My Lords, let me thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for securing this debate. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for her excellent maiden contribution.
We are told that at any one time, there are around 4,000 women in prison, but we are not told that the number of women in prison has doubled since 1993. Most of these women are not serious offenders. The available statistics are very frightening: more than half received short sentences of six months or less; more than one third had no previous convictions; a substantial number are in prison for non-violent offences; and around a quarter of the women imprisoned each year are jailed for shoplifting.
Women in prison typically have a wide range of serious welfare problems. Imprisoned women are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than women in the general population, with 78% showing signs of psychological disturbance when they enter prison. I have checked the latest available figures, which are seriously concerning: 75% of women in prison used illegal drugs in the sixth months before imprisonment; 58% used drugs every day during those six months; 37% previously attempted suicide; over half have suffered domestic violence; and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.
The incidence and, to a lesser extent, the nature of crime may vary from place to place and from generation to generation, but crime is something with which all societies have to come to terms in their own way. The underlying causes of crime and the effectiveness of punishment and treatments will continue to be debated. We now have ample evidence that overreliance on prison as a way of dealing with offenders has not helped. Priority must be given to crime prevention in its broadest sense and to schemes for diverting as many young offenders as possible from the criminal justice system. There is nothing soft about this sort of approach: it is an entirely realistic appraisal of the strictly limited contribution that courts and prisons can make to reducing crime. Equally, we as a society should be aiming to send fewer people to prison.
I was delighted by the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. There was a strong message in her review about vulnerable women in the criminal justice system:
“Community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm … There must be a strong consistent message right from the top of government, with full reasons given, in support of its stated policy that prison is not the right place for women offenders who pose no risk to the public”.
We should endorse this principle, backed by many Court of Appeal judgments that the courts should send to prison only those whose offending makes any other course unacceptable, and that those who are sent to prison should not stay there any longer than is strictly necessary.
In last week’s debate on rehabilitation, secured by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, we were clear that one of the prime concerns of prison was to prepare inmates for their eventual release. Prisons have a poor record on reducing reoffending. Nearly half of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. The record for women is not inspiring: 48% are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. Short prison sentences, as almost every speaker has said, are less effective in reducing reoffending than community sentences.
Public confidence is shaped by the quality of service that our prisons can provide. Recent reports on our prisons are a matter of serious concern. Locking up inmates for a long time daily is unlikely to build the confidence that is needed to achieve effective rehabilitation.
The number of prisoners in our institutions and the lack of resources required to maintain decent standards calls for a strategy to look at alternatives to the slogan, “prison works”. It does not. The Government’s commitment to seeking community solutions for most women offenders is welcome. However, the limited resources allocated to support women’s centres and the lack of a timetable to drive progress remain matters of serious concern.
Establishing a network of women’s community projects with adequate funding from the Ministry of Justice is a way forward. These projects are run by voluntary organisations in partnership with the probation service. They operate as one-stop-shop centres, providing a range of services, and have proved highly effective in keeping women out of custody while providing the support and help they need to avoid reoffending.
Many women have been referred to the projects since they were established. The analysis of the help provided is there for all to see. Many needed help such as counselling, and with behavioural needs. Help is provided on health, accommodation, employment and training, finance and debts, drugs and alcohol, and children and family issues. A good proportion needed support in connection with experiences of abuse, rape and domestic violence. I hope no obstacles will be placed in the way of this work being carried out.
One of the Government’s successes has been the establishment of the Youth Justice Board. I am delighted that my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was once its chairman. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has advocated a similar arrangement for a women’s justice board. We were told that the reason why we do not have a separate framework in law for women is that we have a different structure for them.
Will the Minister look at this matter again to see whether such a board can be established? This would not marginalise women in the criminal justice system, but rather mainstream their provision and ensure that under the national offender management structure, ample priority is given to service provision for, and management of, women offenders.