Female Offenders in the Criminal Justice System

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 11th February 2010.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 2:15 pm, 11th February 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-5679, in the name of Margaret Mitchell, on the Equal Opportunities Committee's report on female offenders in the criminal justice system.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 2:56 pm, 11th February 2010

The treatment of female offenders in the criminal justice system is a subject that attracts diverse opinions. The Equal Opportunities Committee's starting point was not to go over well-rehearsed and stale arguments, but to consider the experience of women in prison and whether prison provides effective treatment and rehabilitation programmes to female offenders, including women with mental health problems. Part of the committee's remit was to look at the backgrounds of female offenders, the services that are available to them in prison, the support that they are provided with when they are released and the role that that plays in preventing them from reoffending.

At a time when the committee system and committees are under the microscope and sometimes attract criticism for being partisan in the decision-making process, I thank past and present members of the committee for concentrating exclusively on the compelling issues that emerged during the inquiry. My thanks, too, go to the committee's clerks, who have done a superb job in putting the report together. The committee is further indebted to all those who provided written and oral evidence for its inquiry, especially the people who facilitated our visits to Cornton Vale prison, to the 218 centre in Glasgow and to Hydebank Wood prison in Belfast.

Rather than looking in detail at complex legal matters, the committee's inquiry focused on equal opportunities issues and areas in which the committee considered that practical improvements could be made. For the avoidance of doubt, I say that although the inquiry focused on female offenders, that does not mean that the committee considered that female offenders should be treated more favourably or that it was not interested in male offenders.

A number of witnesses confirmed that female offenders in Cornton Vale tend to have specific problems, such as chaotic lifestyles, significant mental health problems and alcohol and drug addictions. Many are also victims of physical or sexual abuse, have suffered mental cruelty in childhood or have been involved in prostitution. It was pointed out that because women are much more likely to have responsibility for the care of their children and are more likely to hold the tenancy of their homes, imprisonment may have a greater impact on them than it does on men. Those complex issues, coupled with the increase in the number of women in Scotland who come into contact with the criminal justice system, meant that the committee's inquiry was timely.

The committee noted that the Scottish Government is committed to reducing the number of custodial sentences of six months or less, but it considers that more could and should be done to rehabilitate women who are currently in prison, particularly those who are serving short-term sentences and those who are on remand. The fact that that is not happening was confirmed to the committee by a former prisoner, who was told that she was not allowed to take part in education classes in Cornton Vale because she was not in prison for long enough—her sentence was seven months. The committee is firmly of the view that more support needs to be offered to short-term offenders, not just in prison, but when they leave it, as support is currently offered only on a voluntary basis.

A key area of consideration in the committee's inquiry was prisoners with mental health problems. One of the more serious criticisms made during evidence to the committee was that some women should not have been in prison because their mental illnesses were so severe. The director of health and care at the Scottish Prison Service, Dr Andrew Fraser, told the committee that, of the 80 per cent of women in Cornton Vale who may have mental health problems, 1 to 2 per cent should be in hospital rather than in prison. I hope that, in his response, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will consider the worrying fact that there might not be sufficient alternative capacity outwith Cornton Vale to support those women.

In evidence, Dr Andrew McLellan—a former chief inspector of prisons—referred to a previous report of his that said:

"twice as many female prisoners as male prisoners pro rata suffer severe and enduring illness".

Despite that, the chief executive of the SPS has said that Cornton Vale's interventions

"do not deal radically with people's underlying problems."

Furthermore, there needs to be a re-examination of the information that is available to courts when women with mental health problems are sentenced. Criminal justice social work departments are often understaffed and under pressure, and there is real concern that they are not properly equipped to carry out that function. Courts too often rely on the defence lawyer to provide that information. That is clearly totally unsatisfactory.

Families Outside identified a gap in provision in respect of the courts not having community-based options to which to refer women, pending the preparation of medical reports. In turn, that leads to women being remanded in custody, often for their safety. That issue's being addressed could help to minimise the number of such women who are imprisoned, and could result in the availability of more resources for rehabilitation in prison. Consequently, the committee considers that improvements must be made to the support that is provided to female offenders with mental health problems, both in prison and in the community.

The committee is concerned about the prevalence of illegal substances in Cornton Vale. The Scottish Prison Service may aim for women to be free of drugs, or for drug use to be stabilised in prison, but it is evident that, to date, that has been no more than an aspiration. Surveys of prisoners in Cornton Vale reveal that 38 per cent have substances in their system on leaving prison. The committee recognised the complex challenge of eradicating drug taking, but pointed out that institutions that are comparable to Cornton Vale have significantly reduced drug use using non-intrusive methods, and considered that the SPS should learn from that best practice.

The committee also learned that drug taking in prison has wider consequences. Women who take drugs in Cornton Vale are punished by not being allowed to see their children on visits. The committee considers that the rights and interests of the child are paramount and that children should not be denied visiting rights, other than when a visit may place them at risk.

During its visit to Hydebank Wood prison in Belfast, the committee was impressed by a recently installed facility that allows children to visit their mothers in a more natural setting. The committee is concerned about the poor quality of the existing facilities for visiting at Cornton Vale, and seeks to establish what specific action will be taken to upgrade them.

The committee was also alarmed to learn that about half the children of female prisoners end up in prison. Efforts need to be concentrated on preventing the passing on of offending behaviour from one generation of a family to the next. The Government should consider carefully the merit of implementing family addiction programmes for female offenders, and how better support can be provided to the children of female offenders.

The inquiry identified a gap in provision of speech and language therapy at Cornton Vale. Statistics from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists show that 44 per cent of women in the criminal justice system have communication difficulties. Good communication is vital; therefore, the committee believes that a pilot speech and language therapy programme needs to be made available at Cornton Vale.

During the inquiry, some women were transferred to Greenock prison, and the committee learned that the proposed new Grampian prison will hold female prisoners. The committee is aware of legal challenges on equal opportunities grounds in other jurisdictions after women had initially been centralised in one prison but were then dispersed and it was no longer possible to provide specialist support. The committee seeks an assurance from the Scottish Government that that issue is being addressed in finalising the plans for the Grampian prison. An equality impact assessment should always be undertaken by the Government when decisions about prison build are being made, in order to ensure that the provision of women's services in Grampian and elsewhere are never merely an add-on to male provision.

Despite the increase in the female prison population, a woman who offends is far more likely to receive a community penalty than to receive a prison sentence. The committee received a lot of written evidence that was critical of community penalties as having been developed primarily for male offenders and, therefore, not always appropriate for female offenders. That makes it more likely that women offenders will breach penalties and end up in prison by default. The committee notes that the community payback order—the proposed replacement for existing community penalties—appears to take account of gender differences between men and women.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Is Margaret Mitchell aware that only 26 per cent of female offenders reoffend within two years after they have served community sentences?

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

I take that on board. However, the committee definitely thought it unacceptable that the vast majority of community service orders are simply not appropriate for females. I hope that the cabinet secretary will take that point on board.

The committee visited the 218 centre in Glasgow, which provides excellent social and health care services to women who have been referred by agencies that are directly involved in criminal justice. Women benefit there from using the residential unit and the day programme. The service received praise from several witnesses during the inquiry, including the sheriffs who gave an informal briefing to the committee and who said that an equivalent in Edinburgh to the 218 centre would be "a welcome disposal". The committee recommends that the type of service that the centre provides be replicated in other parts of Scotland where there is demand, and that consideration be given to expanding the service to women who are at risk of committing crime.

A specific issue that came up in the inquiry related to disclosure, in certain areas of employment, of spent convictions for prostitution. The committee was not content with the cabinet secretary's response on the point and has agreed to consider lodging an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill at its meeting on 23 February.

The committee is encouraged by the fact that, in January, the Cabinet considered the inquiry report and committed funding in support of some of its recommendations. I believe, therefore, that the inquiry has already made a useful contribution on a compelling and complex issue. However, there is still much that could and should be done to improve the provision of support for women who offend and who are at risk of offending. That will require leadership, especially given the somewhat complacent responses that were received from the SPS to some of the report's recommendations. It is the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Scottish Government to ensure that meaningful progress is made.

I have much pleasure in moving, That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Equal Opportunities Committee's 3rd Report 2009 (Session 3): Female offenders in the criminal justice system (SP Paper 332).

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 3:08 pm, 11th February 2010

I welcome the debate and the findings of the report by the Equal Opportunities Committee, "Female offenders in the criminal justice system". I also welcome the committee's convener's fair and balanced points. I thank the committee for its comprehensive and balanced report, which reflects many of the key issues that we have identified for improving management of women offenders both in prison and in the community. We must improve access to health services for those women in order that we meet their wide-ranging and—as Margaret Mitchell pointed out—complex needs. We can provide better learning opportunities to enable them to improve their literacy, numeracy and employability skills so that they can move on in their lives. We should also do more for women on short-term sentences and for those who are held on remand, so that they can be better engaged in productive activities, and we must provide better support for women who are leaving prison to help them to reintegrate into the community.

The SPS and the governor of Cornton Vale have said that they recognise the challenges that have been set for them by Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons. It is appropriate that people also realise the challenges that they face and the comments that the governor made about the difficulties that they face because of the number of short-term prisoners.

This issue is not about providing better treatment to women than we do to men; it is about delivering equality of outcomes for the women who for many reasons find themselves in the criminal justice system or participating in interventions that were historically designed around the needs of men—a point that was made by Margaret Mitchell. We need to work harder to deliver better services and equality of outcomes for women, even with the current pressures of the increased prison population.

Her Majesty's Prison Cornton Vale was opened in the 1970s to provide a central belt prison for women. It has a design capacity for a population of 375. The number of women offenders in prison has risen sharply and disproportionately. Although still a very small proportion of the total prisoner population, the number of women prisoners has almost doubled over the past 10 years—even though—as some people will be sick of hearing me say—we have the lowest recorded crime in almost 25 years. The daily population now hovers around 400, and we also have women prisoners at Gateside in Greenock. Over that same period, the number of women who have been convicted of assault and drug offences has also risen. That is deeply concerning and I have consequently commissioned research to obtain comprehensive and current data on the factors that are driving that rise in the women prisoners population. It would be remiss of me not to point out that the historic view that the problem is all to do with drugs is now being balanced out by an understanding of the increasing problem that is caused by abuse of alcohol.

