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Prisons: Releasing Women into Safe and Secure Housing

Volume 820: debated on Monday 21 March 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in releasing women from prison into safe and secure housing; and what assessment they have made of what constitutes a satisfactory accommodation outcome for women released from prison.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, our vision is that no female offender who is subject to probation supervision will be released from prison homeless. Building on the success of our Covid emergency scheme, last July we introduced a transitional accommodation service for prison leavers in five regions, and we are expanding it further. We hold the system to account through ambitious accommodation targets set out in the target operating model that we introduced last year.

My Lords, that is well and good—I am grateful to the Minister—but while it is good to know that some progress has been made, there are still problems. The accommodation service is in place in only five of the 11 probation regions of England and Wales, and there has been no commitment to timelines or to safe and secure housing specifically for women. Some 77% of women left one prison without any safe and secure housing; one was provided with a tent. The service provides temporary housing for only 12 weeks. Can the Minister give some commitment on timing for rollout and on what the Government will do for vulnerable prison leavers after 12 weeks? Can he indicate how support will reflect the particular needs of women?

There was quite a lot in that question. I acknowledge that it is a very important topic. I will pick up on a couple of the points made. The 77% figure comes from the recent IMB report for HMP Bronzefield, and it refers to safe and secure accommodation. That is a different approach to what we use, which is to determine whether people are actually homeless. Do they have somewhere—a roof over their head—for that night? We are very aware of the particular needs of women prisoners. Our accommodation programme is targeted at all prisoners, but we have particular people working in women’s prisons to ensure that women’s needs are specifically met.

My Lords, as my noble friend has just illustrated, there are wide discrepancies in the ways in which homelessness is measured for women leaving prison between the Prison Service and the independent monitoring board at Bronzefield. I am grateful that the Government recognise that something needs to be done about this to give confidence in the figures. Can the Minister say when we can expect a set of robust categories to be in place, on which everyone can agree?

I think that robust categories are in place. We define homelessness, in accordance with the legal definition, as being where the individual does not have any accommodation available and reasonable for them to occupy, including where they may be rough sleeping, squatting or in a night shelter, emergency hostel or campsite. It is very important to ensure that we are all looking at the same data. We publish the data annually and I invite all noble Lords to look at those figures.

My Lords, the disparity between government figures and those of the independent monitoring board is because we do not have one standard measure of what acceptable accommodation for prison leavers looks like. It is not a sofa, and it is not a tent. Will the Minister commit to facilitating the production of one standard measure? What we do not measure, we cannot manage.

I absolutely agree with that point. I have said from this Dispatch Box, on a number of areas, that data is absolutely critical. We need to ensure that we are looking at the same thing. I set out the legal definition of homelessness, and we publish statistics on this. I am pleased to say that there has been an improvement in the figures recently. The percentage of prison leavers recorded as either homeless or rough sleeping has fallen from 16% to 12%. We want to make that even better.

My Lords, Friday releases from prison, in particular, are hugely problematic. This is particularly the case for geographically dispersed women’s prisons, because women cannot travel home in time to make a housing application with their local authority before the office closes. Are the Government aware of this specific problem, and can they offer any solutions as to what can be done to overcome it?

My Lords, I am more than aware of this problem, because we debated it both in Committee and on Report for legislation which was going through this House. It is a real issue, and particularly for prisons which are in more disparate parts of the country where it can take people longer to travel back to where they originally came from. Prison governors are aware of this. The figures—which I do not have at hand—are getting better in this regard. Perhaps I can write to the right reverend Prelate further on this point.

My Lords, it is very clear that many women end up in circumstances where perpetrators of abuse exploit and take advantage of them if they are not in safe and secure housing. One recent study has shown that, overwhelmingly, a number of those women in prison have previously been subjected to abuse and, therefore, suffer trauma. Is not the priority, therefore, to ensure that there is more trauma-informed work available to work with women, so that they do not enter the criminal justice system?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right, but we have seen a significant reduction in the number of women prisoners in the past three to four years. There will always be some women in prison, but the figures have gone down significantly. In addition, as we are talking about housing, four of the housing specialists that we have put into prisons are specifically in women’s prisons, so they are acutely aware of the particular needs of women prisoners. They are in Styal, Bronzefield, Peterborough and New Hall.

My Lords, we know that, sadly, a large number of women in prison were victims of domestic abuse before they started their sentence. This makes leaving to live in safe and secure housing vitally important—but equally important is psychological support. What are the Government doing to ensure that specialist mental health support and mentoring are available for all women leaving prison for as long as they need it?

My Lords, this is obviously a very important issue. We have tried to join up the dots between the Prison Service and the NHS. The problem in the past was that women left prison, and the NHS did not know about them; the Prison Service had, so to speak, passed them on to nobody. The GP is the best way in which to access mental health support, in particular, in the community. Therefore, we are working with the Prison Service to make sure that the links between the Prison Service and the NHS are stronger and better.

My Lords, the Minister in answer to my noble friend’s question said that his vision was that no women prisoners should be homeless. We have seen from the questions of noble Lords, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, my former colleague, the breadth of the problems that women prisoners face when they come out of prison. Can the Minister say something about how he will monitor the impact of the Government’s policy to see that this integrated support, which is the only way in which to prevent reoffending, is actually working?

My Lords, integrated support is absolutely key—I agree with the noble Lord on that. We have done a number of things; we have set up a scheme to offer 12 weeks’ accommodation to prison leavers with support to move to settled housing and, by 2024-25, we will be investing £200 million per year to transform our approach to rehabilitation. But of course we need to be held to account on this, and we hold the Prison Service to account on this. We publish data, and the data is meant to be clear and transparent. There has been an improvement in the figures, and I want to see them improve even more.

My Lords, I declare an interest as head of the Sikh prison chaplaincy service. Prison chaplains can play an important role in rehabilitation. Does the Minister agree that smaller faiths should have the same access to prisoners, in education, pastoral care and so on, as the larger faiths?

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord only on one point, when he said that prison chaplains can play an important role for prisoners, including in rehabilitation. I think that underestimates the point; I would say that prison chaplains can play a crucial and fundamental role in prison life, in and outside prison. As to smaller faiths, maybe I should declare my interest, because I agree.