Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:30 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 3:30 pm, 13th April 2005

Stewart Stevenson took us back to 1999, when the Parliament discussed women in prison, but before any of us was elected to the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Office carried out a review on the matter. In 1998, it echoed the Prison Reform Trust in saying:

"The number of women prisoners who actually pose a grave danger to the general public can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand."

In its conclusions, it noted:

"less than 1% of female convictions are for violent offences."

The report also noted:

"Women's offending frequently relates to drug abuse and is often rooted in poverty", as the Minister for Justice has confirmed seven years on. The life history of many women offenders has been detailed by previous speakers.

At this point, I would like to say that I am not denying that at times there are women who require custodial sentences. Today, we have heard a lot about shoplifting as an example. Occasionally there are shoplifters who deserve to be put in prison because their behaviour is not caused by poverty, and they can be women as well as men. We should not get too sentimental about the subject. However, the evidence suggests that too often women who are perceived as offenders are in fact victims.

Stewart Stevenson mentioned fine defaulting in relation to prostitution. I have had chats with women who work as prostitutes and they spoke about the vicious circle that they are in. They are fined for being on the street, but they have to go back on the street to be able to pay the fine. That is another debate, but there is a relevant point in it for today's debate.

The ministerial group on women offenders, which reported in 2002, was set up in response to the Scottish Office review that I mentioned. In reading the group's report, I noted that although there is an upward trend in prisoner numbers, the number of convictions has decreased. Are sentences becoming harsher? If so, why is that happening despite the recognition of the issues that surround the incarceration of women offenders? I am pleased that alternatives to custody are now on the agenda. The 218 time-out centre initiative in Glasgow seems to be one part of the answer and I look forward to the analysis of its work when it has operated for an appropriate period of time.

As has been noted, a further part of the answer is prevention, but realistically there will always be a need for reactive measures as well, to discourage repeat offending. That is to the benefit of the whole of society because, after all, more women offenders than male offenders have dependent children living with them and studies have shown that such women are likely to be lone parents. That is where the SNP amendment comes in. We agree with the motion, but we also seek

"the necessary resources for the Scottish Prison Service, local authorities and voluntary organisations to enable them to make their contribution to achieving" the goal to which we all aspire.