Our understanding of the needs of women in the criminal justice system has improved in recent years. As the committee pointed out, women offenders are more likely to be parents of children in care, so the impact on the next generation is disproportionately high. Margaret Mitchell pointed out the shameful facts around the number of children of women offenders who go on to become prisoners themselves. We have to break that cycle of crime. The links between women's offending and experience of difficult relationships, violence and abuse are well established. Many women in prison are to be pitied, even though, in many instances, they must also be punished.

The health problems of women offenders are recognised to be more complex and wide-ranging than those of men. I understand and share the concern of the Equal Opportunities Committee at the prevalence of diagnosable mental health problems in prison. That is a matter that afflicts all the prison estate—it is gender neutral. However, there is a significantly higher proportion of people with diagnosable mental health problems in Cornton Vale than there is in many other prisons, and there are often clear links to abuse that those women have experienced in the past.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary said that the mental health issue is gender neutral, but then said that it affects a higher proportion of women prisoners. Could he clarify the position?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am saying that there are many people in our prison system—male and female, young and old—who have mental health problems. I am also saying that there are greater numbers of those people in the women's prisons than in the men's prisons. However, all prisons have problems with mental health issues. I do not know whether that clarifies matters for the member.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I find it difficult to explain. In a nutshell, for the benefit of Mr O'Donnell and Ms Lamont, who clearly has problems herself with what I am saying, male prisoners and female prisoners suffer from mental health issues, but women suffer disproportionately more. I do not know whether that can be any clearer.

Many of the health issues that are experienced by women offenders are linked to drug addiction and—as I and other members of the cabinet will never hesitate to point out—abuse of alcohol. We are tackling those issues across all portfolios, and seek the support of all parties in that regard.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

If it is the case that a disproportionate number of women in prison have mental health problems, in comparison with men, should not part of policy be to ask why that is the case? That way, we could ensure that we have a gendered approach to tackling the problem. If we are to eradicate the problem, we must understand not just that there is a difference but why that difference exists.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I do not know whether Johann Lamont has yet managed to visit Cornton Vale—I know that she was a minister for a shorter time than I have been one. From my numerous visits there, I understand that the issue is not simply that many of the women have mental health problems. As Margaret Mitchell pointed out, such problems are compounded by the fact that many female offenders have addiction problems or have been the victims of domestic violence or of violence and abuse in their childhood. Some mental illnesses are more clearly diagnosable than others, and such problems often relate to other matters. For example, alcohol or drug addiction fuels and causes mental health problems, but can also mask them.

I am encouraged by the high uptake by women of the less intensive version of the drug treatment and testing order that is currently being piloted in Lothian and Borders. It is targeted at women and young offenders who tend to have less extensive criminal histories than their male counterparts.

The programme to bring prisoner health care into the national health service is a major initiative that will allow prisoners to be treated in one system and will ensure continuity of care for males and females who are leaving prison. The committee expressed a desire for that to happen earlier, but it is a complex project that needs—as I am sure members agree—to be planned and executed well to ensure that when it kicks in, it works smoothly and appropriately.

We are continuing to improve engagement between the justice and health sectors at national and local levels in order to provide offenders with equal access to mainstream services. The community justice authorities are working hard to encourage health and justice services to work together in the community to ensure that offenders' needs are addressed. Offender health issues will be included in the remit of the reconvened ministerial task force on health inequalities. Our objectives to reduce reoffending and improve public health are interwoven.

My cabinet colleagues are committed to ensuring that health and other issues that affect women in the justice system are addressed, which will include taking joint action to follow up the recently published report of the independently chaired offender learning working groups. We will seek to ensure that learning, skills and employability opportunities can be maximised for women offenders. Improvement of literacy and numeracy skills will be a priority, and we are ensuring that the tools that are introduced to facilitate identification of needs are gender appropriate.

Women offenders can be at their most vulnerable at points of transition, so agencies must get better at co-ordinating support for women who are leaving prison or completing community orders so that the good work to address needs and to motivate women to take charge of their lives is not lost. It is crucial that any interventions to address complex needs are tailored to the individual.

Throughout the committee's inquiry there has been much debate about the pros and cons of community-facing prisons as opposed to a national establishment. Although a specialist women's prison such as Cornton Vale is essential for some women, being close to home and maintaining links with family and with community-based services can offer benefits for women in terms of reintegrating them back into the community from which they came. I have therefore asked the Scottish Prison Service to work with the northern community justice authority and other partner agencies to enable a small number of prisoners who are serving short sentences, or long-term prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences and who are willing and have been assessed as suitable, to move from Cornton Vale to Inverness and Aberdeen. That will locate them nearer to home and allow access to, and engagement with, services in the community.

That work will inform delivery of our longer-term strategy for management of women offenders and their transition back into the community. It will also inform the piloting of the new community-facing prison regime that has been planned for HM Prison Grampian in Peterhead. I have announced additional funding of £100,000 for each community justice authority to provide additional capacity as further investment to support women offenders and reduce their risk of reoffending.

Progress continues to be made in relation to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill on the provisions for the new community payback order, which can and must be tailored to meet the specific needs of individual female offenders.

I look forward to the debate and I welcome the Equal Opportunities Committee's contribution and the manner in which it was delivered by the committee's convener.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 3:19 pm, 11th February 2010

I welcome today's debate on female offenders in our justice system and congratulate the Equal Opportunities Committee on its scrutiny of the issue and its excellent report. The timing of the debate is opportune, as it follows the first report that has been published by Brigadier Hugh Monro, the chief inspector of prisons, on HMP Cornton Vale. The recommendations in his report echo a number of the concerns that the Equal Opportunities Committee has raised.

The Parliament will debate the wider issues of approaches to sentencing, but both the committee's report and Brigadier Monro's inspection report present us with the key issues in dealing with female offenders. We must consider the particularly disruptive impact that there can be on the lives of families and the specific problems that female offenders have, which require specific approaches.

The inspection of Cornton Vale highlighted the particular pressures on facilities there. It deals with a prison population that overwhelmingly has significant substance misuse problems as well as other problems that have contributed to the women's offending behaviour. The inspection report concludes that prisoners should be assessed for programmes to address offending behaviour and then provided with relevant programmes. I am sure that we all endorse that.

The committee's report concludes that more could and should be done to rehabilitate women in prison, particularly those who are serving short-term sentences and those who are on remand. I hope that the Scottish Government will make progress on that. It states in its response to the report that, in respect of a number of areas, it will look at some of the innovations at Hydebank Wood prison in Belfast, which the committee identified as examples of good practice. That is to be welcomed.

However, I would like more information about the voluntary transfer of female prisoners to Inverness and Aberdeen. There will be a significant resource issue for the facility in Aberdeen because it does not have in place the provision and facilities to deal with that. On community-facing prisons, there are wider debates about the plans for HMP Grampian as well.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Porterfield prison in Inverness formerly took female prisoners. One reason why that ceased is the general overcrowding of prisons. Does Richard Baker agree that the fact that overcrowding is now such a huge problem makes it far more difficult to cater for female prisoners and to provide all prisoners with the extra services that the Equal Opportunities Committee highlights, such as speech and language therapy, an issue on which I met—

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

—a number of the key players yesterday.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I am losing time here. The important point, though, is that the minister is looking to transfer prisoners to Craiginches in Aberdeen, which I know well. Female prisoners used to be accommodated there, but the accommodation is not adequate and has not been used for a long time. Unless there is investment in the transfer, it will not be adequate now. We need further information on that from the Scottish Government.

The committee highlights the challenges of dealing with the problems of many female offenders in terms of mental health issues—which affect a disproportionate number, as I think we have clarified—substance misuse problems and illiteracy. On mental health issues, the committee rightly discussed the need to improve access to appropriate services. It rightly acknowledges the challenges in dealing with addiction problems, but it also considers the need to look at new ways in which to help offenders to tackle their addictions, not only while they are in prison, but on their release and beyond. Again, those points are echoed in the inspection report.

We have highlighted on other occasions the shocking illiteracy rates in our prison population, and the committee flags up a lack of literacy and numeracy as a particular problem among female offenders. Indeed, it calls for a speech and language therapy programme to be established at Cornton Vale. I have doubts about whether a similar scheme would be put in place for prisoners who would go to Aberdeen under the Government's plan. However, in all those areas, further action will contribute to tackling reoffending, as will action to ensure that offenders are on appropriate programmes and are engaged in activities while in custody.

Another key issue with regard to rehabilitation must be female offenders' access to their families—particularly their children. There is a strong theme in the report that children must be allowed appropriate access to their mothers because they should not be penalised for their mother's offences, but the issue is also about maintaining relationships to enhance the chances that the mother will not reoffend. The committee is right to ask for an exploration of ways in which children can have longer visits to their mothers in prison. Although drug misuse in prison should not go unpenalised, the committee is right to suggest that the withdrawal of visiting rights is not the right penalty because it affects the children as well. Other penalties need to be explored.

The committee also covers community sentences for female offenders. We want to see more use of drug treatment and testing orders and alcohol treatment and testing orders for appropriate offences. A further point, which Margaret Mitchell mentioned in her speech, is the need for female-oriented community sentences. A woman who has child care responsibilities might have a legitimate reason for being unable to be at a specified place at 8 in the morning to fulfil an order, yet she will be at a greater risk of breaching the order and ending up in jail. That should not be happening. The community sentencing system as a whole is throwing up huge challenges, but we must ensure that those women get a fair chance to ensure that they do not breach the terms of their orders and therefore end up in custody.

