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3 July 2008 : Column 316WH—continued

The Select Committee has expressed such concerns in other reports, both before and since, but we need action and delivery. The proposal for small custodial units is the crucial aspect of the Corston report. It is, I suggest, the one that exercises the Government’s mind the most, and the issue on which they diverge most from Corston’s recommendations. She recommended:

I understand that the Government working group has agreed the principle, the model and the range. It supports the principle, but when it comes to the details—

Maria Eagle: We do not support the principle of 20 to 30-bed units. We think that they are too small to do effectively what Corston’s report suggested they would achieve, although we think that some of the design principles that she talked about are worth taking further.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for that clarification. Moving to the Government’s response, page 13 deals with the potential effects on vulnerable women. The Minister refers on that page to overseas examples of the negatives, rather than the positives, of the small unit model, concluding:

The reality is that women’s safety is already compromised in many ways by the present state of prisons; the matter is already urgent. We have seen from the extreme figures on self-harm and death that women’s safety is at risk now, and we must ensure that we move towards proper action.

It is not adequate to deal with the debate and consideration of whether small units are appropriate simply by saying, “Well, the answer is to deal with lower-risk, short-sentence women offenders in the community.” No doubt we all want to encourage robust community penalties that are wholly appropriate, like Sofia’s. She was given a number of community orders that failed, primarily as a result of her lack of compliance, but also because they were often not tailored to meet her needs, especially her needs as a drug addict.

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The figures on women in prison show that, although most females serve shorter sentences than males, the percentage of women sentenced for six months or less is double the 7 per cent. figure for men. The percentage of women serving six to 12 months is 7 per cent., as opposed to 4 per cent. of men. There is also a disproportion between the percentages of females and males serving sentences greater than 12 months, but nevertheless, 80 per cent. of females are sentenced to more than 12 months. That is a significant figure. Although it is important to deal with short-term sentences, it is also important to be aware that the reality is that 80 per cent. of women serve long-term sentences of more than 12 months.

One cannot deal with the issue and Baroness Corston’s recommendation by saying, “Well, we’ll deal with them better in the community.” One must still grapple with the fact that while some people in prison need to be there, they should be in units closer to home. One cannot say simply, as the paragraph that is headed, “Ensuring appropriate provision for the target group” says, that

One size cannot fit all in relation to the numbers and units, but I must challenge the claim that the closeness-to-home issue is not pressing. What is the evidence for stating that prisoners, whether serving short or long-term sentences, are not concerned about how close they are to home? Sadly, as prisoners serve their sentences, relationships become sparser and less linked to the outside, and often the continuity of any kind of relationship is limited more to probation officers and less to families. I remember from my experience with clients that more often that not, their continuity of relationship was with a defence solicitor more than anyone else, which is depressing for anyone. I challenge the Government not to put to one side those serving long sentences, or think that closeness to home is not an issue.

Both male and female prisoners are increasingly disconnected from their communities, and that disconnection continues after their resettlement. Although the usual supervision requirements provide prisoners with links after they have been dealt with by prison, those links are very limited, particularly for those serving sentences far from home. A different approach is required to take account of the whole estate and to establish new smaller prisons closer to the court and the local community. We need to ensure that prisons and their governors are responsible not just for ensuring prisoner safety and implementing rehabilitation programmes, but have a foot outside, as well as inside, the prison. That is why we have proposed prisoner rehabilitation trusts, with governors responsible both for what happens inside prisons and for rehabilitation inside and elsewhere. They would seek to work properly with the voluntary and private sectors and to run rehabilitation programmes that would dramatically improve opportunities for male and female prisoners, allowing them to pursue resettlement and not to reoffend.

The critique of the Government’s position is clear and comes from many sources. TheGuardian described the Government’s response as “lacklustre” and went on to state that

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The Prison Reform Trust said that the Lord Chancellor was questioned by the Justice Committee about the lack of dedicated funding for implementing Corston’s recommendations. The Howard League stated:

Others have commented that we do not need any more reviews, or reviews of reviews.

