Justice: Women’s Centres - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 7:36 pm, 12th September 2018

My Lords, I first add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on securing this important debate. I also thank all noble Lords, whatever their gender, for their contributions to it.

I particularly wish to note the contribution of my noble friend Lady Sater, who is clearly eminently qualified to make a contribution by way of her maiden speech in this debate. I look forward to her further contributions in this House.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for coming to speak to me. I am grateful for her having shared her knowledge and experience in this area with me. I am equally grateful for her not having shared her severe cold with me, but I hope she is recovering.

Various statistics have been noted, but clearly we understand that, although far fewer women are represented in the criminal justice system, those who are there and who come into contact with it are among some of the most vulnerable women in society. Many face complex circumstances, including histories of abuse, mental health issues, low income, unstable accommodation and, of course, in many cases, the experience of domestic violence and the disruption which that engenders.

It is a recognition of this vulnerability and need that underpins our Female Offender Strategy, which was published in June. I pause to acknowledge the work of my honourable friend Phillip Lee in respect of that matter. Our strategy sets out the Government’s intent for improving outcomes for women in contact with the justice system based on a vision that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system and in custody, especially on short-term sentences. We want to see a greater proportion of women managed in the community and managed successfully. We want to see better conditions for women who, for safety or other reasons, need to be held in custody.

If we are to achieve the aims of such a strategy, then we must recognise that community services lie at the heart of our approach. We know that the third-sector-led women’s centres can offer valuable support to help vulnerable women address their needs and turn their lives around, thereby reducing the risk of offending—examples have been given by a number of noble Lords. Women’s centres are often at the heart of the multiagency whole-system approaches to female offenders. These aim to provide holistic, gender-informed support to women, from first contact with the police and at all points of the justice system.

I referred to gender-informed support, and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised the question of gender-informed probation services. That is a matter of training and experience: it is a matter of ensuring that those engaged in the provision of probation services understand the particular and peculiar needs of women in the justice system. Certainly, that is something that we aim to ensure going forward.

The right reverend Prelate asked what assessment has been made of the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes for women in the justice system. It would be difficult to undertake a full assessment, as women’s centres offer support to women with a wide range of issues and needs, not all of whom have been referred by—or, indeed come into contact with—the criminal justice system. We also know that women may be supported by other local agencies. We estimate that there are approximately 80 women’s centres in England and Wales. More than 50 of these support women in the criminal justice system, with more than 30 being engaged with community rehabilitation company contracts.

I note the comments that have been made about some of the difficulties surrounding those contracts and those engagements. Noble Lords will be aware that we are addressing the issue of existing CRC contracts: they are intended to be terminated and reviewed going forward, and it is our intention to ensure that the community rehabilitation companies understand the need to engage with the voluntary sector, and in particular these centres, as part of their supply chain.

Data from some centres has clearly found the way in which they have been effective. Women supported by women’s centres contracted to CRCs clearly have a lower reoffending rate than those who have no contact with the centres. Data from the Brighton Women’s Centre found that, for every 100 women supported by the centre, there was a reduction in the frequency of reoffending by between 27 and 29 offences.

Alongside the work that women’s centres do, there are many other community services that are effective in supporting the complex needs of female offenders. As set out in our strategy, we are encouraging local areas to adopt new ways of working by developing a multiagency approach to these issues—often termed a whole-system approach. We hope that the whole-system model brings together local agencies, criminal justice and both statutory and voluntary organisations. Together, they should be capable of providing the sort of targeted support that female offenders need. That has to be complemented by the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies, which are clearly going to be key partners in ensuring that female offenders receive targeted support, not only through the gate but once they are back in the community.

To give an example, the whole-system approach set up in Greater Manchester in 2014 has provided effective outcomes for female offenders. We know, however, that the availability of women’s community services across England and Wales does not always match the demand for those services. We want to see a sustainable network of women’s community services and centres embedded as an integral partner in the delivery of public services for female offenders, making better use of their potential as places where support and interventions can be delivered in an appropriate form and at an appropriate time.

Clearly, such a network cannot be delivered without funding. We know that women’s centres have a wide range of funding streams, but that they often face issues of sustainability, creating uncertainty for staff and putting services at risk. If we are to deliver the commitments in our strategy, we need to ensure that we have sustainable community provision that will meet demand. That is why the strategy announced the investment of £5 million of cross-government funding over two years in community provision.

As part of this investment, we have launched an initial £3.5 million grant funding competition for 2018-19 and 2019-20 to sustain and increase community provision, including whole-system approach models, for female offenders. This community provision is intended to include women’s centres and we hope that the funding will also help providers to leverage additional funding from other sources.

Some concerns have been raised at the level of this funding, which builds on the £1 million seed funding that we are investing in the whole-system approaches between 2016 and 2020. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is sufficient funding for the female offenders strategy, and this is the start of a new and significant programme of work to deliver better outcomes. We will have the opportunity to revisit funding issues as we take that work forward.

We know that a truly sustainable network of community provision requires the support and involvement of many partners, not just of government. Our strategy therefore announced that we will work across government and with other partners to develop and agree a national concordat on female offenders. This will set out a cross-government approach to addressing the needs of this cohort of vulnerable women. Importantly, it will also seek to provide the leadership that stakeholders tell us is necessary to bring about change at local level. The concordat will act as a statement of intent, agreement and understanding about how statutory and third-sector services should come together to provide what I would term a joined-up response to supporting vulnerable women in this context. Through early intervention, we want to see fewer women coming in to the justice system.

For those women who do offend, we want to provide support from first contact with the police and at all stages of the justice system so that we can effectively address the factors that lie beneath their offending behaviour and thereby reduce the risk of reoffending. It is important to acknowledge that women’s centres must be supported in their work with female offenders by an effective probation system, which sees offenders regularly, identifies their particular rehabilitative needs and secures access for them to the right forms of support. Equally, it is vital that courts have confidence in the probation services delivering those services in order that they can give proper consideration to effective community sentences, as distinct from custodial sentences.

We also recognise that the probation system needs to improve. We are taking decisive action to stabilise and improve the delivery of probation services by setting out our intention to end the current CRC contracts early and put in place new arrangements, as I mentioned, from 2020. We are consulting on our proposals and look forward to hearing the views of a range of stakeholders, including how probation services can best meet the needs of female offenders.

Alongside that, we want to explore what more we can do to improve outcomes for female offenders. The strategy has committed us to working with local and national partners to develop a residential women’s centre pilot in at least five centres in England and Wales. Through the pilot, we hope to develop a robust evidence base for what could be an effective, sustainable and scalable model for improving outcomes for female offenders. We will take that consultative approach to designing and delivering the pilot models, engaging with potential providers, partners and investors, both nationally and locally. We want to ensure that the models we take forward are appropriate for the local context of each site. I look forward to sharing more details with noble Lords as that work progresses.

For the moment, I thank noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate, and I reiterate our commitment as expressed in the female offender strategy that we recently published.

House adjourned at 7.48 pm.