The 218 centre, which was established in the previous parliamentary session, is an example of best practice that brings together all the agencies that can help female offenders to deal with problems such as addiction and to turn their lives around. The committee is right to suggest that replicating such services throughout the country should be a priority for the Government. With such an approach and with many of the other measures that are set out in the report, we can improve the way in which we tackle the very difficult issues that are associated with female offenders. The fact that the report takes us forward in that respect is to the Equal Opportunities Committee's great credit.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 3:25 pm, 11th February 2010

I congratulate the convener, members and clerks of the Equal Opportunities Committee on producing this report. I am well aware of the amount of time, effort and angst that goes into such pieces of work.

The committee is also right to avoid the obvious bear trap of opening up a debate on the question whether the people in Cornton Vale should be there. I will say this only once, but evidence suggests that, although women commit 16 per cent of the crime, only 5 per cent of them end up in prison. Of course, that issue is not under discussion but, in certain circumstances, sentencers are particularly reluctant to send women to jail—and for sound reasons. Indeed, when I was in that position, I followed the same course.

The committee was quite correct to highlight a number of issues that I believe represent in microcosm problems in the whole prison system. Drugs, for example, are a particular problem in Cornton Vale. I am well aware of the practical difficulties, but we must maintain a determined stance to prevent as much as possible the importation of drugs into our institutions. Many—in fact, practically all—of those in prison have been incarcerated because of difficulties with drugs. If we can ensure that they leave prison drug-free, we will very much reduce the chances that they will reoffend. However, we have quite a lot of work to do on that matter.

The committee's emphasis on mental health issues is also valid, and I accept that there are particular difficulties with women prisoners. Two and a half years ago, I and some of my colleagues on the Justice Committee visited Cornton Vale and, although I was quite impressed with much of what I saw, there was clearly an issue with a number of prisoners who were manifesting mental health problems. If those people had not been locked up in prison, they would have had to have been transferred to a hospital establishment. However, some of the people I saw were a danger not only to the wider population but to themselves—one woman, for example, was starting fires—and I have difficulty in envisaging the hospital or other national health service facility that would have been able to cope with them. I certainly think that the question has to be addressed.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Does Mr Aitken agree that it is wholly unacceptable to send women to prison for their own protection?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I stress that in the particular case that I highlighted the person was a problem not only to herself but to others. If she had set a hospital facility on fire, there could have been deaths or injuries. That was the problem that I had: what do we do if someone is not sufficiently restrained from carrying on—

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Perhaps therefore there is a need for better services, such as medium-secure units, for female offenders who have mental disorders.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

That is an argument, and there might be a case for that. However, I must press on because other issues were raised.

Dispersal is of significant interest because there will be disruption to the families of women prisoners in particular. Again, I understand the costs and practicalities, and Mr Ewing was quite correct to raise that during his earlier intervention. However, it would be preferable, in the ideal world in which we do not live, if women who come from disparate parts of Scotland could be housed in facilities that lie closer to their families. That will have to be considered in due course, along with all the other financial considerations with which we have to deal.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Bill Aitken for giving way, and for the way in which he makes his point. Does he accept that there is at least a tension between the wish that we all have to provide those extra services and the countervailing pressure of more people being predicted to go to prison, with the consequent need to build more prisons? It is expected that we will need to be able to house an additional 1,500 prisoners unless we change tack on penal policy in this country.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

The only predictable thing thus far has been the ministerial response. If the story is told often enough, someone will believe it one of these days. As I have said time and again, the safety and security of society and the wider community must be the Government's priority, so I do not accept Mr Ewing's argument for one moment.

Another interesting issue that is raised in the report is the problems that community service orders might cause to women, which might result in a larger number of breaches. If a breach of conditions is referred back to the court, the sheriff should recognise that there might be difficulties. However, I sometimes think that the enthusiasm for carrying out community service is not what we would wish it to be.

The report is reasonable, has been presented in a reasonable manner, and is a good basis for a debate.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 3:32 pm, 11th February 2010

The report by the Equal Opportunities Committee is welcome and timely. Like the recent report on Cornton Vale by HM inspectorate of prisons to which Richard Baker referred, its message is fairly bleak and uncomfortable.

"Cornton Vale is in a state of crisis", said the prison inspectors, who identified, among other things, the problems of growing prisoner numbers, overcrowding, long toilet waits, a rising number of self-harm incidents, inadequate opportunities for work and education, long periods of being locked up in cells and unacceptable living conditions. The redeeming features were staff performance, the efforts to maintain family contact and excellent links with community organisations, all of which are important.

When I went to Cornton Vale a few months ago, my main impression was the difference from male prisons. The low-level construction is homelier, there is a greater social work and social approach to the prisoners, and the atmosphere and style are different, which is also welcome. What stuck in my mind was the prison governor telling me that the main challenge is to undo the harm that is done to the women by being locked up in the first place, not least through severance from their families and children. It is against that background that I disagree somewhat with Bill Aitken when he talks about the need to lock people up for their own safety. No doubt, there are elements of that but, frankly, we should be looking for a better system for tackling such issues.

It is clear that many people are in Cornton Vale as much for their own protection as for that of the public. Many of them have had enormously sad lives characterised by drug or alcohol addiction, chaotic lifestyles, lack of skills, horrendous abuse in childhood or adulthood and, above all, mental health problems, which are said to be a factor in 80 per cent of cases. Other members have touched on the statistic that cries out for notice—around half of the children of female prisoners are imprisoned as adults. What a harvest we reap from the historical and on-going failure of public policy to grasp the nettle.

There are many research findings as to the high level of mental health, addiction and other problems among prisoners generally, but I was struck by the comment of Mike Ewart, the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, that the issues are even more prominent among women prisoners who, in addition, face significant resource and domestic issues and are more likely to be the principal carer.

One issue that has not come out in the debate so far is the high number of women remand prisoners. In June 2008, there were 148 on remand and 264 sentenced. I am not sure that that is terribly different from the male balance, but remand prisoners, as with the shortest-term prisoners, do not get adequate access to many of the facilities, or the access does not do much to create a longer-term change of attitude.

The Scottish Government is developing its strategy for women offenders. It is right that the necessary time should be taken to get that right, but it is clear that urgent action must be taken to improve the situation at Cornton Vale significantly and to improve the approach to women prisoners generally. We must consider the priorities. First and foremost, it is necessary to relieve the pressure on numbers at Cornton Vale. I agree with Fergus Ewing's comments on that in an earlier intervention. The priority should be to have more focused facilities in the community in which sheriffs can have confidence.

We all know that there is little public utility and huge cost in imprisoning people, particularly women, for short terms. I hope that we agree throughout the Parliament to give support to the target on that. However, the alternative disposals in the community must be robust, effective and suitable for women, which is a point from the report on which Margaret Mitchell touched. The disposals must be capable of engaging with and changing the negative life situations in which so many of the women exist.

There are good experiences. For example, Glasgow north-west women's centre has taken on some girls on a community order to work in the cafe and do various other things in the project. The boost to self-confidence and the linkage with good female role models has been successful. That is a small-scale project for two or three people, so I do not pretend that it changes the world overnight. However, it is not too difficult to envisage that being multiplied across the board, with many more such projects being brought into play, probably without huge public cost, to try to help. There is a great need for more facilities such as the 218 centre, which delivers targeted, comprehensive and appropriate services to women in the community, rather than in prison.

Secondly, we must consider mental health services, which we all agree are a priority. It is clear that the assessment and court processes miss a lot. It is equally clear that some women have severe mental illnesses or drug addiction problems that should be dealt with effectively outside the custodial environment, albeit within the confines of a compulsory order and perhaps within confinement more generally. The committee has raised entirely pertinent concerns about the need for improvements in the services that are available in prison and the adequacy of throughcare linkages on release.

Finally, I will touch on family links. Johann Lamont and I were on a panel yesterday that heard strong representations to the effect that, despite compelling research on the vital benefits of the maintenance of appropriate family links, the prison system does not adequately support that. The committee was clearly impressed by the innovative approach at Hydebank Wood prison in Belfast, with its visiting facility. The smaller number of women prisoners and their situation in Cornton Vale present challenges, but that is all the more reason why the Scottish Government should find the means to ensure that the arrangements are as sensitive as possible. We must reduce the ill effects of parental incarceration on the life chances of children if an horrendous repeating cycle is to be avoided.

I commend the committee on its work. The debate will not change Governments or fell ministers and I suspect that it will not receive huge media coverage, but it is important for all that. The Government's response is welcome as far as it goes, but it needs an injection of a little more urgency. I hope that the minister will reflect on the key messages in responding to the debate and that the Government will reflect on those messages further after that.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party 3:38 pm, 11th February 2010

The Equal Opportunities Committee's report has begun to articulate the different challenges of working with women offenders. However, the report, as well as the Scottish Government response and this debate, should be viewed as only the beginning of the discourse. The committee report ended on a poignant and pragmatic note when it quoted Sacro, which stated in written evidence:

"Perhaps too much emphasis has been given in the past to analysing the profile of women offenders rather than devising solutions to the problem."

To give women realistic opportunities to address their offending behaviour is not just an equality issue; it is also about making our communities safer and in many instances creating more secure and stable families.

Politicians need to acknowledge the enhanced vulnerability of women offenders as well as the need to engage effectively with and empower women to take responsibility for their lives. We do women no favours if we infantilise them and frame our discourse with them purely in the context of their victimhood. No one is above the law. However, as the committee said, we need to understand clearly and address the consequences of the different ways in which women enter the criminal justice system and are subsequently treated.

As we heard, the female prison population has doubled in a decade, whereas the male prison population has increased by only 16 per cent. Front-line practitioners report higher tariffs for women and we know that, historically, women have been more likely to be imprisoned for a first offence. The impact of imprisonment is greater for women than it is for men, because women are more at risk of losing their children and homes, and because women offenders' lives are far more chaotic, as has been frequently reported.

