Women offenders: follow-up - Justice Contents

2  Developments since our Report

6. We discuss here the key conclusions and recommendations of our initial Report and the developments that have subsequently taken place in the Government's approach to women offenders.

Governance arrangements and the Advisory Board on Female Offenders

7. While our original inquiry was under way, on 22 March 2013, as part of the Government's promulgation of its Strategic objectives for female offenders,[14] the Advisory Board for Female Offenders was created, chaired by the Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties. It was intended to provide expert advice and to work across Government and with key stakeholders on: i) enhancing provision in the community; ii) designing the system for implementing the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals; iii) reviewing the women's prison estate; and iv) developing a 'whole system' approach, within and outside the criminal justice system.

8. In our initial inquiry we concluded that, without wider ministerial involvement, the proposed Advisory Board did not constitute a sufficient mechanism for high level cross-departmental governance as it did not include permanent representatives from the Departments of Health, Communities and Local Government, Education, Work and Pensions and the Home Office. We recommended a new configuration of the Advisory Board, and that the Board should devise appropriate measures of success in relation to its strategic priorities. We urged that responsibility for addressing the wide-ranging problems that contribute to female offending be built into relevant roles within other departments and local authorities, rather than lying solely with the Minister for women offenders at the Ministry of Justice.[15]

9. The Government disagreed with this analysis, stating that effective joined-up working across Government could best be achieved through the involvement of senior cross-Government officials rather than formal ongoing cross-departmental Ministerial membership. They did agree that the Ministry of Justice could not address the problems associated with women's offending alone.[16] Simon Hughes pointed out to us that the Advisory Board had representatives on it from many other Government Departments, for example, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because having employment opportunities was important in trying to prevent women from reoffending, and the Department for Work and Pensions, because many women who entered the criminal justice system were on benefits both before and after they were sentenced.[17]

10. The Prison Reform Trust stated that the Advisory Board was a step in the right direction and was being well led by the current Minister, but considered that it fell short of the high-level cross-Government strategy proposed by Baroness Corston. The Trust believed that effective governance would require a director of women's justice and a women's justice agency, board or commission that included linkages to national and local strategies on Violence against Women and Girls, Health and Wellbeing Boards and child safeguarding frameworks, in order to avoid reliance on the criminal justice system as a gateway to support services for vulnerable individuals.[18] Juliet Lyon argued that the Board was essentially an advisory group with limited powers, and suggested that the Youth Justice Board would be a good model to follow as it had powers in terms of commissioning, monitoring and overseeing.[19] The Prison Reform Trust further suggested that the devolution of youth remand budgets to local authorities provided a model which could be applied to women, with some adaptation, and pointed out that since local authorities became responsible for the costs of youth remands to the secure estate in April 2013, the number of under-18s in custody on remand had fallen by 22%.[20]

11. Since the Advisory Board was established there has been a change of Minister, and hence Chair, twice which, as Mr Hughes acknowledged, was not helpful in terms of planning a strategy.[21] Juliet Lyon believed that this issue was significant in terms of slippage, change and leadership, and claimed that there had been a reduction in the number of officials able to support the Board and to maintain the drive to take a distinct approach to female offenders, because they had been assigned to other duties.[22] The Prison Reform Trust noted their appreciation for the Minister's personal commitment to discuss the proposal for a women's justice board and welcomed his determination to reduce the women's prison population.[23] It also warned that, although the numbers of women in custody had fallen slightly, as was pointed out by Mr Hughes, the decrease was small and progress was slow and halting. In June 2014, the number of female sentenced prisoners had not changed from the previous year. The Prison Reform Trust believed that concerted action and sustained leadership might be able to halve the number of women in prison, and advocated adopting targeted strategies for particular segments of the women's prison population to expedite this.[24]

12. We welcome the cross-Government focus on reducing women's offending which has been achieved in the form of the Advisory Board, but 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. There is a clearer direction of policy on women offenders, but we consider it too early to assess whether the Advisory Board constitutes the most effective mechanism to steer high-level cross-Government strategy. We welcome the Minister's determination to reduce the women's prison population, because strong direction from the centre is needed to achieve this. We hope to see a fall by the time of the Ministry's next annual review of its strategic objectives. However we note that any such fall would be against the apparent tide of a rising general prison population.

