Women offenders: after the Corston Report - Justice Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Trends in women's offending and sentencing

1.  In our view there is general agreement that the majority of women offenders pose little risk to public safety and that imprisonment is frequently an ineffective response. It is also now well recognised that it is not permissible for women offenders to be dealt with in the same way as men within a criminal justice system designed for the majority of offenders. This is not about treating women more favourably or implying that they are less culpable. Rather it is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law abiding life, responding appropriately to the kinds of problems that women in the criminal justice system bring into it, and taking the requisite action to be effective in addressing their offending behaviour. (Paragraph 16)

Governance arrangements

2.  It is regrettable that the Coalition Government appears not to have learnt from the experience of its predecessor that strong ministerial leadership across departmental boundaries is essential to continue to make progress, with the result that in its first two years there was a hiatus in efforts to make headway on implementing the important recommendations made by Baroness Corston in 2007. It is clear that the matter of female offending too easily fails to get priority in the face of other competing issues. The lack of central drive has resulted in outsiders having difficulty determining Ministry of Justice policy and direction, and insiders detecting a dampening in mood and enthusiasm, leaving an impression that for this Government it was not a sufficiently high priority. We were particularly struck by Baroness Corston's evidence that under the previous Government it was not until a group of women Ministers worked together to take issues forward that significant progress was made in this area. We welcome the fact that, after we announced our inquiry, the Secretary of State for Justice assigned particular Ministerial responsibility for women offenders. Clear leadership and a high level of support from other Ministers will be essential in restoring lost momentum. (Paragraph 40)

Equality duties

3.  There is little evidence that the equality duty—in so far as it relates to gender—has been used robustly to hold providers to account. In particular, the duty does not appear to have had the desired impact on systematically encouraging local mainstream commissioners to provide gender specific services tackling the underlying causes of women's offending, or on consistently informing broader policy initiatives within MoJ and NOMS. For too long, while the needs of female offenders have been recognised as different from those of males, the criminal justice system generally and the National Offender Management Service in particular have struggled to reflect these differences fully in the services it provides. A key lesson still to be learnt is that tackling women's offending is not just a matter for the justice system. (Paragraph 41)

The Government's strategic priorities

4.  We welcome the production of a set of strategic priorities for women offenders but they need to be given substance, and we believe that the recommendations we make in this Report should be the basis for taking the priorities forward. (Paragraph 44)

New governance arrangements

5.  We do not consider that the Advisory Board without wider ministerial involvement will constitute a sufficient mechanism for high level cross-departmental governance arrangements of the sort that Baroness Corston initially proposed, and advocated by many of our witnesses. It is not likely to have the authority to bring about integrated strategy and co-ordinated service provision. Most Government departments have a contribution to make to the work of the new Advisory Board, but we consider that at a minimum there must be representation from the Department of Health, Department of Communities and Local Government, Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department of Work and Pensions. We welcome the fact that the first three of these are full members of the Board but as poverty is an important dimension in women's offending we consider that the Department for Work and Pensions should also be required to participate as a matter of course rather than on an ad hoc basis. The same status should be afforded to the Department for Education, which does not at present have even a peripheral role, in order to address the question of effectively identifying girls at risk of offending. It is only with robust high-level support that collaboration between departmental officials on the Advisory Board will be effective. We would like to see women offenders, and those at risk of offending, become a standing item on the agenda of the Inter-Ministerial Group on Equality as an additional means of facilitating collective responsibility for these matters. (Paragraph 49)

6.  There was limited external input into the Government's development of its strategic priorities. It is regrettable that this was the case and this, together with the uncertainty about the membership of the Advisory Board, adds to the appearance that the priorities were produced in haste with insufficient thought. This is manifested in the absence of any detail about how the Government intends to measure success towards meeting its strategic priorities. The Advisory Board should devise appropriate measures of success in relation to each of the strategic priorities and publish regularly progress against them, alongside an account of its own work in furthering the priorities. Accountability should lie not just with the Minister with responsibility for women offenders but should be built into relevant roles within other government departments and local authorities. It is not possible for the Ministry of Justice alone to address the wide range of problems that contribute to female offending. There must be much more explicit recognition, including by the Minister herself, of the need to focus as much on those women and girls on the periphery as those who are already involved in the system. (Paragraph 50)

