Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Ministry of Justice published a Corston progress report a month ago with some promising initiatives, but timescales, numbers and priorities are harder to find. I have to agree with the Howard League for Penal Reform’s briefing which states:

“The visionary, radical proposals at the heart of the Corston review have either been sidelined or completely abandoned”.

Can the Minister update the House on what priorities and timescales for implementation the interdepartmental ministerial group for women has identified and is working to? What about the women’s offending reduction programme—WORP—set up in 2004? What role does it now play? What priorities was it working to before it became part of the ministerial group and are they still the Government's priorities? With all these schemes, is there a planned and guaranteed budget to ensure these plans materialise? On 10 December, the Minister in the other place stated:

“The Ministry of Justice is committed to providing additional resourcing in the new year”.

Can the Minister tell us how much it is and assure us that it is indeed extra resourcing?

Lastly, acknowledging the cost of what is proposed and the likely impact of the economic disasters we face, how do the Government now view the Titan project? Many parliamentarians and penal experts well beyond these portals have expressed grave concerns, which I certainly share, about government proposals to spend huge sums on building untried Titan prisons. The vast majority believe it would be far better value for money and more effective to modernise the existing capacity and, when and if necessary, build small local prisons. Surely, the time must now have arrived, not least in light of the current economic crisis, when the Government seriously have to reconsider their hugely expensive Titan prison programme. They would certainly have backing across all political parties and none if they decided to abandon that plan altogether. If not, at the very least, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, and all her supporters need to be reassured that any Titan prison—I believe the Minister prefers to call them prison clusters—will definitely not include a women's prison unit within its site. Again, this was a reassurance that she asked for in your Lordships' debate in February last year. Can the Minister please give the House that answer tonight?

I end by paying tribute to the invaluable support and briefings supplied by the many charities and voluntary organisations as dedicated as your Lordships to achieving Corston's recommendations and especially to Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust. They can rest assured that this House will continue to keep the pressure up.

Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, this is an important debate with a large number of speakers. I remind noble Lords that if they stick to the time limit of three minutes, which is when the clock hits three, it will allow all noble Lords an equal opportunity to speak within the hour.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1281

7.35 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Her commitment is second to none and her effectiveness in debate is similarly powerful. I add a tribute not only to the voluntary agencies but to many prison staff who are doing fantastically difficult work in very challenging circumstances. I always find it significant that such prison staff have told me how they are disturbed by the inadequacy of the system. They despair of what progress can be made and talk challengingly about the need for a completely different approach and for support for women when they go back into the community. That point cannot overstressed. As they often put it, they think their work is to protect these women for at least a short time from the intolerable pressures that ruin their lives outside. One hears so often that these women’s lives are chaos.

It is against this background that the report by my noble friend Lady Corston was so important, and it is necessary to look at how the Government are responding. Trying to look at it dispassionately—I can sometimes look at this issue dispassionately, but I do not usually feel dispassionate about it—it is encouraging. There has been action on strip-search. It is difficult to think of anything that was more humiliating for women. It also had disastrous psychological overtones for staff and prisoners alike and was crudely used as a method of control. That the Government have acted on this is laudable.

The Government are firmly resolved to move forward on one-stop shops to divert women from prison. That is positive news. I support the noble Baroness in saying that we now need evidence of the resource muscle behind all this. Precisely how much will be provided? Will it be additional? Where will it be used? What are the priorities? When will it all happen? I hope my noble friend can enlighten us this evening.

Whether we are talking about women or anybody else in prison in debates of this kind, we ought to ask ourselves what is the purpose of penal policy. It is surely to save society from the cost of reoffending—hence rehabilitation is at the top of the league—and to see these women as people, as women with great potential trapped in appalling social circumstances. The need is to release that potential and let it become stabilising and constructive. Think of the effect on already dysfunctional families of women experiencing prison and being separated from their children. If rehabilitation is to be achieved, I am convinced that it has to be done in small, purpose-built units. Smacking women into impersonal prisons gives no basis for moving in the right direction. I hope we can have reassurance from my noble friend on that this evening.