Sentencing guidelines

13. In order to reduce the female prison population it is important to understand how women are sentenced by the courts. We recommended in our initial Report that emphasis be placed on ensuring greater consistency of sentence provision, and advised the Government to enable courts to sentence from a range of options specifically designed for female offenders, including robust alternatives to custody for those who have not committed a serious offence.[25] Mr Hughes shared our view that it was imperative that courts were knowledgeable about the non-custodial options available for women in their area, but reported that the Advisory Board had not yet had a session to look at sentencing.[26] Juliet Lyon pointed out that, despite a decade of good intentions, there continued to be a limited availability of effective, non-custodial, women-specific options, and was keen for the Board to have regular and systematic feedback from sentencers about whether they had enough adequate non-custodial options available in their area.[27] The Minister stated that he was keen for the Advisory Board to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Sentencing Council and that officials were in contact to agree a suitable date.[28]

Gaps in provision for women offenders

14. We found in our original inquiry that there were large gaps in service provision for female offenders, including access to appropriate accommodation and mental health treatment. For example, liaison and diversion schemes designed to divert women into suitable healthcare or treatment programmes on arrest or from court had not developed sufficiently to impact on the treatment of female offenders, and mental health provision remained poor despite a widespread need. We acknowledged that these gaps would be costly to overcome and asked the Government to set out the extent to which existing diversion and liaison schemes were making provision specifically for women.[29] The Government pledged to ensure that benefits provision enabled prisoners to retain their accommodation if they spent 6 months or less in custody.[30]

15. In April 2014 the Government launched a trial scheme in 10 locations to test a new model of liaison and diversion, commissioned by NHS England and supported by the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. Mr Hughes stated that the schemes would check for mental health issues, learning disabilities, substance misuse and social vulnerabilities so that female offenders could get support at an early stage, and potentially avoid the need to go to prison at all. He said that if this was successful it would be extended to all areas.[31] The Prison Reform Trust argued that this programme could succeed only if there were community mental health services into which women could be diverted for appropriate care and treatment.[32] In our Report Crime reduction policies: a co-ordinated approach?, we concluded that slow progress was being made in developing liaison and diversion schemes and that much more could be done. We argued that the Government had tended to focus on crisis management, where there might be more immediate financial gains to be had, and, as a result, only a small proportion of funding was being assigned to early intervention programmes which have could potentially lead to longer term benefits.[33] We believe the wider availability of these schemes will be crucial for strengthening community-based provision for women in order to reduce the female prison population.

Funding for women's community services and commissioning arrangements

16. In our initial Report, we expressed concern regarding the impact of changes to commissioning arrangements on community provision for female offenders and those at risk of offending. We found it problematic that responsibility for the prevention of women entering the criminal justice system lay within a Department focused on criminal justice, arguing that this inhibited the development of a holistic approach. We recommended that priority be given to preserving existing services for vulnerable women and children, as well as an expansion of women's community projects that provided a broad range of practical and emotional support to enable female offenders to change their lives for good. We advocated referral be allowed at every stage in the process; including for women at risk of getting involved in crime, pre-court, post-court, as part of an order, and following a custodial sentence.[34]

17. The Government agreed that policy to prevent women entering the criminal justice system should not be focused within the Ministry of Justice and highlighted the cross-Government approach set out in its strategic objectives.[35] The National Offender Management Service's stocktake of women's community provision found that there was an established delivery landscape which reflected local need. Many Probation Trusts were working with partners to build on and expand existing services for female offenders in the community, including sharing resources and premises such as children's centres, women's centres and community centres, but noted that there were still some gaps in provision in certain areas. The Government stated its belief that it was for individual women's community services to determine the client needs on which they should focus, and from whom they will accept referrals, in partnership with other local needs assessments. The Government also believed that its Transforming Rehabilitation reforms would bring real opportunities for expansion in the women's community service sector.[36] We consider this issue in paragraphs 19 to 22.

18. Mr Hughes told us that funding for 2014-15 was secure, but funding for the next year would be dependent on the process of bids for the 21 contracts to provide probation services under Transforming Rehabilitation.[37] Juliet Lyon expressed her concerns for the funding of women's centres and described it as being very "hand to mouth."[38] She pointed out that, as the solutions to women's offending lay across Departments both nationally and locally, there was a very strong case for making sure that funding and budgeting was shared.[39] Similarly, Rachel Halford said that the funding for the women's centre in Manchester had been reduced, meaning that they had had to be creative in fundraising to ensure they could continue to deliver services to the same number of women. Subsidising fundraising was also an issue.[40] The Prison Reform Trust said that in London in particular there was a desperate need for more women's centres and services. The sustainability and funding of specialist women's services and how they will fare under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme remained a concern, particularly as reductions in local council budgets threatened some of the services that were critical to improved outcomes for female offenders, such as housing.[41] We are concerned that funding appears to be a recurring problem for women's centres and that future funding arrangements have not been put on a sound basis as we recommended. Women's centres should not be solely for women already in the criminal justice system, but also for those on the periphery of it and at risk of entering it, and we reiterate our recommendation that sustainable funding of specialist women's services should be a priority.

