My Lords, it is an honour and I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate today, which touches on many issues with which I have been closely aligned before coming to this House. First, I would like to thank everyone in this House from all sides for their kindness and support. Black Rod and her staff, the doorkeepers, the attendants and the police officers have been incredibly helpful and given me so much guidance and direction. I cannot thank them enough.
My induction into this House, although a nerve-wracking and humbling experience, was made less stressful by my wonderful supporters—the noble Lord, Lord Carrington of Fulham, who has been a friend and mentor to me for too many years to mention, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, who not only took on the role of supporter but wanted even more punishment as my mentor. Thank you both. I am truly grateful.
I have been involved with the justice system for nearly a quarter of a century, much of it as a magistrate. One of the most difficult duties of a JP is, where there is no alternative, to send an offender to custody. It is not a decision that is taken lightly. This is particularly the case when imprisoning women because of the impact that such a sentence has not just on them but, all too often, on their children and families.
None the less, in order to ensure that public safety remains a top priority and to address the rightful needs of victims, prison is and will continue to be the only appropriate option for those women who commit the most serious crimes. For other women offenders—those who commit the less serious, non-violent offences—there are alternatives. This is why I believe strongly in the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes in the justice system. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for introducing this debate, not least because we know that the reoffending rate, after a custodial sentence of less than 12 months, is far too high.
All too often, I have seen at first hand, not only as a magistrate but as a former trustee of Addaction, the impact on women and children of not having had the start or support in life to help them with the many difficult challenges and trauma that come from being victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, or from suffering from poor mental health or addiction to drugs or alcohol. Regrettably and sadly, these circumstances often lead to a downward spiral into criminality. Women’s centres provide specialist treatment services to help precisely those women whose lives have taken a wrong turn and who need to get back on track.
During a recent visit to the Nelson Trust women’s centre in Gloucester, it was evident that female offenders are frequently among the most vulnerable individuals in society with very complex needs. I was extremely impressed by the successes achieved as the result of the tireless work of those working at the trust. There are many others like them who dedicate their lives to helping vulnerable women in need and I pay tribute to them all.
I therefore welcome the Government’s decision to pilot residential women’s centres. They will provide an additional option to manage women in the community on a sentence that is more intense and robust but that enables them to maintain their ties with their families and support them to stay in stable housing and employment. Such centres can provide the wide-ranging and holistic services that are now the norm for young offenders, both female and male.
Of course, the ideal would be to tackle issues before they lead to criminality. During the three years that I recently spent as a member of the Youth Justice Board, I worked to improve early interventions and rehabilitation for children and to give them an opportunity to live crime-free lives. One area that I believe offers great benefits and potential for both adult and child offenders to find new opportunities as well as to improve their health and well-being is sport. In my case, tennis played a significant part in my childhood, growing up in Wales. Playing competitively provided life skills and confidence from which I have benefited greatly, even if I was no Virginia Wade.
In turn, I have been keen throughout my career to turn my personal sporting experience to the benefit of others, not least to provide them with similar opportunities to get on in life and to reach their full potential. It was through the Youth Justice Board, under the chairmanship of my friend the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that I was introduced to StreetGames and subsequently became its chairman. The charity delivers sports into disadvantaged communities, giving children real opportunities to develop life skills and confidence and eventually to improve their prospects of employment. If we can help youngsters before they take the wrong turn, how much better off they are and how much better off society is.
For now, though, we must accept the reality that there are young and adult women who have, for whatever reason, committed offences. It behoves us to treat them as individuals and provide the most appropriate place to address their needs. Women’s centres can and should play a critical part in their rehabilitation. It has been a privilege to contribute to the broad criminal justice system, whether as a magistrate, working with those with addiction or affording opportunities through sport. It is an honour now to have the opportunity to play a role, however small, in your Lordships’ House.