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Female Offender Strategy

Volume 813: debated on Monday 21 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress towards the implementation of the Female Offender Strategy, published on 27 June 2018; and what plans they have, if any, to revise the timetable for its implementation.

My Lords, the Female Offender Strategy launched an ambitious work programme to improve the outcomes for female offenders, which will take several years to deliver. However, three years on, we are making good progress. Our achievements include a new women’s policy framework, new training for staff working with women, improvements to pre-sentence reports and the implementation of the recommendations in the review on family ties by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. Furthermore, we have invested £7 million in funding for women’s services across England and Wales.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. The concordat published in January urged:

“Co-signatories to assist local organisations … with work to improve outcomes for women”.

First, can the Minister help to get work going by joining up these organisations, by publishing contact details for the relevant departments? Secondly, only 17 recommendations from the review for women by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, have been implemented. When will we see an update on progress?

My Lords, the concordat was between government departments and all departments have joined up to it. Locally it is more difficult, but the important part of delivering good joined-up services—both to stop women entering as offenders and to help them when they come out of prison, if they are so unlucky as to go to prison—is that work needs to be done locally, with local concordats and partnerships.

My Lords, on the issue of joined-up government, and as Rory Stewart understood, at the heart of the strategy is a recommendation for three cross-government implementation groups to address the complex needs of vulnerable prisoners. One was set up in June 2018 but quietly stood down in 2019. How many of the three recommended groups are in existence today? If none, is it any wonder that the Prison Reform Trust found that only 17 of the 65 recommendations have been fully implemented?

My Lords, I do not have the answer to the noble Lord’s question, but I can say that there are a number of groups in government working all the time on early intervention and prevention and with women in custody, and they are delivering for those women.

A key aim of the Female Offender Strategy was to reduce women’s prison places, yet there has been a government announcement recently saying that they are going to increase prison places by 500. Are the Government planning for failure?

No, my Lords, the Government are not planning for failure. We are planning to deliver part of the strategy for women offenders, which is to update the women’s estate. This investment in the estate will allow for single cells and for an estate which can deliver for women offenders, and possibly for their children to help them keep their family ties.

My Lords, the vast majority of women in prison today are held for non-violent offences and on short sentences; 60% of them have experienced domestic abuse; and many of these women go on to reoffend—a destructive and costly cycle. Does the Minister agree that we should seek to build a support structure around these vulnerable women and that investing in women’s centres is a good start? Will she inform the House on the progress made to pilot five residential women’s centres, as set out in the Government’s Female Offender Strategy, which I very much welcomed at the time?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We need to put a whole system around each of our female offenders, or women who are likely to become offenders. As far as the women’s centres are concerned, we have said that the first centre will be in south Wales and we are working closely with all our partners, including the Welsh Government, to identify a suitable site. Once we have found it, we will identify others across England. While we have been looking for the site, we have also been engaged with many voluntary and statutory agencies, so that we get the women’s lived experience and make sure that the centres are what the women need.

A key commitment in the Female Offender Strategy was to improve through-the-gate services for offenders, but the recent announcement of £6 million for these services for offenders includes just one women’s prison. These are crucial services helping to put an end to the “no job, no home, no hope” picture we often see. Having increased the women’s prison estate by 500 places, when will the Government provide the necessary funding to carry out their commitment to improving these vital services and break this terrible reoffending cycle?

Investing in the women’s custodial estate will improve conditions for female prisoners through the modern gender-specific and trauma-informed design—that is important. We hope that better conditions will support rehabilitation, ensuring that women are held in appropriate, decent and safe accommodation—but also accommodation, as I have said before, with inclusive rooms to support overnight stays for mothers and their children, which we know is important to those offenders.

My Lords, is it now government policy that the interests of a male prisoner who wishes to be housed on the female estate should, in making a decision on that request, have exactly the same weight as the interests of each individual female prisoner, with whom they will be housed?

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service ensures that all transgender individuals are managed safely, with their rights properly respected and in accordance with the law. Decisions on where individuals are located within the prison estate are made following assessments of all the known risks posed to and by the individual. This includes consideration of their current behaviour and previous offending history, to achieve an outcome that balances risks and promotes safety.

Would it not be better for women addicted to drink or drugs who commit non-violent offences to go to a residential rehabilitation centre under a probation order, rather than to prison?

I agree with the noble and learned Baroness. The new probation service, which is a unified service nationally and starts at the end of this week, is the way that we can look much more seriously at in-community sentences for the offenders to whom she refers.

My Lords, the recent reports of women in prison, particularly in the last year, send a message of despair and cruelty, of which this country should be ashamed. For example, in women’s prisons there has been a big increase in self-harm during the pandemic. There is a marked difference between the sexes: 3,557 incidents for every 1,000 women prisoners in a 12-month period, compared with 595 for the same number of male prisoners. Does the Minister believe that the misery and inappropriateness of incarcerating so many women will be alleviated by spending £100 million on 500 more prison places, or does she believe that that investment might be better spent keeping women out of prison and supporting vital community services, which are receiving a paltry £2 million, when they are released?

My Lords, we need to do both. We recognise that the level of self-harm in the women’s estate is too high and we are determined to reduce it. Part of doing that will be to update the women’s estate. But we also want, through the new probation service, to increase the amount of community services, working with the voluntary sector to stop women going into the system and, when they are there, to support them not to reoffend.

What steps have the Government taken to introduce gender-specific sentencing guidelines to encourage judges and magistrates to approach sentencing women from a completely different starting point from that for men? Does the Minister agree that equal sentencing guidelines for men and women do not result in equality of outcome, having regard to the specific problems that women have to deal with while incarcerated and afterwards?

My Lords, I agree that we should be working with the courts system to ensure that judges and magistrates understand the particular issues for women and issue sentences accordingly.