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Many people consider the community sentence to be a soft option—we hear about that when we have questions in the House on the topic—but it seems to be better at helping women to learn the skills that can get them out of such cycles. Projects across the country are making an excellent start on implementing some of those ideas. The Turnaround project has been mentioned. In my region, the Together Women project uses a multi-agency approach to try to break the cycle of vulnerability, offending and reoffending. Society often sees a troublesome, aggressive and antisocial person, but the project tends to show people who have no confidence, who struggle with money and who are themselves victims of abuse or violence. The scheme is an ideal way to offer skills in parenting, and to help with self-esteem, debt management and employment.

I am looking forward to the project evaluation of Together Women, as I think that it will show positive results. Baroness Corston recommended rolling out the project nationally, and I am very much in favour of that.

The Government response proposes a long-term sustainable strategy to deliver a more sophisticated, intelligent, visibly led and better co-ordinated approach to the issues identified in the Corston report. I hope that our debate today contributes to the development of that new approach.

4.54 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I have for some time had an interest in how women fare in the criminal justice system, and it has been heightened in recent years by the fact that I have a women’s prison in my constituency. When I visit Low Newton, which I try to do fairly regularly, I am struck by two things. The first is the excellent work of prison staff to support the women and to try to discourage them from reoffending. The prison has very good health support services and the education centre is also excellent. Staff put a lot of work into not only the life skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) mentioned but skills for employment.

The second thing I am struck by is that, despite the excellent work of the staff and the good facilities at Low Newton to support women and try to redirect them from crime, so many of the women simply should not be there. Generally, they are there either for being an accomplice to a crime or for shoplifting or drugs offences; very few of them are violent, at least to other people. A large proportion of them have mental health problems, and, generally speaking, they have had a vulnerable past and have often been in abusive relationships. They end up not having the coping skills to make a success of their lives, nor do they have support networks in the community to help redirect them from crime when they are released. Obviously, I very much welcome the Corston report. It has again put a spotlight on the fact that we are simply sending too many women to prison.

Statistics show that courts have been using custody more frequently for women over the past few years. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) gave them earlier, so I shall not go through them again. Although we know that the nature and seriousness of women’s offending has not, on the whole, been getting
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worse—there is now a slight increase in violent crime being committed by young women, but the overuse of custody in the system predated that—magistrates courts, for example, used custody three times more frequently in 2002 than they did in 1994, and evidence suggests that courts are imposing more severe sentences on women for less serious offences. Through my visits to Low Newton, I am able to witness how the statistics translate into reality for many women who should not be in prison.

Home Office figures show that in the past 10 years or so there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women in prison, from an average of 1,560 in 1993 to around 4,248 in 2006. The highest number, 4,672, was reached in May 2004, so there has been a slight decrease in recent years. Nevertheless, in the past decade or so there has been a huge increase in the women’s prison population overall, although it still amounts to only about 5 per cent. of the total prison population.

Historically, responses to offending have generally been developed with male offenders in mind, and Corston and the Government’s response are now bringing an important, necessary and welcome break with that. However, the fact that women make up only a small proportion of offenders, and that about 14 per cent. of them are given community sentences, does not reduce the importance of addressing their particular needs and characteristics. If we fail to do that, there is a real danger that the women’s prison population will increase again and that the lives of an increasing number of children will be seriously affected by their mothers’ offending. I think that all hon. Members understand the terrible consequences, for children and their mothers, of women being put in prison, especially if the children end up in care.

Custody rates and sentences for men have also been increasing over the period we are discussing, but that does not negate the need to look specifically at how women are treated in the criminal justice system. I also recognise that the Home Office has, for some years, been examining the reasons behind the trend towards increasing numbers of women in the criminal justice system and has been thinking about steps to take to ensure that custody is used only in the last resort.

Some recognition has been given to the need for a multi-agency support system, which has been around for some time. The Together Women programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley outlined, aims to tackle the various factors that can affect women’s offending, including poor housing, mental health problems, substance misuse and abuse, child care, education and employment. It is interesting that Baroness Corston has asked for this to be extended to all areas of the country.

There are still gaps in the information on which approaches work best with women, particularly within the community. We also have to recognise that improvements will not happen overnight. We need to ensure that women offenders have access to and are retained in services and treatment that are appropriate to their needs. Understandably, sentencers sometimes see prison as the safe option for women offenders who may be a risk to themselves or others because of a mental health or drug problem. However, only by assuring
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the availability of effective community-based facilities and services will sentencers have a credible, effective alternative to custody. We should find it shocking that prison is often seen as a place of safety. However, I know that this happens because of what staff in my local prison tell me.