Segmentation of women offenders

7.  NOMS' segmentation work—which aims to separate out groups of offenders in a way which enables providers and commissioners to understand their risks and needs, and target resources accordingly—is another example where progress has been far too slow. We welcome NOMS' intention to accelerate work on the specific needs of women, but we are extremely disappointed that over six years after the Corston Report there is still not sufficient evidence about what those needs are, or how best to address them. Before embarking on any new policy development, NOMS must consider gender as a matter of course rather than seeking to reduce any detrimental impact on women of the general approach after the event; in many respects efforts to address the distinct needs of women are still lagging behind developments for men. (Paragraph 80)

Sentencing guidelines

8.  We do not consider that substantive changes to the overall sentencing framework would be helpful at this time and recommend that emphasis is placed on ensuring a greater consistency of provision to the courts to enable them to sentence from a range of options specifically appropriate to women, including robust alternatives to custody. More attention must be paid to the potential impact of imprisonment on dependent children both during the sentencing process, and once a parent, whether female or male, has been imprisoned. These issues should be addressed as a priority by the Advisory Board, which could usefully both examine whether lessons can be learnt from international practice on taking child welfare into account during the sentencing process, and ascertain how the children of prisoners could be better identified and relevant services, including schools, subsequently notified. We welcome the Sentencing Council's inclusion of primary child caring responsibilities as a mitigating factor in sentencing guidelines and we would appreciate an update from the Council about the extent to which this factor is taken into account in sentencing decisions. Similarly we would like to be kept informed about the impact on sentencing of introducing the mitigating factor on vulnerability to exploitation in the drug offences guideline. (Paragraph 87)

9.  Generic community provision for women offers a route for diverting vulnerable women from crime and tackling the root causes of offending. Significant steps have been taken towards achieving Baroness Corston's vision for a network of such provision, and there are promising signs that this seems to have begun to have a positive impact on trends in women's imprisonment, albeit at a disappointingly slow pace. Over half of those women sentenced to custody still receive short sentences. There appear to be several explanations for this: appropriate community provision remains unavailable; the court perhaps did not know there was adequate provision available; or the court was not confident that the community provision was appropriate or acceptable to wider public opinion. This agenda has not progressed at a sufficiently fast pace since 2007, and we have not found evidence of the systematic change in approach that Baroness Corston advocated. It is not acceptable for ineffective prison sentences or fines to be imposed because of a lack of provision for appropriately challenging community sentences and facilities. Sentencers must be fully informed about the range of community provision available for women, its effectiveness in preventing offending, and the ineffectiveness of short custodial sentences for women who have not committed offences so serious as to require a custodial sentence. (Paragraph 88)

Gaps in provision for women offenders

10.  Witnesses painted a picture of large gaps in service provision, particularly in relation to specific groups of women, and in the provision of suitable accommodation, the lynchpin of support. The lessons of the Bradley Report have not filtered through and mental health provision remains remarkably poor despite a widespread need. Liaison and diversion schemes are not yet developed sufficiently to impact systematically on the treatment of women offenders, and the impact of the strategy for the management and treatment of female offenders with personality disorders is similarly difficult to discern. These gaps in mental health and accommodation will be costly to overcome. We ask the Government in its response to this report to set out the extent to which existing diversion and liaison schemes are making provision specifically for women; how Ministers intend to ensure that new schemes meet the needs of women; and, why the new strategy for the management of treatment of women offenders with personality disorder does not appear to have made any difference to service provision. (Paragraph 107)

Funding for women's community services and commissioning arrangements

11.  NOMS should publish its analysis of the provision that probation trusts have made for women as an alternative to women's centres. (Paragraph 115)

