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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 July 2002

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Female Prisoners

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Caplin.]

9.30 am

Claire Ward (Watford): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established the social exclusion unit because he recognised the clear link between the lack of housing, opportunity and education and the high levels of poverty suffered by some people in our society and the degree of crime and lawlessness. I want to draw attention to those people who are among the most socially excluded in our society—girls and young women from disadvantaged, deprived and depressed environments who become victims under our criminal justice system. I do not condone the crimes that they commit, be they shoplifting, robbery or serious assault, or query why they are being punished, but I question the response of a criminal justice system that takes vulnerable children—as many of them are—and puts them in prison, which cannot possibly meet their needs or help them to build a better life.

We will always need prisons. It is right that society should be able to remove the freedom of those who commit serious crimes, as a punishment and to protect the public from harm. However, wherever possible, prison must also offer offenders the chance to be rehabilitated back into the community. The concept of rehabilitation is all the more important when the offender is only 15 or 16 years of age, having committed a crime perhaps a year earlier. Such young people have their lives ahead of them and, with help and guidance, they may become good and valuable citizens in our community. Without that guidance, however, they may spiral further into the depths of lawlessness.

It is particularly important to consider the needs of young women and girls within the criminal justice system and distinguish them from the needs of male prisoners. Females are less likely to commit crime than men and when they do, their crimes tend to be less violent and they are less likely to be a risk to the general public. For example, many of the assaults committed by women are on people they know and are often a reaction to having suffered prolonged periods of sexual or physical abuse. That is not an excuse for the crime, but we must understand the motives and the difference between those crimes and violent crimes committed by men.

The state has provided a limited number of penal establishments for women because so few women, especially young girls, commit crimes that require custodial sentences. Consequently, women prisoners tend to end up further away from their families and homes than male prisoners. They suffer much greater isolation in custody because access to their families may be more restricted. It is worth noting that more than half

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of the women in our prisons have children, who are often left behind when their main carer is taken into custody.

Women prisoners tend to display more symptoms of depression and mental health problems. Many suffer from mental illness. Self harm or cutting up is fairly common among women prisoners, but few prisons can cope with it. Such women need help, not incarceration. Their crimes are often the result of their mental instability. In addition to mental health problems, women prisoners show high levels of drink and drug dependency.

Ann Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, suggested in her recent report that a crisis is brewing because of the lack of capacity and poor standards in women's prisons. The Youth Justice Board designated 12 places at Eastwood Park prison to hold girls under 18 years of age. Inspectors describe that prison as an establishment in crisis. In one month, there had been 47 cases of self harm and more than 50 cases of people having been identified as at risk from suicide. Despite the commitment and dedication of the staff, few were qualified to deal with young girls or with the high levels of mental illness and vulnerability that are so common in women's prisons. The chief inspector commented that the fact that the number of those prisoners was increasing was nothing short of scandalous. Although designated to hold 12 girls, Eastwood Park had 14 girls in its care in March this year. Although the numbers fluctuate, it is frequently overcrowded. Girls are then accommodated with adults, which is a clear breach of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and, in all likelihood, unlawful in English law following the Flood judgment.

The inspectors met all 12 girls under the age of 18 at Eastwood Park and concluded:

Eastwood Park is not the only prison taking more young girls than it can properly accommodate. On Monday, I visited Bullwood Hall in Essex—a women's prison and young offenders institution. The Youth Justice Board funds 28 places at Bullwood Hall for girls aged 15 to 18. However, the governor confirmed this week that, due to increased demand, he had unlocked 50 units and was now accommodating 22 more juveniles. Consequently, some of the young girls will be accommodated on wings with adults over 18 where prison officers may not have the experience or training to deal with vulnerable juveniles.

Holloway prison has no operational capacity for juveniles, but last Friday it was accommodating seven sentenced girls and another six on remand—further evidence that our prison system is ill-prepared for the increasing number of young girls being imprisoned by our courts.

I was impressed by the commitment of the staff and the governor of Bullwood Hall. They try to provide the best possible environment for the juveniles within the limits of their funding and the power that they have. However, it does not matter how committed and genuine the prison staff are if the environment is unsuitable for young girls.

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I had the opportunity to talk to some of the girls during my visit, and what struck me most was the common thread that ran through each of their lives. Miss A is 16 years old. She spent the first few days of her sentence in Holloway prison, which she described as disgusting—a view shared by all the girls that I met. Bullwood Hall is keen to take girls who have been sentenced straight from court. Unfortunately, they often spend the first few days in the adult women's prison in Holloway, in which the regime is extremely harsh and where the conditions are especially difficult for those serving their first prison sentence.

Having been moved to Bullwood Hall, Miss A. was understandably missing her family. Her mother is trying to raise the other children, does not drive, and is unable to fund the cost of travel by train to visit her due to low income. The isolation from their families that prisoners experience makes it difficult to maintain close contact. Although many of the girls at Bullwood Hall come from London and the home counties, some come from as far away as Liverpool or Manchester. Some come from Wales, which has no women's prisons. It is no wonder that their families find it difficult to keep in touch.