There is also a demonstrated need for voluntary projects, such as the Open Gate project in my constituency, of which I am a board member, which seeks actively to involve women from local communities in supporting women ex-offenders. This unique local initiative is designed not only to deter women from returning to offending behaviour, but to educate people in the communities to which they are returning about their support needs when they are released from prison and to try to develop a greater understanding in the wider community of the needs of women prisoners and offenders. Open Gate engages with groups throughout north-east England, because the women in Durham prison do not come just from the local area.

The Open Gate project has drawn on research showing that women need most support immediately before they leave prison, at the point of release and during resettlement into the community, when they can often feel abandoned and isolated in their struggle to avoid going back into crime. It is at this critical point that women feel it is vital to have some kind of support, whether emotional support through a mentor or being put in touch with an advocacy project. They need reassurance and access to support through projects seeking to divert them from their previous lifestyle, which led to their offending. Open Gate aims to provide such support to reduce persistent re-offending and facilitate effective re-integration into the communities. It has good links with the probation service and the prison resettlement team, but identifies daily the need for a more co-ordinated multi-agency approach on release. Open Gate is trying to fill that gap.

All voluntary projects, including Open Gate, would like a more coherent statutory framework, and related services, to engage with. In this context, I return to the Corston report. It is excellent that the report was commissioned and the Government’s response to it is to be welcomed. There is still some way to go, but it is good that most of the report’s recommendations have been accepted.

Some of the report’s particularly important recommendations include applying the gender equality duty to the criminal justice system so that we get an emphasis on women’s needs; the need for women’s prisons to be replaced with small multi-functional custodial centres, about which I shall say something in a minute; the excellent inter-departmental ministerial group that is now up and running; and the better co-ordination of pathways looking at women’s specific needs.

I want to highlight Baroness Corston’s emphasis on housing. She identified the accommodation pathway as the one most in need of speedy, fundamental gender-specific reform. Of course, she recommends that more supported accommodation be made available to break the cycle of vulnerability and re-offending. The Open Gate project, which I work with, would certainly agree. We find that the greatest problem faced by women on release is the lack of suitable housing, and particularly the almost total lack of supported accommodation available to women on release.

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Life skills and education also need to be given greater priority and, as every other hon. Member has said, custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders. Women who are unlikely to receive a custodial sentence should not be remanded in custody—that must be stopped—and sentencers need to be given more information about the alternatives to custody that are available. There is evidence suggesting, as is outlined in the Corston report, that magistrates and judges do not always know about the wide range of alternatives that might be available. We must ensure that they know that a viable alternative exists.

There is also an urgent need to address the mental health issues. It is excellent that the primary care trust now commissions such services and that they are mainstream NHS services. We have a good prison mental health team in the north-east that is well funded, but it reports that, despite its best intentions, it is still unable to align the mental health support services in prison with those in the community, so more work needs to be done to achieve that alignment.

The publication of the national service framework for women is to be welcomed. It clearly puts in place the strategic outcomes, including the desire to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system at all, and it talks about trying to ensure that sentencers are better informed about alternatives to custody and to reduce the number of women who end up in prison.

I share hon. Members’ views that it is disappointing that the Government seem to have rejected the idea of smaller multi-functional units without carrying out a proper pilot scheme. Most of the people in the sector to whom I have spoken seem to think that Corston’s suggestion for smaller units where good support can be given to women was sensible. I do not accept that the number is too small to be given adequate support. When those units are operational, they should be able to draw on services that are already available in the local community to support women. I hope that the Minister and her team will think again about that, and about pilots to demonstrate whether that approach could work.

The issue is not just about supporting women better. We want to deter women from going into the criminal justice system in the first place, which requires more support services in the community. It would be nice if the money spent on keeping women in prison were invested in community support, including supported housing. The average cost of keeping a prisoner in a local establishment for females is about £50,000, so if we can get this right, money should be available to divert to community support.

I hope that the path on which the Government have embarked and their positive response to Corston will become a reality. I welcome the updates on the implementation of the report that the Under-Secretary announced this afternoon. I thank her for engaging with all of us who have a real passion about the matter. I know that she shares that passion and that she is pushing the agenda forward.