We know that the proportion of male offenders who have drug and addiction problems is high; the proportion is even higher for women offenders, 98 per cent of whom have such problems. It is reported that 75 per cent of female prisoners have experienced childhood abuse. The impact of such abuse, domestic violence and mental health and addiction problems is profound and is most acutely exemplified by women who enter prostitution. The underlying seam, of course, is the comparative powerlessness of women in society.

I am pleased that the committee put strong emphasis on the mental health of women offenders. I think that the issue first came to prominence in the 1990s, when there was an alarming suicide rate at Cornton Vale. The issue is not just that there are more women in prison who have what are broadly and glibly described as mental health problems—some 80 per cent of women prisoners have such problems, as opposed to 50 to 60 per cent of their male counterparts, depending on which of numerous surveys we accept. The issue is that, proportionally, twice as many women prisoners as male prisoners are experiencing severe and enduring mental illness. Severe and enduring mental illness requires concerted, co-ordinated and robust treatment in a hospital or from community care services. For the most part, women with severe mental illness pose a greater threat to themselves than they do to other people. I agree whole-heartedly with what Robert Brown said about that.

We can improve mental health services in prisons. I am glad that in time the NHS will become responsible for the health care of incarcerated men and women. However, prison can never replicate hospital care, nor should it do so. I have some sympathy in relation to the reluctance of mainstream mental health services to take on offenders, given that they are not always best equipped to do so, but the practice of sentencing women to prison in the absence of appropriate mental health services is unacceptable. The notion that we should send women to prison for their own protection is fundamentally not right.

I spent most of my previous career in social work working with male offenders, including mentally disordered offenders. It was not uncommon to come across men who were in the wrong system—there were men in prison who should have been in hospital and vice versa. However, even I was alarmed to read the evidence of Sue Brookes, a former governor of Cornton Vale, who talked about the frequency with which

"women arrived at reception in Cornton Vale clearly not knowing who they were, let alone where they were".—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 May 2009; c 1005.]

That is a fundamental issue of justice. We cannot have women going through the criminal justice system who do not comprehend the court process. It sounded as though the women whom Sue Brookes described were clearly not fit to plead.

The report considered whether there is sufficient high-security provision outwith Cornton Vale to treat violent or seriously ill women. Justice cannot be done to that complex issue in this debate. I urge a degree of caution, because the number of women who require maximum-security hospital care such as was provided at the state hospital is very small. Indeed, the number is so small that, when the state hospital was redesigning its campus, the long-term plan was to close Alexandra ward, which was the women's ward. Some time before becoming an MSP, I had the privilege of working on that ward. It is worth noting that most of the women in it had a significant and profound learning disability and could have been cared for elsewhere if the facilities had existed. The development of medium-secure forensic services is welcome, but how those services currently meet the needs of women is questionable. It remains to be seen what more can be done on that issue.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 3:45 pm, 11th February 2010

The subject of women in prison has been on the Parliament's radar since its inception. Johann Lamont first raised the matter as the gender reporter on the Equal Opportunities Committee in the first parliamentary session and I pursued the issue when I was appointed to the role. However, I am sad to say that the number of women in prison keeps on increasing—as we have heard, it has doubled in the past decade. There have been a number of debates on the issue over the years, but the difference today is that, through the Equal Opportunities Committee's report, we approach it from an equality perspective rather than simply a justice one.

We continue to imprison women at a growing rate despite the stated and restated policy intention of reducing the number of women in prison. We really need to take action to change that, as other members have pointed out. The reason why we need to change it is not simply to do with reducing crime or prison overcrowding or the economic arguments on the costs of prisoners; the main reason is a genuine understanding that the majority of women in prison in Scotland are themselves victims and that it is in the interests of no one—least of all their children—for them to be in custody.

Statistics indicate that around half the children of female prisoners may end up in prison themselves and that 30 per cent suffer significant mental health problems. Such repercussions mean that we almost certainly create more suffering for future generations and add to society's ills while achieving little when we imprison women.

I will concentrate my remarks on one or two specific issues in the committee's report and the Government's response. First, it is necessary to consider what the majority of women in Cornton Vale are there for and what their backgrounds are likely to be. There has been some mention of that, but it is important that we consider it.

The majority of women in prison have chaotic lifestyles, as well as significant mental health and/or addiction problems. Tragically, many of them have been victims of childhood sexual abuse and physical or mental cruelty. Our evidence unveiled that 75 per cent of current prisoners were victims of physical or sexual abuse, 80 per cent had a mental illness and 98 per cent had addiction problems.

Many women offend because of drug addiction and others take drugs to try to cope with their situation, which involves prostitution in many cases. Again and again we ask why vulnerable women who have been victims of abuse are in prison. Since devolution, the Government in Scotland—it does not matter which Government—has recognised that prostitution is on the spectrum of violence against women, so why are women being criminalised for that abuse and put in jail? I contend that the abusers—the pimps and the purchasers of women—should be in jail, not the victims. Perhaps then there would be a fall in demand and a subsequent fall in the numbers of female prisoners.

The report also addresses the requirement to disclose convictions for prostitution, which can make it difficult for women to escape from prostitution and move into employment. I note that the convener mentioned that. The committee has agreed to pursue the issue with the Government by an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill. The bit that is under dispute just now is the wording of that amendment, but I am sure that we will come to some conclusion on that.

The committee was clear in its report that it did not find it acceptable for children's visits to be cancelled as a punishment for their mothers. Of course, more could and should be done to stop drugs circulating in Cornton Vale, but children should not be punished by having their visits cancelled if their mothers are caught taking drugs. It is not acceptable and does not seem to have been addressed in the Government's response, so I would be pleased if the cabinet secretary could mention that in his closing speech.

The provision of parenting training also needs to be clarified. The Government's response states that Cornton Vale has a parenting programme, but Dr Nancy Loucks of Families Outside states that the course is no longer running because it is not being funded. We need some clarity on that.

I turn now to remand, social inquiry reports and community sentences. We took evidence on the successful alternatives—in particular, the 218 centre in Glasgow, which the previous Executive initiated. That service's purpose is to offer an alternative to custody, to address the root causes of women's offending and to take an holistic approach to changing offending behaviour, so rolling it out makes absolute sense. I would be grateful for the cabinet secretary's comments on that. There is no doubt that more female-appropriate community sentences are needed to prevent women who are the principal carers of children from losing custody of their children.

When women are on pre-trial remand, they are of course innocent in the eyes of the law. A significant proportion of those women do not subsequently receive a custodial sentence, so why is it necessary to imprison them, when they pose no threat in communities? When women are imprisoned, they can lose their jobs, homes and children, with all the consequential problems for them and for society.

Members have said and the report says throughout that it was suggested that women deliberately commit offences in order to access services at Cornton Vale. That leads us to ask why such services are not available before women go anywhere near prison. The cabinet secretary said:

"The SPS does not exist to provide respite care. I am not being flippant when I say that if that is what you want to provide, it would be cheaper and better to do so at Stobo castle or similar than at Cornton Vale prison."—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 23 June 2009; c 1161-2.]

Evidence suggested that many women offenders—about 80 per cent—suffer from mental health problems. Social inquiry reports need to be addressed further, because sheriffs might not be receiving the necessary information. That could be a gap. Although many women offenders have mental health problems, the reports do not necessarily include a mental health assessment. That flaw needs to be addressed. Without the right information, sheriffs cannot make the right decisions.

Baroness Corston said:

"Sentencers do not like to hear this, but they have been giving women harsher sentences for less serious crimes."—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 19 May 2009; c 1048.]

That is a damning and worrying charge. The cabinet secretary made a similar comment on the subject, which I understand is being researched.

Many women in Cornton Vale have been used, abused and abandoned and their children could meet the same fate. They do not need punishment for what are usually crimes of poverty, ill health and abuse; they need help, support and the chance to provide a better life for their families. It is unbelievable that the number of women in prison continues to rise. We need a commitment from the Government to take action and to work with the committee to implement our report's recommendations.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 3:52 pm, 11th February 2010

As an Equal Opportunities Committee member, I am happy to speak in the debate on our report on female offenders in the Scottish justice system. It is important to acknowledge that, for the most part, women in prison comprise a different prison population from that of male prisoners. In the main, the crimes that women commit and the social circumstances that lead to their offending are different from those of their male counterparts.

The committee visited Cornton Vale women's prison, as has been mentioned. We also visited Hydebank Wood prison in Northern Ireland and the 218 centre in Glasgow, which was an eye-opener for all of us. We took a considerable number of statements from witnesses at oral evidence sessions and received 15 written submissions. Great interest was shown in the inquiry, the contributions to which have produced a report that is worthy of Government consideration.

The report is a substantial piece of work. I add my thanks to those from the convener to all those who contributed to it, particularly as it has added greatly to my knowledge of the circumstances that have led to the issues and concerns that a number of my constituents bring to my surgeries.

The committee reached the view that preventing reoffending through fully addressing female offenders' needs and individual circumstances is of major importance while they are in the prison system—or the justice system, as not all women offenders go to prison. As almost all members have said, many of the women have suffered abuse or some kind of neglect from an early age. They have carried into their adult lives the attitudes that those pressures created. That has shaped their relationships with others, with society and with authority figures.

Of course, as Angela Constance said, poverty contributes to the often chaotic lifestyles that have meant that offenders have been sent to prison or sentenced to carry out other court disposals. The same, sadly, is true of mental illness, which is present to some degree in a significant proportion of inmates at Cornton Vale. Mental illness can be exacerbated by drug abuse, which is also a factor in the theft or prostitution that results in many women being jailed.

All those issues must be addressed when prevention of reoffending programmes are being assessed. The women may appear to have arrived at the same place through the same circumstances, but their circumstances are all different. We have to remember that prevention of reoffending programmes must be tailored to each individual case.

