Previous Section Index Home Page

3 July 2008 : Column 334WH—continued

5.40 pm

On resuming

Julie Morgan: I am drawing to the end of my remarks. I was speaking about funding for the Turnaround project. By their very nature, the posts are temporary. One person has already finished her secondment there, which has necessitated a change of worker. The project could have a big influence on policy relating to women in Cardiff, and I would like to see it put on a firmer footing. It is managed by Safer Cardiff, a voluntary sector organisation. It is in the right place.

Wales does not have a women’s prison. Women from south Wales are usually sent to Bristol, which causes huge difficulties for them. However, I would certainly be against having a women’s prison in south Wales unless it is was of an entirely different nature, as the numbers would not justify it. It should be possible to stop the vast majority of women from south Wales going to prison if we provide enough support in the community. We have the framework to do so, but long-term funding is required.

If the project continues, the women will have the solidity of knowing that they will still have a job next year. That would be good for everyone concerned, including the victims of women offenders, because as many as 64 per cent. of women released from prison in 2004 were reconvicted within two years, compared with 38 per cent. 10 years ago. The reconviction rate is rising. Victims want to know that whatever happened to them will not happen again, but under the present system it does. It would be much less likely if we kept that network of resources. I say “Well done” to the Government, but my plea is for a firm foundation—a comprehensive network of preventive centres that could reduce the number of prison places that are needed. That should be the main focus. Before we consider custody units, we should concentrate on prevention.

5.42 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Before starting my speech, may I declare a non-pecuniary interest? I am the chair of a charity called Commonweal that runs a project to house women just out of prison to give them a chance to unite with their children. I may have another interest, in that I am the person who suggested that Jean Corston would be the right person to undertake the review. That decision was justified by the excellence of her report.

I welcome the fact that one of the key factors mentioned in the report is that the issue requires leadership and a strategic approach. That is what we have seen in the Government’s response. I particularly like the fact that the Minister has been making regular reports on the matter. That might nail to the ground their delivering
3 July 2008 : Column 335WH
on the issue. That approach is rather different from the one taken by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), which sounded more like, “Who might be listening? Who can I impress?”

Turning to my criticisms, I am concerned about the response to the need for small, multifunctional local units, because “multifunctional” has trumped the other characteristics that the Minister rightly mentioned, which were meant to preserve family links for women serving custodial sentences and provide supportive resettlement and a suitable environment. I am worried that those who seem to be rather keen on business as usual are suggesting that, because we cannot provide a completely multifunctional approach in small units, we should avoid small units. That is an error.

Some things can be provided only in big prisons, and some of them are excellent. I remember seeing a production of the opera “Chicago” at Bronzefield prison. A prisoner came up to me afterwards and, grabbing me by the lapel, she said, “I am a thief. I’ve been through lots of prisons. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” She was right: for her, the discipline and the performance had been a transformative experience. That sort of project cannot be mounted in a small unit, and it cannot be universally provided. However, at that moment, it was profoundly important.

We worry too much about the multifunctionality of units, and we should focus more on the importance of links with family, a suitable environment and the need to improve resettlement. Much has been said today about the link between the experiences of women as victims and as offenders. Among other things, Jean Corston’s report focused on the importance of dealing with that link, both for women who are victims of domestic violence by providing a National Offender Management Service pathway for them, and for women seeking to leave prostitution.

The Chamber will be aware of my concerns about our policy on prostitution. We had an opportunity in the latest criminal justice legislation—because of other matters relating to prisons, it was dropped—to provide a more rehabilitative sentence for women involved in prostitution. We need a better way to help resettle women who have been in prostitution, helping them into a way of life that is not a reoffending one.

The Solicitor-General: Although my hon. Friend is right about what happened, we have hopes and intentions of introducing a caution for women in prostitution that would have the same conditions as the sentence proposed in the last Bill, notwithstanding any determination by the Ministry of Justice to reintroduce that positive sentence. However, we are working on it in the interim, so I hope that that cheers my hon. Friend a little.