I hope that the great degree of consensus about women in the criminal justice system—we have heard about that this afternoon—means that it is relatively easy to move towards implementing the Corston report in full.

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5.12 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am pleased to speak in this important debate. I am glad that the Government recognise the vulnerability of women in prison, and that they recognise that something needs to be done. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State, who is the champion for women in that situation.

We are talking about a relatively small number of women—about 4,500—and although numbers have doubled over the past 10 years, it is still small and we should be able to do something about it. It is small compared with the male prison population. The majority serve short sentences—earlier, there was a dispute about whether women serve long or short sentences. All the evidence that I have seen shows that the vast majority serve sentences of less than six months.

One reason for the increase in the number of women in prison—

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I notice that heads in the Chamber are shaking. I believe that the source of the confusion is the number of sentenced women versus the number of women who are in prison at any one time. The vast majority of sentenced women are sentenced to less than a year. Because there are relatively few women in prison, a large proportion of those who are in prison at any one time might have been given a longer sentence.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I am not sure whether that was a question or an observation.

Julie Morgan: My hon. Friend may be right. The figures that I have show that most women serve very short sentences, and that in 2006 nearly two thirds were sentenced to six months or less. That is what happened then, and the point that my hon. Friend made probably clears up the matter, but I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will address it in her response.

Over the years, the severity of sentences for women has increased, and that has caused some of the rise in the prison population. The number is small, and from what we have heard here today, it seems that all hon. Members agree that the problems concerning women in prison are health, mental health, drug use, suicide, the terrible tragedies of backgrounds in care, and domestic violence. Those issues have been well aired today, and there has been a great deal of consensus on what the problems are.

There is also the huge issue of the children of women in prison. We know that when children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment, only 5 per cent. remain in their own homes. It is impossible to calculate the misery that is caused to families, and when women are sentenced to prison, the whole family is sentenced. We must be aware of that in our sentencing policy. For many women, it is the first time that they have been separated from their children, and one can imagine the trauma for the children. I have visited Holloway prison and the mother and baby unit. The number of such units throughout the country is limited, but they are not suitable places in which to bring up babies. Absolutely
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every effort should be made not to sentence mothers with small babies to prison, and that is where we should start.

The numbers are low, the problems are recognised, and we know that there is public support because opinion polls have shown clearly that people support a change in policy on imprisonment for women. I commend what has been done so far, but I urge the Government to go further. Jean Corston said that

I commend her work, and I commend all that has been done. I also commend the work of the Justice Committee, whose Chair has just left. He came along because we are in the process of producing a report on effective sentencing, which addresses the problem of women in the justice system. The majority of women do not need to be in prison, and the Government must act urgently to address that. The focus of their efforts should be a network of local centres for women urgently to address the cause of their offending and to prevent them from going to prison.

I am grateful that the Under-Secretary visited the Turnaround project in Cardiff with me a couple of weeks ago, and I hope that it will be the basis of a turnaround in the problems of women offenders in south Wales. The project is funded by the National Offender Management Service as part of the response to the Corston review, and is housed in the women’s safety unit, which is an internationally recognised unit that tackles the problems of domestic abuse victims. It is extremely important that it is housed there. The Solicitor-General made the point that the women we are talking about are victims one day, offenders the next day, and victims again the following day. Women who have offended have been referred by the Turnaround project to the women’s safety unit. They are in the same building, deal with the same group of women, and it is important that they are housed in such a place.

I want to speak about the unit, because it is the basis for where we are going to prevent reoffending. The project started only in November, but already there have been more than 100 referrals. It is currently providing support for 38 women in the community and 26 in custody. The outcomes are positive so far. No woman has been charged with a more serious offence, and only two with new offences. The problems that the project workers are dealing with are the well recognised problems relating to women offenders. The top ones are coping with their families and children, accommodation, domestic abuse and drugs. They fit the pattern that we know about.

The project workers have already been able to intervene in court proceedings to prevent custodial sentences and to continue to support the women. The key point is that they work collaboratively with other agencies, so it is an inter-agency unit. In many instances throughout the country, we would be able to plug into voluntary agencies that are keen to be involved in the work, and we should aim for a strategy for the whole of the country and a network of centres that can link up with existing agencies. However, the project is on a fragile footing. The first funding—£120,000—was for six months and that has
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been extended for another 12 months by a £200,000 grant. By their nature, the posts are temporary and that means—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The Division sign has just flashed up.

5.20 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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