Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:00 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, I join noble Lords all round the House in supporting the amendment. There has been not one word of disagreement, and I am sure the Minister has listened carefully to what noble Lords have had to say on this issue.

I believe, as does my Front Bench, that the amendment can help to focus a national debate on the needs of women in the criminal justice system more effectively over the coming years, whatever Government are in office. My noble friend Lady Corston referred to what the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, said a few months ago. Two of the words he used to describe the state of the women's secure estate were "aghast" and "ashamed". I am sure that everyone who has spoken and has any knowledge of the subject would agree with those words.

In my view and that of many of my noble friends, the secure estate is too often no place for women. The majority of women in detention have not committed violent crimes. They are mothers, and each year more than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers because of imprisonment. Many of these women are victims themselves: one in four women in prison was in local authority care as a child; nearly 40 per cent left school before they were 16; over half have suffered domestic violence; and one in three has suffered sexual abuse.

I do not believe that anyone who has read the 2007 report of my noble friend Lady Corston has not been impressed by her recommendations-as my noble friend said earlier, it is now five years since the report was presented-by the examples she gave, by the intellectual force of her arguments and by the way in which these could be translated into effective solutions. We did not do enough to put those solutions into practice but we did make some progress. We continue to listen carefully to what my noble friend Lady Corston says on these matters because of her great experience in this field.

The Women's Criminal Justice Policy Unit in the MoJ will help to bring her recommendations to life. It will provide a safe and collaborative environment within government and across departments for real joined-up thinking on these matters.

To deal with women's needs in a holistic way-their health and social welfare needs and how local authorities, the Home Office and other bodies could work to keep them out of crime and out of jail-there is a need for all government departments to work in this collaborative way because the needs are so great and the challenges so important. The results would certainly be more beneficial, not just for the woman involved but for her family and the society that she comes from.

With this great agreement that women should not be in prison-every report that one has read over the years has said the same thing, and all Governments agree-I would hope that this amendment could be put into action. I pay tribute to my noble friends Lady Corston, Lady Gould and Lord Judd and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who put their names to this amendment, and to all those who have taken part in this debate this afternoon. They spoke with such passion in the belief that something should be done on these matters. I know the Minister is concerned about this and I am sure that he will look at this very favourably in the cause of justice for women. I look forward to his response.