My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate on this issue. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on securing this debate. His consistent and almost relentless attention to this area of policy and its implications is now legendary. I thank him for all that work.
Following up on what was said by the right reverend Prelate, I want to speak mainly about the treatment of women in our criminal justice system. I remind colleagues of my interests, particularly in respect of the commission on women who have experienced violence and abuse that I recently chaired, my membership of the trustee board of the Lloyds Bank Foundation and my involvement with Changing Lives, a charity based in the north-east.
I have spoken on several occasions in this House on the challenges faced by women who have experienced violence and abuse. As other noble Lords have said, women who have a history of being subjected to violence and abuse are far too often overrepresented in the criminal justice system. A significant number of women are arrested for non-violent offences. All our work and experience tell us that they would be much better served by other interventions. They should not be arrested.
In 2017, just over two-thirds of women sentenced to immediate custody were given sentences of less than six months and 246 women were sentenced to prison for less than two weeks. This suggests that there is a significant proportion of women who are arrested but who have not committed violent crimes and who would be much better served by other interventions.
The Government’s Female Offender Strategy, raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, recognises that arresting women should not always be the answer. It states:
“Coming into contact with the criminal justice system, and in particular custody, can undermine the ability of women to address the issues that have caused their offending. In particular, many have difficulty maintaining employment and accommodation whilst in the CJS”.
The Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales is funding the Howard League for Penal Reform to work with national policing bodies and individual police forces to stem the arrests of women. This is an important piece of work. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System is working on this issue too. I was at a recent meeting where it questioned the Howard League on what it wanted to do, and the APPG published its first report last month.
The commission that I chaired, whose report earlier this year was called Breaking Down the Barriers, was able to explore the impact of abuse on women. If any Member has not yet had a look at the debate in the Commons yesterday, they really should read it. It was a remarkable debate with some remarkable testimonies. Many women who have faced abuse go on to face challenges ranging from mental health issues to addiction, which often put them at risk of criminality. The importance of the consequences of trauma cannot be exaggerated. The commission talked of the importance of the services that encounter such women and the need to help workers to recognise trauma and its effect, and to know better how to deal with and respond to that.
We know that in this and other areas, small local charities are very important in supporting women in these circumstances. There are heartening examples of their effective work with people facing complex social issues. However, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme largely excluded them and, sadly, some have now closed. The MoJ has acknowledged that this was a bit of a problem and it recognised, in reforming its proposals, the importance of charities. It has publicly said that it wanted the new system to work better for them. However, the jury is still out on that and I simply say to the Minister: unless the charitable sector is involved and supported, including the small, local charities, the new system will simply not improve outcomes.
If we want to reduce reoffending, we need a new approach. We know that many people in our homeless services are there because they have been released from prison with £47, with no fixed abode and having to wait up to 11 weeks for universal credit. Women are being recalled into custody at an increasing rate because of the levels of homelessness. These are realities. The Government need to understand the realities and work on them.