre services, to help to accommodate those released after short sentences, and to combine community services with treatment requirement protocols.

That is extremely important, particularly for female offenders, where we see a vast proportion who have reported elements of mental health difficulty or who suffer from alcohol issues and, very often, drug abuse issues as well. Over and above that, an enormous proportion of these female offenders have at times been subject to domestic violence. We are trying to direct these services at these issues and will continue to do so.

Does my noble friend accept that in recent years there have been a considerable number of pregnant women in prisons? Can he assure us that in every case the person concerned will be treated with sensitivity?

This is a very important issue for us. In all cases where a female offender is in custody, we endeavour to ensure that birth does not take place within the prison system, but sometimes that cannot be avoided. We have extensive services for mothers and children up to the age of 18 months when it is necessary for them to be in custody—I emphasise the word “necessary”. When an offender is reaching the end of a short sentence, steps are taken to try to ensure that mother and child are kept together. However, of course this cannot be done in circumstances where there has been a serious offence that results in a mother being in custody for a lengthy period.

The right reverend Prelate referred to the strategy envisaging greater use of residential and community services instead of custodial sentences. To what extent is that occurring? Are the Government still adhering to their policy of limiting funding of the strategy to £5 million over two years, replacing their previous plan to spend £50 million on five new prisons? If so, what is happening to the other £45 million?

My Lords, there is an important shift in policy away from custody as a means of trying to resolve these issues. That is why we moved away from the proposal for five community prisons; we hope they will not be required. Instead, we have shifted the balance in the direction of community services. We will pilot such community residential services in five areas to see how they work. For that purpose, we have committed funding of up to £5 million over the next two years, but of course that will not be the end of the matter. We will address the consequences of the pilot in these five areas and see how we can take things forward from there.

Does the Minister recall that 15 years ago, during my noble friend Lord Blunkett’s custodianship of the Home Office, the Sentencing Guidelines Council approved indeterminate sentences for more serious crimes, on condition that there should be a significant reduction at the lower end for less serious crimes, particularly for women and women with debt? Unfortunately, from the judiciary’s point of view, that has never been fully implemented. May I congratulate the Government on moving away from custodial sentences and ask them to look to this long-standing recommendation that has never been fully implemented?

I agree with the force of the noble Lord’s point. In fact, Section 152 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 clearly requires the courts to consider imposing non-custodial sentences unless otherwise justified. The Sentencing Council guidelines from 2016 reinforce this move. In addition to that, we have a judgment from the criminal Court of Appeal in the case of Petherick in 2012, which set out the criteria for sentencing in cases involving, for example, a female offender with dependent children. We have been moving in the right direction, but I accept that we have not moved far enough and we are determined to see if we can do that.