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3 July 2008 : Column 321WH—continued

The Solicitor-General: I am going back in my mind to what the hon. Gentleman said at the outset: that we should debate the issue of women victims in the criminal justice system. He has finished his accurate catalogue of the vulnerabilities of women in the prison sector. If he now thinks about domestic violence, sexual abuse and
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so on, I think that he will find that he is talking about a very similar population—people who are victims one day and prisoners the next.

David Howarth: I am glad that the Solicitor-General makes that point. It might turn out to be absolutely accurate. That connection, not just in this generation but in generations gone by, is crucial to understand how crime comes about, and how we might prevent it.

It is important to improve conditions in women’s prisons, which is another theme in the Corston review. I welcome the Minister’s announcements on strip searching and I am glad to hear that the developments are working so far and that resistance to them is being broken down.

There is concern about the basic fabric of women’s prisons. As many women’s prisons were originally designed for men, problems of privacy and sanitation make many such buildings unsuitable for women. I hope that the Solicitor-General will address that issue in her summing up. The greater use of approved premises is a very good idea, but it will not reduce the need entirely to use existing buildings.

I want to comment on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate about small custodial units. Baroness Corston’s report proposed setting up local units for 20 to 30 women with access to appropriate services. The Home Office’s own research shows how important it is that prisoners maintain contact with families. The issue of separation from families is one of the most important that the Prison Service, women prisoners and the children themselves face. Two thirds of women prisoners have dependent children under the age of 18. In 2006, nearly 18,000 children were separated from their mothers by imprisonment. Let me give a perspective on how big that problem is: in that year, more children were separated from their parents by imprisonment than by divorce. It is an enormous problem.

How does that affect the children themselves? The Government have not produced any robust research on that, but it is sure to be an important problem. It might even be—this is hypothesis rather than proven fact—that separation from family is a factor in self-harm and suicide.

When the Government say that there are reasons for not trying out Baroness Corston’s local unit proposal, they should hesitate and perhaps think again. The Minister gave three reasons for not going down that route. First, there was the fear that small units might produce conditions in which more bullying is possible. Secondly, she said that there is a lack of specialist staff to cover all possible needs, and, thirdly, she said that there is a lack of resources. The question is, why not pilot the idea? The Bronzefield proposal is not quite the same thing. As the Minister said, the basic numbers in that prison are higher. The units will be smaller but they will be put together in the same place. Therefore, it would not be a fair trial of Baroness Corston’s proposal.

As the Government said, there are risks in piloting such schemes, but there are enormous risks in the existing situation. The risks are so high that if one were to put forward the existing situation as a new proposal, the Government would say the same thing—that they are not going try it out because it is too risky.

I fully support my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on the question of resources. In an intervention, he said that ample
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money is available for new prison building—including the type of prisons that I hope we will have another opportunity to debate at some point soon—but no money for other sorts of intervention or investment in the criminal justice system. I ask the Government to think again about piloting the Corston proposal.

We can learn much from the rest of the world, as the Corston review pointed out. Different regimes around the world achieve better results than we do in this country. In Denmark, for example, the basic principle is normalisation of prison life. Prison officers are highly trained, and overcrowding is illegal. We have to learn from others and not just go down routes that have been established for reasons of fear of risk and cost.

The most obvious point in the Corston review was that too many women are in prison in the first place. On that, some of the Government’s announcements are welcome. It is important that sentencers have confidence in community penalties. I agree that that area must be tackled. Sentencers lack confidence in community sentences because of the lack of resources for such sentences. A few weeks ago, a report from the National Association of Probation Officers showed enormous delays in getting offenders into community programmes. One of the biggest delays was on domestic violence programmes, to which the Solicitor-General has already referred. Therefore, it is a matter not of magistrates believing that only prison works—my experience of magistrates, including the one to whom I am married, is that they do not think that at all—but of the availability of programmes that they are confident can be carried out.

I praise the pilot on integrated community and residential facilities—it is certainly worth supporting. Support has been given for the Turnaround project in Wales, which is another good project. I hope that the piloting of conditional cautions with rehabilitative conditions will be conducted in such a way that we can draw conclusions from it. I hope that there will be a big enough sample. I do not know how many people will be involved, but I hope that there will be a way of doing it that will come close to a random trial, because we can learn from that sort of trial.

The problem is that we know of interventions that work, so perhaps we should consider those rather than just concentrate on possible innovations. Some of those interventions, including restorative justice, work better than short prison sentences. Joanna Shapland’s review was published last week and it showed that restorative justice provided value for money, that it could lead to a 27 per cent. reduction in offending, and that, on the whole, it works. We know that drug and specialist courts work, as do certain forms of drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment—although not all. We should be acting on that evidence rather than always trying to think of something new or returning—as we always seem to do—to short-term imprisonment as a default option. That is all I want to say about the Corston report. The Government have responded to it, but there are many aspects of that response that are disappointing.