7.38 pm

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to being dispassionate. I do not feel remotely dispassionate on this subject; I feel passionate about it. I commend the noble Baroness, who has always identified a just cause, for bringing this matter to the House in the footsteps of many other distinguished Members. Long ago, we served together in the juvenile court in Camberwell and Lambeth, and even then the

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1282

level of disadvantage, deprivation and social exclusion of all those appearing in court was all too evident. Our behaviour with regard to the criminal justice system and women is simply to compound the problems that these already frequently damaged women have and ensure that their children suffer even greater trauma and distress. The situation is simply not acceptable and there must be action, as the noble Baroness says, in 2009.

The evidence has been repeated time and again that 60 per cent of these women are mothers. There are 8,000 children a year affected by their mothers’ imprisonment. It is clear that, for the most part, male prisoners can expect the other parent to care for the children, but women’s children often go into care or are cared for by friends or neighbours—and we understand that many come from families and social networks that are far from ideal. We know that many of them lose the home that they were renting or buying. The damage is unacceptable.

At the department of criminology at the University of Hull, where I have the privilege to be chancellor, Dr Liz Walker has been doing some extraordinarily interesting work on offending fathers and the price they pay—the shame, the humiliation and the embarrassment of their children as well as the collateral economic damage, such as the loss of income and the cost of visiting. If that relates to fathers, how much more does that evidence apply to mothers?

I would like the Minister to report to us in particular on the report by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, on offender health. It was good news in 2006 when the NHS took over healthcare in the Prison Service. The outline of the consultation made it all too clear that women in contact with the criminal justice system,

We were promised a response by 2008. The Government have set up pathways, guidelines and much else besides, and I believe that if joined-up government is to work we can use that lever.

Finally, I draw attention to one practical project that brings hope. At Send prison for females, the Watts Gallery has a wonderful programme of encouraging the inmates to become involved in the work of George Frederic Watts, a socially reforming artist, concentrating particularly on homelessness and the exploitation of women. The evidence of that small project is a light in a wilderness, and we need far more such lights. We need action, and we need it this year.

7.42 pm

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, I declare an interest as the current president of the Howard League for Penal Reform. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on securing a debate on this important and, in my view, neglected subject. I agree with every word of her excellent speech. This subject is neglected not because we speak of it rarely—some of us speak

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1283

of it a great deal—but, unfortunately, because real action by Government is in inverse proportion to the sound advice that they receive.

In opening this debate, the noble Baroness referred to the huge increase in the number of women in prison over recent years. With that increase in his mind, I ask the Minister to ask himself the following five simple questions and answer them to this House. Has the increase to which the noble Baroness referred led to a decrease in crime? Has it led to greater public confidence? Has it led to a more constructive prison regime? Has it led to less recidivism? Has it led to more rehabilitation? In reality there is a gloomy answer—no—to every one of those questions. If I am right that the answer is no, what next?

It is noteworthy that a number of women in custody, 64 per cent in 2007, have been serving sentences of less than six months. I ask the Ministers to tell the courts the truth: that very little is achieved by these short sentences other than the increased social exclusion of those who serve the sentences and, perhaps even worse still, their children and other members of their families.

I urge the Government that paramount attention should be given now to implementing the key recommendations of the Corston review that have already been referred to, particularly that prison for women should be limited to serious and seriously violent crimes and that women in prison should be dispersed, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested, to local prison centres in a new women’s prison estate, with small prisons near to their homes.

I turn to a specific issue, and I apologise for the short notice I gave the Minister on this earlier this afternoon. None the less, he has had a little notice. It relates to the public inquiry gained by the Howard League into the treatment of a young woman called SP while in custody and into her background. It is an unusual case because SP survived. This is therefore not an inquest but an opportunity to hold a public inquiry, which has been decided upon, where SP can give her own account of her life and times and what happened to her in local authority care before and after prison. She is articulate—I have met her—and she is a very abused young woman.