For many of the young girls, however, home is the last place that they should or could be. Miss B., for example, is also 16. Her father is in prison and her mother, who suffers from depression and alcohol dependency, is being evicted. Miss B. does not see her family and found it difficult to cope when she first arrived at Bullwood Hall. Officers tried to explain the procedures and rules to her and she was given an information booklet, but with her limited education—she was expelled from school—she admits to not understanding much of it. She told me that being left to cry alone in her cell on those first few nights was horrible.

Miss B. described her daily routine, which included being locked in a cell from 8.15 pm to 8 am and having to ask permission to go to the toilet during the night. When she is finally discharged, the accommodation arranged for her by the probation service will be crucial to her ability to escape the life that she has led so far. Her most striking observations of prison life were about what she had witnessed—girls of her own age on hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, which she had never seen before. She had gained a new knowledge of drugs and other crimes. Girls would relate stories of offences that they had committed and for which they had not been caught, which suggested that it was possible to commit a crime and get away with it. Further exposure to crime was not helping the girl, but expanding her knowledge of crime.

All the girls said that being away from their family and friends was the hardest part to endure. However, questioning revealed that some of them could not return to their families on release. They also knew that if there was to be a chance of their leading a better life, they had to be away from the neighbourhood and environment that had influenced their criminal behaviour in the past.

Many of the girls have received little guidance in their young lives. Their parents have not set boundaries, and they have not been allowed to grow up with the rules that most of us accept as fundamental to the structure

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of our lives. As one girl said, she found it hard in prison because, "I am not used to people telling me what to do. I am used to doing what I want."

Many of the girls are first offenders. Their crime may be sufficiently serious to warrant detention, but evidence suggests that courts do not always take into account all alternative forms of punishment before considering a custodial sentence, which should always be the court's last resort. If detention is appropriate, people in that age group—15, 16 and 17-year-olds—should be held in local authority secure accommodation, where they can receive appropriate help and support under a regime that provides strict boundaries while recognising that such people are teenagers, not adults.

The Youth Justice Board requires that all girls under the age of 18 be provided with a minimum of 15 hours of education a week. For some of the girls, that is the most intensive education that they will have received for some time. One 16-year-old girl to whom I spoke had not attended school since she was 11. Is it any wonder that she found life difficult?

Although accredited work and education must be provided to under-18s, it is not a requirement for young offenders. Therefore 18 to 21-year-olds can be required to undertake work that will do little to further their education and training opportunities. There is no requirement for the staff who look after them to have any specialist training in dealing with young people. Young offenders are an equally vulnerable group who are at a point in life at which the right support, education and training opportunities could ensure that following their discharge from prison they lead a valuable and law-abiding life.

Many of the girls are serving sentences of less than six months, and some just a few weeks. Such sentences are too short to make a real difference to their education and training opportunities, but are long enough to create an obstacle to their future employment. The very fact that they have been in custody may deter future employers, landlords and others from offering them assistance.

On 14 December 1999, the Minister then responsible for prisons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, reiterated a commitment made by a previous Home Secretary that from

That commitment was reinforced by the Youth Justice Board's plan to make it a priority to place all young women outside adult prisons by mid-2002.

The latest Home Office figures for May this year suggest that that has not yet happened: eight female 15-year-olds, 29 16-year-olds and 81 17-year-olds were being held in prison. Indeed, since 1999, the number of girls aged under 18 in prison has risen, from 86 to 120 this year. The rise in custodial sentences should be contrasted with the fall in recorded crimes committed by 15 to 17-year-old girls. By continuing the practice of holding juveniles with adults in adult prisons, the Government breach the UN convention on the rights of the child. That cannot be right.

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The evidence about the unsuitability of prison for girls and young women has been known for some time. In 1997, the Howard League for Penal Reform—for whose support I am grateful and of whose advisory council I am a member—published the results of a year-long inquiry into the use of prison custody for girls. I urge the Minister to read that report, digest the case studies and consider implementing the recommendations. Surely those vulnerable young people should be afforded the protection of the Children Act 1989. Why do we continue to operate a policy in contravention of the United Nations convention?

I started my speech by referring to the social exclusion unit, which is incredibly important. It shows how the Government think that we should tackle the real problems in our society. If we are to reduce crime, we have to consider the factors that create an environment in which people commit crime, and those are the very issues being addressed by the social exclusion unit. Poverty, homelessness, debt, mental illness, unemployment and drug and alcohol misuse are factors that can have an influence. Many of the young girls that I am talking about are vulnerable, misguided children, not evil calculating adults. They need help as well as punishment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

9.45 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) on securing this debate on a subject of great importance. I was made aware of the issue by a book by Angela Devlin called "Invisible Women: What's Wrong with Women's Prisons". It revealed the dreadful situation in our women's prisons. That book was published in 1998, and the issue was then raised in Parliament in several ways. I think that we are aware that there have been improvements since then.