Some women may be helped by programmes that raise literacy levels, which can then be enhanced by further education programmes. In many cases, that is very important, given that, because of their family circumstances, many women offenders had a poor attendance record or poor disciplinary record at school. Other women need some form of training to enable them to find work and to understand that employment is a way out of the despondency of the cycle of reoffending and repeat sentencing by the courts, leading to depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

Although it is important to remember that prison and other forms of court disposal are to some extent meant as a punishment for wrongdoing, it is vital to remember that rehabilitation is of considerable importance, too. No member in the Parliament is in the business of locking them up and throwing away the key; nor do we believe that the out of sight, out of mind approach is acceptable.

Along with my colleagues on the Equal Opportunities Committee, I know that good work is being done for women in our justice system. However, as our report suggests, there are still issues to be addressed and improvements to be made. I mentioned earlier one such issue: the sending to jail of women with mental health problems. In many cases, prison exacerbates their mental ill health and achieves nothing.

It is equally important to remember that there are many mothers among the female offender population in the Scottish justice system. Their children are often the innocent bystanders, caught up in the system of crime and punishment. Every possible means must be looked at to ensure that they suffer as little upset in their upbringing as possible, if for no reason other than the fact that a disturbed upbringing is often the cause of their mother having committed the crime in the first place. If we can avoid that vicious circle, so much the better—[Interruption.] Hugh O'Donnell looks as if he is swatting a fly; I am not sure what he is doing.

Avoiding a jail sentence whenever possible and whenever appropriate by ordering women to a place such as the 218 centre is more beneficial to their continuing family life than prison is. I was happy to hear the cabinet secretary report on the developments that are to take place in Inverness and Aberdeen. I am not certain that they will be exactly the same as the 218 centre, but if they serve the same purpose, they will be extremely useful.

If it is judged that prison is necessary, Hydebank Wood's family visiting centre, which we saw on our visit, is an ideal model for us to follow. Cornton Vale is developing a similar facility. I ask the Scottish Prison Service to consider the Northern Ireland experience as a model that it might wish to follow.

It is a privilege to have taken part in this debate on the Equal Opportunities Committee's report. I join our convener and fellow committee members in commending the report to the Parliament.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 3:58 pm, 11th February 2010

As the number of women who come into contact with the justice system has increased, gender-specific problems have become all the more evident. That raises several challenging questions, which is why I welcome both the committee's report and today's debate.

As detailed in the report, the majority of women who commit crime share certain characteristics: 80 per cent are unemployed at the time of arrest; 95 per cent left school at 16 and may have few qualifications; 75 per cent may have suffered abuse in the past; and 80 per cent have mental heath problems. More alarming still, 98 per cent of inmates at Cornton Vale have drug or alcohol addiction problems.

Those statistics reveal the often serious underlying problems that face women who come into contact with the justice system. The apparent direct correlation between the stats and repeated offending should not be taken lightly; those underlying problems are not being adequately addressed by the system.

As several members have remarked, it is important to remember that women are far less likely than men to commit violent, sexual or serious crimes. That means that, regardless of whether they are a danger to the public, they are far more likely to receive short-term prison sentences. The Liberal Democrats have consistently expressed concern about such sentences.

The committee's report highlights the disruption that short sentences cause to families and children. It is claimed that short sentences do greater damage than any good that is done by the respite that they provide for communities. In written evidence submitted to the committee, Lothian and Borders community justice authority stated:

"Our experience would indicate that little benefit in terms of addressing offending behaviour, change in attitude or skills development is or can be achieved in such short periods of custody."

Last year Liberal Democrats revealed that the number of incidents of self-harm in Cornton Vale had rocketed from seven in 2004 to 64 in 2008, which is much higher than in any other prison. We know that self-harming is closely linked to mental health problems and that many of the inmates in Cornton Vale struggle with addictions and mental health problems that are further exacerbated by severe overcrowding. Addressing those problems is vital if female offenders are to break the offending cycle and to make a useful contribution to society when they are released, but there is simply not time to do that in the context of short-term three-to-six-month sentences.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that we must think about whether short-term sentences are of any use for many female prisoners. At the beginning of the debate, Margaret Mitchell referred to an offender who had been in prison for seven months and had received no help. Elaine Smith's speech was bang on the button. The people whom we are discussing have social problems. In many cases, I do not believe that they are criminals—they have got themselves into a situation that causes them to be sent to prison. We should not send to prison the types of women who receive short-term prison sentences. It is more vital that we address the problem of short-term sentences for women than for men. As members have said, women normally hold the lease; if they go to prison, that is the end of the lease. They also have the children, who are taken into care. How much does that cost us? The combined cost of keeping a woman in prison and her children in a home somewhere must be dreadful.

I return to a point that I made earlier—98 per cent of the women in Cornton Vale have mental health problems. What percentage of the people in Cornton Vale are serving sentences for serious criminal offences? I suggest that precious few of them are.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I can assist the member. The most recent figures indicate that 24 per cent of the people in Cornton Vale are there for homicide, serious assault or attempted murder.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

The answer to that is that the remaining 76 per cent should not be there, as they will be on short sentences. We need to help those people. I suggest that both the community and minor offenders who are not a danger to the public would be better served by effective community penalties and/or drug treatment and testing orders. Such measures would keep them in the community, at home, where they can look after their kids, would address the underlying reasons for offending and would require offenders to work to pay something back to the communities that they have harmed. That is not to say that community sentencing is a quick fix.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

I thank the member for his supportive comments, but I would not like the chamber to be misled. We are talking about people who have broken the law. The question is, how can we best deal with their offences and offending behaviour and rehabilitate them?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

I do not doubt that they have broken the law—I am suggesting that they should not be in prison and that they should do some sort of community service.

Given the alarming figures that were published this week, which indicate that many community sentences and DTTOs are not being completed—the research does not distinguish accurately between men and women—it is clear that progress must be made on ensuring that community penalties are an effective alternative to custody.

Maintaining close family ties is often particularly significant for female offenders. The importance of such ties to the rehabilitation process was emphasised by Dr Andrew McLellan during his tenure as HM chief inspector of prisons.

The committee has done an excellent job and I fully agree with its recommendations. I look forward to hearing what the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has to say.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 4:05 pm, 11th February 2010

After studying the issue for a short time and visiting Cornton Vale, two shocking and disturbing facts became clear to me. The first is the appalling extent of sexual and/or domestic abuse in the backgrounds of the women, and the prevalence of mental health and addiction problems, which are sometimes but not always related to that abuse; and the second is the large number of women who simply should not be in Cornton Vale but somewhere more appropriate.

Obviously, sentencing is a matter for sheriffs, but the committee suggests that the Government consider the idea of having a separate sentencing framework for women. We certainly say that it is our responsibility to consider alternative provision. Clearly, there will be big debates about community sentences in coming weeks, and we must ensure that gender issues are recognised as part of those debates. Paragraph 137 of the report indicates that Government officials admit that such issues have not always been recognised.

I have mentioned alternative provision, and we certainly highly commend the 218 centre. We say in the report that the Government should consider having similar centres in other parts of Scotland. I was pleased to visit Glasgow sheriff court as part of the inquiry. It was very encouraging to see, in relation to a woman for whom we all had a great deal of sympathy, the sheriff using the option of the 218 centre for the disposal rather than the option of Cornton Vale. Would that the 218 centre option were available to a larger number of women.

Angela Constance, in a very important speech, referred to alternative provision for those with mental health problems. Mental health featured very strongly in the report, which has many important recommendations on that issue. For example, paragraph 51 says that there should be

"a re-examination of the way that women with mental health problems are sentenced".

Paragraph 119 makes the specific recommendation that medical reports should be available to sentencers. Mental health must be considered at the pre-sentencing stage.

We also say, in paragraph 52, that

"improvements must be made to the support that is provided both in prison and in the community to female offenders with mental health problems."

Obviously, I take on board what Angela Constance said about the limitations of what can be provided in prison. There are some necessary limitations, as the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service agreed.

However, there are also areas in which improvements could be made. For example, there is an admission in the draft Scottish Prison Service women offender strategy that, at Cornton Vale, there is

"limited psychologist input, and no individual clinical psychology."

The recent inspectorate report on Cornton Vale talks about the health team there not being at full strength—it should include seven mental health nurses. Improvements can therefore be made in Cornton Vale, but it is clear that, often, alternative provision for people with mental health problems should be considered.

The other issue that comes up in our report is what happens to women after they leave Cornton Vale. Ideally, they should be directed to community-based mental health services. However, important written evidence from the Scottish Association for Mental Health pointed out that such services

"are often too rigid and place unrealistic demands on those who may be most vulnerable."

That leads into the issue of throughcare and what happens to women once they leave Cornton Vale, to which we devoted a section of our report at paragraphs 158 to 161.

One of the most interesting reports that I have read in relation to throughcare is by an organisation called Circle Scotland, which has been doing work with women in Cornton Vale over the past two years. A review of the first year has been published. I have a particular interest in the Circle organisation, since it is based in West Pilton in my constituency. It has done excellent work with families in many contexts. The report "Circle: Throughcare for Female Offenders" is interesting because it shows what can be done with women who have been in prison if they are given support when they leave. One of the most striking facts in the report is that there is virtually zero reoffending among the women with whom Circle has worked up till now. We refer to that in paragraph 169 of our report, and I hope that the Government will examine the Circle report and will consider that approach as an important part of the way forward.

One issue for Circle is working with children, and there are important recommendations in our report with reference to children. In particular, I draw the attention of the cabinet secretary to the absence of a response to the first part of the recommendation in paragraph 67, which says:

"Where female prisoners with children continue to take drugs, the Committee has made clear its view that any subsequent punishment should not impact on the child in question."

It would be interesting to hear a response to that point from the Government.

I thank the Government for its response on the other recommendations. In general, its response was positive, although there are big issues about the implementation of many of the report's recommendations.

On speech and language therapy, which is dealt with in paragraphs 72 to 74, our recommendation was to have

"a pilot speech and language therapy programme".

We received important evidence from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which pointed out that

"SLT interventions could help to prevent and reduce the female re-offending rate by increasing oral communication skills, by enabling the individual to access a wider range of rehabilitation programmes, thereby empowering them to change their offending behaviour."