Fiona Mactaggart: I would welcome that, but my hon. and learned Friend knows that I am of the view that the wrong people are being sentenced. As is often the case, women are being sentenced for something that is triggered by the actions of men. Arguably, we should completely recast the law on prostitution, making the man the perpetrator rather than the woman. However, that is a subject for a separate debate.

One thing that strikes me in my role as chair of Commonweal is the importance of housing in allowing women to resettle. For men, employment is the critical
3 July 2008 : Column 336WH
determinant of an offence-free future. For women, I believe that it is housing and being reunited with their children. For women offenders, their relationship with their family is a profoundly rehabilitative thing, and is a great motivator for going straight.

I am deeply concerned that it is possible to meet NOMS targets for housing and so on by giving a bit of advice, by pushing someone in a particular direction. Some local authorities deem that women who have been in prison have made themselves intentionally homeless, and women remain separated from their children after they have served their prison sentence because no suitable housing is available. Accommodation must be a priority. The best way to reduce the number of women in prison is to reduce reoffending. The figure that I find most worrying is not the increase in the number of women in prison, although it is worrying, but the increase in the proportion of women who reoffend. The figure has more or less doubled in the past 10 years. At every stage, we must reduce that re-offending.

I believe that small holistic units will reduce reoffending, and the horrible distress seen by all who have visited women in prison. I will never forget the woman I visited in a prison in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) who had buried a pen in her arm. It was part of a huge history of self-harm, which ended in her killing herself. We should never forget that the trigger for the Corston report was the deaths of five women, who killed themselves, in Styal. The reason for small units is not only that they are the most likely units to rehabilitate women, but that they provide for many vulnerable women who have been victims an opportunity for a more optimistic life and for reducing the distress that inevitably goes with prison, separation from their children and so on. I believe that we should put those units higher up the agenda.

I should like briefly to talk about children, because more children suffer from the experience of having a parent in prison than from a divorce in their family. We should not tolerate that. I was looking at my case load of women from my constituency who had gone into prison and found one classic example. A Zimbabwean woman who has two children—she is an asylum seeker—had used forged documents to obtain employment so that she could look after her children. She did not think that she would go to prison on the day she appeared in court. She left her children with her sister and was locked up after her case was heard. Nobody—absolutely nobody—apart from her solicitor knew that she had children to take care of. There is no system to ensure that when something like that happens to women—and women often do not believe that they will be given custodial sentences—there will be any care for their children. The woman’s sister was also an asylum seeker and she had no National Asylum Support Service money for the children. We can imagine the impoverishment of that family. The woman was sentenced to a year in jail. That is just one example of the over-sentencing of women.

I urge the Solicitor-General very strongly to do two things for the children of women prisoners. First, we must have a system that knows that they exist. In our present system, there is no duty on the Prison Service to keep a record of the children for whom a prisoner is responsible. A promise was given on 12 September 2004
3 July 2008 : Column 337WH
in answer to a parliamentary question that the figures would be kept but, to date, they have not been. My first request to the Solicitor-General is that as part of the programme, we should begin by keeping those figures for women prisoners. We have recognised that we need to take a different approach to achieve equality for women, so let us start by keeping those figures, because we know that women are more likely to be responsible for their children, although many male prisoners have children. Let us start by finding out about the children for whom women are responsible. Secondly, let us ensure that, when women leave prison, they have a home to go to where their children have the prospect of living with them. Those two things would make a real difference to women in the custodial system.

5.53 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, including the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). I should get this over with so that I can turn to the substance of the debate: it is a pity that neither Opposition party could muster a single woman to come and talk about vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, but there we are. The input of the spokesmen was, none the less, good to have.

We have heard again today some of the many reasons it is right to have a distinct strategy for women offenders. That is a proposition to which the Government have been committed since 2004, and for which we clearly understand the need. We are committed to making real and lasting improvements in how we deal with women who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

I should like to deal with some of the criticisms that were thrown over the Chamber, as it were, by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. He said that the Government are not committed to making the changes to the estate that Baroness Corston advocated because the money is going on titan prisons. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), made it clear at the outset that the resources that are going into the male building programme need to go into that programme. However, it is not a resource issue primarily that steers us away from the small local units that Baroness Corston advocated.