The increasing prison population is inexplicable and extremely worrying. Only a few years ago, the prison population was 42,000, and it is now a record 71,000. That means that 132 people per 100,000 of the population are in prison. It puts the United Kingdom in the top two or three of the 43 countries of the Council of Europe. The only country with a worse record is the United States, where the figure is 700 people per 100,000. The average figure among the Council of Europe countries is about 50 per 100,000, but our prison population goes on increasing, expensively and to the detriment of the country, although few of us believe that prison works.

An extremely worrying feature of life in prison, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, is the number of young women who react to their plight by mutilating themselves. That is a common reaction to abuse. Young women who go to prison are likely to have been abused by society, their partners or their families. The almost universal treatment for those who mutilated themselves used to be neuroleptic drugs, which are overused in residential homes for the elderly, and are meant for the deeply psychotic. Their use was so common in prisons that young women on those drugs were known by the cruel epithet of "muppets", because they walked strangely. I hope that that practice has ended, but it was difficult to break through the closed

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communities in which everyone supported everyone else. The prison doctor, the governors and so on tended to work together.

In Holland there have been many reforms that we could copy, one of which is that when women are sentenced to prison, they can, if they choose, have a period of about a fortnight before they start their sentence. Nothing could be worse than when a mother kisses goodbye to her children in the morning and does not appear when they come home from school. Many sentences are unexpected, and the chaos and disruption that results from that is completely unnecessary. Very few women prisoners are violent or dangerous in the way that many male prisoners are. That reform could—and, I believe, should—be introduced as an urgent priority.

A report by the chief inspector of prisons has been mentioned. Time and again, the previous chief inspector reported that there was no need for most of the women in prison to be there. Reports have given examples of women who had committed the most trivial offences and, because they had a long record of previous convictions, were imprisoned.

Most women are in prison for reasons such as debt, and our society encourages debt. Idiotic advertisements saturate daytime television, telling people that if they have debts, they should not worry because they can ring a certain advice firm, and solve all their problems. Those firms actually multiply debt and increase the period of indebtedness, but they lull people into a false sense of thinking that debts do not matter. Often, the debts are not magicked away, but people who have got into debt—often for loving reasons because they have been looking after their families—find themselves in prison. Our record on that is dreadful.

Communities in prison are often dominated by gangsterism. Prison society used to be run by tobacco barons, but it is now dominated by drugs. Many prisons have a dreadful atmosphere, and there are practices that I would not want to go into today. The punishments that we mete out, especially to women prisoners, are often cruel and barbaric because we separate mothers from their toddlers and babies. We have heard that women react to imprisonment more seriously than most men do and find it more damaging. We hear about women entering prison as shoplifters and leaving as drug addicts. Some women enter prison as cannabis users. People are complaining that we are about to announce today a change in the law that allows people to be sentenced to 14 years in jail for some cannabis crimes—murder carries an equivalent sentence. We have sent women to prison for using soft drugs, and they have come out addicted to hard drugs. We cannot provide a single prison—for women or men—that is free from illegal drug use. There are occasionally drug-free wings, but we put people into prisons in which it is often easier to obtain drugs than on the streets.

This debate is very important. The Minister has talked about the dreadful record on not only mutilation, but suicide attempts by women in prison and the way in which they suffer. We have a very poor record as a Parliament and a country on the increasing female prison population.

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The ninth commandment of Back Benchers is that we should neglect the rich, the obsessed and the articulate, and seek out silent voices. Few voices are quieter than those of women in prison. The situation is an awful example of man's inhumanity to women.

9.52 am

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) on securing the debate. I am grateful for being able to participate.

Between 1995 and 1997, I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. During one of the Committee's inquiries, I visited many prisons in both this country and the United States. Owing to my interest in the subject, I have visited other prisons including, notably, Eastwood Park, with my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). We were both very worried about the conditions of the women who were held there. We made that visit before 1997, and I attest to the truth of what my hon. Friends have said about the conditions of women in prison, the reasons why they are there and the catastrophic effects that prison has on them and their children.

I shall confine my remarks to two narrow subjects, but first I congratulate the Government on setting up the women's policy group in January 1998. The matters that it is considering show that several lessons have been learnt.

An occasion in the Chamber that I shall never forget was when the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) attempted to justify the shackling of pregnant women prisoners. It is fair to say that she got a pretty severe roasting from female Labour Members. She found the position hard to defend. I am pleased by the new arrangements for the treatment of pregnant women when they go into labour that have been introduced since we came to power. I understand that now all restraints should be removed when they are in hospital, and replaced only when they leave. I was amused to discover that prison officers can be present in the delivery room, or during an intimate examination, only if that is requested by the prisoner. I cannot imagine that such a request would be made, but at least it is no longer required that a prison officer should be present at all times.

