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Prisons: Women

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that provision for women in the prison system is properly funded, following their decision to abandon plans for five community prisons for women in England and Wales.

My Lords, I can confirm that there are no plans to reduce funding for the women’s custodial estate. We want to provide the best rehabilitative regimes possible which are specifically tailored to women’s needs to break the reoffending cycle. We are also increasing the number of front-line prison staff, designing a new offender management and custody model tailored to the needs of women and continually improving standards in our prisons.

My Lords, this move is very welcome, but can the Minister elucidate? This initiative is costing only £5 million for the initial investment, as opposed to the £50 million that building five new prisons would have entailed, the balance being returned to the Treasury. What is the timetable for building each of these residential centres and how many women will be accommodated initially? If the pilots are successful, how many centres will be built? Finally, will the Minister assure the House that funding will be found to roll out this programme throughout England and Wales, so that we can stop locking women up in prison for minor offences and start tackling the underlying reasons why most of them end up in prison in the first place?

My Lords, we are of course concerned to address short custodial sentences and the viability of moving towards community-based sentences. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for acknowledging that this is a move in the right direction. I should perhaps clarify that the £5 million that has been referred to will be used for our work with partners in the community for community-based resolution for women. In addition, we are providing for a women’s centres pilot which will involve five residential women’s centres, but that budget is distinct from the £5 million. I hope I have made that clear. I cannot give a precise timescale for the rolling out of that pilot, but we do have it in course.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the fact that the Government have abandoned their prison building programme in favour of women’s community centres. That is certainly better than anything that happened under the coalition. However, I point out to the Minister that in 2017 one-quarter of the women sentenced to prison were serving sentences of less than one month, and 217 women were sentenced to less than two weeks. What action are the Government going to take to stop magistrates imposing these ludicrous sentences?

I am obliged to the noble Baroness. One has to bear in mind that there are instances in which custody is the only appropriate resolution, even in the case of women offenders, but of course we want to minimise that. At the moment, we have brought down the female prison population from a high during the Labour Government of 5.4% to a current figure of 4.6%. We appreciate that a large proportion of them are serving short custodial sentences. The figures I have indicate that in 2017, 72% of custodial sentences for women were six months or less, and that is an issue that we do wish to address.

My Lords, will the Minister reflect for a moment on why the number of community sentences given to women has fallen by half over the last decade? Will he reflect also on the level of mental health issues among women? They are said to be five times more likely among women in prisons than in the general population.

My Lords, there are issues that arise more frequently and more obviously among female offenders. Indeed, to quote just a few of the figures, 60% of female offenders who have an assessment have experienced domestic violence, while drug misuse is identified in about 40% of cases and alcohol misuse in about 25%. These issues therefore arise more particularly within the female cohort of offenders. With regard to community orders, it is part of our task to reinvigorate their use, which will involve us in persuading the courts at all levels of the practicality and effectiveness of such sentences.

My Lords, I am grateful that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend to open new women’s prisons, as has been said, and I am grateful for the assurance that more money will be put into women’s centres. However, what work will be done to ensure that those who sentence know what is actually available in the community?

My Lords, I am confident that the sentencing guidelines, and judicial guidelines in general, are sufficient to inform all levels of the judiciary as to the appropriate way in which to treat sentencing provision. Indeed, there is further guidance on this in England and Wales, which the noble Lord at the back may not be familiar with.

Looking in this direction, I can only see the noble Lord’s head shaking. However, it might not be in disagreement; maybe it is an affliction, and I apologise. With regard to sentencing, there are clear guidelines, which include guidelines from the Court of Appeal over sentencing where there is an impact on children and other dependants.

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend satisfied with the arrangements for looking after the most elderly prisoners, who, although small in number, need special facilities?

I am obliged to my noble friend. There is an issue of an ageing prison population, and that is addressed in our management provision for prisoners in custody.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware that although there are guidelines, they do not seem to be getting through to a number of judges. I have been told anecdotally of judges who do not know about the community centres for women.

I am not aware of the noble and learned Baroness’s source of information in that regard, but clearly, we need to ensure that these guidelines are properly understood at every level of the judiciary.