In this Report we return to follow up the recommendations that were made in our Report Women offenders: after the Corston Report, which we published in July 2013. We have taken account of the Government Response to that report and sought to consider the impact of our recommendations on the Government's policy towards female offenders and those at risk of offending. In order to do this, we examined developments that have taken place since our initial inquiry relating to the Government's strategy towards women offenders.
In this report we focus on the governance arrangements driving the agenda, community-based service provision for women offenders, funding arrangements for women's services, the implications for women offenders of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, and the configuration of the female custodial estate.
We welcome the Government's progress in implementing a cross-Government approach to deal with women offenders, but we believe it remains too early to assess whether the Advisory Board on Female Offenders, established in March 2014, is the most effective way to deliver high-level cross-Government strategy. We note with concern that the high turnover of Ministers and, therefore, Advisory Board Chairs, during the Board's short existence appears to have impeded progress against the priorities set out in March 2013. We believe it is important that the greater energy with which the Government has begun to address the issue needs to be continued by the next Government.
In our initial inquiry, we found that there were large gaps in service provision for female offenders and that liaison and diversion schemes, intended to divert women into suitable mental healthcare or treatment programmes, had not developed sufficiently. The Government has since launched a trial of such schemes which, if successful, will be extended to all areas. We note that the wider availability of these schemes will be essential for strengthening community-based provision for women. We express our concern that the prospect of clearer future funding arrangements for women's community services has not improved since our initial report.
We welcomed the introduction of through-the-gate statutory support for all offenders sentenced to 12 months or less in custody, and the fact that all women's prisons have been designated as resettlement prisons under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. However, whilst the Government has stated that the particular needs of female offenders will be specifically addressed by the new providers of probation services, we say doubt remains over whether this is sufficient to ensure appropriate provision for women, in particular to preserve specialist provision, and secure sustainable funding of women's centres.
In our initial Report we recommended a reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, advocating that it should consist principally of small custodial units designed to encourage women offenders to take greater responsibility for their lives. The Government rejected this recommendation and has instead begun to develop strategic hubs, prisons close to large population centres designed to serve the courts, hold women from the surrounding area and provide a range of interventions. We welcome these efforts to improve the existing female prison estate, as well as the Minister's commitment to reduce the women's prison population. We remain of the view that small custodial units are best suited to women in custody and wish to see these developed, with more women being dealt with in the community, particularly once the women's prison population has successfully fallen substantially.