My Lords, I echo others who thanked the right reverend Prelate for drawing our attention to the important contribution that women’s centres make in society today. I would also like to congratulate my noble friend on an excellent maiden speech; she will bring great energy and experience to this House.
We have around 3,800 women in our prisons, the vast majority held for non-violent offences. Many of them are serving short-term sentences; many go on to reoffend; and many are mothers. It is a destructive and costly cycle for the victims, the women involved, their children and society as a whole. The reoffending rates alone are truly shocking. The Prison Reform Trust says that 48% of women are reconvicted within a year of leaving prison, and that rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months. Many of the women we speak of are among the most vulnerable in our society and face a range of problems: financial trouble, homelessness and debt dependency. Some 60% have experienced domestic abuse; 66% are also mothers, many in sole charge of their children. What happens to those children when their mothers are sent to prison? Kate Paradine of Women in Prison suggests that only 5% of them remain in their own home, so a sentence for a mother often spells a broken home for her dependants. Evidence shows that the children of offenders are often more likely to go on to offend themselves, thus entrenching the problem for future generations.
There will always be a balance between punishment, protection of the public and rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. In the case of these women, we seem to be failing on all fronts. It is right, therefore, that we ask ourselves how best to break the cycle. That is a question the Government’s female offender strategy rightly seeks to answer. I commend its ambition and welcome its support for women’s centres. I also look forward to hearing more from my noble friend Lord Farmer on the strengthening of family ties, where fresh thinking would be welcome.
What are the solutions? I certainly agree that short custodial orders should be a last resort, that we must seek alternatives in the community where appropriate and that, in an ideal world, we would see fewer women come into the justice system in the first place. To make this a reality, we need to build a support structure around these women, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. For many women that is at the point of release, when they may have no job or home to return to. Women’s centres have a great deal to offer here. No doubt they could do more, providing support on a wide range of issues, including sensitive ones such as mental health, about which women often feel reluctant to share too much with the criminal justice system.
Evidence shows the worth of women’s centres: recent Ministry of Justice data shows a 5% reduction in reoffending rates among women who have used them. However, if we are to lean on women’s centres, we need to get behind them. We must ensure that they offer a consistently high standard of care across the country and are joined up with the criminal justice system, so that referrals are made and best practice is shared.
With this in mind, I was greatly impressed by the Government’s proposals to pilot five new residential centres; 24/7 support of this nature may well help women at their most vulnerable. Do these pilots include provision for women with infants, who may also benefit from support at this crucial time? Overall, I believe that we should do more to support women who are caught up in the criminal justice system or on the verge of being so, especially those with dependants. Through women’s centres and other schemes, we should give them and their families support in the community where we can, try to keep them out of prison in the first place and support them if we fail. We should try to break the destructive cycle for their sakes, for those of their family and for that of society as a whole.