Let me be clear: my priority—our priority—is the many women who are unnecessarily in prison. We do not want women to be in custody unless it is absolutely necessary, so more can and must be done to divert women offenders from custody when provision in the community would be much more appropriate in a large number of cases. That is our priority—it is not about building more, bigger women’s prisons if that is what the hon. Gentleman was making some sort of hilarious bid for. There is no overcrowding in women’s prisons, and we want to get more women out.

There are bound to be a small number of women—let us be clear that the number is small—who are going to be in prison and who are perhaps going to be there for some time: they have committed very serious offences or present a risk to others. We have a responsibility, which is heightened by Baroness Corston’s very good
3 July 2008 : Column 338WH
analysis, to ensure that the custodial system fits those women’s needs. We should ensure that the system is not simply what one fears has happened historically—one senses a resonance of that fear around the Chamber—namely, a system based on the fact that women’s prisons have been tagged on to the end of men’s prisons because women are such a small group of offenders that they have never merited enough focus of their own. We must stop that, and perhaps we have already. One might think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary exemplifies as a champion for women the fact that that approach is well behind us.

On the small custodial units for 20 to 30 women based in town centres, which is what Baroness Corston proposed, we concluded that there were demerits, if that is not a clumsy concept. First, overwhelmingly, prison must provide a wide range of effective interventions, programmes and resettlement services. We concluded that it would simply not be practical to do that in the proposed tiny little units, even if we consider only women’s needs for training in life skills, financial management, self-confidence, basic literacy and numeracy and so on, which my hon. Friends mentioned. All those things must be put in place before going on to anything like training for a job outside. How on earth could all those things be made available in a tiny unit? They could not, any more than a full, across-the-board education for children could be supplied in a tiny school. The difficulty—this is one of our fears about the proposition—is that a woman in custody would have to move to receive all the inputs and courses that she required, which would be wholly undesirable. The Tories appear to advocate it, because they tell us that they support small units. We therefore assume that they are going to finance them, although the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate was ominously quiet when I asked him about figures for sizes, money or anything else, to put some flesh on the bones of the proposal.

That picture, which is based on a real fear, is not of a stable situation. Such arrangements are not a recipe for enabling someone to settle into their sentence and use the advantage that can be offered in what would appropriately be somewhat larger units. Small units could not deliver the wide range of services that women would require. The hon. Gentleman tried to assimilate the notions of small units and being close to home, and they look as if they go together. However, at present, the average distance—it is open to comment—of a woman in custody from her home is 55 miles, and for a man it is 49 miles. Whether that is an acceptable distance or not, there clearly is not, because of the absence of small units, the massive association that the hon. Gentleman suggested. It is not the refusal to spend resources or the failure to appreciate the importance of local contacts and the preservation of family ties that have led us to conclude that there are difficulties with the proposal.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I hear what my hon. and learned Friend is saying about smaller units, but has she considered in detail how they could plug into services delivered regionally or sub-regionally? For example, a project teaching life skills could operate at a number of units rather than being attached to one. Regional National Offender Management Services are considering more support services in the community for women with community sentences. Has she considered that as a possible way forward?

3 July 2008 : Column 339WH

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I am sure that that has come into the frame. My hon. Friend has visited Low Newton; in fact, I know that she visits it a lot. I, too, have visited Low Newton. For a fleeting four or five weeks, I was responsible for the Government’s response to Corston in the Ministry of Justice, although I must say that I was never a champion like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The courses at Low Newton are incredibly intensive—but they need to be, and they need to be supplied to vulnerable women by the same person day in and day out. I do not know whether that can be practical in a unit of that size, and I do not know whether the model that she suggests is capable of fulfilling that need. That is our worry.

