Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:47 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 4:47 pm, 13th April 2005

I understand that Christine Grahame is disappointed and, to some extent, frustrated by the fact that we have gone over ground that has been covered previously. However, on the whole, the debate has been good, measured and constructive. Members acknowledged generally that there is some consensus, not only about the nature of the problem but about how we address it. Although members raised issues to do with investment, which I will talk about, I did not hear them say that they would do things very differently. However, there is much on which we can improve and indeed need to improve.

The only dispiriting aspect of the debate was Margaret Mitchell's ill-judged speech, which was out of kilter not only with the speeches of members of other parties, but with those of her colleagues on the Conservative benches. It takes some going to make Bill Aitken look like a conciliatory moderate. If anyone was guilty of politicking in the debate, it was Margaret Mitchell. Some of her comments about ending automatic early release were completely misplaced and I would be interested to see the statistics that she has in relation to women offenders, which would be affected by her allegations about ending automatic early release. I suspect that her remarks were intended for somewhere else rather than for this debate.

However, on the whole we have had a good debate, with some telling speeches. We all acknowledge that there are far too many women in prison who do not need to be there. The Minister for Justice outlined our aspirations, and I repeat that we want to move forward with three distinct aspects of our policy. First, we want to provide suitable and credible alternatives to custody for female offenders so that as few people as possible are sent to prison unnecessarily. I will return to that point.

Secondly, we must ensure that those female offenders for whom prison is the most appropriate disposal receive the services and support that they need. As Christine Grahame, Bill Aitken and others said, there are, regrettably, some people who need to go to prison. Patrick Harvie mentioned that he thought that only a tiny minority of women in prison are there for violent offences, but a snapshot that we took last year showed that 37 per cent of the women who were in Cornton Vale at that time were there for violent offences. That is a minority, but it is not a tiny minority, as Patrick Harvie suggested. Just as significantly, we need to ensure that female offenders receive the services and support that they need on their release. The minister touched on the work of the proposed criminal justice authorities, and the work that we are doing to try to reduce reoffending is pertinent to that.

Thirdly, we need to look at the wider social problems of poverty, social exclusion, drugs, sexual abuse and prostitution, because all those factors can and do lead to offending. Colin Fox and a number of other members touched on that, and we are doing some work on all those issues.

Stewart Stevenson and others mentioned that short-term sentences, often for failure to pay fines, seem to be more prevalent for women. Other members dealt succinctly with that issue and I do not need to repeat what they said. The fact is that prison is not necessarily the best place for such women and there should be alternatives for them. Pauline McNeill mentioned the 218 time-out centre, and she was echoed by Stewart Stevenson and Bill Aitken. It is interesting that the speeches of Pauline McNeill and Bill Aitken, who are fairly close to the issue, were slightly different from those of a number of other members. Those who mentioned the positive aspects of the centre were right to recognise the good work that is being done, but it is incumbent on us to listen to some of the other comments that were made by Bill Aitken and Pauline McNeill, because they are absolutely right. We have invested a lot of money in that pilot project and we want to see what it delivers.

Pauline McNeill's point is the fundamental one: the 218 time-out centre project must be seen as an alternative to custody. It cannot be seen as a soft option for people to get rehabilitation should they need it. Although the project may well help people with rehabilitation needs, if that is all that it does—if it does not address alternatives to imprisonment—it will have failed. We need to wait and see what comes from the pilot project. There have been some good examples of cases in which the centre has worked with women who have been in and out of prison and their lives have been transformed by their having access to it. However, we need to bear in mind the points that Pauline McNeill succinctly raised.

Annabel Goldie was right to say, as a number of us have said, that if the safety of society requires imprisonment, that may be the correct option, but we need to put the matter in perspective. We are talking about a minority of women offenders. She was right to say that judicial judgment should be respected, but Kate Maclean and others mentioned their concerns about the judicial system not using alternatives sufficiently. We need to respect judicial judgment, but equally there is a responsibility on us as ministers to ensure that those who are responsible for sentencing are not only properly informed of sentences, but have confidence in the credibility of sentences.

Christine Grahame asked whether the Minister for Justice has had discussions with the Sheriffs Association. The minister has had discussions and our officials are working with the Sheriffs Association to ensure that the relevant information is provided. It is interesting that the association has responded positively to the minister about the success of drug treatment and testing orders. We must ensure that the interventions that we offer are valid, credible and properly accredited. The work of the community justice accreditation panel should help to provide more confidence.

Annabel Goldie talked about respecting addicted people's wish not to take methadone and about helping people to stop taking methadone. She is right. The Executive has said more times than I care to remember that those who are on methadone should be offered help to stop taking it and that people who want to pursue abstinence should be helped to do so.

In her excellent speech, Rosemary Byrne described another alternative. Some women see a sustainable course of methadone as a way of overcoming cyclical entry into prison. The analysis that all that is involved is not going on to and coming off methadone is fairly simplistic and crude. Methadone has a role to play, but equally, so does abstinence. Rosemary Byrne put the situation in perspective.

Colin Fox echoed what several members said about having options outside prison, and I have spoken about issues such as poverty, sexual abuse and physical abuse. Colin Fox said that more day residential services are needed and that the courts need more encouragement to consider such services. Several members, including Linda Fabiani, talked about the need for more money and for front loading. Linda Fabiani said that we needed reactive measures. The debate is not simply about money; it is about using our resources more effectively.