The Government's response to that was not entirely positive, although it has said that it will examine the evidence. I hope that it will do so soon and take that recommendation on board.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 4:11 pm, 11th February 2010

As a relatively new member of the committee, I did not have the benefit of sitting through the evidence sessions and going on the visits, although I welcomed the report when it came out, as the subject of female offenders is one that I am really interested in. I pay tribute to and thank my colleagues and the committee clerks for the support that they gave me.

I also pay tribute to the committee system of the Parliament. The committee's report clearly shows how the system can address serious issues in Scotland—it just shows what can be done when a committee works together as one force.

The justice system has been changing rapidly over the past few years, and we expect it to continue to do so over the next few years. We are modernising it in many ways, bringing both the law and practice right up to date. I look forward to the continuing debates on the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill and to our continuing consideration of penal provisions—it all interlocks.

The demographics of the people whom we incarcerate and the special problems that they face have been political issues—if not quite the hottest political issues—for some time. There is also an important social matter. Those issues have been kept alive by doughty campaigners and dedicated politicians from all points of the spectrum, who believe that we should examine both the way in which we treat prisoners and the effects of that treatment, and thereby seek to improve the conditions in which prisoners are kept and the effectiveness or otherwise of prison for ending reoffending behaviour.

In particular, I note the trenchant criticisms that have been made by the chief inspector, and the changes that have come about as a result of that catalyst. Such critical examination has been particularly well focused on the issue of female prisoners, and it is only appropriate to pay tribute to previous Administrations and the work that was done by the Parliament in previous sessions to find and use alternatives to custody.

The principle has been well established in the debate that short, sharp shocks, mandatory sentences and so-called zero-tolerance policies that lead directly to jail for crimes short of capital crimes are, by and large, ineffective at producing the results that society needs for its justice system.

I acknowledge the position of the justice secretary that sentencing decisions are for sheriffs and judges to make, having taken into account all the factors in a case, including any plea in mitigation or plea for clemency on behalf of the accused. I think that he and I are on the same wavelength in thinking that the disposal of cases should be left to the court, although the court must have the full range of disposals available for consideration. One worthy development has been the making available of an offer option, in which the accused pays something back to her or his community without having to go to court.

I am sure that I will be corrected if I am slightly wrong, but I believe that procurators fiscal have had their power to determine whether prosecution is in the public interest extended, and that they can now also consider disposing of cases by means of a compensation order, which offers the offender the chance to compensate the victim quickly—rather than dragging a relatively minor case through the courts—and which allows the public interest test to be set against whatever benefits there are to the community and to the victim.

The committee's report specifically mentions the 218 centre, which is a smashing example of effective work with female offenders. The report highlights the use of such projects in the prevention of reoffending behaviour, which I think is worth pursuing.

Of particular interest to me is the work offers project, which, as the Government's response to the report mentions, has been piloted in Hamilton, Inverness, West Lothian and West Dunbartonshire. The pilots appear to involve compensation offers of community service. I understand that offenders who have taken up those offers have cleaned up parks and beaches and have learned other skills such as painting and decorating, which may improve their future employment prospects and help them to stay out of trouble.

As a member of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, I believe that education is an extremely important way of helping people not to reoffend. Someone once said that education can set you free; in the context of the situation that we are discussing, that freedom is physical and spiritual. In my research for the debate, I read in The Journal Online that one young offender who had done 30 hours of service in a charity shop decided to volunteer there and has carried on helping that shop. That shows the importance of such work, which, along with the cashback for communities initiative, is delivering benefits for all our communities. We should applaud that.

I firmly believe that women who have mental health issues need care rather than imprisonment. There has been some mention of social inquiry reports not addressing such issues. I believe that the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 contains a provision whereby a court can request a social inquiry report from a mental health officer. If courts and sheriffs made such requests, perhaps women with mental health issues who are at present incarcerated would have better outcomes.

I applaud the steps that the justice secretary has taken to address the gender imbalance in sentencing that has been all too apparent in Scotland. Mr MacAskill, along with other colleagues, has pointed to the harsher sentencing that women have faced in Scotland's courts. I was astonished to discover that 70 per cent of the women who have been sent to Cornton Vale over the past 10 years have served a maximum of six months in prison. It is incredible that we spent public money in that way over such a long period when we know that short sentences are ineffectual at best and may even be counterproductive.

If someone has an issue such as a mental health problem that puts them or others in danger, they need a hospital bed rather than a prison cell, and that must be properly supported. My view on that issue is the opposite of my colleague Bill Aitken's. The fact that the number of female prisoners rose by 90 per cent over the past 10 years indicates that something was not working properly. I find Robert Brown's comments on the issue, as they were reported in The Herald, a trifle bizarre. He said that that sentencing pattern suggested

"an element of old fashioned male gentility when it comes to sentencing women".

However, in his speech today, which was most welcome, he moved on his argument a little, just as the committee moves the issue on in its report.

To an extent, we are testing the boundaries. The positive response from the Government suggests that movement is being made to address many of the issues surrounding female offenders. I welcome that, and I look forward to an interesting debate on justice policy over the next year. I commend the committee and its report.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 4:18 pm, 11th February 2010

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. Like others, I commend the committee and its convener for their work on female offenders. The issue of female offenders is clearly important and sensitive, and I welcome the fact that Parliament is debating it.

I agree with Christina McKelvie—there is a first time for everything—that the production of this important report demonstrates one of the benefits of the committee system. The report highlights issues that are important to women in Scotland, allows the Parliament to discuss them and gives the cabinet secretary and his team the chance to reflect on them with a view—we hope—to improving the quality of life of women prisoners at Cornton Vale, stopping people going into such establishments and reducing reoffending. From that point of view, the report makes an extremely important contribution.

The starting point for any analysis is the extent of the problems that women and women prisoners face. As many have said, the female prison population has doubled from 199 to 400 over the past 10 years, which clearly demonstrates that women in society face issues that have resulted in more of them going to prison.

Mike Pringle listed many of the statistics that are quoted in paragraph 21 of the report. For example, 80 per cent of the women had been unemployed, 95 per cent left school at 16 and 98 per cent were on drugs.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Can the member tell us how many additional female prisoners he anticipates there will be if mandatory sentencing is brought in, or are they all to be viewed as exceptional cases?

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I assume that the cabinet secretary is talking about mandatory sentences for carrying knives. In 2007, 50 per cent of all murders related to knife crime, so, if mandatory sentences are introduced, there will be a reduction in the number of murders. The streets will be safer as a result of mandatory sentences.

As I was saying, it is clear that women who go to places such as Cornton Vale do so because they lead chaotic lifestyles. The statistics quoted in the report tell a story of a lack of stability. Those who are in charge of sentencing must be aware of that. As other members have pointed out, there are also important issues around the women's mental health, which must be addressed.

Some practical measures should be considered to make progress. Robert Brown mentioned visiting facilities, and the report considered family contact time. Many women prisoners have children, and one of the sad facts in the report is that, if we continue on the current route, more than half of those children will also end up in prison. It is important that there is proper contact between women and their children, and the committee's recommendation that we should try to have flexible visiting facilities to establish such contact is important.

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of discussion in the Parliament about literacy. That is clearly an issue for prisoners generally, and specifically for women prisoners. If we do some work on literacy in prisons, particularly in Cornton Vale, we will increase the level of education of women prisoners and help them when they return to the outside world and look for a job.

As Bill Aitken said, there are clearly issues around drug use. Other more general issues also need to be addressed. For example, Elaine Smith mentioned community penalties. Such penalties clearly have to be properly funded and properly evaluated in respect of how they apply to women. There is obviously an issue around community penalties, given that statistics that were published earlier in the week show that a third of them are breached. I have severe reservations about the funding of community penalties, but perhaps that is a debate for another day.

We must have another look at how we make facilities work. Johann Lamont and I recently visited the Wise Group's scheme. It has a much more hands-on approach to working with prisoners as they near the end of their sentence and go back out into the community, and it has had some success in getting prisoners back into the workplace. Schemes such as that must be considered.

I thank the committee for its report, which makes many useful suggestions. I look forward to hearing how the Government will take them forward in practice.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:24 pm, 11th February 2010

I thank the committee clerks for their hard work in marshalling our thoughts and us and for their work on the report. I also put on record my thanks to all the people who gave us evidence. I will avoid this becoming like the Oscars by trying to name them all; I simply say thank you to all those who contributed.

The inquiry was difficult and occasionally harrowing, even for me, who, albeit for a relatively short time, worked in Low Moss prison and had some idea of what to expect. The committee report highlights a number of matters the seriousness of which has been reinforced by most of the speeches in this debate. At the top of the agenda—as far as I can gather from listening to the debate—is the effectiveness of short-term sentences in addressing reoffending. We need to consider seriously short-term sentences in the context of the breakdown of families, mental health and other health issues. Mandatory sentences are not necessarily helpful in that regard.

The debate has brought out many of the challenges that we face. Angela Constance, from her former professional experience, referred to the lack of alternative mental health facilities. I tend to agree with both her and Christina McKelvie that incarcerating someone who has a mental health problem ostensibly for their own good is not the way in which we should proceed.

To be fair, the Scottish Government's response has been, for the most part, positive. However, in the light of the recent inspection report on the conditions in Cornton Vale, we need to be assured that the SPS will develop its women offenders strategy more urgently than has been the case to date. The strategy must have a timetable for delivering its priorities, otherwise the whole debate is empty rhetoric that we will revisit time and time again.

At the heart of the issue is a more general problem relating to the role of the SPS in rehabilitating offenders, which I raised during the committee's inquiry. I had a quick look at the latest SPS annual report before the debate. The mission statement on the SPS website says that its role is

"to provide prisoners with a range of Opportunity to exercise personal responsibility and to prepare for release".

Under the SPS's aims and objectives, it states:

"We will be recognised as a leader in offender management services for prisoners that help reduce re-offending and offer value for money for the taxpayer."

