I am pleased to have drawn this debate on the day after the recommencement of the Fawcett commission on women and the criminal justice system, which I chair. The commission was re-launched by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary last night, and we also saw the launch of our new document "One Year On".
The first phase of the Fawcett commission was set up by the Fawcett Society as a result of concerns about the treatment of women in the criminal justice system. It is a system largely designed by men for men, and it continues to be a man's world. That is something about which it is possible to feel ambivalent, because at its root is the fact that 90 per cent. of all crime is committed by men, as is about 95 per cent. of all violent crime. It is reasonably well known that about the same percentage of senior judges are men.
I stand second to none in my admiration for the work that my hon. and learned Friend does in the House in this regard, but does she accept that there can be a gender bias against men in the courts, particularly in cases involving child custody?
Nor that there can be. In a small percentage of difficult cases, the parties can become polarised. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a new Bill on that very topic, and I am a member of the Committee that is scrutinising its drafting. I think that he will find some of our suggestions to improve it helpful.
I return to the criminal courts, and the treatment of women—the topic of the debate. It is not surprising, given the figures that I quoted, that women have been treated as an add-on, an after thought, an also-ran; they are tacked on to the end of the male system as if they had no distinct or separate needs. Indeed, that was the finding of the first phase of the Fawcett commission. In the year prior to March 2004, we gathered a great volume of our own evidence, and we also drew together existing research on adult women in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
We found a common theme, with systemic disadvantage being faced by women in the courts, whether as victims, offenders or as practitioners. To address that disadvantage, our primary recommendation was that public bodies should have a duty to promote gender equality, and we are delighted that the new Equality Bill contains provisions for exactly such a duty.
The diversity of agencies that work in the criminal justice system makes a firm argument for such a duty. The Prison Service, the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, the National Offender Management Service and a range of other services all come together to form the criminal justice system, and it is difficult for each organisation to ensure that it has no gender bias. It is imperative that they work together to end it. The Fawcett commission felt that the need for a gender duty was pointed up strongly by the criminal justice system.
Our findings were published in March 2004, and they received widespread attention both domestically and internationally. My right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, described it as
"a unique and invaluable contribution to the debate on the reform of criminal justice".
So far as we are aware, it is truly the first study undertaken in the United Kingdom on women and the criminal justice system.
The Fawcett Society lobbied the Government and the courts to make the necessary reforms, and we monitored progress on our recommendations. We then produced our report "One Year On". We had found systemic disadvantage, but that was in March 2004, when our money ran out, so all we could do was say, "Everything is terrible, but I'm afraid we have to leave the job now." Happily, we can now express our gratitude to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and to the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which have allowed us to continue for two further years. "One Year On" launches this new phase.
In our view, there are two key strategic challenges for the Government in connection with women and the criminal courts. First, there is an overwhelming need for a coherent and structured approach to addressing violence against women. Secondly, there is a similarly powerful need for all agencies to take responsibility for stopping the ongoing horror of self-inflicted deaths and injuries in women's prisons. These two areas are closely related.
Violence against women is an issue of fundamental human rights that includes, among other offences, rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking, domestic violence, forced marriage, crimes in the name of "honour" and female genital mutilation. These offences have a terrible impact on the lives of women and girls and are far more widespread than is commonly thought. The most recent British crime survey shows that almost half of women have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Violence against women also has a wide impact on society. Government research estimates that domestic violence alone—just one of the strands of violence against women that I have cited—costs the country £6 billion a year, rising to £23 billion if the human and emotional costs are taken into account.
Our report on victims and witnesses who are women in phase 1 of the commission highlighted the "post-code lottery" of services for victims. We have found in our review "One Year On" that provision is still pretty patchy. We are therefore throwing our weight, such as it is, behind the call from Amnesty International and the Women's National Commission for a comprehensive strategy cutting across all Departments to tackle violence against women.
We also need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between women's victimisation and their offending. Our courts categorise people as either victims or offenders, ignoring the considerable overlap between the two. Good research by the Fawcett gender and justice policy network shows that a disproportionately high number of women in prison have a history of suffering violence, abuse and victimisation. Those are features of people's lives that tend to lead to self-harm, too. It is a shocking fact that death and self-harm are a matter of routine in women's prisons. We are deeply concerned about the systemic failure to protect vulnerable women in the state's care. Since we reported in March 2004, there have been a further 12 self-inflicted deaths by women who were sent to prison by the courts. The Government committed themselves in the 2004 spending review to funding radical alternatives to custody for women offenders—that was the turn of phrase—which was a welcome move. However, the provision must be resourced properly if it is to be effective.
