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Half of all women who go to prison have suffered from physical abuse. A third have suffered from gender violence or sexual violence. There is such a fine line in these cases between a victim whose trauma throws her into chaos, and one who descends from chaos into crime. Statistically, women who go to prison are far more likely than men to lose their home and family. Seventy per cent. require detox, and 55 per cent. of the self-harming incidents in prison involve women, though women make up only 6 per cent. of the prison population. Seventy-six per cent. of women in custody are there for less than a year and are largely non-violent, yet the
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prison population of women increased 126 per cent. between 1995 and 2005, compared with 46 per cent. for men.

It is easy to see that they have been doubly wronged—we are slow in starting to intervene to support them out of their trauma, and when they flounder through that trauma and into crime, we send them to prison.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Is the Minister aware of the fact that more than two thirds of women who enter prison have two or more identifiable mental illnesses? They often go to prison before an assessment is made of their mental state, and putting them in prison often exacerbates their illness. Does the Minister agree that we should get the court system to sharpen up its act, so that more assessments are conducted on women’s mental state using the court diversion system before they are sent to prison, rather than letting them go into a situation that could not be more damaging?

Vera Baird: The courts are, as the hon. Lady has put it, sharpening up their act, and arrangements are now in place. Historically, there have been situations in which in order to assess a woman’s mental state, she has been remanded in custody, which, as the hon. Lady has said, can be very damaging. Now there are schemes whereby local mental health trusts and courts work together with the intention that an assessment should be made as quickly as possible, hopefully without detention in the meantime.

John Bercow: By way of reinforcement to the point just made by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), may I mount one of my habitual hobby-horses and alert the Minister to the fact that a significant proportion of prisoners in this country, including female prisoners, suffer from a speech, language or communication disorder of one sort or another? I invite her to try to intensify pressure within the Government to ensure that in the future at prisons and young offender institutions an assessment is carried out as a matter of course of the condition of each individual prisoner as the precursor to providing speech, language and communication assistance. Without that, people cannot access education and training courses, which would otherwise be so beneficial to them.

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point, and I am happy to see him riding his hobby-horse in our direction again.

I was about to set out what we are doing to try to prevent women from entering prison, which includes some of the interventions that he has mentioned. Because women are acute examples of the problem, if we can start to get better schemes for women, where women go, men will follow very quickly, which is not an untypical pattern.

Mary Creagh: My hon. and learned Friend the Minister has briefly mentioned the problem of human trafficking. As part of the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into human trafficking, we met some of the women who are being looked after by the Poppy project in south London. We heard some devastating testimony from survivors of sexual slavery who had
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co-operated with the police and had been given some leave to remain but not indefinite leave to remain. Their enslavers have been sent to prison, but they will be out before this country settles the immigration status of those women. As soon as the enslavers are released from prison, they will return to their country of origin, where those women’s children still live. Such children will clearly face a high risk of future criminal action by those people. Will the Minister work with the immigration and nationality directorate and the Home Office to look at that urgent situation and to resolve it?

Vera Baird: I must compliment the Poppy project, which has led the way in giving support and breathing space to trafficked women. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on pointing out how complex, knotty and interwoven the fates of the abuser and the abused are in such situations. We must move forward carefully but speedily towards a solution to that problem.

There is a Home Office scheme called the women’s offending reduction programme, which has functioned since March 2004. It is intended to improve community interventions and services for women, to support greater use of community sentences and to avoid the use of custody for women, where possible. The previous Home Secretary announced a programme called, “Together women” at the annual meeting of the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice, which I chaired a year ago. We have invested £9 million in that project since 2005, and there are demonstration projects in four centres. Those one-stop centres allow key workers to support women who are offenders and women who are at risk of offending.

Lynne Jones: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that children suffer disproportionately when women are sent to prison? When a mother is sent to prison, it is far less likely that the child will be able to remain in the family home or be cared for by a parent. In that context, will she look again at the changes introduced in the past year to release on temporary licence, which, while they have assured some consistency in access to release to see children when women are imprisoned and to maintain their contacts with their families, discretion for governors on the length of release on temporary licence and the frequency of its use has been reduced? Surely that is a detrimental step.

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend raised that point at a recent private meeting. I do not know why that step has been taken, but I am sure that there is a rationale behind it. I will take up the matter with Home Office Ministers and come back to her. It is germane to mention that Baroness Corston, has been holding an inquiry into vulnerable women and, in particular, vulnerable women in prison, which will be reporting very soon. I expect her report to make recommendations for situations such as the one that my hon. Friend has raised.