Women who are pregnant and have their babies in prison face considerable difficulties. Throughout the country, there are only 64 places for them in mother and baby units, although I gather that 24 further places are planned—two 12-bed units. As a result, they have to travel great distances.

In Holloway and New Hall, women can keep their babies with them for up to nine months, whereas in Askham Grange and Styal they can keep their children with them until they are 18 months old. After that time, if the women have not completed their sentences, their babies are taken away from them—an 18-month-old child is still a baby. It is only when one talks to inmates in prisons such as Holloway that one realises what that means. Many of the women prisoners have had babies

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when they were very young. I will never forget talking to one young mother as I went around the unit at Holloway. I asked her how old her baby was. She replied, "Eight months." She looked haunted and traumatised. I asked her if she had other children, and she said that she did. That was when I realised that she would have to decide in four weeks' time whether to give up the baby at nine months so that she could stay in Holloway and be near her other children, or apply to go to either Askham Grange or Styal so that she could stay with the baby until eighteen months but risk losing contact with her other children who lived in the south-east. That is an intolerable position to put anyone in. If that does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, I do not know what does.

It is impossible for women who are in that position to discharge their responsibilities as parents in a meaningful way. I acknowledge that they are in prison because they have committed crimes but, as several of my hon. Friends have said, the types of crimes for which women are imprisoned are generally quite trivial. I met women in Holloway who had been imprisoned for not paying their bills; they were in prison because, eventually, debt becomes a criminal offence—although there are conventions that say that nobody should be imprisoned for debt.

Reference has also been made to self harm. I wish to recount an unpleasant incident that happened when I was at Eastwood Park, because I want people to understand what self harm can mean to the prisoners who harm themselves, their fellow prisoners and prison staff. Several years ago, there was a young woman who was severely psychotic at Eastwood Park. She had had an abdominal operation some time before. One night, she took off her bra and used its hook to open up the wound and disembowel herself. The other prisoners realised that this was happening, and the prison officer who went into her cell to see what the noise was about, was, as anyone could understand, utterly traumatised by what she saw. That woman should not have been in prison. She was severely mentally ill. She had been convicted of a crime and I can only presume that that had something to do with her illness.

In concluding my remarks, Mr. Cook—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. I would be remiss in my responsibilities were I not to remind hon. Members that the House, in its wisdom, took the decision when establishing this parallel Chamber that the four senior members of the Chairmen's Panel be appointed Deputy Speakers of Westminster Hall. While occupying this Chair, they should be referred to in those terms.

Jean Corston : I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In concluding my remarks, I quote from this year's prisons handbook an article headed, "Viewpoint: Women Prisoners". It is by Lisa Edwards, a serving prisoner at Cookham Wood, and says:

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She continues:

At this point, I declare an interest as one of the trustees of an educational charity called Award Scheme Development Accreditation Network, known by its acronym, ASDAN. It provides education in life skills to thousands of students in schools and colleges all over the country. I have seen the effects of its work and can only say to my hon. Friend the Minister that that kind of education should be more widely available in prisons.

Lisa Edwards goes on to say:

Of course, when those women leave prison, they could be sitting on the bus alongside any of us, or serving us at a supermarket checkout. They could be working in all kinds of jobs where we could come face to face with them. Surely it is in our interests, if those women are to be imprisoned, to make that an experience that allows them some opportunity for reform and life-chance, not just one that focuses on retribution.

10.3 am

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I have not had an opportunity to prepare for this debate. I am disappointed to come into this Chamber and discover that so few Members are interested in this very important subject. I want to emphasise the point that some hon. Friends have made about the large proportion of women prisoners who are in prison simply because they are poor and cannot afford to pay their debts.

I did a great deal of research on that pre-1997, and introduced a private Member's Bill that would have removed the option of sending fine defaulters to prison simply because they could not pay their debts. So many women are sent to prison not because they are wilfully refusing to pay debts but because they are unable to meet their commitments. That is termed culpable neglect by the courts, but much research has been done that shows that it happens simply because people are poor and unable to face up to their commitments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) graphically illustrated how people can get into debt when they are desperate and fall prey to loan sharks and other temptations that more robust and less poor individuals might be able to avoid. I am very disappointed that women in particular—but also men—are being sent to prison because they are poor and cannot afford to meet their fines. Of course, such individuals should receive some punishment, but I do not see why that could not take place in the community where they could repay society. It costs hundreds of pounds a week to send people to jail because they are poor. However, if we helped them to manage their finances better, and provided for some kind of punishment in the community so that people could contribute to society through work and other

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endeavours, we would be a more civilised society. We would also prevent further decline, such as lapses into mental illness and family breakdown, which occurs as a result of so many poor women with mental health difficulties being sent to prison.