The third approach that we took to women, the criminal courts and the broader justice system was to consider their experience as workers in the criminal courts. We strongly believe that improving the treatment of women practitioners will lead to better treatment of women victims and offenders. Since we reported in 2004, it has been a difficult time for those in the prison and probation services, because of the changes taking place and the merger of what, even to the most casual observer, are the two completely conflicting cultures of the probation and prison services. However, we welcome the progress being made and Government proposals to set up the judicial appointments commission and to make reforms to the police service. We hope that both sets of proposals will help to improve diversity.
These are the general ways in which we considered the position in 2004. Specifically with regard to the courts, women's lack of representation at senior level in the judiciary was the most obvious thing that jumped out at us. The system of appointment varied across the judiciary, and still does. It is much more transparent and open in the lower parts of the system—for example, in the magistrates courts and tribunals—where the work force are consequently more diverse. The independent Commission for Judicial Appointments has found systemic bias against female and ethnic minority candidates in the appointment system, and the evidence that we collected suggested the same.
Our male-dominated criminal courts have affected the experience of women who come before them as victims, witnesses or defendants. We found—this is not new to insiders—that rape victims felt that they were the ones on trial, rather than the defendants, and they blamed the attitude of the judiciary in large part for that.
My hon. and learned Friend outlines the case comprehensively. Is not the judicial system disfigured by a pernicious stereotype of women? Where women are offenders, are they not doubly disadvantaged, because they are measured by whether they fall short of some idealistic expectation of good womanhood, as Helena Kennedy has said? Is that not a problem in the legal system?
I can perceive that it may be a problem in society more widely, but there is much in what my hon. Friend says. There has been a huge domination by males in the judiciary, and consequently there is a canteen culture that can confirm out-of-date stereotypes of women. That makes it difficult for those in the judiciary who, with the best will in the world, intend to be independent and neutral, to shed those biases when they come to do their work. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.
We found in our research that special measures to help vulnerable witnesses, introduced as long ago as under the Access to Justice Act 1999, were not being implemented properly in court. Those special measures are opportunities for vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence in a sheltered way, such as from behind a screen, by television link or, ultimately, on video; that way, they would not have to go into court at all. However, we found that these measures were not being implemented consistently, and that they were still regarded rather as measures for children, not adults.
We found also that lengthy court processes could lead to the withdrawal of vulnerable victims. As for domestic violence, lengthy court processes provided the opportunity for further violence and intimidation to occur. Domestic violence has the highest rate of repeat victimisation of all crime, at 50 per cent. Specialist domestic violence courts have been established to try to improve victim safety and ensure an integrated approach. I shall return to those specialist courts later.
In our research inquiries, we found widespread concern that the courts were becoming increasingly punitive against defendants, particularly women. In 2002, 12,650 women were sent to prison. Last year, the figure was about 500 more. The majority of those women are no risk to the public, and the single most common offence for which women are imprisoned is shoplifting. Almost 40 per cent. of women in prison had attempted suicide at some stage in their life prior to going to prison—a much higher figure than for men in prison and for the general female population. The growth in the female prison population has much outstripped the growth in the male prison population. On
The average sentence that the courts give a woman is 39 days. That is insufficient for any rehabilitative process to commence. It is insufficient for any courses to be gone on, or for women to address their offending in any way, and of course they are not required to do so; all that they are required to do on short sentences of that sort is cool their heels until they are released. It is, however, quite long enough for women to lose their homes, to lose their jobs, or to have their benefits disrupted for their children to require a different sort of care. Their lives, as I shall describe, are often chaotic in the first place, and are thrown into even deeper chaos by the time that they come out of prison.
Nothing is gained by short sentences, especially as two thirds of women who have been sentenced to prison for non-violent offences reoffend within two years. Short sentences do the women damage and, given the disruption to their children's lives, are bound to knock crime into the next generation. Nor do they do us any good, because they simply do not work.
In the course of our research, the Law Commission examined partial defences to murder, which is particularly relevant to women who kill a domestically abusive partner. They often go to court facing that charge with no appropriate defence available to them. They have not killed because they lost their self-control as a result of the provocative behaviour of their male adversary. Usually, they act in fear rather than in anger. If they have acted in self-defence but have gone too far, perhaps by stabbing—the most common form of domestic killing of an abuser is stabbing him, having run away from him into the kitchen and seizing a knife from the draining board—they are guilty of excessive self-defence, which carries a conviction for murder, not for manslaughter.