I have discussed trying to get women to be sentenced in a different way, and I have talked about the thin line between being thrown into chaos and turning to crime. There must be a situation for intervention between the two, and my Department is working to increase the awareness of available advice and information, which can help people whose lives are becoming chaotic by providing early interventions to solve problems before
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they escalate, by helping with fair and proportionate dispute resolution and by delivering expeditious justice. When a person is not in the territory of the specific help provided by independent sexual violence advisers, can we none the less catch that person to stop their debt problems by giving them good early advice, to help them to hold on to their house and to prevent them from drifting into crime in order to ensure that they keep their children?

Our legal aid scheme plays a crucial role in that respect. Our current legal aid reform proposals have generated a good deal of debate, but what is lost in that debate far too often is that the whole point of carrying out the reform is to make sure that we can join other funders who can give non-legal advice, and thereby give easy access to our legal advice, so we can help as many vulnerable and socially excluded people as possible. We must do that by focusing legal aid away from criminal legal aid towards civil and family legal aid, and by making both systems as efficient as possible. That is what we are doing, and that is what we will do. Women, justice and gender equality in the UK is a complex subject. I have only just begun to address some specifics in this opening speech, but I hope that I have set out some of the work that we are doing to meet the needs of women in our society. I guess that all hon. Members who are here already understand that it will take a lot more. Let us celebrate ourselves, and let us celebrate the progress that we have made. Other women in the world are, like us, considering these topics on this important day. Let us resolve to commit yet more energy and to work in solidarity for yet another year towards a more equal world for women.

1.19 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I warmly welcome the fact that we are having this debate. For a long time, we had to argue for the necessity for a debate on women’s issues and for marking international women’s day in this place. I am delighted that we are having a full and thorough debate today.

I do not entirely agree with the Minister that this is like new year’s day. It does not feel like it to me, because I have not been out partying all night and do not have a hangover. No jokes about being legless, please—I do have one leg that is working perfectly well. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I am a little slow in some things, but I am working under the temporary disability of a broken leg, hence the crutches. However, it is a very good experience for a shadow spokesman on equality to discover, on a day-to-day basis, what it is like to navigate round one’s busy life with a disability. I am fortunate in that mine, I hope, will be overcome soon.

I welcome the fact that there are so many hon. Ladies on the Government Benches—but there is not one single hon. Gentleman. So much for gender equality in the Government. I am not suggesting for a moment that the hon. Ladies on the Government Front Bench, or indeed any other hon. Ladies, need any support from their male colleagues, but their absence is just so starkly obvious. I realise that perhaps they cannot see it from over there, but I can. It is remarkable that male Labour Members of Parliament think that a
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debate on gender equality and justice on international women’s day is nothing whatsoever to do with them. I like to be optimistic, so perhaps the explanation is that hon. Ladies on the Government Benches are so competent and have achieved so much—as I believe they have—that their male colleagues do not think it necessary to be here.

Be that as it may, I should like to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), for Buckingham (John Bercow), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and indeed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—oh, he has gone. At least he put in an appearance. [ Interruption. ] I am told that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) is also here—I am sorry, but my ability to swing around is not terrific. I welcome them and my other hon. Friends, and thank Members in the House generally for their support for this debate.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. Laing: I give way to the hon. Lady, but she will have to forgive me if it takes me a moment to sit down.

Fiona Mactaggart: I will stand up slowly, too.

Is the hon. Lady placing so much emphasis on the presence of hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches because it is not possible for the Conservatives to muster as many women Members as the 17 who are sitting on the Labour Benches at present?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady makes a perfectly good arithmetical point with which I cannot disagree, but we are making progress in a fair and equitable way. In any case, I have always said that quality is more important than quantity.

Mrs. Moon: I rise in defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who was here earlier on. I would not wish the House to fail to recognise his presence or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who was also here.

Mrs. Laing: I accept what the hon. Lady says; perhaps I could not see them.

In reality, however, the fact that there are no male Labour Members here does not matter, because the issues that we are discussing today affect everyone in our society. When we discuss equality, it does not matter who is the spokesman putting forward the argument—what matters is the quality of the argument and what is done in this place.

Vera Baird: One of the men whom the hon. Lady prayed in aid was popping in to talk to someone else and went out again immediately, and another was a Whip, who has to be present. Unlike the Tories, we have the great advantage of having women Whips.

Mrs. Laing: Having been a woman Whip, I know the advantages only too well. Of course, the hon. and learned Lady is right, but I could not resist the very rare opportunity to make such a point. However, we are getting rather off the subject.

