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Written Answers

Wednesday, 24th February 1999.

24 Feb 1999 : Column 113

Coalfield Communities

Lord Mason of Barnsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): On 1 December 1998 at the Coalfield Conference in Peterlee, County Durham, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a ten year programme to regenerate coalfield communities with an investment package of £354 million over three years. A fuller breakdown of this investment and the further steps to be taken are set out in Making the Difference--A New Start for England's Coalfield Communities: The Government's Response to the Coalfield Task Force Report. Copies of this document have been placed in the Library of the House.

Victim Support

Baroness Pitkeathley asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): The Government are committed to improving the position of victims and witnesses within the criminal justice system. We are increasing very substantially our annual grant to Victim Support to enable them to establish in magistrates' courts a support service for victims, witnesses and other court users to complement the highly successful service they have already established at all Crown Court centres. Up to an additional £2.8 million a year will be provided for this purpose in 1999-2000, rising to up to £4.5 million in 2001-02.

We shall also be providing an additional £1.8 million a year from 1999-2000 onwards to enable Victim Support further to develop their community based schemes and the support services provided at the Crown Court.

By 2001-02, therefore, our grant to Victim Support will have risen to some £19 million a year, an increase of 50 per cent. over the current figure of £12.7 million. This substantial injection of new money will enable Victim Support to provide a more complete and seamless service for victims and witnesses, from the reporting of the offence through to the conclusion of the case in the courts and, as appropriate, beyond.

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HM Prison Coldingley

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will publish the report on the internal audit of the contract between the Home Office and Wackenhut (UK) Ltd for the operation of industrial functions at Her Majesty's Prison Coldingley; and whether any disciplinary or criminal proceedings are to be taken against any individuals as a result of this audit.[HL1061]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The report by Prison Service Internal Audit on this matter is an internal management document, concerning actions which are the subject of a disciplinary investigation as well as issues which are subject to discussion with the contractor. It is not intended to publish it. The disciplinary investigation is being conducted by the Director of Dispersal Prisons, who will report back to the Director General of the Prison Service.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of experience at Her Majesty's Prison Coldingley, they still believe that contracting out industrial functions is the best way of getting over the rigidity of public sector rules on finance and personnel or whether those rules could be amended so as to allow capital to be raised for investment in plant, stocks, marketing and product development, whilst keeping operations under the control of the Prison Service.[HL1062]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Before contracting out, the industrial operation at Coldingley prison had operated at a significant loss. It was hoped that through contracting out management of the workshops, the contractor would be better placed to win additional external contracts and so move the operation into profit, which would have been shared with the Prison Service. During the contract the contractor was required to bear the losses. The contractor was unable to sustain the losses incurred, and terminated the contract, as it was entitled to do. The Prison Service has contracted out many other operations successfully, and will continue to look for opportunities to contract out, or enter into partnerships with the private sector, where this offers better value than the alternative.

Women Offenders: Sentencing

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what they attribute the rise in the women's prison population between December 1992 when it was 1,353 and December 1998 when it stood at 3,066.[HL1097]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The number of prisoners is determined by the numbers sentenced to imprisonment by the courts and the average lengths of the sentences given.

    The courts are more likely now to use custodial penalties for females than they were. The proportion of women aged 21 and over found guilty

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    at the Crown Court who were given a custodial sentence increased from 24 per cent. in 1992 to 36 per cent. in 1997, and has been at 37 per cent. since April 1998. Sentence lengths have also increased, from an average 17.7 months for females aged 21 and over sentenced at the Crown Court in 1992, to 19.5 months in the year ending June 1998.

    There has been an increase in the number of females coming before the courts. The number sentenced to all types of disposals for indictable offences (including triable either way offences) at the Crown Court and at magistrates' courts increased from 40,000 in 1992 to 44,400 in the year ending June 1998.

    Part of the increase in the numbers sentenced may be explained by a reduction in the use of the caution. During 1992, 61 per cent. of females were cautioned for indictable offences, compared with 51 per cent. in the year ending June 1998.

    Between 1992 and 1998 the greatest increases in the number of females held as sentenced prisoners by offence were for drug offences (up by 208 per cent. from 260 to 800) and for robbery offences (up by 200 per cent. from 60 to 180). The increase in females sentenced for drug offences accounts for 45 per cent. of the total increase in female sentenced prisoners between 1992 and 1998 (figures for June in each year).

    Women still form only a small proportion, 4.9 per cent., of the total prison population and remain less likely than men to receive custodial sentences.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will commission research to examine the sentencing of women by courts.[HL1098]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The Home Office regularly monitors the sentencing of female offenders in England and Wales and information is published annually in Criminal Statistics, England and Wales. We also plan to publish a report later this year that will be a comprehensive overview of women and criminal justice.

The Home Office has recently published a detailed study comparing the sentencing of men and women, aged 21 or over, for shoplifting, violence and drugs offences in 1991. The results were published in Home Office Research Study 170 and Research Findings 58 in July 1997.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they intend to take to stem the increase in the female prison population.[HL1099]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: It is for the courts to decide the appropriate sentence in any individual case, within the statutory limits set by Parliament. We believe that prison must be the right response for those who have committed serious offences and those who pose a danger to the public, such as violent, sexual or persistent offenders. However, prison should be used only where necessary and courts should use community penalties where this will adequately address the offending behaviour.

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We believe that the courts should have an effective range of sentencing options available to them and that is why we introduced new non-custodial penalties such as drug treatment and testing orders, action plan orders and reparation orders in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

It is obviously important that probation services should provide programmes suitable for women offenders. Under national standards, probation services are already required to periodically review whether they are providing a broad range of community service placements including sufficient places suitable for women.

In July last year the Lord Chief Justice laid down guidance which will help courts decide how to sentence offenders on the borderline between a custodial and non-custodial penalty. The new Sentencing Advisory Panel, established in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, may also be able to provide advice in this area.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What sentencing alternatives to custody suitable for women offenders are available to courts.[HL1100]

Lord Williams of Mostyn: A custodial sentence may be imposed only where the court is of the opinion that the offence is so serious that only such a sentence can be justified or where only such a sentence would be adequate to protect the public.

Where the court is not of that opinion, a wide range of community and financial penalties are available for both male and female offenders.

The 1996 report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation entitled A Review of Probation Service Provision for Women Offenders reinforced the importance of probation services providing a full range of facilities appropriate for women. Some larger services provide "women only" offender programmes, although many are mixed. As part of the Effective Practice Initiative the Inspectorate will be considering how best to monitor provision for the supervision of women offenders in their future inspection arrangements. A programme for women offenders has been selected as one of the three "pathfinder programmes" under this initiative.

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