Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:58 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative 2:58 pm, 13th April 2005

Forgive me, Mr Purvis, but I must make progress.

Given that the largest group of female prisoners in 2003 comprised those who were detained for drugs offences, with the next largest group being those who had been convicted specifically of other theft, the figures surely begin to provide signposts towards what lies at the heart of that offending and reoffending. In February last year, the inspector of prisons identified that, of women who were admitted to Cornton Vale, 90 per cent had addiction problems, 80 per cent had a history of mental illness and more than 60 per cent had a history of being abused. Those statistics build a helpful, albeit depressing, picture of why certain women are drawn into a pattern of petty crime followed by more serious crime that results in a prison sentence.

As the Executive can see, my party is not at variance with the terms of the motion, which identify existing deficiencies in the handling of women offenders, in the facilities that are currently available to such offenders and in the sensitive balance that is involved in preparing women offenders for re-entry into the community. Just as it would be wrong not to recognise the praiseworthy dedication of prison governors and officers in dealing with the female prison population, it would be wrong not to comment on the positive improvements and innovations that have taken place in the way in which Cornton Vale deals with women in prison.

However, there is no doubt that there still exist barriers and challenges to women when they leave prison and seek to re-enter society. In my view, there must be a far better linkage between the tackling of drug addiction, mental health problems and the personal frailties of women when they are in prison and the environment that the women will encounter on leaving prison. From a position of support, I say that it is not just necessary but absolutely essential that we improve those linkages.

I want to pay tribute to, and promote the cause of, prison chaplains. They do a tremendous and largely unsung job that brings a unique dimension to the prison environment. By offering a point of contact to prisoners and prison staff that is not compromised with the taint of authority, regime or institution, prison chaplains can give comfort and support in situations in which anyone else would be intrusive.

I turn to the amendment in my name. Although the motion is principally concerned with the position of women in prison, many important additional elements must be considered in relation to female offending. There will be situations in which a judge seeks to find an alternative disposal to prison that will offer a woman a real chance to address the issues that are contributing to her criminality. The minister referred to the 218 time-out centre, which operates in Glasgow. It is an interesting innovation that is already benefiting many women. However, it will be important to track the progress of women going through the centre. In particular, we must determine whether the support and help that they receive at the centre has a long-term benefit once it has concluded.

Clearly, however, that facility can deal with only a small proportion of women offenders suffering from drug, alcohol or drug and alcohol problems. That is why my amendment attempts to expand the worthy intentions of the Executive motion with a view to recognising that, with early intervention, support and advice, there is a great deal that can be done to steer women away from a path of criminality.

Anyone who has appeared in Glasgow district court on a Monday morning—and seen me in my role as a solicitor, or my colleague Bill Aitken sitting on the bench—cannot help but be distressed by the spectacle of women who have found themselves in an extremely distressing situation. It is a dreary and deeply upsetting prospect. Better by far that young women who are developing chaotic lifestyles are identified and supported rather than left to exist in chaos until the necessary and inevitable intervention of the criminal justice system. I urge the Executive to consider again how we approach the issue of drug and alcohol abuse in Scotland.

We have to be able to provide, on a universal basis, swifter referral from social workers, general practitioners or the police to advice, counselling and supportive rehabilitation. Further, we must respect the wishes of people with addictions who do not want to be put on methadone or, if they are on methadone, want to be taken off it. We would all agree that Professor McKeganey's research, which was published last October, disclosed a situation that, at best, commands further discussion and debate and, at worst, is deeply troubling. I urge the Executive to consider a sensible response to that research and also to consider ensuring that there is a far greater involvement of the voluntary and charitable sector in trying to frame that response.

I said at the start that I welcome this debate. I hope that all parties will feel able to support my amendment. I noted what the minister said in her speech and I wonder whether Stewart Stevenson, with the gallantry with which he is associated, might feel minded to withdraw his amendment.

I move amendment S2M-2689.2, to insert at end:

"and acknowledges that the best outcome of all is to advance and promote measures which provide early intervention thereby ensuring that significantly fewer women enter the criminal justice system."