I, too, welcome the debate, which provides a helpful opportunity to consider the specific position of female offenders in prison. Perhaps unusually, much of what I say will echo many of the observations and points that the minister made.
Before I proceed to the specific topic of women in prison, it is important to clarify two general points. First, if the safety of society demands it, prison will always be the only option for a particular category of offender, male or female, and I was comforted by the minister's comments in that regard. Secondly, if it is the view of a presiding judge that, given all the circumstances of a case, prison is the appropriate disposal, that judicial discretion must be respected. It is the obligation of Government to ensure that the necessary capacity exists to meet that requirement.
It goes without saying that if the public is to have confidence in the criminal justice system, the public must be reassured that the interests of society as a whole and the integrity of judicial disposals are respected by the political process. It would be quite wrong if Governments sought to undermine the interests of society and the proper discharge of judicial responsibility by circumventing the imposition of a prison sentence simply to save money or to reduce prison capacity.
On the issue of public confidence, the Executive is already aware of public concern, which is shared by my party, about automatic early release and about measures that appear to be more concerned with keeping certain categories of criminal out of jail than with ensuring that regard is had to the role of the courts and to the rights of victims.
Having pointed out those general premises, I will consider specific aspects of women in prison. As the minister said, it is a matter of profound concern that many women prisoners suffer from mental health problems, addiction problems and/or a history of being abused. That is deeply troubling. The motion rightly acknowledges the need to address that distressing general background.
Although the number of female receptions to prison due to fine default decreased by 1 per cent in 2003, the total still stood at 570. It seems to me unacceptable that prison needs to be an option for fine defaulters. Many other routes can be followed before that unhappy destination is reached. As on previous occasions, I urge the minister to consider a more rigorous collection system for outstanding fines. The ratio for successful recovery of fines in the world of commercial debt recovery would make an interesting comparison. It could provide lessons to be learned.