12.  We are concerned about the potential impact of significant changes to commissioning arrangements on the volume, range, and quality of specialist community provision for women offenders and those at risk of offending. The fact that responsibility for preventing women being drawn into the criminal justice system lies within a department focused on criminal justice is particularly problematic and inhibits the development of a more holistic approach. The current priority must be to preserve existing services for vulnerable women and their children. The Advisory Board should urgently clarify how the various inter-connected commissioning agendas will be coordinated and funded and how to mitigate the risks that services will not be afforded sufficient priority or that designated resources will be stretched too thinly across too many commissioning bodies. (Paragraph 119)

13.  Women's community projects are central to providing a distinct approach to the treatment of women offenders. They offer a challenging environment for women to serve their sentence as well as a broad range of practical and emotional support to enable them to change their lives for good. These centres also play an integral role in supporting women at risk of criminality who need to access other community services. Their effectiveness therefore depends to a considerable extent on the availability and appropriateness of other services for vulnerable women. The network of women's community projects must be retained. Funding and referral processes should have the flexibility to allow for referral at every stage in the system; including for women at risk, pre-court, post-court, as part of an order, and following a custodial sentence. The Government must find an alternative approach to funding these centres to avoid the criminal justice system being the primary gateway through which vulnerable women can access appropriate support. At the very least women's centres must be given central support to navigate the new local commissioning arrangements, and to enable them to concentrate on delivering the very good work in those areas where they have specialist expertise. (Paragraph 120)

The implications for women offenders of the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals

14.  The new NOMS commissioning landscape as envisaged in the Government's proposals for Transforming Rehabilitation presents both risks and opportunities for the Corston agenda. We welcome the Government's extension of through the gate statutory support to prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months, which is likely to benefit many women offenders. The range of services women offenders require is small in volume but complex. Potential providers of rehabilitative services need to recognise that levels of risk posed by women may not precisely reflect the level of support such women require. (Paragraph 126)

15.  The issue of perverse incentives arising from a payments by results system may be a particular problem for ensuring that appropriate provision is made for women offenders as they are often classified for probation purposes as presenting a lower risk of reoffending or harm but have a higher level of need, requiring more intensive, and costly, intervention. (Paragraph 130)

16.  The broader role for women's centres envisaged by Baroness Corston seems to be in jeopardy with the combination of a reduction in funding in this financial year and confusion about the funding mechanisms on which they will depend in future. In bringing funding for women's centres under the NOMS umbrella, and making funding dependent on reductions in reoffending, the nature of the services provided, and the context in which they are provided, may be required to change considerably. Whilst reducing reoffending is one important goal, upstream diversion from offending and reduced frequency and seriousness of re-offending are also socially desirable outcomes which need to be valued by the criminal justice system. In shifting the funding of women's community services in this way there is a risk of dismantling a system which the emerging evidence suggests is working very well. Women's centres should not become wholly identified with the criminal justice system, but should continue to provide a local support network so that women can continue to receive help as they move away from the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 135)

17.  Currently there is no system to capture and disseminate the experience of women's community projects. There is also a risk that women's centres and other provision for women will not prove suitable for evidence-based commissioning both because they are in relative infancy and because the MoJ has failed systematically to collect the information required to determine effectiveness. This is unacceptable given that these projects received central funding. Data from individual projects indicate a strong impact, but because they are not comparable results there is no ability to determine and disseminate best practice. NOMS now appears to be attempting to put this right but the fact remains that there is limited data on which to base commissioning decisions for the implementation of Transforming Rehabilitation. The focus on quantitative evidence is also likely to prove a major barrier for small specialist organisations, particularly those working with a minority group like women offenders, where there has been reliance on qualitative data, to illustrate success. NOMS must work hard with partners to develop the evidence base for commissioners, and explore how existing providers can gain access to data relating to their service users, in order to analyse and measure outcomes. If the strength of the evidence base remains weak as the transfer to new providers approaches then we consider that alternative funding mechanisms must be found to support these centres until better evidence of their capacity to reduce offending, or otherwise, is available. (Paragraph 139)