There is one other issue that I want to raise today and it involves a woman with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system; it has been mentioned before, but it deserves fuller consideration. It is the issue of the
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SP public inquiry and the resignation of Stephen Shaw, the prisons and probation ombudsman, as chair of the inquiry.

SP was a young woman in the prison system. She was remanded in custody at the age of 16. The period that we are concerned with is when she was aged from 17 to 19. She has repeatedly attempted to take her own life and engaged in self-harm while in custody. She has ended up in solitary confinement in cells that are normally used as punishment cells.

There are unique circumstances in the case of the SP public inquiry. It is an article 2 inquiry about the right to life; the Government and the state have a duty to investigate circumstances in which a person’s right to life is violated or might be violated. Unusually, in this instance we have the young woman herself available to speak about her experiences; SP is still alive.

Mr. Shaw has been attempting to take this investigation further. The Howard League for Penal Reform is also involved in the case—as a solicitor, I believe, rather than as a campaigning organisation. It reported that Mr. Shaw’s resignation letter says that he has found it impossible to carry out his duties because of a lack of co-operation from the Prison Service. Mr. Shaw says that the terms of reference that were agreed last year are now being “challenged” by the Prison Service. He also says that the Prison Service is seeking to

including preventing him from having “unfettered access” to all the documents and to staff. Finally, he says that the Prison Service is attempting to

and that it will not

I ask the Solicitor-General to comment on what is going on and to say what Ministers are doing to correct it, in particular what they can do to assure the House that this inquiry will go ahead with the full co-operation of the Prison Service.

4.42 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the Government’s response to Baroness Corston’s report. I commend the report; it will be seen for years to come as having vital importance. In her foreword, Jean Corston recalls her first visit to Holloway prison many years ago. She records her shock

and states that she will never forget

I was able to visit Holloway prison last Monday, alongside my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. It was her view that Holloway had improved immeasurably in the years since her first visit. We were able to visit the mother and baby unit and although the staff there are doing a great job, it does not seem right for a baby to live in prison. In the crèche in the unit, a staff member was caring for a baby who was almost nine months old. Sadly, he would be parted from his mother soon afterwards. The loss of access to children seems to me to add significantly to the sentences that women serve in prison.

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I would also like to commend the Under-Secretary of State for the Government’s response to the Corston report and particularly for her work in leading the inter-ministerial group and in providing governance to that work. She is really acting as a champion for women.

This issue has already been discussed today, but one of the most significant recommendations in the Corston report is that some or all of the existing women’s prisons should be replaced with small, geographically dispersed, multi-functional custodial units, which would be phased in over a longish period. From the debate that we have had so far, it seems that there are different views about that recommendation, but I think that it has a great deal of merit. Indeed, when I talked to the governor and her staff at Holloway last week, there was support for small custodial units and a feeling that there would be less bullying in such units.

The other important issue in the report is that of alternative sanctions, which are dealt with in recommendations 18, 23 and 35. As the Government’s response suggests, prison is necessary for those women who are serious offenders. Indeed, we heard on our visit to Holloway that there are a number of women serving a life sentence there; I think that the number was 43 or 45 women. As I say, prison is necessary if women are serious offenders, or if they present a risk to others.

However, I agree with recommendation 23 in the report:

I also agree with recommendation 35 that it should be Government policy that

Clearly, deciding what sentences are appropriate for women offenders is a matter for the courts, but I agree with the Government that more must be done to ensure that custody is used only for those women who really need to be there. My experience as a Member of Parliament in the past 18 months suggests that we need to do more to ensure that sentencers adapt the sentences that they hand out, so that those sentences are in line with that policy statement.

In December 2006, two constituents of mine were given an eight-month custodial sentence in Styal prison for an offence related to a pub brawl. Throughout their case, they had been assured that they would be given non-custodial sentences for that first offence. The young women, who were sisters in their early 20s, both had good jobs. They were sent to Styal prison on 21 December 2006, in great shock at their sentence. The Under-Secretary of State said that that length of custodial sentence is the least useful length of sentence. In fact, the two sisters had their custodial sentence quashed on appeal, after serving about four months of the sentence. They had some issues with their experiences in Styal, which I have already taken up with my hon. Friend, but the key point is whether they should have been given those sentences at all.

One of the sisters worked in local government and she was warned that she would automatically lose her job, because of the custodial sentence that she had
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been given. As her MP, I intervened with the council and she was eventually allowed to continue in her employment.

