Previous Section Index Home Page

3 July 2008 : Column 340WH—continued

3 July 2008 : Column 341WH

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) agreed that we all agree that we are talking about very vulnerable people, and summed up well what we all say ought to be the right features of the way forward. She is entirely right to say that we should not be talking about mother and baby units when we do not have to. By and large, women with children should not be going into custody, unless it is overwhelmingly necessary—I shall turn to the query from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate about women and baby units in a minute. My hon. Friend made a strong point about fragile funding, and I am sure that the little project in Cardiff that she mentioned could be pivotal. Her point has been heard. Currently, there is no women’s prison in Wales, and she does not want one, which I was relieved to hear. I agree with her.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough raised a very specific point about NOMS and the failure to record whether a person taken into custody—even women—has children. I am told that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary takes that point. I understand that the Home Office promised, on the birthday of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, in 2004, to put that on the computer. I am sorry that that has not been done yet, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will write to her, and has taken the point on board, as she could not fail to do.

I am slightly disappointed that I could not please my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) more by telling her about the caution that we have in mind for prostitution—but I must not allow myself to be taken off on to a different debate that I am sure we will have quite soon, given that we are currently reviewing how we deal with prostitution. At the end of the review, in about a month, there are bound to be issues to air.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned mother and baby units, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North: we do not want children in prison at all, if we can avoid it. Our aim is to keep women with children in the community if possible. Most women who enter prison either are deemed not fit to care for their children, or prefer to make other arrangements. There are seven mother and baby units with a capacity of about 75, and the guiding principle for admitting children is their interests. I am told that no child is refused a place on a mother and baby unit owing to capacity problems.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of girls under 18, and I am told that very few of them have their children with them in custody. According to the Youth Justice Board, a small number of women at Rainsbrook are in that position, but that is by way of a caring place to enable the mother to bring up the baby at the same time. In exceptional circumstances, and only if it is in the interests of the child, an under-18-year-old can be accommodated in the adult mother and baby unit, but I am told that that is not a significant issue.

The hon. Gentleman quoted some prison population figures, and he will have noted that we all reeled with disbelief when he suggested that 80 per cent. of women prisoners were serving sentences longer than 12 months. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough said, the other measure is court outcomes, which give a more accurate figure, because women are counted only once, whatever sentences they receive. On those figures, of all
3 July 2008 : Column 342WH
women given a custodial sentence, 76 per cent. are serving under 12 months. It was interesting that, when he quoted the 80 per cent. figure, we all reeled with disbelief. That is a measure of how steeped in trying to tackle this problem the Government are and how at large in a strange land he is.

I shall touch on some issues raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge, whose measured and occasionally praising contribution I very much enjoyed, as I usually do. We cannot help him entirely with his question about drugs mules. I can tell him, however, that 20 per cent. of women in custody are foreign nationals, and about half of them are being sentenced for drug offences. I am not a great mathematician, but that means that about 400 are drugs mules, and therefore that about 600 are facing sentences for different offences. If we can clarify that further, and if he is interested, I shall write to him about the offences for which sentences are being served.

I do not propose to dwell on titan prisons, but everyone except the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate knew before they came into the Chamber that they are not warehouses at all. They are built for bulk but are broken down into small units. He needs to get a grip on that.

It is not true that no funding has been allocated specifically for improvements for women offenders. The Government response highlights where there has been additional funding. We have heard about the Turnaround project, and there has been passing reference to something very important—the £9.15 million for the Together Women programme, which opens up the possibility of the conditional caution, which the hon. Member for Cambridge welcomed.

In places where conditional cautions have been taken up strongly and there is a Together Women project—in Liverpool and Calderdale, West Yorkshire, for example—the Crown Prosecution Service and the police will work together on a pilot basis. They will divert women whose offending is linked to a vulnerability, so that they may be, as a condition of their caution, taken out of the criminal justice system and obliged instead to take a needs assessment to work out what underpins their offending.

We cannot go significantly further than that because we cannot compel someone on a conditional caution to take two years’ worth of counselling. However, people involved in TWP in Calderdale and elsewhere confidently expect that, if we get women to come through their doors and have their needs assessed, they are likely to come back on their own account to have those needs attended to afterwards. We have some hopes for the pilot, which will be carefully evaluated; indeed, it is being fully funded for that reason. Small though it is, it is a fairly important step for us. It is a bit more evidence that we are determinedly taking every opportunity to try to prevent women from being in prison.

I hope that I have dealt with all the issues that hon. Members have raised. Let me congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), in his absence, on being made a knight. I hope that I have addressed hon. Members’ real concerns, rather than the posed ones, about the Government’s commitment to improving the way in which vulnerable women are dealt with when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

3 July 2008 : Column 343WH

The Government’s commitment is clear. With a champion such as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, how could it be anything short of clear? She has taken on her shoulders a mantle of transparency by reporting to Parliament, when she does not have to, exactly what she is doing. She has taken the step of making a written ministerial statement after six months and says that she will come back. Clearly, if she keeps her word, which she will, we will have to have made some progress, because we will look very silly saying the same things in six months’ time.

I am grateful for hon. Members’ contributions. I was pleased to get some reasonable praise from the hon. Member for Cambridge, although he wants more to be done, and I was not surprised to get no praise whatever from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. I can tell
3 July 2008 : Column 344WH
hon. Members that Baroness Corston, who was overheard on “Woman’s Hour” yesterday talking about her report, has given the Government’s progress so far about eight out of 10. As my mother used to say to me even when I brought home school reports that good, which was not very often, “We need to do better, don’t we?” Well, we do, and we are determined that we will.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The House is grateful to the Solicitor-General for replying to the debate. I have been very impressed with the contributions of all those who have taken part in this critical debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Six o’clock.

    Index Home Page