Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:02 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 4:02 pm, 13th April 2005

Over the past six years in this Parliament, there has been a variety of debates on our criminal justice system, a number of which have been about our increasing prison population. In those debates, particular attention has been paid to and concern expressed about the ever-increasing female prison population. However, despite the parliamentary scrutiny of the matter in this chamber and in the justice committees, our general prison population continues to rise, and our female prison population in particular.

I welcome the fact that we are having a specific debate on female offenders and women prisoners. One of the key elements in tackling the matter is ensuring that we acknowledge the specific issues that surround female offending. That is why it is important that we do not lift off the shelf the methods that we have used to tackle male offenders, but instead recognise the specific issues that surround female offending. Members throughout the chamber acknowledge that we are locking up too many women for crimes that they should not be in prison for.

I recall that, when giving evidence to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee in September 1999, the former chief inspector of prisons, Clive Fairweather, said that, in general, those who are in Cornton Vale are sad, not bad. The complexity of the situation, with people being locked up in Cornton Vale who should not be there, was clearly demonstrated in research that Dr Nancy Loucks carried out back in 1998. She demonstrated that, over a period of time, 82 per cent of women who ended up in Cornton Vale had been subject to some form of abuse in their lives. Some 46 per cent had been subject to sexual abuse and 60 per cent had been subject to physical abuse. Those statistics demonstrate that there is a real story of human misery and tragedy behind many individuals who end up in Cornton Vale for the criminal acts that they have committed.

If we are to be committed to tackling the problem, we must be prepared to tackle the causes behind women committing criminal offences in the first place. Sadly, in political debates on the issue in the chamber, when a member recognises a problem in someone's background, they are sometimes accused—by the Conservatives in particular—of being soft on crime and of not recognising the crimes that are committed against victims. However, that is not the issue. The issue is about recognising the complexity of the matter and not about condoning people's criminal behaviour. We should be honest about the need to tackle the complexity that lies behind the matter.

I do not for one minute question the minister's commitment to reducing the number of female prisoners in Scotland, but the question of whether she can deliver on her commitment to address the problem remains. In his four-year period of office, the previous Minister for JusticeJim Wallace—was clearly committed to driving down the number of female prisoners in Scotland, but he simply failed to do so. Before him, Henry McLeish, as a minister with responsibility for home affairs at the Scottish Office, stated in 1998 that he was committed to driving down the female prison population. However, seven years on, ministers have failed to address the matter.