To be fair to the Court of Appeal, it has stretched case law in this area, through famous cases such as Sara Thornton and Emma Humphreys, until it has almost cracked, and it cannot cope with such cases much longer. There is an urgent need for the law to be reviewed.
Furthermore, although the Court of Appeal has stretched case law, which is to the benefit of women in the appalling position of having to strike back against an abuser who has often been violent to them for many years, these developments are not very well known. They are not, for instance, statutory. Given that the understanding of the relevance of domestic violence to the way women react in such situations is relatively new, we have a real fear that several women are in custody or have been convicted of murder who should not be in that position, and we are anxious to persuade the Government to assist us to review those cases.
One year on, is there a great deal of change in the courts, Mr. Cook?
Order. I would be remiss in the exercise of my duties if I did not ask hon. Members to bear in mind that in establishing this parallel Chamber, the House decided that the Chairman should be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker when the Chair is occupied by one of the four senior members of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen.
I cannot apologise enough. The fact that I am familiar with the Deputy Speaker day to day—not in the way that your facial expression suggests, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as he is my next door parliamentary neighbour but one—has lent me to be inappropriately over-familiar in my mode of address. I am sorry. I thought that I had done something absolutely terrible, and I have.
One year on, have things changed in the criminal courts? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little change in women's representation in the senior judiciary from a year ago. There are, of course, the one woman in the House of Lords, to whom we all cling as a sign of light at the end of the tunnel, two women in the Court of Appeal and 10 women in the High Court. A very pleasing development that we must make a point of noting is the appointment of Linda Dobbs, the first black and minority ethnic woman to be appointed to the High Court.
Despite changes to the system of appointing judges, which are already ticking over, the independent Commission for Judicial Appointments and our research still found cases in which comments had been made about women's dress sense or their marital status when their appropriateness for an appointment was being discussed. There is a deeply embedded cultural problem in the system, which will be hard to crack, but the Government's document welcomes increasing diversity in the judiciary. We make recommendations in our paper "One Year On" that are very similar to those made by the Government.
We would add that part-time work as a judge will be important in ensuring that women play a fuller role, and we hope that that will be given greater emphasis as the Commission for Judicial Appointments develops. Largely as a result of pressure from the commission, High Court judges, like circuit judges, now have to attend training on serious sexual offences before they can hear rape cases. Only two years ago, High Court judges had no training whatever on those offences, but in the last year, we have seen research on section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 about judicial attitudes. That section attempts to restrict occasions when previous sexual history can be given in rape trials to discredit the complainant, and research into its efficacy was carried out by the Criminal Bar Association; it was problem based and merits a good read.
Contrary to the research's conclusion that section 41 should never have been passed and has made no difference, it shows some very good thinking by a small number of judges about the relevance of previous sexual history. It shows that they have taken on the spirit of the section and that they require their own thinking to go through the hurdles and over the fences in order to prove a sexual history. They looked again at the measure's relevance and said, "I would have let that in before, and section 41 has made me think differently." The overwhelming bulk of judges do not think like that and the way they approach problems is, frankly, a disgrace in this modern time. I recommend anyone who takes an interest in the issue of women and criminal justice to read the research, by Neil Kibble, to understand the depth of cultural attitudes, and the extent to which they still prevail in our modern judicial system.
We have genuine worries about the calibre of judicial training because there is a problem persuading judges that there is a distinction to be drawn between their preserving their independence, which is imperative, and their need to understand complex modern issues such as domestic violence and rape. Any attempt to teach them modern attitudes to these offences which they can take into account in their judicial functioning is seen by them as an assault on their independence, which it should not be.
As to defendants, intermittent custody has started to be implemented since the commission first reported; we considered it in the new report and found problems for women. The pilot study showed that when and if it is rolled out, the fact that there are only 19 women's prisons, far fewer than there are men's prisons, means that women will be required to travel longer distances. There is evidence that it is extremely difficult and expensive for women to get to intermittent custody locations for the weekend. None the less, it is imperative that women, especially, should be given that opportunity so that they can keep their jobs and stay with their families for the rest of the week.