The implications for women offenders of Transforming Rehabilitation

19. The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have introduced through-the-gate statutory support for all offenders sentenced to a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, which is likely to be of great benefit to female offenders, who tend to receive short custodial sentences. The Government also designated all women's prisons as resettlement prisons, a development which we welcomed in our initial Report. We did however express concern that the reforms had been designed primarily to deal with male offenders, a concern disputed by the Ministry of Justice.[42]

20. The Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 placed a statutory requirement on the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure that contracts with new providers of probation services considered and identified the particular needs of female offenders.[43] Mr Hughes reiterated that the needs of women would be specifically addressed by the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Providers would be required to give women offenders the option of: having a female supervisor or responsible officer; attending meetings or appointments in a female-only environment; and not being placed in a male-only environment for unpaid work or attendance requirements, for example. Guidance was available to ensure probation providers fully understood how to respond to the particular needs of female offenders.[44] However, Rachel Halford expressed her concern that obligations under these requirements were open to the interpretation of providers. She worried, for example, that there was an implication that, unless a woman specifically chose to, she might go to a generic centre which, in turn, might lead facilities to become generic centres rather than women-only.[45] The Prison Reform Trust thought there was a risk that the introduction of post-prison statutory supervision might result in some sentencers being more inclined to view short-term custody as a gateway to the support services in the community that women needed. There was also a concern that more women would be returned to custody for failing to comply with the terms of the mandatory supervision period.[46]

21. We were concerned that effective provision for women offenders might not be achieved under the payments by results system underpinning the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. In particular, we queried whether there would be sufficient incentive for providers to make available appropriate provision for women offenders, taking into account that they are often classified for probation purposes as presenting a lower risk of reoffending and harm, but tend to have a higher level of need, which could require more intensive, and costly, intervention.[47] Ms Halford argued that the sustainability of women's centres previously funded by NOMS was very dependent on what happened under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, although she was pleased that, as small organisations, it is not necessarily suggested that such centres would have to operate a payments by results system. She believed that the more successful women's centres would be those that were not funded under Transforming Rehabilitation, for example, those funded by local authorities. She stated that funding for women's centres under Transforming Rehabilitation "could be fantastic, but it could be disastrous."[48]

22. It is still very early to assess whether the requirement to take account of women's needs placed on probation providers by the Transforming Rehabilitation programme is sufficient to safeguard the long term funding of women's centres.

Small custodial units and the female custodial estate

23. In our initial report, we said that we would like to see a greater focus on care rather than security in custodial regimes for women, where appropriate, and that priority should be given to finding appropriate ways of enabling women to take more responsibility for their lives whilst serving a custodial sentence.[49] We visited HMP Styal during our inquiry and were impressed there by a regime that encouraged the development of independent living skills and a sense of responsibility within small residential units, coupled with therapeutic interventions. We concluded that this demonstrated the benefits of small units in developing responsibility and support,[50] and we recommended the development of small custodial units, a recommendation which was not accepted by the Government. Since our previous Report a half-way house has been opened at HMP Styal which houses up to 25 women in open accommodation outside the prison walls, and an open unit at HMP Drake Hall has also been announced, though not yet established. These are intended to keep women closer to home by providing smaller open prison units next to existing closed prisons. We remain of the view that an estate consisting principally of small custodial units is best suited to women in custody. This should be the long term aim of the Government, when it has been successful in reducing the size of the women's prison population.

24. Following its review of the custodial estate, the Government decided to develop strategic hubs, prisons close to major population centres in order to serve the courts, hold women from the surrounding area, and provide a range of interventions. [51] We welcome the commitment from the Government to reconfigure the women's custodial estate to ensure women who must go to prison are able to do so near where they would like to live on release and to improve access to interventions and sentence provision by increasing prison capacity close to urban areas.[52]

25. If strategic hubs prove successful, the Government plans to close HMP Askham Grange and HMP East Sutton Park. These are open prisons located in rural areas of Yorkshire and Kent, which the Government has concluded do not meet the resettlement and employment needs of a majority of women.[53]

Rehabilitation in custody

26. The Government says that it encourages women serving a custodial sentence to take responsibility for their own lives and develop skills that are likely to be beneficial on release: it was developing and enhancing community employment regimes for low-risk women to improve employment opportunities where they would be resettled.[54] A joint initiative between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was announced in October 2014 to establish a women-specific curriculum across the female estate designed to meet individual needs and develop both life and formal educational skills. It aims to increase female offenders' employment prospects on release and, as a result, reduce reoffending. The curriculum was also designed to address self-esteem and confidence issues. The Community Rehabilitation Companies that have won probation contracts as part of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms will be expected to work with education partners to help women continue their education and training on release.[55]

