Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:24 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Kate Maclean Kate Maclean Labour 3:24 pm, 13th April 2005

I agreed with most if not all of the opening speeches and I welcome the opportunity to contribute and listen to the debate. The issue is important and complex and generates a wide range of opinions whenever it is discussed among the general public, although it does not appear to be doing so in the debate.

Like the minister, I could agree with all the amendments to the motion, although it is not technically possible for me to do so. Perhaps it would be a good idea if we had the facility to have composite meetings before our meetings in the chamber—that used to happen at Labour Party conferences, but it no longer does—so that we could put together a motion with which all members could agree. When we vote against other parties' motions and amendments later, I think that we will do so for technical reasons rather than because we have found much with which we disagree.

I welcome the initiatives that the minister outlined and that Jeremy Purvis mentioned, which are being implemented or proposed to make conditions for the women who have to be in prison—I will return to that aspect—more appropriate and responsive to their needs. Prison should not just punish women; it should prepare them for the future and address the problems that led to their ending up in prison. It is not only women who do time when they end up in prison; the women's children often do very hard time, too. I would welcome any initiative that ensured that the children of women who are sent to prison are affected as little as possible—obviously they will be affected—because such children are not criminals and should not be punished in the way that currently happens.

Although I welcome all the initiatives that were mentioned and would welcome more such initiatives for women who have to be in prison, I am appalled that women who have committed very minor offences are increasingly being sent to prison, despite the measures that have been put in place to address the issue. I welcome the Scottish Executive's commitment in making available alternatives to custody for everyone, and especially for women. The challenge for the minister and the Parliament is to ensure that the courts use such alternatives and I ask the minister in his summing up to indicate why the various community sentences that are already available to courts are not used more often for women. The number of women in prison has steadily increased during the past several years and last year alone there was a 7 per cent increase. We know the effects of imprisonment on a woman prisoner's children and we know that the criminal profiles and needs of women prisoners are different from those of men, but six or seven years after the Scottish Office report, "Women Offenders—A Safer Way" reached the conclusions that underpin much of our thinking on how women should be treated in the criminal justice system, we are still locking up women for relatively petty crimes such as fine default and shoplifting. I do not suggest for a minute that people should not pay their fines; I agree with Colin Fox that people who are able to pay their fines should do so. Carolyn Leckie should not have had to suffer a night in prison and a severe absence of moisturiser for not paying a fine.