Frankly, the SPS's annual report looks like a corporate report from a commercial organisation, which should not be the case.

Given the committee's report and the evidence that we took, I think that the SPS's role in reducing reoffending should be put further up its agenda. That could be addressed partly by ensuring that the key performance indicators that the Government sets for the SPS bear some relationship to addressing rehabilitation. From what I can see in the SPS's annual report and its aims and objectives, that does not seem to be the case, which is a little disappointing. I would be much happier if the SPS's rehabilitation responsibilities were added to its KPIs.

I was also a little disappointed with the Government's response to the committee's report in relation to equality impact assessments and human rights issues. That has not been touched on in the debate. I was particularly surprised that the Government seemed to suggest that equality impact assessments would be carried out only in new-build facilities. We need to be clear that, when prisoners are transferred to local facilities, equality impact assessments should be carried out in relation to existing facilities as well as new-build facilities, which I understand will be primarily at the proposed Grampian prison.

On human rights issues, I quote the Government's response to paragraph 85 of our report, which states that human rights issues will be taken into account only

"in accordance with existing practice in SPS."

I would have thought that human rights issues should be taken into account in accordance with human rights laws. Perhaps the cabinet secretary will respond to that observation in his closing remarks.

I commend the committee's report to Parliament. I look forward to hearing how the cabinet secretary will address the specific issues of timetabling and strategy and the other issues that have been raised today, and about the practical steps that the SPS and the Government will take on the recommendations.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 4:30 pm, 11th February 2010

I would also like to start by recognising the hard work that the Equal Opportunities Committee has done on the inquiry. I imagine that, at times, examining the subject was not easy or comfortable.

The debate has given us a deeper insight into how members view female offenders, why females offend, how they should be dealt with, who should be in prison and how to prevent reoffending in the future, to name just a few of the issues that have arisen. Everyone in the chamber agrees that we must ensure that, once someone has been sentenced to punishment, we do everything possible to attempt to rehabilitate them and give them positive options and choices in life. Every opportunity must be taken to support them to make the right decisions, although it should be recognised that there will be a few who, for whatever reason, will not or cannot make the right choice to improve their situation.

I have visited some of Scotland's prisons—admittedly, not Cornton Vale—and I have always found such visits to be informative, particularly with regard to how people struggle to cope with their new environment.

I will now touch on some areas of the report. Some of the statistics in the report regarding Cornton Vale are astonishing. The one that I would like to pick up on is the statistic that 98 per cent of inmates had drug addiction problems—a point that was also made by Angela Constance. However, it was interesting to read the evidence from Sue Brookes, the head of offender strategy and partnership development at the SPS, who stated:

"drug use will never be prevented absolutely, and it is a mistake to try to do so."—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 May 2009; c 1011.]

I recognise and understand, as did the committee, that certain security measures might not be suitable for use on all offenders, especially those who have a history of abuse. However, trying to prevent drug use absolutely would not be a mistake, and that should be the aim of the SPS. It is unacceptable that prisoners, regardless of their sex, have access to illegal drugs while in custody. The SPS must and should do everything possible to prevent drug use in prison.

The Scottish Conservatives have a zero tolerance approach to drug use in prison. No matter how long a prisoner is in custody for, it must be ensured that as much information and help as possible is provided to them to help them to get off drugs. Substance abuse is a long-standing issue and, in many cases, results in people being trapped in the revolving door to prison. People who want to get off drugs should be given help and encouragement to do so. Whether their sentence is six months or six years, it should make no difference.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that that raises the important question of the transition to freedom and the need for throughcare linkages to be more effective than they have been?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I accept that point and will deal with the issue shortly.

The report examines issues such as mental health, families outside prison and substance abuse, which I have already touched on. It is important to examine those areas and others if we are to understand why prisoners offend in the first place and what it is that needs to be done to prevent them from reoffending.

Although many prisoners get offered support in prison and have access to all sorts of courses and classes, it can be quite a different matter when they are released, as James Kelly pointed out. I have heard many stories about the difficulty that ex-prisoners face when they find themselves back in society trying to secure a job and a home and to create a new life. Often, it is easier to return to bad habits, especially if their friends and members of their family are themselves offenders or substance abusers.

It was interesting to read what the report said about throughcare, the importance of which we recognise. There is clearly a possibility for greater use of the voluntary sector in that area to ensure that needs are met. I also welcome the establishment of the reducing reoffending programme, and I look forward to hearing the cabinet secretary report back to Parliament on it.

I will finish on a point that some might find controversial. The statue of justice is a woman bearing a sword in her right hand and a set of scales in her left. In many depictions she is wearing a blindfold, which represents the belief that the law must be administered without fear or favour. If someone commits a crime and the sentencer believes that the only suitable disposal is a period of imprisonment, they should be allowed to pass that sentence regardless of the offender's wealth, rank, race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender.

There are many victims in our criminal justice system, and sometimes those who commit crimes are the victims of their own circumstances or situation in life. We have a duty to ensure that they have every opportunity to change their behaviour and that they are given the support to make the right choices.

We believe that in a lot of cases, a custodial sentence—even one of six months or less—is the only suitable disposal, especially as community sentence orders are continuously being breached. We note the report's recommendations, but if we do more to tackle rehabilitation in prison, and drug and alcohol addiction more widely, we will help female prisoners, male prisoners and wider society.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 4:36 pm, 11th February 2010

I welcome the debate and congratulate the Equal Opportunities Committee on the important job that it has done in producing its report.

As Elaine Smith mentioned, the Parliament has wrestled with the issue of female offenders over a long period of time. The Equal Opportunities Committee has always been an important forum for addressing such questions, particularly with regard to understanding that the justice system often treats women most unfairly and further victimises them, and the committee has debated those broader issues over the years.

The committee's report and today's debate highlight the need for us to pursue a gendered understanding of the justice system. We need to understand why women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic abuse and male violence, and we need to address our policy with regard to that understanding. It is a simple truth: if we do not ask why, we will not change behaviour and create circumstances in which we can eradicate domestic abuse, for example.

It is important to speak about women's experiences. We need to ask why women suffer disproportionately from mental health problems and end up in jail, and why their offending behaviour is remarkably different from that of men.

The minister referred to the issue of knife crime. Women are rarely the perpetrators of knife crime, but many women are mothers who will sleep easier at night if we address the problem of knife crime and the risk that it poses to our sons.

I would be grateful if the minister could confirm that he and his department will continue to take a gendered approach to the issue of male violence against women. As is the case with understanding why women end up in the situation that they do, the answer involves addressing the pattern and then eradicating it. That attitude explains why we on the Labour side of the chamber resist a mechanistic approach to sentencing, which the minister has advocated—as if the different needs of men and women could be captured by taking a blanket approach to sentencing.

The irony is that a sentence of six months or less might keep a woman who has been abused by a man safe from male violence. It should be recognised that short sentences can have a different impact for women victims of male violence from that which they might have for men.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

I have a hypothetical question. What would happen if a female was obliged under pressure to carry a knife or bladed weapon for her boyfriend? Would she be prosecuted under the mandatory sentence system?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

We have made it clear that that is appropriate, and we need a justice system that asks those questions.

I return to my point about sentences of six months or less. Ninety per cent of aggravated domestic abuse crimes do not attract a custodial sentence at all, and the remainder attract a sentence of less than six months. The respite that women get when men are sentenced, even if it is only for three or four months, can make a life-changing difference for them. Therefore, any sentencing policy cannot involve the type of blanket presumption that the minister makes.

The cabinet secretary referred to the period during which I was Deputy Minister for Justice. I was aware back then of the temptation in the Scottish Executive, as it was then, for departments to operate in silos. I urge the minister to ensure that his justice policies are shaped by an understanding of equality issues and by the views of the equality unit and the national group on violence against women.

We all recognise that women offenders often represent failures of systems to support women at an earlier stage in their lives. It is essential that local services understand women's needs. That is why I continue to press the Government to ensure that single outcome agreements are subject to equality impact assessment. If they are not, the problem of some services not meeting women's needs will be compounded. I was troubled when I read the following in the committee's report:

"Members of the Committee were deeply concerned to hear that some women deliberately commit offences purely to access the services provided in Cornton Vale prison."

How scary a comment is that, and how serious a comment on the lives of far too many women? It shows what their lives outside prison are like. We have to redouble our efforts to ensure they have access to services and to refuge, our efforts to tackle offenders, and our efforts to support those who face abuse.

We need certainty in funding. That is a challenge for the Government, as it would be for any other. However, it highlights the importance of considering the role that prisons play in supporting women. I understand why people say that prison cannot help everyone who goes in for short periods, but I do not accept the view that nothing can be done and that short sentences are therefore a failure. I refer the minister to the routes out of prison project, which is run by the Wise Group. James Kelly mentioned that. In that project, life coaches work with people while they are in prison—sometimes it is the first time that it has been possible to capture them—and provide a bridge out into the community. I urge the minister to provide that service for women prisoners as well, because such support is critically important to them.

Families Outside, the group that Robert Brown mentioned, is right to talk about the disruption to families and the shame that they experience. It is critical, then, that we ensure that there is sufficient funding for the voluntary organisations that people trust. Statutory organisations are often dangerous places for families in such circumstances. I also urge the minister to reflect on what we should be doing in schools to support young people. We need to understand the barriers to learning that can exist when children face such circumstances.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I must hurry you, I am afraid.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I finish on Elaine Smith's point that we have to consider the issue in relation to an equality perspective. It is about women's lives, their education and employment opportunities and their lives as young people. We need to fund services as much as making pronouncements on justice policy if we are to ensure that we address women offenders' needs.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We have no spare time available, so I must ask members to stick to the times that they have been given.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 4:42 pm, 11th February 2010

The debate has been remarkably consensual, which is rather unusual for a debate on justice policy. The tone was set by the convener's speech and indeed by the nature of the report—that was mentioned by the likes of Christina McKelvie. I do not wish to detract from that, because it is important that we recognise that there are underlying social problems that we have to address. Bill Aitken was correct to say that, in many instances, the problems of female prisoners are a microcosm of the problems in the prison system. That said, they are usually worsened, heightened or accentuated by a variety of factors, in terms of number, of nature or of external circumstances, be they children or otherwise.