18.  The Government's proposals for Transforming Rehabilitation have clearly been designed to deal with male offenders. Funding arrangements for provision for women appear to be being shoehorned into the payment by results programme, resulting in the likelihood of a loss of funding for broader provision encompassing both women offenders and those with particular vulnerabilities that put them at risk of offending. In addition, the risk of sentencers using short prison sentences as a gateway to support undermines the post-Corston direction of travel in reducing the use of custody for women, and does nothing to mitigate the detrimental impact of short sentences on women, their families and the likelihood of reducing re-offending. If the Transforming Rehabiltation reforms are to work, improvement of information to sentencers about the alternatives to custody, which we have repeatedly called for, must take place. In that context there must be clarity about responsibility for that effective liaison with sentencers to raise the awareness of the judiciary about the range of available interventions, which has hitherto been vested in probation trusts. (Paragraph 143)

19.  Reducing reoffending is a very important goal, but so is preventing first offences by diverting women away from crime. We consider that there is a compelling case under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme for commissioning services for women offenders separately and for applying other incentive mechanisms that would encourage not just the reduction of re-offending but also the diversion of women from crime. A strategic inter-departmental approach should be taken to ensuring the long-term sustainability of services for women with complex needs. In the short-term it may be necessary to retain some grant funding for specialist provision for women, or to have a transitional phase whereby the funding for projects is initially ring-fenced to allow women's centres to gain credibility with new providers. It will also be important to clarify how new providers will contribute to existing local commissioning arrangements, for example, between probation trusts, police and crime commissioners and local authorities, or how statutory partnership arrangements could evolve to accommodate non-statutory local providers/commissioners. (Paragraph 149)

The custodial estate

20.  It follows from the thrust of our argument in this Report that we consider that the scope of the Government's custodial estate review is unduly limited in taking the size of the women's prison population as a given, particularly as the implementation of the remand reforms under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 may create some headroom in the system to enable a different approach to be taken with a smaller number of women. (Paragraph 154)

21.  The Government's review of the female custodial estate should include a thorough consideration of prison regimes with a view to better supporting the development and sustainability of family ties; affording women the opportunity to develop their parental skills; and safeguarding the welfare of children. (Paragraph 164)

22.  The review of the prison estate should examine the impact of recent, and planned, cost savings and resulting headcount reductions both on regimes and resettlement provision in women's prisons. (Paragraph 166)

Foreign national prisoners

23.  As so many foreign national women prisoners are eventually released and not deported, it should be assumed that they require resettlement support unless it is clearly not required, and the Government should make clear how they will deal with foreign national prisoners under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. (Paragraph 172)

The ethos of regimes

24.  We were impressed by the approach taken at HMP Styal to foster independent living skills and a sense of responsibility within small residential units, and to build emotional resilience through therapeutic interventions. We were also impressed by the apparent ability of the prison to cater for women serving a range of sentences, with a range of risks and needs, to the best of its ability. We believe the experience at HMP Styal demonstrates the benefits of small units in developing responsibility and enabling different types of prisoners to offer support to each other. We would like to see more focus on care rather than security in custodial regimes for women where appropriate. Priority should be given to finding appropriate ways of enabling and encouraging women to take more responsibility for their lives while they are serving a custodial sentence. (Paragraph 175)

Staffing and training

25.  The Government's review of the women's estate should include an assessment of the competencies required to work with women offenders and an appraisal of existing national standards. The women's awareness training that has been provided to prison staff should also be evaluated and the review should seek to examine whether the training provided is sufficient to enable staff to deal confidently and sensitively with the distinct needs of women offenders, including those who have committed sexual offences. (Paragraph 177)

Self-harm and deaths in custody

26.  The Government's review of the women's estate should consider whether alternative forms of custodial provision can be devised, in collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health, which would provide a more appropriate environment for vulnerable women with multiple and complex needs who have committed serious offences. (Paragraph 182)