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): How much money would the Tory party put into these small units, if it ever gets back into government, and exactly what would they look like? How big would they be? Will the hon. Gentleman tell us all about them, as we are intrigued.

Mr. Burrowes: I invite the Government and the Ministers present to read our document, “Prisons with a Purpose”.

The Solicitor-General: So the hon. Gentleman does not know.

Mr. Burrowes: If hon. Members want, I could spend my time going through our proposals for the redesign of prisons.

Maria Eagle: I have read the hon. Gentleman’s document, but would he care to answer the question that I asked him earlier: is he committing the Tory party to building small custodial units for women, each holding 20 to 30 people?

Mr. Burrowes: I would not prescribe a particular number, but certainly we are in favour of smaller and more localised prisons and units. As we and a number of organisations have said, the Government have missed the opportunity to transform the custodial estate. We could subject our old prison sites, both male and female, to commercial development and use the lease capital to build new prisons closer to local communities that are fit for purpose.

The Government have been sidetracked by the shadow of titan prisons. Lord Carter’s review of prisons barely mentions the vulnerability of women in the criminal justice system and other issues affecting women. The latest consultation on Lord Carter’s report mentions Baroness Corston’s report, and states that the direct impact of titan prisons on women is expected to be neutral, and that it might even provide some headroom. I challenge the Government on that claim. The focus on titan prisons and the £1.2 billion of additional funding, on top of £1.5 billion of funding, has cast an inevitable shadow over any programme for delivering step improvements in the women’s custodial estate. The shadow of titan falls on all approaches to the custodial setting, including the women’s custodial estate. The effect is not neutral, but detrimental. The model proposed, in the light of scarce resources, is for larger, warehouse-type prisons, rather than those that properly meet the needs of the community.

Maria Eagle: I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. I know that he does not like the concept of titan prisons, but they are not intended to be warehouses. They are intended to bring together many smaller and more focused units that will enable the prison service to
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deliver a good service to those in them. The location of the three that are planned will keep male prisoners closer to home than many existing prisons.

Mr. Burrowes: I hear what the Minister says. We have had this debate before, and we do not need to spend too long on the titans, but I still think that the shadow looms large.

Another area on which I do not want to focus too much today—it has been the subject of other debates—is Lord Justice Gage’s sentencing commission working group report, which we eagerly await—[Interruption.] Someone asks, “Is this to do with women?” Members do not have to take my word for it, as a circuit judge commented in The Guardian, on 23 June 2008, on proposals for a restrictive sentencing grid framework, such as that used in the United States. I accept that the Government might take an alternative approach, but we should not remove judges’ discretion in sentencing and their ability to consider personal circumstances. The circuit judge told The Guardian:

Maria Eagle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burrowes: In a moment. [Interruption.] It is relevant. It is important that we do not compartmentalise the debate on the impact on women in the criminal justice system of these various plans and interventions, which is why people are concerned that Lord Carter did not mention women in the custodial estate. The sentencing commission working group must have proper regard to the impact of sentencing on regional variations and gender.

Maria Eagle: I do not wish to take up the hon. Gentleman’s time, but the Secretary of State for Justice made it clear that the proposals of the sentencing commission working group will not deal with the impact on a sentencer’s capacity to pass appropriate sentences.

Mr. Burrowes: As I have said, we look forward to the report, and we will see whether that happens.

I shall not take too much longer, as several hon. Members wish to speak. I invite the Solicitor-General to consider the issue more widely, and not just look at over-18s. There is also concern about under-18s, who are serving long sentences during which they reach adulthood and go into the adult custodial system. What regime will they go into? If a young woman receives a custodial sentence in London, there are no secure children’s units or homes there for her to go to. She would have to travel a long way to serve her sentence. It is always a concern if there is a great distance between someone’s home and where they serve their sentence, but particularly so if that person is of a young age. We need to take proper account of that, and not lose sight of that issue and the lack of provision for under-18s.