I add, though, that we took into account views expressed by women prisoners themselves, and we considered whether they would welcome the idea. When asked about their preferred size of custodial unit, some expressed concerns about units being too small and claustrophobic. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said and others have echoed, there is concern about the danger of increased bullying in smaller units, where it is possible for an individual or group of individuals to dominate. The last thing we want to do, given that we are dealing with vulnerable people in prison, is to design a unit that increases their vulnerability to falling foul of bullying.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thought that one of the things that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary mentioned—I could not refer to it in my speech, as I was trying to be brief—was the possibility of slightly more creative use of probation hostels for sentenced women. I am not sure about that, but it seems to me that they are of the size suggested by the Corston report. If it were possible to use them in that way, would that be a means of piloting that approach?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend puts her finger on probably the best proposition made today for combining localism with all the different services that we are conscious such women need. Approved premises vary in size; some have accommodation attached, so there may be prospects for some kind of service delivery.

We considered the question of small units fairly quickly, because of the state of flux of the estate generally and the need to consider questions involving building as early as possible. I emphasise that proper considerations of the kind that I described brought us to the conclusion that the model advocated by Baroness Corston was not entirely correct, but that the principles that she outlined were entirely right. We also looked to the immediate prospect of testing her principles for managing women who must be in prison, in the new 77-bed wing at Bronzefield.

There are now gender-specific standards in women’s prisons, and a number of people are very pleased about that. It is key, as is the assault on the horror of repeated strip searches as part of a prison regime. Before I was a Member of Parliament, I sued the Home Office repeatedly for excessive strip searches of women prisoners. It was a proposition to which the Home Office clung at that time, but Baroness Corston has seriously shaken up that position. She made it clear how strongly she felt that it was, in the main, unnecessary. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has championed the need to test the necessity, which was found quickly to be fairly
3 July 2008 : Column 340WH
fragile. As she said, about one third of women in custody are not now subject to the regime of strip searching that Baroness Corston criticised. We hope that that will be rolled out further fairly soon. As an aside, it is interesting that because the custodial estate for women is so small—there are so few women in it—radical things such as that can be done quite quickly. We should be trying to use that smallness to do radical things that we might in time be able to read across to men or other vulnerable people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), as ever, got to the core of the issues. She talked, as many have, about the vulnerability of people going into custody, the difficulties presented by the question of whether to leave a person with their child, the high proportion of women in custody who have children for whom they are responsible, the difficulties of rehabilitation and the overwhelming need for support. I can only applaud her understanding of the issues, as I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who has three prisons in her constituency.

As I said, I have been to Low Newton, as my constituency lies in the same direction. I know the governor somewhat. He is excellent, and it seems to me that the prison does a lot of enormously good work with young women whom she described perfectly as people with inadequate coping skills. Whatever the misfortune—whether it be domestic violence or something as small as debt—they cannot cope without their lives descending into chaos. One must start at the very bottom with them in teaching life skills and management. Again, she reflected what Jean Corston found important. Such women have a long way to go before one can consider teaching them skills for going out into the world; the ability to manage themselves as people is lacking, and that is a great shame.

My hon. Friend is right to say that Baroness Corston shone light on that issue. She mentioned the good efforts made in prisons such as Low Newton and gave an impressive reference for Open Gate, which supports women at their most vulnerable time, pre-release. That, too, synchronises with Baroness Corston’s emphasis on the availability of well-publicised support systems. My hon. Friend made the very good point that the issue might not be exactly the one countenanced by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who said that it is over-subscribed and not used because it is under-resourced. The issue may be one of availability and understanding of exactly what good things projects such as Open Gate can do.

My hon. Friend talked about the mental health team at Low Newton. I remember seeing a young woman when I went there who had repeatedly attempted suicide in the most amazing circumstances. She was under constant watch in a cell that fronted the corridor. There was an officer with her all the time who conversed with her through the bars and people passed and said hello, but despite that she had still managed to attempt suicide a number of times. The good people at Low Newton were keen to get that young women out of the prison and into some better, more supportive community, and they found what my hon. Friend called a misalignment between the availability of local hospital places and the good efforts that can be made in prison, but that simply cannot reach out to somebody such as that. She made a sound point.

Next Section Index Home Page