Justice: Women’s Centres - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop 6:45 pm, 12th September 2018

My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to introduce this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have agreed to contribute to it; I am especially grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for choosing to make her maiden speech in it. I know that her extensive experience in business and the charitable sector, as well as her time working on the Youth Justice Board and as a magistrate, will inform many excellent contributions to this House. I look forward to her speech.

My interest in this issue flows not least from my experience in the diocese of Gloucester, which has one of the country’s 12 women’s prisons—HMP Eastwood Park—and the women’s centre, run by the Nelson Trust, whose work is exemplary. I now support the Bishop of Rochester in his role as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons with regards to the female estate, and I recently visited Anawim, the superb women’s centre in Birmingham. As a Christian, I believe that our humanity and flourishing is rooted in relationships. I also believe that transformation is possible, both in the lives of individuals and in systems. I will come back to these themes.

There are approximately 4,000 women in prison, which is about 5% of the total prison population. Although this is a relatively small percentage, these women present a distinct set of needs and their imprisonment has a significant impact on communities and society as a whole. The long-awaited female offender strategy recognises the vulnerabilities and challenges of women in prison. It builds on the tireless work of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. I would like to express my sincere thanks to her and to those who contributed to that strategy, not least Dr Phillip Lee, prior to his resignation. However, I fear that, 11 years after the Corston report, the strategy simply does not go far enough. We know that women’s centres work and it is time for proper investment.

I want to return to those themes of relationships and transformation. People of all ages thrive and flourish in healthy, loving relationships. Unfortunately, the majority of women offenders have experienced some sort of abuse, whether from a partner or a family member. According to the excellent organisation Women in Prison, 53% of women in prison report having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse during childhood; 46% report having suffered domestic violence; and over 30% spent time in local authority care as a child.

Where healing and rehabilitation take place, it comes from a place of trust in a relationship. As a member of the clergy, I have often been trusted with people’s most intimate personal information and it usually takes a strong relationship of trust for a woman to discuss an abusive relationship, a problem with drugs or alcohol, or a mental health problem. To that end, prison is rarely the most appropriate or effective place for these issues to be addressed, not least because so many women are assigned short sentences. On the other hand, a short stay in prison can dramatically affect a woman’s relationship with her children, harming both the mother and the child. Of course, that has an impact on the wider community. I am particularly grateful to Dr Shona Minson for her research and all that she is doing to inform magistrates and judges.

Women’s centres provide an opportunity for a different path. The Nelson Trust recently shared Sue’s story with me. Sue was sentenced to eight months for theft. She had been taking cash from the shop where she worked, in order to pay off her debts and fund her alcohol and drug addiction. She had a painful history and her daughter had been taken into foster care. While Sue was in prison she was fortunate enough to make contact with the Nelson Trust. She began to develop a trusting relationship. When she came out of prison the Nelson Trust worked with Sue. It obtained rented accommodation for her and she began participating in various courses, including on crime and its impact, preventing relapse, and self-esteem and confidence building.

When Sue was investigated for another offence, committed at the time of her initial offence, she immediately admitted it and was supported by her key worker through meetings with solicitors and another trip to court. She pleaded guilty and the women’s centre was able to give the court a full picture of how Sue had been engaging with services. Instead of going back through the revolving door of prison and risking undoing months of hard work, Sue was given a community order involving unpaid work hours, many now spent at the women’s centre where she is making a difference to the lives of other women. Sue has not used drugs since she left prison 18 months ago. The Nelson Trust is supporting her towards potential future contact with her daughter.

This example shows that women’s centres can give judges and magistrates the information they need to make effective sentencing decisions and give women the tools they need truly to transform their lives. None of this would be possible without the relationship Sue has with the women’s centre—doing things with her and not to her. This is just one of many stories from the Nelson Trust and Anawim.

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, will be conducting an independent review into how we can better support female offenders’ relationships with their families. All too frequently, magistrates do not have informative probation reports before sentencing. Action must be taken to review how women interact with the justice system and how they are sentenced, particularly by magistrates. It may be that a presumption against short sentences, as in the Scottish system, would be desirable, particularly given that in 2017, almost half of such women were given a short custodial sentence for shop theft.

We know that women get caught in the so-called revolving door with short prison sentences. They lose their homes and often lose custody of their children, even to adoption. This often exacerbates that downward spiral into more serious offences and an inability to secure employment. This is why a focus on women’s centres is needed: in their daily provision and where possible, appropriate residential provision, they can provide that place of relationship and trust. Properly resourced women’s centres can provide everything from early intervention right through to supporting women through the entire criminal justice system. For women who are already in prison, centres such as the Nelson Trust and Anawim have teams who engage with women in prison and then through the gate.

This is not simply about tackling the presenting offending—the “what”—but rather, providing a holistic trauma-informed approach which focuses on the “why”. Caseworkers in a place of relationship focus on getting to the heart of the women’s story in order to address what are often complex needs. A number of reports have shown that women’s centres offer an inspiring and effective alternative to custody, not least in their multi-agency work. However, they have been operating on a shoestring and, at present, there simply is not enough resource. If the Government are committed to transforming the justice system, as the female offender strategy suggests, they need to commit and invest in it. We know it costs approximately £47,000 per year to keep a woman in prison, and yet we know that women’s centres can work effectively with approximately £4,000 per year per individual. Moreover, the benefits of women’s centres are multiplied if they can operate as a network so that women can stay close to their families. If we do not have a whole network of women’s centres, we will not see the fruit of provision.

I would like to encourage the Government to dream a bit bigger and be a bit bolder. Similarly, I hope that all parties will commit to properly funding this network. In 2017-18, we spent more than £400 million on probation and services for women; £5 million for women’s centres is a drop in the bucket and will not be enough to transform the system. Let us give a proper network of women’s centres a proper go.

Shortly after Dr Phillip Lee’s resignation, when the female offender strategy was published, he shared his concerns about the failure to secure all the funding required. He also made it clear that he had full faith in the Secretary of State to navigate the Government’s spending review in order to benefit vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system. I am hugely encouraged by this and by the appointment of Ed Argar, and I look forward with hope to seeing the funding for women’s centres secured.

There need to be enough women’s centres, and they need to be appropriately funded so that magistrates and the public can trust that they can improve outcomes in the justice system. I hope that the Government will back this strategy with vision and proper investment, and with a focus on relationship and transformation.