Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:48 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 2:48 pm, 13th April 2005

It is right that the debate should be relatively consensual, as none of us wants to lock up people unnecessarily. I will make an unlikely start to my speech. My equality credentials exceed those of the minister, as Scottish National Party members find it possible to support the motion and all the amendments and I expect my colleagues to vote accordingly. However, Mr Fox will not receive our support if our amendment is passed, purely on the mechanical basis that his amendment would delete our amendment. If our amendment is not agreed to, we will support Mr Fox's amendment.

That said, the motion and amendments in the Business Bulletin are simply words—they might enable us to agree on the broad policy direction, but that is probably all that they do. Let us start by agreeing a statement that was made previously in the Parliament:

"I suggest that the only relatively sure method of dealing with the problems associated with women in prisons is to make a significant reduction in the number of women going to prison or undergoing any kind of prison service. That should be the core policy objective."—[Official Report, 16 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1774.]

The difficulty is that that was said by the Deputy Minister for Justice, Angus MacKay, on 16 December 1999. It was not said yesterday. In fact, there will be members present who have no idea whom I am speaking about, as he left the Parliament before they were elected.

How have we done? The conviction rate for females has risen a little in the most recent statistics, from nine to 10 per 100,000. That is just about the figure that it has been for 10 years. We males should not in any sense be complacent, as the conviction rate for males is 53 per 100,000. Yes, that figure is declining, but it is more than five times greater than the figure for female convictions. Crucially, however, the number of women in prisons has risen by some 50 per cent. Let us therefore not confine our assessment of the Government to its words and its motion today. We should never judge any Government simply on its words; we must judge it on its achievement and we must track that achievement.

The most recent statistical bulletin on criminal justice was published in March. It shows that, for example, 58 per cent of the crimes of indecency are committed by females—crimes related to prostitution. Interestingly, the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill, which is about to be considered at stage 2 by the Justice 1 Committee, will, for the first time, create a criminal offence for the person who makes use of prostitution, although only in the limited circumstances of the prostitute being aged between 16 and 18. We should look again at prostitution and consider moving the criminal burden from the prostitute to the user of prostitutes.

An astonishing 69 per cent of offences under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 are committed by women. That simply means that they are convicted because they have no television licence. The situation is interesting, as the statistics also tell us that more than half of all custodial sentences in 2003 were for three months or less and that four fifths of all custodial sentences were for six months or less—I inadvertently said 12 months in my earlier intervention. Among women, short sentences are even more prevalent. In 1999, speaking as a back-bench member, Richard Simpson said:

"The degree of recidivism—repeated minor offences—among that population" of women prisoners

"is very substantial. Prisoners are admitted for very short sentences, often for failing to pay fines, which may have remained unpaid for a long time."—[Official Report, 16 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1765.]

By 2001, fine defaulters represented more than 40 per cent of prisoner receptions in Scotland. For women, the figure is probably much higher, although, mysteriously, speaking as a minister in 2001, Richard Simpson said that only two prisoners in Cornton Vale prison were there for fine default. He may well have been right at the time, but that seems at odds with other figures.