Review of effects on women

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 7th July 2020.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within three years of this Act being passed, lay before Parliament a review of the effects of the provisions of this Act on women.

(2) That review must detail any differential effects on women in—

(a) sentencing;

(b) release of terrorist offenders; and

(c) the prevention and investigation of terrorism.

(3) The review must consider the impact of imprisonment under this Act on the physical and mental health of women.

(4) The review may make recommendations for further changes to legislation, policy and guidance.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

When I became shadow Justice Minister for courts and sentencing, one of the things that I was most interested in was how our justice system treats women in particular. We know that women are less likely to commit violent offences and make up about 5% of the overall prison population in the UK—although, having said that, I should say that the figure has doubled in recent times. Is that because women are committing more violent offences than ever before? No, it is not. According to Women in Prison, 80% of women entering prison have committed a non-violent offence. In 2017, 30% of all prosecutions of women were for evading the television licence fee. Just 4% of prosecutions of men were for the same offence.

We can debate the failures and merits of imprisonment as an effective or even moral punishment for a non-violent offence, but we are here to talk about counter-terrorism and sentencing. We want to put the issue down of the differences in sentencing between men and women. We need to consider the impact of our policies on all people. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a review of the effects of the Bill on women, including the differential effects on sentencing, on the release of terrorist offenders, and on the prevention and investigation of terrorism. The review must also consider the impact of the Bill on the physical and mental health of women.

Many women lose their homes and possessions when going to prison and are consequently released homeless. We often focus much on sentencing and punishing people for their crimes, but we do not do nearly enough, or invest anywhere near enough, to ensure that people get on the right track when they leave prison. When they leave prison and are homeless, and perhaps imprisonment has damaged relationships with their family and friends, they may feel that returning to crime is their only option. If an individual returns to crime because they do not have the support to build a better life for themselves, it is we who have failed.

The issue is not just about accommodation and material possessions. Only 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers in their mother’s absence. Just 5% of children remain in their family home when a mother goes to prison. We cannot apply a one-rule-fits-all approach, because one rule does not fit all, and we must recognise the difference in circumstances, outcome and impact that sentencing women has compared with sentencing men.

The review would help us as lawmakers to establish where further policy developments are needed to address any unexpected or undesirable impacts of the new legislation. That could then have an impact on the length of sentence that a woman terrorist received. We would like to know the impact on children if a mother is sentenced to prison for a terror offence. What happens to children to ensure that they do not develop a distrust of the justice system, which can lead to radicalisation? How do we introduce measures that are sensible, proportionate and smart?

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me what research the Government have done on how approaches to women’s sentencing and licensing differ from those of men in the context of the Bill, and how the Government are recognising and acting on that difference.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

To state the obvious, the measures in the Bill apply equally to men and women. No distinction is made between them. A full equalities assessment was undertaken as part of the preparation for the Bill and has been publicly published. Indeed, it suggests that men will far more affected by the Bill than women, because far more men, unfortunately, commit terrorist offences.

That assessment of gender impact in the context of the Bill has been undertaken already, but Ministers and other public servants operate under further statutory obligations that will ensure that the Bill is implemented in an even-handed manner. For example, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 places a duty on Ministers and the Department to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other prohibited conduct. Moreover, article 14 of the European convention on human rights is engaged.

I understand that there are wider issues to do with sentencing and how female offenders are treated. Those are perfectly legitimate questions, but as far as the Bill, which is about terrorism, is concerned, men and women are treated equally. We have had the equalities impact assessment already and, for the purpose of terrorism legislation, that goes far enough. I am sure that we will debate on many occasions the wider questions of sentencing and prisons policy in relation to men and women, but as far as this Bill is concerned, that has been adequately addressed.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. If the Government recognise all their other statutory obligations in relation to women, that is a positive thing. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.