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Westminster Hall

Thursday 3 July 2008

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Criminal Justice (Women)

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

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I welcome Members to this Thursday afternoon sitting in Westminster Hall. Before I call the Minister to open the debate, I would like to advise Members and give early warning that there could well be several Divisions in the House. It would be my intention when a Division is called to suspend the sitting immediately, then to request Members to return to Westminster Hall within 15 minutes of the calling of the last Division. I hope that that is clear. I suspect that we may be absent from Westminster Hall for up to 45 minutes, and I hope that that will not interrupt the debate too much.

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Thank you, Sir Nicholas.

I am sure that Members who are here for this debate will rush back from any Divisions to ensure that we are able to discuss this important subject for the relevant length of time, which is never enough. I am pleased to be here, six months after the Government’s response to Baroness Corston’s report on the subject, to discuss the progress that has been made so far, and the next steps in what she herself said would be a 10-year programme.

I am pleased to welcome not only Members from both sides of the House who have an interest in the matter but my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who will wind up the debate. I am very pleased that she has decided to do so. There is an interest in this subject on both sides of the House and across parties. As hon. Members know, the vast majority of offenders in our prison system—some 95 per cent.—are men. Therefore, it is not surprising, and not something that should be a matter of any kind of censure, that the system has been devised for them, and is run largely for their needs. None the less, that creates an imbalance, and it means that we constantly have to focus on ensuring that the needs of minority populations in the overall prison system are met and are not inadvertently or in any other way ignored.

That is particularly important at a time when the male estate is under intense pressure because of the number of prisoners. The estate is full. I am sure that it was for that reason that one of the recommendations in Baroness Corston’s report was that there should be a ministerial champion for women. I am that person at this time, and it is part of my job to ensure that we retain a focus on the different and important needs of women within the overall prison and custodial system.

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Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): rose

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call Alan Beith.

Sir Alan Beith: We all wish the Minister well in her role as champion of women in the criminal justice system, but is not the difficulty of her position underlined by the fact that when the Government gave their response to the Carter report, a large sum of money was announced for spending on new male prisons, but when they gave their response to the Corston report, no new money was announced, not even for the community-based measures?

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the Minister replies, may I apologise to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for not mentioning that he is now, of course, Sir Alan Beith?

Maria Eagle: Indeed, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Justice Committee, which is the relevant Select Committee, and is therefore listened to with extra care.

The job of being the champion for a mere 5 per cent. of the people in the overall system at a time of great pressure is, of course, a challenge, and because the needs of the type of population that we are discussing are so different, it will always be difficult to ensure that those responsible at all levels of the prison system, including the highest level, focus on them. That will always be a challenge.

I do not necessarily accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The women’s estate is not overcrowded. The male estate is overcrowded, and, as he well knows, the projections do not indicate that that overcrowding will become a thing of the past in the near future. It is a fundamental requirement of any Government to try to ensure that there are enough prison places to accommodate those who are sent into custody by the courts. That is a first-and-foremost obligation on any Government, so it should not surprise anyone that, given the current situation, the Government have allocated resources to building the relevant places to ensure that they can meet their obligation over the medium term.

I do not accept that Lord Carter’s proposals—they are basically what we are discussing when we talk about the male estate—for getting us ahead of the curve, and the increase in the prison population, will not advantage women. If we can get ahead of that curve and ensure that we are not dealing with the pressure of numbers on a day-to-day basis, we will have an opportunity to reconfigure the estate, as Lord Carter himself said, in ways that may assist not only women but other vulnerable groups in the prison system. There are men who have similar vulnerabilities, so I see my position more as being able to forge an alternative way forward for dealing with vulnerable people in the prison system. Women have particular vulnerabilities that are not quite matched by those of other groups. None the less, there are similarities with other groups. It is really about trying to find more effective alternatives, which may then have a read-across to other groups.

