Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:17 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:17 pm, 14th May 2019

It is an honour to follow Wera Hobhouse, who made important points about the need for social reform and how it does indeed cost money.

I want to speak in particular about the value of women’s centres as a community response to women offenders. I start by paying tribute of course to my friend and colleague the inspirational Baroness Corston, whose groundbreaking report led to the establishment of a wider network of women’s centres across the UK. I have visited one such centre—Eden House, in my neighbouring constituency of Bristol East, Baroness Corston’s former constituency—a few times in the past few years, the first time in my former professional role at Respect, the national organisation for domestic violence perpetrator work, in order to discuss specific interventions for women with complex histories of domestic violence and offending.

Women experience the majority of domestic violence. While there are of course male victims, their abusers are disproportionately male partners, although there are female perpetrators. There is no excuse for the abuse of a partner, female or male, but in my previous work I learned a lot about the differences between the profiles of female and male domestic perpetrators, particularly those with a complex picture of experience as a victim and a perpetrator.

Some women are indeed very violent and controlling and do fit the profile of coercive and controlling abusers, but the majority of those who use violence tend to do so either in self-defence or resistance in the context of a partner who is controlling and on whom they may be dependent. Some of the women I met at Eden House had this complex history. Often it started young—sometimes they had experience of child abuse—and their offending was intricately linked to their experience of abuse as well as to mental health and substance misuse. Those are examples of the specific needs and experiences of women offenders that Baroness Corston identified and of the reasons she concluded that specific women-centred responses were needed.

Baroness Corston also identified three specific groups of characteristics. First, the domestic category covers abusive relationships, but also childcare. Single mothers with sole responsibility for children are much less likely than male offenders to have someone on the outside to look after their home and the children, and are therefore more likely to lose both. Secondly, there is the personal category. Many women offenders have severe mental illness or substance misuse problems, which are likely to get worse if they are remanded in prison. They may also be self-harming, or have eating disorders. The third category is the socio-economic. Women are paid less than men, and are more likely to experience relationship breakdown as economically damaging. They are more likely than men to face under-employment or discrimination because of their parenting responsibilities.

A fourth category relates to the offending itself. Most, although not all, women offenders are convicted of non-violent offences, and present little public risk. They actually present a greater risk to themselves than to others. However, because there are fewer of them, they are more likely to be sent further away when they are sentenced. For other reasons, proportionate to their numbers, they are more likely to be remanded in custody than men. Because of their domestic responsibilities, they may therefore experience further, compounding consequences, such as fewer visits from children and other family members, leading to a further likelihood that their children will be taken into care permanently. Shorter sentences are also less likely to deflect future offending.

For all those complicated reasons, prison makes the lives of women and their children much worse than it makes those of male offenders, although I am not suggesting that there are no complications for male offenders. It is also much less likely that their reoffending rates will be reduced by a prison sentence.

Baroness Corston pointed out that because of those differences, there should be distinct, separate and different approaches. She recommended that community sanctions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm, that responses should take into account women’s vulnerabilities and their domestic and childcare responsibilities, and that the Together Women programme should be extended and a network of women’s centres set up as soon as possible. As I am sure you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Together Women programme was set up by the Labour Government with £9.1 million in 2005 to develop and test holistic responses to women.

As a result of Baroness Corston’s recommendation, a further £15.6 million was allocated for 2009-11 for the number of women’s centres to be increased to, eventually, 46. At their best, they provide a combination of one-to-one holistic support, help with substance misuse, counselling, therapy, domestic abuse programmes, life skills classes and workshops, referral to other help and, sometimes, on-site childcare and residential facilities. A Ministry of Justice evaluation has found statistically significant differences in favour of women’s centres compared to custodial sentences in respect of the risk of reoffending.