Only last week another private Member's Bill was introduced to prevent people from being jailed for debt and fine default. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will dwell to some extent on that issue. I would like a commitment from the Government that they intend to bring in legislation to prevent fine defaulters from being sent to prison and introduce alternative community punishments. Even if it is not possible to introduce legislation in the near future, signals from Ministers and guidance to magistrates courts on the issue of culpable neglect would be very welcome. I invite the Minister to respond to that point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Perhaps it would be useful if I were to advise the House of an opinion registered collectively on the Chairmen's Panel. Let me start by reminding hon. Members that this debate is scheduled to go no longer than 11 o'clock. The common convention in the past has been that the three winding-up speeches start 30 minutes before that, with those 30 minutes split equally between the three concluding speakers. In this event, Members will see that there are 53 minutes remaining, and the Chairman's Panel has been anxious that that equality of apportionment be maintained because it has been known for some speakers to run over quite a bit, thereby creating a situation that is considered unfair. Might I make it clear that Front-Bench speakers, of whom there are three, will be admonished if they exceed a third of that time. They do not have to take all of it, but they are not to overrun, if I might put it in those terms. I am grateful for your attention.

10.8 am

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I do not think that I will be taking a third of the time because I do not intend to speak for the sake of it.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward). She has raised issues of extreme importance this morning, and the moving stories from the case studies to which she referred contributed greatly to the whole debate. We have had many other contributions that to me, as a new Member, have been stark and frightening, but underline what the debate is really about.

I started considering the issue by looking at the prison population as a whole. The latest figure that I have, which is perhaps not the actual latest figure, is 71,360 people in prison, sadly. I started to think about the different, overlapping subsets within that total. I was wondering how many would be left if one identified all prisoners with sentences less than 12 months, and all those with mental health difficulties. Perhaps the Minister knows better than I do. That highlights the wider issues of appropriate placements and sentences, of which much has been made in the debate.

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Before turning to female prisoners, it is important to consider the subset of children. The annual report of the Youth Justice Board was published yesterday. It is an interesting and excellent report in which Lord Warner, the chairman, states:

He goes on to say that

I believe that a press article in The Independent yesterday stemmed from the launch. Under the headline "Youth Justice Board protests at rising children locked up", Lord Warner was quoted as saying:

Ministers and the Lord Chief Justice have dealt with the issue. Clearly, it will be an important matter during the next few weeks with a White Paper coming out, which, I hope, will cover sentencing.

In addition to the Youth Justice Board's report, this weekend a prominent children's charity described the Government's policy on youth crime as an abuse of children's human rights. An example was given of a child with learning disabilities who was remanded in custody for the theft of toffees from a jar of sweets and criminal damage to the lid of the jar. Among the children in custody are those who are in prison. A book about them entitled "Vulnerable Inside" will be published this week by the Children's Society. It includes an example of a 16-year-old telling of a child who committed suicide after bullying and how the others in prison reacted:

That is horrendous. Children's charities are voicing serious concerns to the Home Secretary.

I am also concerned by the Home Secretary's April announcement that suspects as young as 12 will be remanded in custody for persistent petty crimes. I fear that younger children are taking up local authority accommodation places, and that that is pushing 15 and 16-year-olds back into prison. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us how that all comes together, because it would be dreadful if we were actually making the situation worse. I wonder if this is why the £250 million initiative announced in March 2001, a four-year programme to ensure that no teenage girls and fewer 15 and 16-year-old boys are held in prison and that 80 per cent. of offenders are located within 50 miles of their home—all changes that are needed—does not seem to be on target.

As the hon. Member for Watford reminded us, the Government have been promising to remove girls from prison. Unfortunately, for various reasons, they

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continue to be placed there. I would like to refer to an Adjournment debate held on 29 January this year, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and focused on a tragic case in his constituency of a girl who had gone from one institution to another and fallen through every gap it is possible to fall through. In reply, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, now the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, stated:

We seem to be slipping behind the targets. Girls are not committing more crimes, so is sentencing the problem? Those issues hugely concern me.

Before I conclude, I should like to move on to a topic with which I have tussled for some time: whether we should be concerned about men as well. I have been convinced by this morning's contributions on that matter. I found a useful reference to the issue by Anne Dunne in "Safer Society" from summer 2001. She says:

More recently, the Prison Reform Trust issued a piece of work called "Justice for Women", which suggests:

It is vital that we introduce such local centres.

We keep focusing on mental health issues, the nature of sentencing and the appropriateness of placements. When the inspectorate visited prisoners at Eastwood Park it commented:

In the Adjournment debate to which I referred earlier, the Minister commented on the shortage of places with adequate psychiatric treatment. I should like to refer to a recent report by the social exclusion unit, which does so much vital work, on reoffending that includes an annexe on juveniles. One of its many points is:

We know what the problems are and need to address them. I recognise that the Government have gone a long way by setting up so many initiatives. It seems as though the problem is increasing and we are not keeping up with it. We have to reflect on whether that is due to crime or sentencing and take appropriate action. We cannot turn our backs on a problem with which we need to get to grips. There are positive outcomes and yesterday's report from the social exclusion unit was also positive. However, the report lists all the enormous issues relating to young offender teams that still have to be tackled. It

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is a huge task and the Government need to put resources into the area to match their commitment. They need to stand up and be proud to say that they have tackled the issue of the socially excluded and that we have a prison system that works.