For example, throwing an enormous amount of money at building new small custodial units may not necessarily be the right way forward. We have to find a way—I am engaged in doing so—to ensure that the system can
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better meet the needs of women, who have particular vulnerabilities. I shall say a little more about that later. There is acceptance across the parties that too many women are in prison. Many of them are there for only short periods of time. Almost three quarters who are sentenced to custody receive a sentence of less than 12 months, which is acknowledged to be the precise length of sentence that is of least use in reducing reoffending. Evidence shows that that particular sentence is least able to tackle effectively the needs of those who come into the prison system, yet some women in prison are extremely vulnerable.

We know that up to 80 per cent. of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems, compared with a figure of about 20 per cent. in the community outside. About one half of the women in prison report that they have been abused physically or sexually, and of course it is not just the women themselves who are affected by imprisonment. Women are far more likely to be sole carers than men. About 18 per cent. of female prisoners report that they are single and live with dependent children aged 17 or under. The equivalent figure for men in the prison system is 3.5 per cent.

Given what we know about the likelihood of the children of offenders becoming offenders themselves, or of looked-after children or children in care ending up in prison during their lifetime, we must take a decisive step to break the cycle. In fact, we are facilitating intergenerational disadvantage and fuelling tomorrow’s prison population, whether male or female, by not considering the children of these women. Such considerations do not apply to any of the other vulnerable groups in prison in quite the same way. Furthermore, the women’s prison population is different from the male prison population in another way: women commit less crime than men, if one looks at the overall averages, numbers and percentages—I am not looking at individual instances—and their offences are generally less serious. In my experience in my job in the Ministry of Justice over the past year, most parties in the House agree that prison should be reserved for serious and dangerous offenders, yet we know that women, in the main, do not fit into that category in quite the same way that men do.

Clearly, there is a need to protect the public from serious and dangerous offenders, to punish people for whatever crimes they have committed and to try to reduce reoffending. However, far greater percentages of women are put into custody, although they commit less serious offences that would not, in the scale of things, make them serious or dangerous offenders. In addition, far more women are remanded into custody, with 60 per cent. of those remanded being acquitted or not receiving a custodial sentence. The majority of those who are sentenced, as I have already mentioned, receive a sentence of less than 12 months, which is the least useful length of sentence—if colleagues in the Chamber understand what I mean by that—for reducing reoffending.

The consequences for women in prison can be different from those faced by men in prison. Many women will lose their homes and children as a result of being imprisoned, and will return to the community in a less advantageous position than when they went into prison, not only because the causes of their offending have probably not been tackled effectively, owing to the
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length of sentences, but because they may have lost their accommodation, and their families and children. My noble Friend Baroness Corston set out all of that last year in stark terms in her report, and she particularly highlighted the fact that many women have multiple and interrelated needs, which are often compounded by severe drug problems.

We have accepted Baroness Corston’s analysis and the vast majority of her recommendations—40 out of 43—and I have decided, as the ministerial champion, to make regular reports to the House on how we are doing in implementing the recommendations that we have accepted. The first report was laid before Parliament as a written ministerial statement on 24 June. I am pleased to say that the Government have done everything in the first six months that we promised we would do. That is not the end of the story, but it is a start: the first step on a longer journey to full implementation of the recommendations that we accepted.

I should like to say a little bit more about how early actions can provide the foundations for a sustainable longer-term strategy that will turn the situation around and enable women offenders’ needs to be more fully met across the criminal justice system, preferably before they ever end up in custody or, if they are in custody, as they come out, to stop that revolving door straight back into custody, which we see too much.