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The Minister gave a wide-ranging and thorough speech on matters of great importance, very little of which I disagreed with. All of us, on both sides of the House, have worked together very well these past few years on issues of equality and fairness, and an awful lot has been achieved. However, very many women, in all walks of life, are still at a disadvantage in one way or another, and that is why it is important that we have a full and thorough debate today.

I realise that the motion is specifically about matters in the UK, as is correct, but I should note that the progress that we have made and the lives that we lead today as women in the western world bear no relation whatsoever to what women are having to suffer in many countries around the world. So much still has to be done for them, but that does not diminish what we still have to achieve in our own country.

I would argue that there is no such thing as a women’s issue. People who do not come to debates like this will sometimes say, “Oh, that’s just about women’s issues and I speak on transport,” or “I have an interest in defence,” or “I specifically deal with foreign affairs.” Every issue affects women and men, and women are affected by every issue. What there is, though, is a slightly different women’s point of view on many of the policy areas that we discuss from day to day. It is good that at last we can dare to say that women do things differently from men—not better or worse, or at least not always. I am not making a value judgment but stating a simple, stark, obvious point, which is rarely stated because it is too obvious or because it is disagreed with. Because women do things differently from men, we sometimes find ourselves in this place, and in many institutions around the country, seeing a way in which something could be changed and improved from the point of view of women, but finding that no one will listen because the argument will always be, “We’ve always done it like this—why change it?” Often, a small change would improve the lives and working conditions of many women. The Under-Secretary covered some of those issues today, as did other hon. Members in interventions. I shall not attempt to cover everything that we could discuss, not least because I cannot stand up for that long. I am sure that my colleagues are delighted to hear that.

I should like to welcome, as I have done on every occasion when we have discussed the matter, the great achievements of the Equality Act 2006 and the establishing of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It is a great step forward that Conservative Members supported all the way. I look forward to further progress on the matter.

Fiona Mactaggart: Would the hon. Lady like to comment on the fact that every single equality measure in this country has been introduced by a Labour Government?

Mrs. Laing: No, I would not. We have had a Labour Government for the past 10 years. I have been a Member of Parliament for all that time and, when I have had a chance to speak in this place, I have always supported equality. The Government just happen to be Labour—I wish they were not—but the next Conservative Government will continue the march for equality and the work that is being undertaken.

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It is rather pathetic to look back to times past and talk about what happened decades ago. I am concerned about the future and the actions of the next Conservative Government, which will be elected soon and be full of women. I am not concerned about the actions of the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Lady’s point is therefore irrelevant but I am glad that she makes political points, otherwise we would have a boring debate. I shall give way any time she would like to make more.

I would like briefly to speak about three matters, with examples. They are: violence, health and economic activity. First, let us consider the great achievements that have been made. The Under-Secretary spoke at length, eloquently and correctly about violence. I especially welcome yesterday’s announcement of more resources for the police to deal with trafficking. I am pleased that the Government have at last, under Conservative pressure, agreed to the terms of the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) laughs—I shall give way if she would like to make her point audibly.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): The pressure that the hon. Lady describes came from not only Conservative Members, but Members of all parties. I remember a debate in which the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made the same demands. There has also been considerable pressure from my Labour colleagues—male and female. The hon. Lady should therefore reconsider her comment.

Mrs. Laing: I am glad that I gave the hon. Lady an opportunity to make that point. I am well aware that, in previous discussions, many Labour Members called for the Government to take action. I am pleased that such pressure was brought to bear. I am sure that the Prime Minister listens a little to his Back Benchers.

Much progress has been made with regard to violence, especially domestic violence.

Vera Baird: I thought perhaps that the hon. Lady would like to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who has entered the Chamber and is a bloke.

Mrs. Laing: I am glad that the Under-Secretary has pointed that out. It makes me remember going to teenage school parties when somebody would say, “Oh look, there’s a boy.” I welcome the hon. Gentleman, but since he was not present for the earlier exchange, he may wonder why I am so pleased to see him. Let us leave that aside.

Let us consider how much has been achieved in women’s health and the emphasis that has been placed on it. Choice in maternity services is especially important. However, it is sad that the Government, having achieved considerable progress on the matter, now choose to close maternity hospitals. Services are being taken out of the community at a time when the Government purport to encourage us all not to use cars or travel unnecessary distances. Yet they have a programme of hospital closures. The choice that has been achieved is now being gradually taken away.

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