10.19 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) on obtaining the debate.

This is undoubtedly a serious subject and all the contributions have referred to serious issues. Some of the Government's responses are at odds with the views that have been expressed this morning by Labour Back Benchers. I shall quote what one Government spokesman said in a major report:

Those were the words of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), as he came to the end of his term in that office.

Not everyone in the Government necessarily speaks with a single voice, and many of those who spoke in today's debate, including the hon. Member for Watford, were critical of the current position. I agree with those hon. Members. When the right hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said that the record in this field was dreadful—I carefully wrote down what he said—I agreed with him. The hon. Member for Watford stressed that the Government, through the former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), made various promises about changes in prison accommodation for young women that have not been kept.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) stressed in a debate in December 2001 that there were many problems at Downview—a prison in his constituency. Other hon. Members have been critical of what has been happening at Holloway, and there have been further criticisms of other prisons for women, such as Bullwood Hall.

I am the first to accept that the area is difficult. Some women have committed extremely serious offences. Many hon. Members who have spoken this morning said in parenthesis that they accept that some women must be given custodial sentences. I would have been happier however had they said more about the victims of crimes. Too often in this place, concern is shown for the offender and not the victim. I have spent much of my career, both during my 10 years in this House and previously, working with organisations such as Victim Support. In any debate on prisons and custody one should always mention the fact that some of those who have committed offences have had the opportunity to continue their lives, whereas the victims have not been given that chance.

Claire Ward : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins : In a moment.

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It has been stressed by several speakers, including the hon. Member for Watford, that some people are in prison simply because of debt. The hon. Member for Newport, West rather overstated the case when he said that most women in prison are there because of debt. The figures from the House of Commons Library do not support that contention—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newport, West did not stay in the Chamber to hear the responses from the Front Benches, but I have no doubt that what I say will be reported to him. If one examines the offences that have led to women being in prison, only a minority are there for non-payment of fines or for debt.

Claire Ward : I should stress that I said during my speech that I did not condone any of the actions of those who are held in prison, whether they are young offenders, juveniles or women prisoners. There are occasions on which detention is appropriate. However, there has not been a discussion about the victims of crime because this debate is about prisoners. In future, I might apply for a debate on the victims of crime, but we are discussing prisoners, and issues such as whether the conditions in which they are held are appropriate. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman has made a point about victims on this occasion.

Mr. Hawkins : I accept that the hon. Lady mentioned that she does not condone in any way the crimes that have been committed. I was simply making the observation that we have heard a lot of speeches on the main subject of the debate, and until I spoke nobody had mentioned the victims of crime. When we debate prisoners, there should also be some mention of victims.

Another significant matter that should be referred to when we talk about women in custody is the recent huge controversy about the short custodial sentence that was imposed on a lady whose children had persistently failed to attend school. There were howls of protest when that sentence was announced, particularly in the liberal press, but those howls were immediately silenced when, having served a very short custodial sentence—it had been reduced on appeal—the lady said that it was the best thing that could have happened to her because it was the only thing that could have forced her to concentrate her mind on how important it is that children should go to school. I think that it was the hon. Member for Newport, West who said that very few people think that prison works, but this prisoner felt that it had worked for her. Her sentence also sent a valuable signal to other feckless and irresponsible parents who were not ensuring that their children get the benefits of education. I have no doubt that persistent truancy—which is quite often aided and abetted by parents—will fall significantly as a result of that deterrent sentence.

However, the custody of women and girls raises extremely important issues that must be addressed. The Government have promised to tackle the shortcomings in the system, but so far—after more than five years in power—they have failed to do so. I hope that the Minister will tell us today that some of those shortcomings have a greater prospect of being addressed in the immediate future.

There are continuing concerns about the rise in the female prison population. I was surprised that many hon. Members said that it would be better if young

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women prisoners were in local authority secure accommodation. I have considerable experience of the criminal justice system from my career at the Bar and the 10 years or so that I have spent in this place, and local authority accommodation has a dreadful record. It would not be advantageous if more young women were to be in the care—which is the official description, but it is very often inappropriate—of local authorities. What we need are humane prisons. People who have committed serious offences and have to receive a custodial sentence are sent to prison as a punishment, rather than for punishment; that has always been the mantra of the Prison Service.

We hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that further progress is being made. I accept several of the points that have been made about the tragic events that happen to some young women and girls who are in custody, and I recognise that more must be done to address them. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

10.28 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) on securing this debate. It addresses an important issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the clarity with which she put her argument, and the passion with which she related and reflected upon the experiences of girls and young women in custody. In so doing, she has done the House a great service.

