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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:57 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour 4:57 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, I rise to speak in this debate to welcome the 10th anniversary of the report of my noble friend Lady Corston into women in the criminal justice system. Although International Women’s Day should be a cause of celebration, there are still too many women incarcerated around the world, including in the UK. Therefore, the Corston report remains relevant.

The women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled between 1995 and 2010, from under 2,000 women to over 4,000. The numbers have since declined by over 10%, from 4,279 women in April 2012 to 3,821 in April 2016 according to the Prison Reform Trust—whose briefing I acknowledge for this debate—but the UK has still one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in western Europe.

The 43 recommendations of my noble friend Lady Corston provided a road map for women-specific criminal justice reform. The aim was that of systems change, of a,

“distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.

To achieve this change, five key areas are essential.

The first is the expansion of, and sustained funding for, women’s centres in the community as one-stop shops to prevent women entering or returning to the criminal justice system. Secondly, liaison and diversion schemes should be extended and rolled out nationally to divert women away from custody and into support.

Thirdly, there should be specialist community support, including mental health support and accommodation for women affected by the criminal justice system. I very much welcome the Homelessness Reduction Bill currently before this House which obliges local authorities to take into account and advise women who need housing on leaving prison. Currently, women are systematically deemed “intentionally homeless” for going to prison and, in too many cases, they get no help on release. Only with more supportive accommodation can the cycle of repeat offending be halted.

Fourthly, there must be sentencing reform, with greater use of alternatives to custody and women’s community support services. Finally, and crucially, there should be co-ordinated, joined-up working between all agencies involved in the lives of women affected by the criminal justice system.

I am grateful to the campaign group Women in Prison, which this week published a review of the Corston report 10 years on. It calls for a joined-up approach that takes into account the root causes of women’s offending. Only by ensuring appropriate housing, mental health support and gender-specific women’s community support services can real progress continue to be made.

It is now increasingly understood that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Over half of women in prison have been victims of domestic or sexual violence. Over half have experienced abuse or neglect as a child, and a third grew up in care. Serious mental health problems are endemic in women’s prisons and are often a response to trauma. Some 84% of women’s prison sentences are for non-violent offences such as theft, which are often related to poverty and addiction. These women do not pose a threat to the public.

Most women serving short prison sentences are back in prison within a year. A prison place costs £42,000 per year—over 10 times more than a community sentence of £3,000. So prison makes no sense on economic or rehabilitative grounds and, I would argue, makes the situation worse for women and their families. A few weeks in prison, on remand or sentenced, is enough time for a woman to lose her home, job and children. When women leave prison, six out of 10 have no home to go to and nine out of 10 have no employment. Nine out of 10 children with a mother in prison are forced to leave home to go into care or live with relatives.

In 2016, 22 women died in prison—12 took their own lives, which is the highest number on record. Currently, 21% of self-harm in prison is by women, although they account for only 5% of the total prison population. The last 10 years have seen progress in certain areas of the criminal justice sector in relation to women—notably through the network of one-stop-shop women’s centres established following the Corston report. However, many of these centres are now at risk through lack of funding.

I look forward to the Government’s promised strategy, to

“reduce the number of women offending and ending up in custody, including through early and targeted interventions”,

as revealed in the recently published White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform. However, the Women in Prison group has expressed concern that the small custodial units recommended by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which were to be reserved for a very small number of high-risk women, have not materialised as she envisaged. There is concern that the planned community prisons will be built in addition to the existing estate and will, as such, serve to increase prison places for women.

More work needs to be done with sentencers. The Corston report said that,

“Defendants who are primary carers of young children should be remanded in custody only after consideration of a probation report on the probable impact on the children”.

Guidelines now state that the best interests of the child are to be taken into account when sentencing parents. This is welcome, but still mothers are imprisoned.

Another area of great concern is the number of women still imprisoned with mental health conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommended that,

“Sentencers must be able to access timely psychiatric reports and fail to remand in custody/sentence if not available”.

However, there is an issue in getting these reports as well as a lack of mental health referral places available, so judges or magistrates are likely to remand someone who is in the community and at risk of further offending due to their mental health issues rather than refer them for more appropriate treatment. It is therefore vital that community mental health and other such services are sufficiently secure, in terms of commissioning and funding, to ensure they remain a real sentencing alternative.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this debate and conclude that, 10 years on, the need to encourage government to implement the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Corston remains essential. Let us “Be Bold for Change”.