27. Rachel Halford, however, said that there had not been much progress on community employment regimes but that they remained a new initiative. There had been an increase in provision in some prisons. For example, HMP Holloway had connections with the London College of Fashion and Pret A Manger, HMP Eastwood had a Timpsons programme and HMP Styal had many employers coming in. However, she also said it was important to note that many women were not ready for employment on release, particularly as a majority received short sentences and were not in prison long enough to access this type of support. Issues such as their families, housing and finances were their priorities, and they often were not at a stage where education and employment was at the forefront of their minds.[56]

28. Juliet Lyon stated that the Government's emphasis on family contact was very helpful for women offenders. However, she argued the overriding problem was that many women were being held in the prison system who did not need to be there. If there was an alternative for those serving very short sentences she believed that staff and prisons would have a greater chance to create effective and constructive regimes for those that needed to be in prison. She also voiced her concern that the reduction in staffing levels in prisons was having a negative impact in both men's and women's establishments.[57]

Release on Temporary Licence

29. Both Rachel Halford and Juliet Lyon emphasised the importance of access to Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) for women offenders. Ms Lyon stated that women contacting the advice service run by the Prison Reform Trust were saying that restrictions were being imposed on them in a way they had not been before.[58] These women had expressed concern that they would be penalised by men's higher rate of absconding, and the media reaction to this, and they feared that time used to see family and to find safe housing and employment on release was in jeopardy.[59] Ms Lyon argued that the tightening of conditions for ROTL should not apply equally to women. Ms Halford made the important point that if women's access to ROTL was tightened, women's prisons could not fulfil their role as resettlement prisons: "if women cannot go out - to increase their responsibility, and go out to work - it just becomes a closed prison. Women have to be able to access ROTL."[60]

30. The Prison Reform Trust highlighted data showing that although the number of releases on temporary licence had increased by 8% (from 7,885 in January-March 2013 to 8,489 in January-March 2014), the number of individual women benefiting from ROTL had fallen by 2%. The number of occasions on which women were released for childcare resettlement and resettlement overnight release had decreased significantly, by 62% and 20% respectively.[61] In 2013, there were 529,350 releases on temporary licence, 93.8% from male establishments and 6.2% from female establishments. Less than 0.1% of releases failed, with the failure rate of males being double that of females.[62] The Prison Reform Trust recommended that the new measures should be monitored for their equality impact, particularly on women, people with learning disabilities and difficulties and older prisoners.[63]

31. The Ministry of Justice has acknowledged that ROTL is important in the rehabilitation of offenders and that prisoners would continue to be released where appropriate, following a case-by-case assessment, when there was a legitimate purpose linked to their resettlement, including for work experience, training and maintaining family ties. They emphasised that a two-tier system was being introduced under which more serious offenders would be subject to a restricted ROTL regime with enhanced assessment and monitoring. There were more stringent restrictions for those with a history of absconding or of failing to return or offending on ROTL. The Government was specifically allowing women who had been assessed as suitable for open conditions to be considered for restricted ROTL.[64] We welcome the Government's assurances that the Minister is taking steps to minimise the potential impact on women of recent restrictions on ROTL. We anticipate that our successor Committee will have to monitor this carefully in the future.

14   Ministry of Justice, Strategic objectives for female offenders, March 2013 Back

15   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 49-50 Back

16   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

17   Q1 Back

18   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 2 Back

19   Qq2-3 Back

20   Prison Reform Trust, (WOF 02), para 9 Back

21   Q1 Back

22   Q10 Back

23   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 2 Back

24   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 10 Back

25   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 87 Back

26   Qq1, 6 Back

27   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 4 Back

28   Ministry of Justice (WOF 01) para 4 Back

29   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 107 Back

30   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

31   Q36 Back

32   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 15 Back

33   Justice Committee, First Report of Session 2014-15, Crime reduction policies: a co-ordinated approach?, HC 307, para 63, 88 Back

34   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 119-120 Back

35   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

36   National Offender Management Service, Stocktake of Women's Services for Offenders in the Community, October 2013 Back

37   Q15 Back

38   Q22 Back

39   IbidBack

40   Q18 Back

41   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 5 Back

42   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 126, 130 Back

43   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

44   Qq4, 42 Back

45   Q18 Back

46   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 19 Back

47   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 130, 143 Back

48   Q18 Back

49   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 175 Back

50   IbidBack

51   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

52   Ministry of Justice (WOF 01) para 18 Back

53   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

54   Ministry of Justice (WOF 01) para 18 Back

55   HC Deb, 21 October 2014, col67WS [Commons written statement] Back

56   Qq29-31 Back

57   Q27 Back

58   Q31 Back

59   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 20 Back

60   Q43 Back

61   Prison Reform Trust (WOF 02) para 20 Back

62   Ministry of Justice, Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2013, November 2014 Back

63   Prison Reform Trust, Inside out: Release on temporary licence and its role in promoting effective resettlement and rehabilitation, February 2015 Back

64   Ministry of Justice (WOF 01) para 5-6 Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015