Running as a thread through all the contributions is the extent to which the young people whom we are discussing have suffered a lifetime of lack of care in its broadest sense. That strikes me most forcefully. There is really no other way to describe it. The social exclusion unit report published last week makes the point all too clearly for juveniles—boys as well as girls. Nearly 90 per cent. miss significant periods of education in their lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford mentioned meeting one young woman who had hardly been in school since the age of 11. Nearly two-thirds have previously been looked after by local authorities, so have not had the benefit of the love, care and support that families are able to provide. Nearly half have literacy and numeracy levels below those of the average 11-year-old. HM chief inspector of prisons undertook a survey that found that two out of five girls reported having experienced violence at home and one in three said that they had experienced sexual abuse.

I am sure that all hon. Members would acknowledge that the young people we are talking about are damaged human beings who cause damage to others as well as to themselves. We should acknowledge the damage done to others, and I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend about the nature of this debate. However, one reason why we are discussing the consequences of the rise in the number of young people sentenced to custody is the general debate that is taking place and is reflected in my own surgeries, as it is in those of other hon. Members.

People are concerned about the impact of crime on their lives. They feel frustrated, frightened, angry and bewildered about the damage caused by the

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consequences of crime. As a society, we are trying to work out how to deal with that. The debate about custody and its effective alternatives is at the heart of the debate about how to tackle the problem, not least because of the size of the prison population.

The challenge is how to prevent further damage being done to others by the significant proportion who go on to reoffend, while trying to address the legacy of the social exclusion that many of the young offenders experience in their short lives For that reason one of the first priorities of the Government since being elected in 1997 has been to reform the youth justice system: by establishing the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, introducing the youth offending teams, and providing courts with the powers to intervene earlier and more effectively when young people get into trouble.

I am pleased to tell the Chamber that that there have been two real successes as a result of the work that the Government have done. The first has been to meet our pledge to halve the time between commission of the offence and young people appearing before the courts for sentence in some shape or form. That is the product of much hard work done by people within the criminal justice system.

Secondly, the first indications of reconviction figures since the implementation of those reforms, show a 14.6 per cent. reduction in reconviction rates compared with juveniles dealt with in 1997, which was the reference period. That has been achieved in one year with the first cohort. We shall have to see whether that progress is maintained, but it is set against the Government's target of a 5 per cent. reduction in four years. That is progress.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) criticised the Government for what he felt they had failed to do—as he would, because it is his job. Being a fair man, I am sure that he would acknowledge those two real examples of progress that have occurred as a result of the reforms introduced by the Government.

I agree with all hon. Members who said that juveniles should be sent to custody only as a last resort. That is precisely why we have provided the courts with a wide range of community-based penalties and introduced a range of new disposals that are specifically targeted at young people who might otherwise face custodial remand or sentence. Those new court orders have been augmented by the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which targets the most persistent juvenile offenders and provides intensive monitoring for up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, together with a highly structured programme of education, training and reparation to victims. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford acknowledged, there are some girls—and boys—whose offending is so serious or persistent that a custodial sentence is the only appropriate response. Lord Warner acknowledged that yesterday when talking about the publication of the Youth Justice Board annual report.

It is, of course, for the courts to make those judgments, but my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor—and, indeed, the Lord Chief Justice—have recently made it clear that they have asked courts to consider carefully the

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decisions that they take about the sentences they impose, and to reserve custody for violent, sexual or persistent offenders.

There has been much debate this morning about why the figures for young women and girls in custody have been increasing. If we look at the statistics, we can see that it is due to a combination of factors. The first is that more girls and young women are appearing before the courts. Secondly, more of those who appear before courts are sentenced into custody, although they are still a tiny minority—some 96 per cent. of juveniles who appear before the court are not made subject to a custodial sentence. However, it is undoubtedly the case that girls who are sentenced to custody are receiving longer sentences than those given in, say, 1985. I was looking at those figures this morning.

My hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), and for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), raised the issue of the imprisonment of women and girls for debt offences. At the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), I looked at the figures on that subject about three weeks ago. It is worth looking at those statistics, and I shall write to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends about them. The number of those sentenced to prison for non-payment of council tax or television licences has declined sharply in recent years, and I welcome that greatly.

It is not the case that hundreds of people—and certainly not women—are being sent to prison every week for fine defaulting. In 2000, an average of three women per week were sent to prison for that offence; that is roughly 150 people in that year. The average stay in custody for those women was only five days. I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak made about the difference between those who genuinely cannot pay and those who will not pay.

If we were to say that under no circumstances would non-payment of a fine result in a custodial sentence, it would create difficulties as regards those who persistently refuse to pay although they can, and there are such people. I refer to my earlier point about the concern in the wider community about the effectiveness of the penalties available under the criminal justice system. There is concern when people see that those who have been given a fine as an alternative to custody can pay but seek not to do so. That goes to the heart of the credibility of the system.