Small custodial units and the female custodial estate

27.  We are encouraged that the Government is open to considering small custodial units, which were widely supported by our witnesses. We would like to see any such consideration being undertaken in the context that it was initially proposed by Baroness Corston, in other words accompanied by an effort to reduce the prison population by reserving custody for those women who pose a serious threat. The review must also, as a matter of urgency, find a solution to the unacceptable lack of secure provision for women in Wales. We consider that the situation in Wales provides an ideal opportunity to test the combination of residential alternatives to custody and a small custodial unit. (Paragraph 195)

28.  Sometimes being required to live away from a home area can provide the break with a set of circumstances which, if a women were to return to them, would be likely to perpetuate the problems that caused her to offend in the first place. Having only six approved premises for women limits the number of women who can benefit from their constructive regimes and support. More women could benefit from safe, secure and supervised accommodation. Approved premises have the expertise and experience of working with female offenders across the full risk of harm continuum and we consider that the approved premises estate could usefully be expanded to manage more women safely and cost-effectively in the community. We would like to see the review consider how existing approved premises regimes could safely be adapted for a broader range of women, and how more creative use of a greater number of approved premises provision could be funded. (Paragraph 196)

29.  We would like to see a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, coupled with a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody, including approved premises and supported bail accommodation, as these are likely to be more productive than short custodial sentences. Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety. We urge the Government to consider the merits of taking an 'invest to save' approach, which could involve diverting some resources from the prison building fund. They should also consider the savings that could be made if residential options are used to prevent children needing to be cared for by other people, including the state. (Paragraph 197)

An integrated approach to vulnerable women and their families

30.  We are unconvinced about the extent to which the approach set out in the Government's strategic priorities for women offenders is truly integrated across Departments, and there is need for clarification about what a 'whole system' approach means in practice. The Advisory Board should map the confusing array of Government initiatives that together have the potential to benefit vulnerable women and girls at risk of offending and specify how these should integrate with the strategy for women offenders. (Paragraph 202)

Lessening the inter-generational impact of crime

31.  We note the Government's commitment to expand the Troubled Families programme. We believe that it should direct support to children whose parents are already directly involved in the criminal justice system, because they are serving time in prison or sentencing in the community; we were surprised that this is not one of the explicit criteria for inclusion in the programme. The Ministry of Justice, in conjunction with the Advisory Board, must clarify who has responsibility for promoting the needs of women offenders and those at risk of offending with commissioners of mainstream services. (Paragraph 206)

Political coverage

32.  Baroness Corston intended that her agenda for reform should stretch beyond criminal justice to also benefit women with multiple vulnerabilities in the community, and their children. We welcome the Government's stated support for a 'whole system' approach, but there is little to signal a radical shift in the Government's thinking about what this means. All the signs are that in practice it will prove to be a partial and fragmented approach. Careful investment in women's services has the potential to make significant 'whole system' improvement yet funding options appear unlikely to be available for that purpose. We believe a 'whole system' approach should enable such services, and others, to provide earlier intervention to address the inter-generational nature of offending, and to stem the flow of girls and women into the criminal justice system. That system is not equipped to tackle the multiple problems that contribute to women's offending and in many cases, compounds rather than solves issues, increasing a woman's chance that she will end up in custody. Breaking the link between women with mental health problems and the criminal justice system must also be a key priority. (Paragraph 212)

33.  The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice, Women and Equalities has lead responsibility for progress both for women offenders and for those at risk of offending. This work will require strong backing from Ministers at the highest levels across Government. The efficacy of existing governance arrangements, along with the changes we recommended earlier in our report and the progress made against the Government's strategic priorities, should be reviewed after one year and should be used to inform a consideration of whether responsibility for driving the strategic approach should transfer to the Department for Communities and Local Government as Baroness Corston originally intended. (Paragraph 213)

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Prepared 15 July 2013