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3 July 2008 : Column 309WH—continued

We must have better interventions to help to focus on the real causes of reoffending by vulnerable women in the community.We must have interventions designed specifically for women. About one third of women lose their homes while in prison, and lack of accommodation
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when they come out can be a key cause of swift recidivism. Help focused on accommodation can be particularly useful in ensuring that women do not return straight to offending when they leave prison, and do not come back through the prison door not long after they have left.

Following an initial two-year funding stream from the Ministry of Justice, a project in the south-west is a one-stop shop to provide accommodation for women coming out of prison. It is focused on the Bristol area and other parts of the south-west, but because people in the local community, from the city council to the local probation service, have recognised its value in supporting people, the funding has been supplemented by other agencies, local and national, and the project will continue as a result of having demonstrated its worth. The truth of the matter is that responsibility for meeting those needs goes far wider than the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system must do more, and our partners across Government and all agencies, central and local, must also do more. The more we can do together, the better. Local and regional partnerships, across agencies, Departments and the community and voluntary sectors, are key to progress, as is shifting resources from the £35,000 or so a year average cost of locking up a woman to help to fund provision that will divert women from the risk of custody in the first place, and to help to give sentencers confidence that community-based provision is more effective and more likely to tackle the root causes of offending, and hence to help to reduce reoffending among women. I am looking carefully at how we might achieve that across Government.

Nevertheless, there will always be women who should rightly serve their sentences in prison. As such, we have to be sure that the prison system is adequately responsive to their particular needs. In recent years, we have made significant improvements in that area and we now spend more per prison place for women than for men.

In line with Baroness Corston’s recommendations, we aim to make further progress. We are implementing a set of gender-specific standards for women prisoners to improve the care, management and resettlement of women. For women who have been abused—some sexually abused—strip searching is distressing and is at best deeply damaging. When I have visited women’s prisons, many staff have told me that strip searching is worthless and never turns anything up. I was also told that it is demeaning and destructive of good relationships and respect between staff and prisoners. Strip searching should be done only when absolutely necessary and we have made excellent progress in reducing the number of times it takes place in prisons. Pilots are now running in five women’s prisons to test a new kind of search that does not require the removal of underwear unless there is intelligence or a specific suspicion that items are being concealed.

The early results are encouraging—much against the expectations of some—and I expect that the new arrangements will shortly be in place in all women’s prisons. Already more than a third of the female prison population is benefiting from these changes and I have been given anecdotal suggestions by those operating the pilot that it makes the institutions much more respectful, better, more dignified places. The changes represent a major improvement in treating women prisoners properly
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and should improve dignity, respect and the relationships between all those who work and live in prisons, which is something that Baroness Corston was keen on ensuring progress with.

In terms of the physical prison estate, Baroness Corston proposed that, over the next 10 years, we should replace existing women’s prisons with geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional units, which she recommended should be designed to house 20 to 30 women in areas easily accessible to visitors, such as city centres. In setting out the case for small custodial units, she proposed a number of principles that should inform their development. Those principles include providing a multi-functional environment, at the same site ensuring closeness to home as much as possible and making provisions to strengthen family and community links to support re-settlement.

The Government certainly accept that those principles should underlie the way in which we design the women’s estate. We had a project team look swiftly at the practicality and desirability of units of that kind of size, as we said we would do in our response to the report. The findings of our director-led working group on small custodial units are set out in our progress report, which was published last Tuesday. I do not propose to rehearse the arguments in full but, in summary, the working group found that it would be difficult to deliver the full range of services required to meet the needs of women prisoners in such small units. If the full range of interventions were not available, it may increase the frequency of moves, which would damage the aim of stability and closeness to home that is at the core of the report. There were concerns that units as small as 20 to 30 people could increase bullying and make those in them feel less safe. Those are real concerns.

We thought that units of 100 to 150 would be a more practicable size for dealing with all those issues. Some international evidence has shown that such a size is more usual. However, the planned addition of a new 77-place unit at Her Majesty’s prison Bronzefield has presented the opportunity to test how redesigning the physical environment might work in practice. The current design of the new unit includes a number of small, self-contained blocks holding about 20 to 30 prisoners each within a larger site at the prison. The unit will combine a more communal and supportive small-scale environment with the ability to provide a wide range of services and interventions to meet the needs of the women who are imprisoned there. We intend to have the new wing in place by 2009.