The first six months of implementing the findings that we accepted has been about taking practical steps to begin expanding women’s centre-type provision. Hopefully, some extra provision will come on-stream soon in Bristol and Cardiff. We need to get the paper products—the national service framework, the gender-specific standards and guidance to the Prison Service and the probation service—published, sent out and embedded in the Prison Service and probation service systems so that those who work in those systems have a fuller understanding of the different needs of women and more of an understanding in their day-to-day work of how they can make the difference for women offenders that we want to be made. Those paper products are needed to make sure that the fact that women need different treatment goes into the psyche of staff who work in the system, so that we start to see practical expressions of that different treatment, which is necessary, and its implementation. For example, the work that we have been able to do on ending strip searching—it is called “full searching”, but it is strip searching—is one example. The changing criteria for acceptance in women’s approved premises is another example. I will say a little bit more about that later on.

We are starting to see different treatment that better meets the needs of women on a gender-specific basis. That is unusual in the prison system: it is not something that those who work in the system are used to doing, and it will take a bit of getting used to. I am glad that, within six months, we will see some of the changes starting to happen and I believe that that will pay dividends in due course. I have been trying, as ministerial champion, to ensure that the governance arrangements and interdepartmental working at ministerial and official level are effective in driving through the changes. My noble Friend Baroness Corston made recommendations to seven Departments. Anybody who has been even a junior Minister knows that the hardest thing as a Minister at any level is making Departments work together effectively
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towards the same aim—that certainly has become apparent to me in the time that I have been a junior Minister. That is easy to say, but it is not easy to do. If we are to ensure that the recommendations are properly implemented and driven forward, it is important that Departments work together at ministerial and official level to achieve that. We have put in place some arrangements that are intended to facilitate that, but I will not mention them because, although they might be interesting to people who aspire to be constitutional lawyers or experts on Whitehall, they are about process rather than actual achievement. However, I am satisfied that those arrangements are working quite well so far and I intend to ensure that they continue to do so.

In the next six months, we will focus on finding effective, practical ways of diverting resources into community provision that would otherwise be used to lock up women, and encourage sentencers to have some confidence in using such opportunities. Although offenders are judged against the framework of law by sentencers, it is important that magistrates or judges considering individual cases have confidence that sentencing women to community penalties—to action in the community—will work as well as they think imprisonment works.

The evidence over the most recent period is that sentencers have been sending women to prison for less serious offences than men—anecdotally, that is partly because of persistent offending. Of course, one accepts that, in respect of individual cases, if somebody keeps appearing before a sentencer, having broken the terms of their community order, imprisonment is going to be the last resort. However, we need to ensure that the community provision that we provide has the confidence of sentencers. We need to make sure that, over the next six months, what we can put in place has their confidence.

In the medium to longer term, diverting women who are needlessly and ineffectively sent to prison and preventing them from reoffending will bring down the female prison population. It is only through diverting women from being sent into custody in the first place and ensuring that those who come out the other end do not swiftly reoffend and go back through the revolving doors that we will get that prison population down over time.

Prison is, of course, the right place for the most serious and dangerous offenders, but we need to ensure that the only women in prison are those who really need to be there. For less serious offences, a community sentence can be a better punishment and can be more effective in preventing re-offending. Evidence indicates that that is so for all groups. Baroness Corston argued that many women currently in custody should be in the community instead. I agree with that recommendation.

We formalised our expectation clearly in the national service framework for women offenders, which was published on 30 May. That document sets out, for the first time, the different way in which women should be treated, given the different characteristics of women offenders. It aims to reduce the number of women coming through the criminal justice system and to ensure that the needs of women who are found guilty of an offence can be met in the community, wherever possible. It also aims to ensure that women who are sentenced to custody have appropriate facilities that properly meet their needs in prison.

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The framework will provide the basis upon which practice can be developed and changed throughout the system better to meet women’s needs. The importance of Her Majesty’s Prison Service recognising the different needs and characteristics, as set out in the framework, should not be overlooked. Until now, there has been no formal, central document to suggest that it is correct or would be better or more sensible to treat women differently from men.