In June 2008 the Prisons Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, resigned as the nominated chairman of the inquiry. He made it quite clear why he resigned: his intention as to how to run the inquiry, he complained, had been interfered with unacceptably by the Prison Service, and he felt that he could no longer conduct an independent inquiry. So what did the Government do? I do not know the person concerned and I dare say that he is a splendid man, but they nominated as the new chairman of the inquiry a career senior Prison Service manager whose last job was running no fewer than 10 prisons in his area to be the so-called independent chair of the SP inquiry. He may be thoroughly capable of being independent, but it really looks appalling.

I invite the Government to recognise that this new appointment has been thoroughly insensitive and inappropriate and will devalue what could be an extremely useful inquiry. The credibility of their commitment to reform is undermined by that appointment and by the three-year delay that has resulted from wrangling,

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1284

mostly by the Government, over the inquiry. We ask the Government to demonstrate their commitment to reform of the women’s estate in the round by accepting what has been said already by most speakers in this debate, and in particular by appointing a new and entirely independent person to chair the SP inquiry.

7.47 pm

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, like other speakers, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for giving the House this opportunity to review the progress being made following the historic report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. The progress reports from the Government in June and December last year contain a wealth of detail, but closer inspection raises questions about the scope of the changes that are under way. In the brief time I have, I shall give two examples.

At the heart of the noble Baroness’s report was a strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with small custodial centres providing a range of services. The working group that examined this recommendation accepted the principles behind it, but held that the units of 20 to 30 would not be workable because they would not achieve economies of scale, and that the prisoners who would be most suited to them would be better dealt with in the community. Instead, we have the proposal to test the model of smaller units in larger prisons by means of a 77-place wing at HMP Bronzefield, which is still to be opened. The June 2008 report concluded:

“In the longer term, we will utilise any headroom gained from increased community provision to re-configure the prison estate if necessary, and if resources allow, so that women’s establishments are of optimum size and specification for meeting women’s needs”.

That sounds to me like an admission of defeat.

The problems identified by the working group need to be explored, and it may be that better proposals are needed. However, to accept the principle of multifunctional provision while rejecting its implementation through smaller self-standing units risks sinking the alternative strategy and reabsorbing vulnerable women into the failures of the current system.

The second example is women prisoners’ mental health needs. These are central to their vulnerability and must be tackled by any reforms. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, made a number of recommendations for an integrated approach to health and well-being led by the Department of Health, embracing community health services as well as prison health. It is clear that these matters overlap with the review on the diversion of mentally ill people being conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, and it is reasonable that they should be dealt with in the emerging offender health and social care strategy for women. However, there must be anxieties that, as with the noble Baroness’s report, bold plans for a new approach will shrivel before the organisational complexity and force of radically redesigning services.

The noble Baroness’s report gives the opportunity for far-reaching changes to provide holistic, individual treatment to women offenders. However, unless painstaking attention to detail is backed by a bold

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1285

strategy and firm leadership, the opportunity for change will die the death of a thousand qualifications. That would mean that women would continue to suffer unnecessarily, with damage not only to themselves but to their children, their communities and the whole of our society.

7.50 pm

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Howe on obtaining this important debate. If noble Lords detect traces of anger and frustration in tone of my contribution, they are absolutely correct. The much welcomed and rightly applauded Corston report is not the first but, as my noble friend said, the sixth report on women in prison since 1997, all of which have said much the same thing. Nothing happened to any of the others, because the Government appear to listen only to what they themselves commission.

In their recent National Service Framework: Improving Services to Women Offenders, the Government stated that the intention was to put in place a long-term and sustainable system to deliver a co-ordinated approach to addressing the issues identified in the Corston report. But if anything is to be sustained, it must be consistently directed and led, and such direction and leadership of those responsible for such a system remains something that the Government and the Prison Service seem stubbornly to resist introducing. I admit that this is a song I have been singing since I first went into a women's prison 13 years ago, finding not only that women were routinely chained while in labour, but that there was no way of ensuring that good practice in one prison somewhere could be turned into common practice everywhere.

