Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Corston Baroness Corston Labour 4:30 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, it is a privilege to move this amendment. I acknowledge and am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Corston report, and I have got to the stage now where I feel that the name on the report is not mine, as I gather that in the Ministry of Justice I have become both an adjective and a noun. However, I acknowledge that reference was made to that anniversary by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in this place, and by the Secretary of State for Justice in the House of Commons. I also acknowledge that last week, on the fifth anniversary, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, held a roundtable discussion on progress and the way forward on the women's criminal justice agenda.

In a debate in Committee on 15 February, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that,

"we are doing many things in the direction of travel of the Corston report".-[Hansard, 15/2/12; col. 876.]

However, central to my report was the call for strategic and structural changes to drive progress on the women's criminal justice agenda. I called for a joined-up response across government to address the multiple and complex issues in the lives of women offenders and-I emphasise "and"-women at risk of offending. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, the loss of a cross-departmental women's unit poses a real risk of returning to policy silos within government departments that will inevitably be reflected locally.

The Ministry of Justice now has two officials left working on women's policy, and they will inevitably focus on women offenders. In future, it is proposed that the funding should be devolved to NOMS-the National Offender Management Service-at regional level, and it will inevitably be probation focused. So NOMS will deal with women offenders. However, women who are at risk of offending do not come, and cannot come, on to its radar. These women will again be lost, as will a real opportunity to tackle their vulnerabilities before they end up experiencing custody and the consequent damage which that entails to themselves, their families and, particularly, their children.

The costs incurred to the public purse by not pursuing prevention are all too well documented. A women's criminal justice policy unit does not need to be resource-intensive. In fact, I am not sure that it needs any resource at all. It does not need to mean cross-departmental officials working together in one place in a team. There are opportunities for creative working, with designated leads from each department working together on the common issues facing women offenders and women at risk in terms of mental health, drugs, housing, family, skills and employment. A policy unit would be cost-effective and represents a way to save money. Without such an approach, money could be wasted as individual departmental pots of money are all spent on the same group of women.

The Inter-Ministerial Group on Equalities is already in place, and I have called for ministerial oversight. I cannot see why that group cannot be used for good effect in helping the Ministry of Justice to drive forward progress on this agenda. The responsibility cannot and should not lie solely with the Ministry of Justice. Delivering the various required responses to women's needs is cost-cutting and it should be equalities-driven as well.

I am sure that many noble Lords will recall the speech of Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, on 29 February. I gather that the speech was entitled "Women in Prison: Corston Five Years On". It was a timely reminder that while progress has been made, there is much more to be done. He said:

"We cannot go on like this ... without senior, visible leadership, with real authority and resources to push things through".

I could not agree more. That is what is missing. I do not mind people using my name, but I want them to make sure that they reflect what I called for, rather than what it might be convenient to suppose I called for.

I emphasise the need for a written strategy for these women. We currently have a virtual strategy in that government Ministers say that they have a strategy but that they will not publish it. That is no strategy at all. Surely that is meaningless if the Government are serious in their attempt to be accountable and to monitor progress. How can they evidence progress in a transparent way without publishing, at the very least, a framework of intent, supported by a statement of what they are trying to achieve for women with vulnerabilities who are caught up in the criminal justice system?

I fully understand that the Government wish to pursue localism and avoid being seen to dictate from the centre. However, without a strategy as an overarching framework, no one knows what it is about locally or can use it to persuade others of the merits of joined-up delivery. How can women's community projects or probation trusts persuade local delivery partners of the need for joined-up delivery at a local level if there is nothing to indicate that the strategy is in place? The Government's planned programme of work on troubled families rightly intends to provide a clear national steer for local delivery. Why cannot the same be applied to the Government's strategy for women offenders and women at risk of offending? After all, a lot of these troubled families are headed by such women.

What I am seeking is not a costly option; it is a basic minimum requirement to support the Government's stated intent to progress the Corston agenda. It would be neither costly nor time-intensive to pull together a brief strategy that builds on earlier progress, because progress there has been. Without a strategy, how will the Government meet their requirements under the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Bangkok Rules for women. Here, there are ramifications for the Government's standing internationally. I have absolutely no doubt of the Minister's intent to influence policy across government, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said. I also have no doubt that he will rely heavily on his officials to work closely to ensure that that influence results in tangible delivery. However, how much easier it would be for them to achieve that by having to hand a written statement of that strategy and its goals. I beg to move.