Justice: Women’s Centres - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:09 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 7:09 pm, 12th September 2018

My Lords, the House will need no convincing that my noble friend Lady Sater has made an outstanding maiden speech, and we look forward to her further contributions in the weeks, months, years and decades ahead. Her speech was based on personal experience, pragmatism and principle. She has courage and compassion. I have known her for some years, and I was delighted when I heard that she was to come to this place. We will benefit greatly from her and all that she can offer. Her being a Welsh national or a county tennis champion daunts me somewhat, but it suggests she has a great deal of stamina and power in her, and we should all beware—as well as greatly appreciating her words.

I share much of her experience—at Addaction and the British Lung Foundation, which are important charities. She has been on the Youth Justice Board with the noble Lord, and the Metropolitan Police Authority. She has a commitment to StreetGames and the Queen’s Club Foundation, and most particularly as a magistrate. I was a magistrate for many years before I joined another place and had to step down because I did not feel it was compatible to have a party-political role as well as being chairman of a juvenile court, in my case. But it really prepared one to understand the realities of life for those who were given a short straw: a chaotic upbringing, few resources and few champions in their life. That will benefit us all as she continues to speak.

Let me also join others in my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate. She will always be a heroine in my mind for being the first female Lord spiritual to take her place in this House. She was a long time a-coming and for me she can do very little wrong. Just being here is such a triumph and a step forward.

This is an extraordinarily important debate on a critically sensitive subject. Many points have been made. Some 60% of female offenders suffer domestic abuse. They suffer substance abuse, mental illness and trauma. They have few role models and few champions. The situation for women in the criminal justice system is appalling. I pay tribute to the fact that the numbers have fallen so far: 5% of prisoners, 4,000 people. It was 17% at the beginning of the last century.

But women do pay the double penalty. William Shakespeare said:

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”.

Well, the sins of the mother are laid upon the children, and those 17,000 children caught up in this pay a price that is not justified. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Farmer is reviewing family ties—the quarter of female offenders who have dependent children. The shocking recidivism rates have been mentioned—70% compared to 62% for people who have been in prison for less than 12 months.

I think that all of us feel that the Secretary of State for Justice, in the female offender strategy, holds out a great promise for recognising the issues involved in this uniquely complex group of people. I bear great hope from the first woman President of the Supreme Court, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. All those years ago I used to say that we needed an evidence base in the juvenile court. I sat with a stipendiary who was always saying that “in the public interest” some youngster should be sent to a detention centre. As a social scientist, I would say, “What is the evidence that this is in the public interest when we know that 80% of these young people will reoffend within the year?” Anyone who reads the President of the Supreme Court’s Longford lecture of 2005 will feel confident that her sensitivity for women and girls who fall foul of the criminal justice system is a great encouragement.

Women’s centres are a great step forward and I would not in any way detract from them. The splendid Centre for Criminology at the University of Hull produced a report in 2015 by Brennan, Green and Sturgeon-Adams. They attributed great value in diverting low-severity female offenders from custody to a women’s centre. The Together Women Project in Sheffield evaluated a 46% reduction in the reoffending rate for women who attended its project over a 12-month follow-up period.

We have talked about the huge cost of incarceration compared with the cost either of help in the community or of a women’s centre. However, it is very often the case that the women—like children and others—who drift into the criminal justice system are those who have been failed by their own social services, health or education departments. There is a real danger that the Ministry of Justice begins to pick up the cost that the services in their home area should have been funding. I have long advocated a penalty on local authorities who have females or young people in a custodial provision, because there is a great deal of cost shunting and magistrates such as myself can remember that the social reports had little to offer—in other words, they needed to go to an institution to save the great cost locally. So there are serious financial components in how these decisions are made.

I want to refer to three other organisations that I think make a splendid contribution. Working Chance, run by Jocelyn Hillman, is a recruitment agency—I declare an interest—for helping female ex-offenders and care leavers. Working Chance is extraordinary: it places 200 women each year into quality paid work, maintaining a consistent reoffending rate of less than 3%. Some 85% of its candidates are still in work after six months. Jocelyn Hillman complains that, too often, women are described as victims. Yes, they want to feel stronger, but they also want paid work to restore their dignity in the community. Similarly, Pimlico Opera, founded by Wasfi Kani, and the Watts Gallery, which does art work in prisons, help people to grow in confidence, excel and feel proud of their achievements.

This is a critically important debate. I believe that we are seeing real progress and I welcome the Government’s commitment. As the Minister knows, there are many in this House, especially my noble friend Lady Sater, who are going to be pushing for consistent progress.