Baroness Corston’s proposals on the physical estate are being taken on board. We are not just going to build a new wing at Bronzefield that, if it did not have women in it, could have men in it—that is how estates have tended to be built in the past. Over time, we hope that the population of women prisoners reduces and that we will have the chance physically to reconfigure the estate using those principles. I do not think that any new women’s custodial facilities will be built as wings—as many have been up to now—and that is a tribute to Baroness Corston’s work.

I shall conclude by briefly setting out the long-term actions we are taking to embed some of the improvements. We have started work on developing options to divert more women offenders from custody and to make sure that, wherever appropriate, they are dealt with in the
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community. The aim is to bring about a successful and sustainable reduction in the size of the women’s prison population. If that is achieved, it could create real opportunities to make better use of the money we spend on locking women up, which, on average, is about £35,000 per woman per year. It would also allow us to look at how we might reconfigure the women’s prison estate, guided by Baroness Corston’s principles, better to meet the needs of those women who will remain in custody.

To make a lasting difference, the strategy should not be delivered in isolation—it is not an add-on to the way in which we run custody generally or the way in which the Prison Service runs. The changes will be sustainable only if we make them business as usual and bed them into the way in which the Prison Service works. That is what we are aiming to do. The changes we have made, the frameworks and governance we have put in place, and the initiatives for women we are delivering on the ground will ensure that the needs of women are no longer marginalised in the criminal justice system.

There is no doubt that more needs to be done—this is a six-monthly report on a 10-year strategy. I certainly intend to continue to report regularly to Parliament on the progress that we are making in implementing the recommendations of Baroness Corston’s report. I also intend to ensure that we continue to drive forward and implement the recommendations that we have accepted, so that in due course a real improvement in the conditions of women in prison and a real reduction in the numbers of women in prison will be there for all to see.

3.7 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this extremely important debate on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. It is also a privilege and very humbling to be in the presence of both knights and a champion today. It is important that we challenge and debate with the Minister, as she is the champion on this matter. All of us want to see action on a subject that has concerned many people for many years. The vulnerability of women in the criminal justice system is obviously not a new problem or concern. Although there is a large degree of consensus, there is a concern that we need to move towards action.

The long title of the debate, which draws on the title of Baroness Corston’s welcome review, is significant. Indeed, “women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system” could lead some of those listening to or reading the debate to think that it is exceptional for such women to be in the criminal justice system and that those with vulnerabilities are on the edge of the system. However, as we all know, vulnerability in relation to women is the norm rather than the exception.

We have heard a number of statistics today, and although I do not wish simply to repeat them it is important that we clearly establish that vulnerability is not an exception in relation to the criminal justice system. When we consider that 43 per cent. of women suffer from depression; that 22 per cent. had a physical disability for which special assistance was required; that 73 per cent. had used illegal or non-prescription drugs or solvents; that more than 50 per cent. had used crack cocaine in previous years; that at least 50 per cent. of all
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self-harm incidents in prisons involve women, despite the fact that women account for only 5 per cent. of the overall population; and that self-injury rates rose by 48 per cent. between 2003 and 2007, we become aware—if we were not aware of it before—of the significance of the problem. As the Minister said, more than 80 per cent. of female prisoners have diagnosable mental health problems, so it is clear that vulnerability is very much at the core of the issue of women in the criminal justice system.

Concerns have been clearly expressed by various groups and pressure groups. Indeed, in its briefing for today’s debate, INQUEST has made it clear—

3.10 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

3.53 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Burrowes: I was recounting the concerns of INQUEST, which has highlighted the fact that the vulnerability of women in the criminal justice system is not a new problem. It paints a disturbing picture of what it describes as preventable tragedy between 1990 and 2007, stating that during that period

It describes

and says that

It concludes that women in prison are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society.

We often hear statistics, but it is also important to hear from those who are affected and have direct experience. Page 27 of Baroness Corston’s report describes what she was told by staff at Brockhill, who said that most of those imprisoned there

The debate is focused on women, and women are often mothers. Indeed, in the prison estate, it is estimated that the mothers of some 18,000 children a year are sent to prison. Of those, 5 per cent. remain in their own home after their mother has been sentenced. It is estimated that by 2012, there are likely to be more than 200,000 children with parents in prison. A problem that arises from that is that only seven out of the 15 women’s prisons, as I understand it, have facilities for children to stay with their mothers. The staff at Brockhill went on to say of the women who were imprisoned there:

That is what the staff said, but it is important to think about the individuals involved. I can reflect on one such individual, Sofia, whom I encountered during my early years representing criminal clients, including women, as a defence solicitor. She was presented to me as a client who had just got into trouble and had been charged with a shoplifting offence, but as someone who had every potential in life. She was very able and from a relatively stable background, and she had the life chances that we would all hope she would have. However, she had recently come under the influence of a heroin addict, who had introduced her to drugs, particularly heroin.