Unless the Government adopt the common practice of every organisation that I know of in the world, with the exception of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, nothing short or long term can be put in place, let alone sustained. It is not the job of Ministers, champions or otherwise, however well intentioned, to exercise the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-per-year direction and oversight of the treatment of, and conditions for, women in prison that is required. The reason we are here tonight, debating yet again a situation that could and should have been resolved years ago, is that the Prison Service is simply not structured to deliver what the Government say they desire. Implementing Corston requires not just commissioning services but, above all, consistent leadership, direction and resourcing of those people who have to work with and for women prisoners. What, in the continued absence of anyone responsible and accountable for actually ensuring that things happen, makes it more likely that we shall see more reforms in the treatment of women in prison in 2009 than in any of the other 12 years during which they could have been introduced?

7.53 pm

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on her determination to keep this matter on the agenda so that the Government are never in any doubt that they still have a lot to do.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1286

I have just looked at Dame Anne Owers’s report on Peterborough prison for women. It looks as if nothing much has changed since the Corston report. The same sort of women are in the same sort of prison with the same sort of problems—but at least the strip-searching on arrival has been stopped, and we must all welcome that.

I shall use my time to show the House what can be done, through the example of a women’s prison in Perth, Western Australia, which I visited three months ago. It holds about 60 women, which is a quarter of all the women in prison in Western Australia. It was set up after an analysis of the shortcomings of women’s prisons in Western Australia, which reached many of the same conclusions as the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. The women there live in one-storey houses with a large garden; in each house there is a living area with a kitchen, five bedrooms and two bathrooms. Each of the women has a single bedroom and some of them have camp beds, which they can pull out for their children up to the age of 12 to stay the night. Those who have small children living with them—and there were 12 at the time—have bigger rooms.

The women are responsible for seeing to all their own cooking and eating. In the administration building there is a small supermarket; the women get five dollars a day for food, which they have to pool with the others in the house. The supermarket is run by a number of women prisoners who are undertaking a course in retailing. In the main administration building, there is a restaurant used for eating out when families come to visit, and for training in restaurant and bar work.

The children who live in the prison with their mothers go each day to outside daycare while their mothers work. The library is like a small public library, with a children’s corner and lots of children’s books. The health centre is, similarly, like a very good health centre in a small community, and the reception area is like the reception of a small, quiet hospital. On arrival, there is no strip-searching; there is a waiting room—a sitting room—where the women who have arrived sit while various people come and talk to them and explain what it will be like to be there. There is a stringent selection procedure for staff and those who apply must go through a fairly intensive process before their names even go on a list of those eligible to apply.

I give the House this information to make the point that women’s imprisonment can be reformed. You just have to want to do it.

7.56 pm

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, this debate demonstrates how well my noble friend Lady Howe serves society, both through this House and outside. I want to address, briefly, the drug and alcohol programmes for these women and a Cardiff-based programme for community integration of offenders.

Overall, there is ongoing inadequacy of medical services for women in prison, including mental health, and inadequate links to other appropriate specialist services. Within the criminal justice system, women with alcohol-related problems are about five-fold in number of those with problems from drugs, yet the need to deal with the consequences of alcohol addiction

14 Jan 2009 : Column 1287

is largely ignored. Primary care trust funding for targeted alcohol and drugs services is poor. Programmes run by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust have proven highly effective on evaluated outcomes. After seven years of staying in touch with offenders the re-offending rate is almost zero, representing a huge economic saving to society overall. That applies to women, not just men, prisoners. So why are the numbers progressed through ineffective programmes taking preference for funding over those programmes with proven outcomes?

I also want to mention the Cardiff-based Women's Turnaround Project, funded by the Ministry of Justice and hosted by Safer Wales, which provides practical support to women offenders as well as those potentially at risk of offending. The service is focused on the specific needs of women, aiming for a sustainable reduction in women's offending and a reduction in incarceration of those who pose little threat to society. This is particularly important because the biggest problem for women offenders is separation from children and family, particularly small children. Separation undermines any parenting that is beginning to be undertaken and undermines the self-esteem of the women who already usually have very low self-esteem.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page