Overlapping with that case was that of another constituent whose 24-year-old daughter received a 15-month sentence, which is also to be served at Styal. In that case, the young woman was convicted of being an accomplice to crimes committed by her boyfriend, as he had used her car to commit the offences. Her father felt that she had been unduly punished for crimes committed by someone else and he was also deeply disturbed that, after a first offence, she found herself in Styal prison. In fact, he had read the Corston report and was very worried that his daughter would self-harm or commit suicide in that prison. It was very difficult for me to tell him that I could do very little about his daughter’s situation.

The crimes committed by the man in that case were serious offences, so it is difficult to know the extent to which that young woman was culpable. However, we know from Baroness Corston’s review that vulnerable women are susceptible to other people and that relationships feature heavily in women’s route into crime. Drug offences, theft and handling stolen goods seem to be the routes for women into prison. Thirty-one per cent. of sentences for women are for theft of goods and 33 per cent. of women in prison are there for drug offences. Those are also situations where women find themselves participants or implicated in the crimes of their partners or other people who are strong influences on them.

On my visit to Holloway, I met two women who had been similarly sentenced as accomplices of their male partners. Lying to cover up a crime, having goods stored at the woman’s home or lending a car to someone that ends up being used in a crime are the ways in which accomplice crimes happen. Helping women to gain self-esteem and coping skills might help them to avoid entering such damaging relationships or, at any rate, help them to keep away from becoming involved with partners who commit crimes. Such help is very important.

Despite recognition in many quarters that prison should only be used for the most serious, violent and persistent criminals, it appears that there is a conflict within the criminal justice system between the ideas of punishment and rehabilitation. With regard to the women in the prison system who we are discussing today, that conflict is very relevant.

Baroness Corston highlighted the high proportion of women in prison who went on to reoffend. However, that number is reduced when community sentences are given. Women who go to prison seem more likely to become persistent offenders.

I welcome the national service framework, which was published just over a month ago, in particular its short-term objective to

We must address the situation whereby twice as many women as men are given sentences for first offences; I have already cited examples from my own constituency of cases where that has happened.

As we know, two thirds of women go to prison on remand. More than one half of those do not then go on to receive a custodial sentence; indeed, one in five are
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acquitted. Like custodial sentences, remand should be used only if there would be a serious threat to the public in the time between arrest and trial. As so few women’s sentences are for violent crime, it seems difficult to justify such numbers.

Working with the judiciary to change sentencing attitudes is important. There is a wealth of evidence to show that attitudes towards men and women who commit crimes are different. Antisocial behaviour, drugs, violence and aggression are considered unfeminine as well as illegal. Baroness Corston addressed that gender stereotyping in her report, and work needs to be done on it.

I appreciate that the Under-Secretary of State cannot dictate to the judiciary, but it is important that something is put in place to ensure that the circumstances of women are taken into account more fully, so that they are not given unnecessary short custodial sentences which often mean that they lose their homes, jobs and children. We were told on our Holloway visit that 40-odd per cent. of the women there did not have accommodation options when they came out of prison. That is the point when things start to go wrong. Such situations place women in the prison system’s revolving-door, which is something that we all want to avoid.

I am disappointed that the recommendation on small custodial units has not yet been fully adopted. The Under-Secretary of State mentioned the new wing of Her Majesty’s prison Bronzefield. I hope that it will be a success and that it will show that women are better off in smaller units that are designed for their use. If Bronzefield is a success, we could start to think about even more smaller units. Small units are desirable because they offer the potential for the sort of intensive rehabilitative treatment that would help many women to exit the prison system for good when they come to the end of their sentence.

I am sure that other Members will refer to the fact that geographical location is also important. We need smaller units and more of them. Indeed, women who want to keep their babies for longer than nine months would have to move from Holloway to Styal, which is a long distance away for families who want to visit. Two thirds of female prisoners have a dependent child and one third have a child under five. Keeping their links to their children and keeping close to their families, if they can, are crucial.

Intensive rehabilitation work is important to try to break the cycle of offending, which is so crucial. We have touched on the fact that many women themselves are victims of crime. Domestic violence and physical, emotional or sexual abuse help to create the cycle, and many of the women have been in care. If their children go into care at nine months, the cycle will continue with the next generation.

We have already discussed the extent to which women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems. Perhaps we need to focus more on the number of women, particularly self-harmers, with personality disorders and do more with behavioural therapy, which is starting to have good results. We need to deal with the fact that many of the women have poor social and coping skills. Clearly, it is important to teach basic life skills, and to help women to get their lives back on track and to gain some control.

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