Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:45 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, perhaps I may crave the indulgence of the House; I was not here for the start of the debate on the amendment. Unfortunately, noble Lords moved a bit fast and by the time I got back the debate had already started. I hope that I will be allowed to say a few words as my name is on the amendment.

I start by saying that in no way do I question the Minister's commitment to reducing the number of women in prison, or to extending support in the community for women who need help rather than punishment. However, I question the Government's ability to make that happen within the present structure. In Committee, the Minister said that,

"we are working across government as well as with the voluntary and community sector".-[Hansard, 15/2/12; col. 875].

That is fine, but the rest of his response made it clear that there was little co-ordination across the various elements that were working with government.

This simple and no-cost amendment would provide a model to overcome what is clearly a deficit. It would provide the Government with a strategy for women offenders and women at risk of offending, as well as reviewing the impact of government policies on this vulnerable group. It would also be a driver for local policy to provide co-ordinated and effective work to ensure that women offenders receive the right support to stop their offending behaviour. It is a tried and tested model and it works.

The backgrounds of many women offenders are certainly multifaceted. I will not go into the details as I am sure noble Lords have already heard them. If the Government are genuinely serious about trying to reduce reoffending, we need a holistic solution from all the agencies responsible. Most women offenders have children or are the primary carers for disabled and elderly relatives, so there is an enormous effect on the lives of their families. Many women offenders become homeless: imprisonment will cause one-third to lose their homes and other possessions. They are inadequately prepared for release, with little support and advice on how to cope with the future. Is it any wonder that there is such a high level of self-harming among women who have little hope for the future?

There is no question that progress has been made in recent years, and many extremely committed individuals within and outside the Prison Service have been working tirelessly, but it is essential that the momentum is maintained. The responsibility for that is firmly at the feet of the Government. However, it cannot be achieved by tinkering around the edges, but only by having a well co-ordinated strategy and integrated alternatives to custody via an expansion of the network of community centres. Essentially for the Government, this would save money, which could be used elsewhere.

This year the Government will be reporting to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women-CEDAW-on progress that has been made since the last CEDAW report five years ago, when the committee welcomed the measures that had been taken but expressed concern about there still being too many women in prison. In their report to CEDAW this year, the Government state:

"The UK Government is committed to diverting women away from crime and to tackling women's offending effectively. It broadly accepted the conclusions in Baroness Corston's March 2007 report ... and is supportive of reducing the number of vulnerable women in prison".

However, they are going to have to prove that, by the policies and structures that are in place, because at the moment that sentence lacks viability. Contributions from organisations that work in this field will show that that is the case.

If the Government are, as they say, serious about reducing the number of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, the structures must be put in place to ensure that the needs of these women are prioritised, not marginalised. Only by addressing the issues strategically and monitoring the outcomes of the work effectively will we see a real reduction in the number of women in prison and the level of reoffending.

I do not for one moment question that the Government accept the seriousness of the situation, but I hope that they accept it in the context of this amendment, which will make a great difference by changing the position we have now. I hope that the Government will feel that they can accept this amendment. If they feel they cannot -although I would have great difficulty understanding why not-perhaps they could agree with the principle behind the amendment, of the need for a co-ordinated structure, and come back to us with a new amendment on Report.