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Female Offender Strategy

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the level of funding that has been provided to the Female Offender Strategy launched in June 2018, and (2) whether such funding is sufficient to implement the Strategy fully.

My Lords, we are committed to ensuring sufficient funding for the female offender strategy, which we keep under review. To date, we have invested £5.1 million in the strategy in 30 different women’s services across England and Wales. In 2021, we will invest a further £2.5 million to meet core costs in the women’s community sector. In addition, we have been allocated up to £800,000 to support the development of our first residential women’s centre in Wales.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Given the amount of money that the MoJ spends each year, the high cost of reoffending and the relatively small number of female offenders, why have the Government seemingly invested so little in their own strategy? When will we hear details of the implementation of the strategy, given that it all seems to have gone very quiet?

I thank the right reverend Prelate and I thank her for the work that I know she does for the Nelson Trust. There are a number of achievements so far. I could read them out, but I do not think I have time. I am very happy to meet with the right reverend Prelate to discuss these things further. I would also like to say, for the Nelson Trust, that we have invested in a brand new women’s centre in Bridgwater.

My Lords, I note my membership of the Advisory Board for Female Offenders. The Government have committed to fund community provision as an alternative to custody, where appropriate, for female offenders. But, as the Minister has recognised, only £5.1 million has actually been allocated since the publication of the strategy. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the necessary funding is committed to comprehensive community sentences, including primary and secondary mental health treatment requirements and community-based women’s support services, especially a national network of women’s centres?

I thank the noble Lord for his question and I repeat that we have put in £2.5 million this year particularly for community sentences. For female offenders, community sentences often can be far better than sentencing them to prison. We will work to support the women’s centres—of which we have, we think, around 200 across the country, run by different private or voluntary sector organisations.

My Lords, two years ago the Government saved £50 million by not building five women’s prisons and, as the Minister said, £5 million has since been spent on community provision, with an additional £2.5 million to come. The MoJ’s advisory board has urged the Government to allocate £20 million. Would the Minister agree that £20 million would still be a small price to pay in terms of the social value that it would bring?

I thank the noble Baroness. Yes, of course, the more money we have the better but, when we talk about the prison estate, we are investing £2.5 billion and some of that will, of course, will go to the women’s estate. It is not just about additional places. It is also about really good modern purpose-built accommodation within the closed estate, and good outside experiences for women who are suitable for open conditions.

My Lords, the £2.5 million announced in May is a welcome addition to the Female Offender Strategy. Nearly 60% of women entering prison have experienced domestic abuse. There has been a clear increase in domestic abuse, with mental health and other issues increasing during the Covid pandemic. Does the Minister have confidence that the Female Offender Strategy is still fit for purpose and, if not, what changes are being considered to take account of the new demands?

I thank my noble friend. We do remain committed to the strategy. We also think that it is flexible enough, within its policies, to be able to deal with the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. The Government have also given £76 million to support very vulnerable people during the pandemic, £2.5 million of which came from the Ministry of Justice to charities supporting victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. We also, let us not forget, launched the new You Are Not Alone campaign during the pandemic, which is helping victims. They include female offenders, of course, as we help those who are victims of domestic abuse during the lockdown and pandemic period.

My Lords, would the Minister tell me what steps she has taken to ensure that, in the sentencing of female offenders, the courts do so to custody only in cases where there really is no alternative?

The noble and learned Lord brings up an extremely important point. One of the biggest issues is to make sure that pre-sentencing assessments are done very well by very experienced and trained people. We are also working with the health community to make sure that, before sentencing, any health issues of offenders are dealt with in accordance with the new rules.

The Female Offender Strategy was well received in 2018. The concern is about whether or not it is being effectively implemented. Paragraph 76 of the strategy says:

“We are committing to work with partners to develop a ‘residential women’s centres’ pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales.”

Could the Minister tell us how many of those five pilot sites are up and running, and what the plans for those that are not are?

I think I answered the noble and learned Lord’s question earlier: no, we have not delivered the five, but we are in the later stages of delivering the first one, as a pilot in Wales, and we have put forward £800,000 to do that.

My Lords, last week the Secretary of State for Justice published a sentencing White Paper, in which there was mention of funding, announced in May, for the development of residential centres, the first of which, we have heard, is being built in Wales. Can the Minister please tell the House how many centres the funding provides for and where these are to be built?

The £800,000 funding that was announced is for the first centre in Wales. We will be looking at how that works, and will be looking for sites to add the four more that we have said we will deliver across the country.

My Lords, in view of the Minister’s answer to earlier questions and the conclusion of the National Audit Office in February that a succession of plans for prisons have disintegrated almost as soon as they have been announced, can she really stand there in the House and say that in particular community-based interventions—the most effective for women prisoners—are effectively resourced?

Yes, my Lords, I can, because it is a package of commitments from the Government, and an important one for the community services will be the new National Probation Service.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a patron of Safe Ground. Do the Government recognise the value that can be brought to the management of women in the justice system by high-quality specialist services, by collaboration between such services and by local providers? Will they therefore work with them outside their dynamic purchasing system which, contrary to general government policy, is heavily biased against small providers?

I thank the noble Lord for the question. What he talks about is in the strategy called whole-systems approach, I think. With the whole-systems approach, where the private, public and voluntary sector work together, and particularly where they work with women’s centres, they start to deliver really good services that work. It is important also to remember that the Ministry of Justice put another £275,000 in this year to help those small voluntary sector organisations through the pandemic.