Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:39 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 4:39 pm, 13th April 2005

I ask members to forgive me, but I have found the debate rather depressing because I know from my previous life in the Parliament on the Justice 1 Committee—I am a former convener of that committee—that all the things that are being said have been said for the past six years. We know that too many women are imprisoned and that many of them are imprisoned for completely the wrong reasons and to ill, rather than to good, effect. I remember a procurator fiscal saying that prisoners in the main were bad, mad or sad. It has already been said that many of the prisoners in Cornton Vale are very sad, damaged people.

We know that government moves slowly, but I must go back to a comment that was made in 1999 by the then Deputy Minister for Justice. He stated that

"the only relatively sure method of dealing with the problems associated with women in prisons is to make a significant reduction in the number ... going to prison".—[Official Report, 16 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1774.]

That has not happened and, in my book, taking six years is too slow.

Good and worthy comments have been made by many members throughout the chamber. I will touch on as many of those comments as possible. The points are consensual, which is why I feel that progress must be accelerated. We must not stand in the chamber in a year's time debating the same issues with the same worthy comments being made.

The 218 time-out centre is to be welcomed, but I understand that it has a small capacity of approximately 20. That hardly touches the problem of rehabilitating women and diverting them from prison.

On the info packs for sheriffs, I remember that when I was convener of the Justice 1 Committee, we went to great lengths to examine alternatives to custody and to look for a way whereby sheriffs could access information about such alternatives. I can only be glad that that work is moving forward, hence my question about information being put on an electronic database. Sheriffs are modern people: they could press a button and find out what places are available on the day, if the information existed. Sheriffs will not use alternatives to custody if they do not know what is available; they would have no option but to send women to prison. As Pauline McNeill said, sometimes they do so for reasons related to the health of the woman. Sheriffs sometimes look at a woman and say that the only way in which she can be helped and given a structured programme is by being put into Cornton Vale. That is the wrong reason for imprisoning someone.

Stewart Stevenson raised important issues about short sentences. We all know that they are not meaningful and that there is a revolving-door syndrome—prison becomes a habit. The process is costly to the individual and to the public purse, but it achieves nothing. He also raised the issue of decriminalising some offences, such as non-payment of the TV licence. I know that that matter is reserved, but it is an important issue. It is a farce that people are imprisoned for non-payment of their TV licence.

Linda Fabiani touched on the important issue of voluntary organisations. During the Justice 1 Committee's inquiry into alternatives to custody, we kept coming across the issue of funding for worthy organisations that were providing alternatives to custody. They sometimes had three or four funding sources and used acres of paper and a lot of their time trying to access funding, and all their grants lasted for different periods of time. That must be addressed. When a project is successful it should be given core funding to keep it going.

Michael Matheson raised the important issue of the systemic nature of the reasons why women offend. That issue was also raised by other members.

Stewart Maxwell pointed out that half the women in Cornton Vale each year are on remand and that many do not go on to a custodial sentence. That is another curable nonsense.

Short sentences and low-level offences have been mentioned. People should not be imprisoned for low-level offences. Members have also raised the huge social and human impact that a person's imprisonment has on their family.

Mary Mulligan raised the issue of how wrong it is to put fine defaulters into prison. She also referred to the Justice 1 Committee's alternatives to custody report and raised the health issues that face many of the women. She asked why progress has been so slow, but I do not think that she gave us an answer—I hope that the minister will do so.

Annabel Goldie rightly addressed the issue of maintaining the confidence of the public in our sentencing policy. She also agreed that prison is not relevant for many women prisoners. I agree with her comment that there must be effective collection of fines when they are properly imposed: again, we must ensure that we take the public with us. I was glad to hear her mention the issue of alcohol abuse, because it often gets missed in the mixture of problems that many of the women have.

I say to Annabel Goldie that both the Conservative and the SNP amendments could be agreed to—the Conservative amendment could follow the SNP amendment, if SSP members were good enough not to pursue their amendment.

Bill Aitken talked about how prison sentences impinge on families. He was quite right, and the matter was raised over and over again during the debate. I think that Bill Aitken is not unsympathetic to the idea that the failure to pay one's TV licence should not lead to imprisonment—