Paul Flynn : I should like to return to the subject of numbers. The Minister's explanation was not convincing and did not make sense. We know that the increase in women prisoners is three times the increase in male prisoners. The female prisoner population has doubled since 1996. Also, one in four women prisoners are placed on remand, although when they go to court, 65 per cent. of them do not receive custodial sentences. Those comments have been made by chief inspectors of prisons over the years. The courts seem to have the inclination to put more women than men on remand. Why on earth is that?

Hilary Benn : I would need to check the figures to find out whether the courts put more women than men on

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remand, but my hon. Friend is undoubtedly correct to say that the rise of the female prison population and the increasing sentence length are features of what has occurred over the past 15 years. I was making a specific point about fine defaulting and imprisonment of people who do not pay other debts. Numbers of people in those categories have declined sharply, and I have promised to write with those figures.

Lynne Jones : I acknowledged the Minister's point in my speech. Courts distinguish between wilful refusal and culpable neglect. I am asking him to give a commitment that the Government will introduce legislation so that it is not possible to send people—especially women—to jail because they are poor and cannot manage their debts. Such action cannot be right, however many people are involved. When I last examined the matter, about a third of women who were sent to prison were sent because they had not paid fines.

Hilary Benn : I cannot give my hon. Friend that undertaking, but if she examines the figures now, she will find that the proportion has reduced significantly. I shall write to her because she raised an extremely important point.

Girls and young women have particular needs that require special attention, and I turn to the placement of young women and girls in custody. We have made it clear that we ideally wish to hold girls in units that are close to their homes, and sufficiently large to provide the high-quality regimes about which hon. Members spoke and to keep them separate from over-18s. Owing to the small number of Prison Service establishments that are able to cater for girls, the Youth Justice Board tries, whenever possible, to place girls aged under 17 in non-Prison Service accommodation: local authority secure children's homes or secure training centres.

The Youth Justice Board embarked last year on a four-year plan to provide several hundred new places by extending existing centres and providing brand new centres in places where there is a lack of provision. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) reminded us, a key part of that plan is to improve provision for girls and vulnerable 15 and 16-year-old boys, with a view to removing all sentenced 15 and 16-year-old girls from Prison Service accommodation.

However, hon. Members will be aware that the juvenile secure estate has been under much pressure recently because of the trends that we have discussed, and the increase of juveniles in custody has affected the board's ability to meet its specific targets. However, achieving the objective to which my predecessors committed themselves remains our clear aim. Indeed, the number of non-Prison Service places available for girls has increased from 36 in April 2000 to 113 today. An additional 32 secure training places will come on stream later this year at the Medway secure training centre. During the past three months, the number of girls held in Prison Service places has started to decline. In April, 128 girls were held, and in May, 118 girls were held. Last month, 109 girls were held. That is an encouraging movement in the right direction.

People in the Prison Service sometimes voice concern about under-18s mixing with adults, which occurs for reasons to which I have referred. For example, there

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might be too few under-18s to accommodate them in juvenile-only accommodation while keeping them close to home and providing appropriate educational and recreational services. We are trying to balance the three objectives of meeting educational need, providing appropriate placements and keeping young offenders as close to home as possible. The three objectives must be juggled together.

The Youth Justice Board tries to avoid mixing as much as possible, and it supports the development of under-18 wings in larger women-only establishments such as New Hall and Bullwood Hall, which my hon. Friend the Member for Watford visited recently.

My hon. Friend expressed worry about what happens to girls and young women who are in custody, and we are trying to address that in two ways. We have created the new detention and training order, which is a sentence that combines a period of custody with a period spent in the community under supervision. The order's aim is to focus on planned and constructive use of time in custody and on effectively supervision and support after release. We have improved regimes, and the Youth Justice Board is now responsible for commissioning and purchasing all forms of juvenile secure accommodation throughout England and Wales. Prison Service order 4950 sets out regimes for prisoners under 18 years old and applies equally to men and women. Three-year development plans are now in place at two women's prisons, Bullwood Hall and New Hall. The Youth Justice Board intends that they will be the only Prison Service establishments for girls by November this year, providing that the demand for juvenile places stabilises.

It has been acknowledged that this morning's debate about women and girls in prison goes to the heart of the debate that society must have about the balance between custody and effective alternatives. The lesson to be drawn from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford is that we are dealing with the problem late in the day, when young offenders present themselves to the criminal justice system. If one thing has come across more clearly than any other this morning, it is that we must do even more to support families and to intervene at an earlier stage. Our work with sure start and the provision of extra support for families on low incomes will make a bigger contribution to minimising the damage that the young people have experienced, which leads them to cause damage to others. That, in the long term, is the greatest investment that we can make.

People can only give out to society what they themselves have been given. If they have never been given love, encouragement and support, it is difficult for them to show those qualities to others. If a person's only experience of human relations is being banged on the head, it is not surprising that that person responds to other human beings in a similar way. In our society today, it is difficult to achieve the proper result for all our young people. We must really work harder to ensure that we provide that sort of upbringing, because it is the best crime reduction measure in the long term.

10.46 am

Sitting suspended.

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