The Solicitor-General asked about costs and how we should deal with them. It is important that we look at costs in the round. In her report, under the heading “A final word on costs”, Baroness Corston says:

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She discusses the importance of considering the impact, across the board, of plans and initiatives. Cross-departmental work across projects is welcome, but it is important to consider those impacts. It is also important to consider making radical changes on costs or changes that would dramatically improve purposeful work in prisons and rehabilitation work outside prisons. That would lead to a large fall in reoffending rates, and would release a large amount of money that would properly be used in the criminal justice system. We need radical change, and the concern is that the Government’s responses to Corston’s report and previous reports have not gone far enough—certainly not far enough to bring about, in Baroness Corston’s words,

The Solicitor-General: Did I mishear the hon. Gentleman when he said earlier that 80 per cent. of women were in prison for longer than 12 months? He might have said 18 per cent., but if he said 80 per cent., I think he is wrong. I wanted to raise that with him before he concludes.

Mr. Burrowes: The Minister did not mishear me; I was relying on figures that were provided by the Library under the heading “Sentenced population by length of sentence, England and Wales, 31 December 2007”.

The Solicitor-General: Really?

Mr. Burrowes: Yes; the source was “Population in Custody Monthly Tables, December 2007.”

In conclusion, we need more radical change and we must ensure that after these long years of concern regarding the particular vulnerabilities of women in the criminal justice system, we have more than plans and reviews. We need real change and improvements for women, their children and the whole community.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I shall call the Liberal Democrat spokesman to speak next, but I have no doubt that all hon. Members present will have time to speak.

4.24 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. To facilitate that, I shall truncate my remarks as much as I can.

The debate is about women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. It could therefore include issues such as women victims, and I hope that at some point we will have a chance to talk about them. The main focus this afternoon, however, must be the Government’s response to the Corston report, and the topic of women in prison.

I thank the Under-Secretary for her report and for the promise of six-monthly reports. I praise her in particular for a part of her speech that I hope I heard properly, in which she appeared to adopt the justice
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reinvestment approach. If that is the case, it is an important and welcome development. With the justice reinvestment perspective, one looks at the money that is spent on punishing people from a particular community, and then considers how it could be better spent in the community from where the offender and, usually, the victim come, both to prevent crime and for the general welfare of the community. That sounds simple—even simplistic—but it is a powerful tool for ensuring that different levels and departments of government act together. Criminal justice policies have often failed to take into account the impact across government and society of different ways of attempting to reduce crime. However, the focus today is on women’s prisons and Corston.

Having read the Corston report, I still feel that there is something profoundly wrong in the women’s prison system. There are currently 4,600 women in prison, which is a 41 per cent. increase since 1997. The Under-Secretary says that there is not overcrowding, which might be technically true, but the increases continue. That is not justifiable and has to be explained.

The characteristics of women prisoners have been described by the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), but it is worth repeating the statistic that nine out of 10 women prisoners are in for non-violent offences—very few are a danger to the public, although there is no doubt that those few have to be held in prison—about half are in for first offences, which seems a high proportion, and about a quarter are in for drug offences. Much of the publicity around that figure has to do with drug mules, but I would be surprised if the number of drug mules was so high. I would be grateful if the Solicitor-General gave more detail in her reply, if it is available, on how the figure that more than 1,000 women are in prison for drug offences breaks down by offence.

The women’s prison population is very troubled and vulnerable. As the Under-Secretary said, 80 per cent. of women prisoners have recognised mental health problems. Some 37 per cent. have attempted to commit suicide, and, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, nearly all the deaths of women in custody—80 per cent.—are suicides, of which there are about four or five a year. Self-harm rates are also very high, and increasing. Our calculation seemed to show an increase of about two thirds since 2003, but the Government said that it was about a half. However, even an increase by a half is an extraordinary and disturbing development.

Half of women prisoners have previously been abused or have suffered domestic violence, and 20 per cent.—one fifth—have been in care. That is more than 10 times the national average. Some 71 per cent. have no formal qualifications at all. Given all that, it is surprising that the reoffending rate for women is about the same as that for men, at 65 per cent. I am surprised that it is not worse.

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