I am grateful to Robert Brown for his comments about the performance of staff. Although Brigadier Monro made some challenging comments regarding Cornton Vale that will have to be addressed, there is uniform acceptance that the current staff work remarkably hard and do an excellent job with people who can be very demanding and difficult even if we have, in some circumstances, the utmost sympathy for them.

It would be remiss of me not to make some comments on the basis that we recognise that the SPS and the Government need to do more. We certainly accept that. Equally, it would be remiss of me if I did not make the point that more in means more to be done, which exacerbates the challenges. More prisoners means more prisons, and the many things that require funding cannot be magicked out of fresh air. If we want to do some of those things, we have to recognise that alleviating the pressure is the right thing to do, that mandatory sentences might not be appropriate, and that we should consider those on short sentences, unless they need to be there. Johann Lamont will be glad to know that I am a great supporter of Sheriff Raeburn and her right to send people to prison for periods of less than six months if she thinks that it is important to do that. That is why it remains.

The committee report and many speakers in the debate mentioned the benefit of the system that operates in the prison in Belfast. We agree that it is good, but on Monday 8 February 2010, the female population at Hydebank Wood, Belfast, was 36—21 convicted, 13 on remand and two immigration detainees. Last night, the population at Cornton Vale was 373. We also have a wing at HMP Gateside in Greenock that houses women prisoners. It is clear that things have to be done and that we have challenges to rise to. There are facilities in Cornton Vale for access for children, even if they are not ideal, on which Brigadier Monro has commented. However, there is a significant difference in how one can deal with the wants of female prisoners, especially those with children, when the prisoner population is one tenth of the population that we have here. Not only is the population in Cornton Vale 10 times that of Hydebank Wood, but we have another prison that takes female prisoners. We recognise the challenges, but others should recognise that unless we make some underlying changes, we may strive to do more, but we will not be able to do more, except at great cost.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Will the minister comment on the alternatives, such as 218, and how they will be rolled out, so that we can reduce the number of women in Cornton Vale prison?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

First, we must try to stop the numbers increasing. Many people, including Elaine Smith, acknowledge that the numbers keep rising. Dr Simpson may laugh, but the fact is that the numbers rose under his watch and they are rising under ours. Action has to be taken. The committee accepts that some change has to be made, because the system is not working.

We recognise the great benefit of the 218 centres, which are appropriate for cities such as Glasgow. There are funding constraints and such centres could not necessarily be replicated elsewhere. As I said, we are taking steps to ensure that we have facilities at HMP Aberdeen and HMP Inverness. That will come at a cost.

It will cost the Scottish Prison Service £300,000 to undertake improvements and provide staff for Inverness and Aberdeen. That is at a time when there are significant pressures on resources. I do not need to use the famous quote about how much we are being hammered by cuts from elsewhere. That is the money that we are putting in to try to deliver. If we want to make the changes, we have to provide the staff who are doing an excellent job with some room for manoeuvre.

It was recognised uniformly throughout the chamber that we have to rise to the significant challenge of mental health. Some people would be better treated elsewhere. That is why we recognise that we need to ensure that the prison health service is integrated with the national health service.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

In my time, we introduced the 218 centre, which was designed to do that. The number of fine defaulters in the women's prison has gone down by more than half, but the big problem is remand. What will the cabinet secretary do about that? That is not about sentencing or what happens beyond the court; it is about what happens before sentencing. The biggest rise in the prison population is among people on remand. That is what needs to be dealt with.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I regret that Dr Simpson, who was not present during the debate, came in simply to make excuses.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I would not have spoken if I had not been named.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

If Dr Simpson wants to tackle such matters, perhaps he should stick to his principles on alcohol, as opposed to going full circle on where he stands on minimum pricing. One of the major factors that is resulting in an increase in the number of women prisoners, and especially in remanded women prisoners, is alcohol abuse and the violence and disturbance that follow. There is such a thing as a ladette culture, as it is referred to on the television. One of the ways of tackling that is not to lock up these women for longer or to put them in for three weeks or less, but to tackle the availability of the cheap hooch that is fuelling so much disorder in our communities among the female population as well as among the male population.

I am conscious of the time, Presiding Officer.

We recognise the challenges that we have to rise to around mental health, and those around the particular needs and wants of women who are doing community payback. The problem is often lack of child care, rather than them not being capable of some of the work schemes.

The point to end on is one that Margaret Mitchell raised. Something is fundamentally wrong when we are incarcerating more and more prisoners, and we know that those prisoners who have children have an increased chance of seeing their children, too, coming into the system, generation after generation, under Dr Simpson's watch or under ours. It is time to change, and that is why we welcome the committee's report.

Photo of Marlyn Glen Marlyn Glen Labour 4:51 pm, 11th February 2010

I am pleased that we have had this debate on the Equal Opportunities Committee's report on female offenders in the criminal justice system, and I am particularly pleased that the topic of female offenders has moved up the political agenda. Members across the chamber seem to agree that action has to be taken to turn round the dismal picture that Robert Brown and others have painted.

I am, however, disappointed that the cabinet secretary chose not to concentrate on responding to the serious recommendations of the committee's report and broke the consensual note of the debate.

Real disappointment comes from the fact that we have been here before. As the convener and Elaine Smith said, this time we are coming at the issue from an equalities perspective. We still struggle with the stated aim of making justice gender neutral when the statistics, as rehearsed by members such as Mike Pringle and James Kelly, speak for themselves. As Johann Lamont explained, there needs to be a gendered approach—that is the point of the report. If we want equal outcomes, we have to have different inputs. Justice and the prison service have been built around and for men and they struggle to cope with gender differences. Being gender blind is not helpful.

The conclusions of "Women Offenders: A Safer Way", a Scottish Executive document from 1998, covered the same problems of drug abuse, fine defaulting, and the additional history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and yet the number of female prisoners keeps rising. The cabinet secretary made much of the increasing numbers when what we want to hear about is the actions that are being taken to decrease them.

We have, however, moved on and improvements have been made. One of the most significant of those was the opening of the 218 centre, which members have spoken about and praised. The 218 centre has an excellent reputation for providing services to women in the criminal justice system. The committee will be keen to see the results of the evaluation currently being undertaken on the centre, and to see such services being replicated across Scotland. The challenge now is whether more such far-reaching changes will follow all the work that has gone into the committee's report, the recent inspectorate report on Cornton Vale, and the on-going work that many stakeholders do.

The committee is pleased that the Scottish Prison Service's forthcoming strategy on women offenders, and the strategy on domestic abuse, will take account of the recommendations that have been made. We hope that those strategies are finalised as soon as possible, as the key will be in their implementation. To echo Hugh O'Donnell, we are keen to see a realistic but fixed timetable, and to monitor the delivery of those strategies.

The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill presents the Government with a golden opportunity to take action to prevent reoffending. The bill must be used to ensure that the needs and individual circumstances of female offenders are addressed. For example, we cannot shy away from re-examining the logic behind the Government's position on ex-offenders. There is agreement about a gendered analysis of violence against women, and that prostitution is part of the spectrum of violence against women. Money and a huge amount of effort are put into the essential work of promoting routes out of prostitution, but still women who are seeking traditional jobs in caring face the disadvantage of having to disclose convictions as if they were a danger to children and vulnerable adults solely because of a previous conviction for prostitution. The committee heard a plea from an ex-offender on that issue. I urge the Government to consider its position on that important point. If we are to maximise the work possibilities for ex-offenders, as the cabinet secretary has talked about, the issue cannot be ignored.

The Scottish Government's comments on the committee report focused on support for female offenders during community penalties, rather than support post sentence. However, it is of central importance in reducing reoffending that there is support on release from prison, too. The committee received evidence during its inquiry from the south-west Scotland community justice authority that, in its first year, a project there had helped to reduce breach rates from more than 30 per cent to about 14 per cent, which led to a corresponding reduction in the number of women going to prison. Although CJAs have a target of reducing reoffending by 2 per cent by 2011, the Scottish Government does not appear to have an overarching target. A more defined and rigorous target might help to focus and co-ordinate efforts. Money must be directed carefully.

I welcome the excellent comments that have been made on mental health. The committee report highlights the need for improvements to the provision of medical records. Courts should always have access to health information prior to sentencing and, as Malcolm Chisholm and others said, the information should be available to the prison when women are sentenced. The committee is keen to monitor the impact of transferring responsibility for health care in prisons to the NHS, as we believe that it will have a massively positive impact by joining up health care services with other prison services. For throughcare to be successful, women need consistent and trusting relations to be built with an outside worker before they are released. The services should be a continuation of what is provided in prison, rather than something distinct.

We heard important points about the rights of the child from the committee convener, Richard Baker, Bill Kidd and others. I hope that the cabinet secretary has listened to them. The Scottish Government's response to the report did not address directly the committee's recommendations on the need to put children's rights first. Children's right to visit their parent should not be withdrawn because the offender has failed a drugs test, for instance. That is punishing the child.

The Government stated in its response that the SPS does not have enough evidence to justify the introduction of speech and language therapy programmes at Cornton Vale. That has been disputed, but the point highlights a wider issue about the lack of information collection on female offenders and ex-offenders.

There has been an interesting debate on sentencing. The committee and I look forward to receiving the results of the research on that and the guidelines on sentencing of female offenders.

The Equal Opportunities Committee report has helped move on the debate on female offenders in the criminal justice system. I welcome the positive tone of the Scottish Government's written response. The Government seems to be moving in the right direction, but we must ensure that the forthcoming SPS strategy on women offenders is implemented robustly and timeously. The committee will continue to take an interest in the Scottish Government's progress. Let us ensure that, in the coming decade, the number of women prisoners stops increasing and that we do not have to repeat the debate again and again in the years to come.