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My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rambsotham, for bring forward this debate and I am glad to be speaking in it.
I have a particular interest in women’s interaction with the justice system as the lead Bishop on women’s prisons, and I have been carefully following the progress of the female offender strategy. The strategy was published in June 2018, and it prioritised earlier intervention, community-based solutions, and effective, decent custody for women who have to be there. There has been widespread consensus in this House and beyond that community-based provision for most women offenders offers both cheaper and more effective rehabilitation than prison.
Last year, the Lord Speaker graciously allowed me to host an event here in the River Room. The most powerful speaker at that event was someone called Lisa, who shared her lived experience of addiction, domestic violence and custody. She said:
“I can guarantee that very few, if any, women and young people dream of growing up to be criminal addicted to drugs … I am one of the fortunate ones who found help to re-connect with my dreams ... I wonder how my life would have been different if I had received earlier intervention and been offered more effective community services”.
She went on to explain that, although she had been,
“locked in painful patterns of behaviour”,
she was fortunate to have found a women’s centre in Gloucester. She described Nelson Trust as having been the one and only service she experienced that offered proper trauma-informed community courses which enabled her to change and function well in society.
It has always been my position that for some women a prison sentence is appropriate. However, this is not true for the majority of women in custody. Family separation and a revolving door cannot solve painful, ingrained patterns of behaviour frequently stemming from abuse and family breakdown. As has already been pointed by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, twice as many women are in prison now as 20 years ago. Last year, almost 70% of women in prison were there for less than six months and 82% of those sentences were for non-violent offences.
Such short stays are counterproductive as well as expensive. Furthermore, the recent report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights regarding children whose mothers are in prison gives a concerning account of the lack of support given to both children and mothers who are separated when the mother is taken into custody. Can the Minister say when the Government will respond to this report and particularly its concern that the lack of data on the number of children affected by maternal imprisonment represents,
“a very serious … deficit that must be urgently addressed”?
As has been mentioned, there is also the issue of housing. The Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report on HMP Eastwood Park in my own diocese revealed that, in the previous six months, 42% of women were released either into homelessness or into temporary or emergency accommodation. This is simply unacceptable. Separating women from families and community support and releasing them after a short time into homelessness does nothing to address the causes of offending. This has an impact on our whole community, as was recognised in the female offender strategy.
I want to express my dismay at the recent funding announcements relating to justice. When the female offender strategy was welcomed here in your Lordships’ House, concerns were expressed about the level of funding for it. Sadly, those concerns have been borne out. Only £5 million of funding for the strategy has been secured. Far more is required for its changes to be meaningfully implemented.
We know what works. What is missing is investment and impetus. The lack of action has real human consequences. To that end, I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. First, when will the Government publish the national concordat promised in the female offender strategy? It was due by the end of 2018 and is now almost a year behind schedule. Secondly, what funding will be provided for women’s centres and services under the new probation model? Finally, what are the Government doing urgently to improve housing support for women released from prison? I am grateful for your Lordships’ time today.