That was the situation when I first represented her at Enfield magistrates court, but there was another such occasion, and another and so on. The fifth time that I represented her, two years later, she had descended into addiction and suffered the consequences, which included homelessness and health problems. When she appeared in court she was particularly vulnerable. The court’s various interventions, from fines, conditional discharges and probation, to supervision and community service orders, came and went, and in many ways failed. Indeed, she often breached the orders and continued as before. It is important to note that throughout those interventions, she was never given the opportunity to seek residential rehabilitation for her drug addiction.

When she went to court for the final time—it was one of my last such appearances with a client—she was very much at the end of her life. I told the court that it was her last opportunity. She recognised that she had descended into heroin addiction and that her life chances were few, and it was her last opportunity to gain some kind of drug rehabilitation. Perhaps more by luck than planning, funding and a place became available for a residential placement, and Sofia wanted to take it. Before that, she often asked not to receive a community penalty but to go to prison, so that she could have a break from the people influencing her and to have some stability, but on this last occasion she decided to take what in many ways was the harder option—it presented her with more challenges—and receive assistance within a structured regime.

I heard nothing of her for two years. As part of the addiction working group, which was part of the Centre for Social Justice policy review of addictions, I visited Phoenix house in Sheffield, which is one of the few residential units for women and children offering rehabilitation. Crucially, it provides a link to enable children to be with their parent, and thus enable the parent, as part of their rehabilitation, to help with family life. I was presented with a leaflet, part of which described what Phoenix House does. It provides excellent residential rehabilitation care, but the availability of such care is all too scarce, particularly for women and children. Lo and behold, the leaflet included a picture of Sofia, and told her story. She said:

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That was when I came into contact with her. She went on to say:

She received that help from the Alpha service. She took part in key work, including counselling sessions, and undertook various activities. She said:

something that is often lacking in prison, rehabilitation or rehabilitation in the community—

that is crucial—

It was heartening to see that success story in the brochure from Phoenix house. Sofia came through the system. She was particularly vulnerable when she went through the criminal justice system, but she has found a way out through the assistance and fine work of Phoenix house. The challenge is to replicate and increase such experiences by using the voluntary sector and working in harness with the prison and probation services to ensure that stories such as Sofia’s are not the exception.

It is an old story that has been repeated in reports, initiatives and plans. The Children’s Commissioner highlighted as a concern the relationship between mother and baby, particularly in the criminal justice system, and published a report in January drawing attention to the fact that there are too few mother and baby units, and that they are thinly spread across the country. That means that far too many women in prison who are expecting a baby are miles away from where they come from. As I understand it, there is only one unit, at Rugby in Warwickshire, for girls under 18. I invite the Minister to respond to that, or to investigate the lack of such facilities.

It is all very well to say that now, but it is important to make the point that when a review of mother and baby units was held as long ago as 1999, the matter was mentioned then, but very little has happened, and the problem has got worse. We all welcome Baroness Corston’s report, and we are anxious that its recommendations should be implemented. It is important that, amid plans and initiatives, there is action on the ground, so that the Sofias of this world, mothers with babies, and those with other vulnerabilities can seek proper assistance. Concerns are particularly profound about the distance between prison and court, and how it has increased over the years. More than half of female prisoners are held more than 50 miles away from their home, and at least a quarter are held more than 100 miles away. We want to encourage smaller and more local units, as Baroness Corston recommended.

Maria Eagle: Is the hon. Gentleman’s party saying that 20 to 30-bed units would be desirable, and that the Conservatives would commit to introducing them if they had the opportunity to do so?

Mr. Burrowes: I hope to respond to that question when considering the Government’s recently published response and progress report on meeting the needs of
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women. It is important to set the Government’s response in context. It has come in the form of governance and improvements to governance; we have the champion of that approach before us. It has also come through interministerial groups and sub-groups, cross-departmental criminal justice women’s units, the production of a more detailed delivery plan, the publication and implementation of other action plans and schemes and the setting up of projects to review matters.

In 2005, the Select Committee on Home Affairs reported its concerns about female prisoners:

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