The full search regime has been applied equally to men and women without taking into account the fact that many women in prison have been sexually abused or are suffering from mental ill health, and such a search may be infinitely more distressing and less useful when applied to women. That is just one example of how the paper product—the framework—which is readable but is not of itself an achievement, can facilitate achievement and change in future. The foundation of such documents, understanding them, taking them on board and implementing them throughout the service will enable us to make a difference in the medium term and to drive through the system what could be a profound change in the way in which different groups are handled.

If we are to reduce the number of women coming through the criminal justice system, we must deliver more effective community sentences for them, and we must deliver more appropriate services for vulnerable women at risk of offending. It is important to devise elements of community sentences that tackle women’s needs more effectively perhaps than has happened in the past. That is an important role for commissioners of such services at local and regional levels. If commissioners are to understand what is needed in their local area, it is important that they understand the different needs of women as opposed to those of men. Instead of just commissioning a service that looks at supporting people with mental health problems, we must recognise the particular needs of women with mental health problems and their particular vulnerabilities.

It is important that staff who carry out that commissioning are aware at all levels of the different approaches required to procure different interventions in their areas. Only when that happens will it be possible for sentencers, when considering different options, to have confidence that, if they do not send a woman to prison, there is something else out there to meet her needs and stop her reoffending.

To facilitate much of that, Baroness Corston wanted more multi-agency community centres for women. That is the way forward. Women's centres can bring added value to community orders and reassure sentencers, which is important. Established women's centres run by the third sector provide a one-stop shop to resolve a range of problems, from tackling mental ill health to issues to do with housing, domestic violence, debt, education needs and looking after children. Many of those issues are at the core of the needs of vulnerable women who often end up in prison. They may also be crucial in increasing sentencer confidence that community penalties are worth trying instead of prison sentences.

I have seen for myself the excellent work of many women’s centres. For example, the Anawim women's centre in Birmingham works closely with the local probation service. Women attend the centre to fulfil their unpaid work requirement, which keeps sentencers happy because they can see that the unpaid work
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requirement is being fulfilled, and it enables the women concerned to receive support to tackle the underlying issues and problems that are causing their offending behaviour. For example, they can access the centre's range of courses, support with debt and child care issues, and a methadone programme, which enables them to stabilise polydrug use and to deal with issues that may arise from the chaotic lifestyle that many drug users fall into.

I have spoken to staff at the Together Women’s centre in Yorkshire and Humberside about how they are delivering the £9.15 million Government-funded programme, which is being evaluated. During my trip to York, I was heartened that the local bench chairman and other magistrates who came along to talk to me had the confidence to sentence women to community sentences rather than custody when they had seen what was on offer at the centre.

Initial findings indicate that services provided by such all-round provision are effective, and we need to make better use of them in the criminal justice system. We are considering increasing the number of such centres. We have contributed extra money towards setting up and running the Turnaround project in Cardiff in Wales, which I have also visited. We are putting money into piloting an integrated approach to combining residential facilities with a range of community-based services in Bristol. Perhaps more importantly, over the next six months a matter of great importance will be cross-Departmental work to examine the extent and nature of current generic women's centre provision, and the potential to develop and to make better use of such centres by bringing together agencies and funding streams with the potential to spread availability of such services much more widely. That is an important part of my effort over the next six months to take these ways of doing things further.

We are planning to supplement the available community provision by asking the probation service to use approved premises more effectively for women who could benefit from the structured services provided. Instead of those who go into approved premises having to present a severe risk of harm to others, we find that women’s approved premises are suitable for women who do not necessarily present a high risk of harm to others, but who may benefit because self-harm or the likelihood of reoffending may be reduced by the sort of structured services that are available there. That entails changing the criteria for use to suit the needs of women more. The existing criteria for their use tends to be based on the needs of male offenders.

The probation service has received the “Offender Manager Guide to Working with Women”, which will help staff to work with local partners, introducing them to the ways of dealing with women’s accommodation, health and education needs to ensure that women offenders get access to those services and are not overlooked because their number may be smaller than the number of male offenders in a particular area.

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