The Government will have to bite the bullet and pay the costs for women travelling to intermittent custody. If that is positive discrimination, it is based on the fact that women live further away from the prisons than men, that overall they are poorer than men and that many women who go into custody, intermittent or otherwise, have been convicted of crimes that are linked to poverty. It is a problem, and we invite the Government to consider it.
A single community order will replace all current community sentences in April, with the aim of allowing such a sentence to provide a tailored package for the individual needs of the offender. That will work for women only if the National Offender Management Service tailors community provision to be women-specific, of which it does very little now.
We were pleased that last night, in launching our report, the Home Secretary announced £9.1 million over the next four years for community provision for women offenders to replace custody. It is clear that the detail has not been fully realised, but we are pleased that for the first time, as we requested, attention and money are being given to women-specific sentences. That was the thrust of the report.
It is likely that poor mental health contributes significantly to women's involvement in crime. We have found that vulnerable women whose psychiatric condition is giving courts concern are often remanded in custody—put into that dangerous location—specifically to obtain psychiatric reports on their state of mind. That seems short-sighted and wrong. We believe that local psychiatric services and voluntary services have to be brought together with local courts to provide fast-track psychiatric assessment and appropriate community treatment packages. That should be done as a matter of urgency.
We make some specific recommendations in "One Year On", which I commend to the Minister. We are convinced that the gender, race and disability duty should apply to the new judicial appointments commission. I cannot see any reason why it should not. Could the Minister confirm that? We also recommend that the Sentencing Guidelines Council should take account of diversity issues, including gender, when it drafts guidelines on sentencing for the court, and that the Home Affairs Committee, which scrutinises its work, should likewise take account of diversity, including gender.
As the new public duty to promote gender equality will not apply to the judiciary—there is an express exclusion—can the Minister confirm that it will apply to the Sentencing Guidelines Council so that gender can be taken into account when the judiciary is sent guidelines? We think that where the defendant has caring responsibilities, they should not be remanded or sentenced to prison without a report on the impact of that incarceration on their dependants. We should like to see that become a rule of law. We think that where the defendant appears to the court to have mental health problems but does not justify admission to hospital, they should not be remanded or sentenced to prison without a medical report on the impact of incarceration on their mental health.
In view of the problem that we have raised about intermittent custody, we believe that it and the new community orders should be monitored carefully to ascertain their impact on women offenders and the impact on families. We support the call I mentioned, which was first raised by Justice for Women and Southall Black Sisters, that the cases of women currently in prison serving murder sentences for the killing of violent partners should be reviewed, because we have real fears that many of them are there wrongly.
I return quickly to the issue of specialist domestic violence courts. Research carried out by the Government shows that they are improving the treatment of victims, increasing effectiveness and promoting information sharing. We visited a very good example of a domestic violence court in west London. We wonder what is to happen to these courts. There have been five pilots—in west London, Derby, Leeds, Wolverhampton and Cardiff. The Leeds one is five years old. The Derby one is now 18 months old. They all differ but they are all grounded in some pretty straightforward principles.
The police identify cases at the earliest opportunity to ensure that they go to the special domestic violence court. In west London, it meets every Thursday. None of these centres meets every day. Overnight arrests and remands in custody are bailed or remanded again by the ordinary courts to the domestic violence court, once the offence has been identified. District judges are trained specifically in domestic violence. There is great reliance on professional district judges, as everyone seems to think that they are preferable to lay magistrates for these cases. They build up a body of experience and do not consequently have the sort of light attitudes to domestic violence that other judges, who are less well trained and less well versed in the complexity of these issues, may have. Yet these district judges are capable of being fair to defendants.
In addition, Crown Prosecution Service representatives are experienced and trained so they are particularly able to make early applications for special measures such as screens. Pre-trial reviews are held early to fix a trial date. They deal with all the issues, including child care and transporting the complainant to court, and trials are fixed within 28 days if possible. A specific case progression officer monitors all cases to spot and to try to iron out glitches causing unnecessary delay. The specialist court also has copies of any civil orders against a defendant in relation to domestic violence.
A domestic violence police officer is invariably available by the time of the trial, and they are always present whenever the complainant is. The witness services make special provision for the complainant to be brought into the building separately and looked after in every way. They facilitate a court familiarisation visit if she wants to get a sense of the surroundings before the court date, and the probation service is also available to help. In most cases, a system of domestic violence advocates, who are essentially befrienders from the voluntary sector, look after the interests of a domestic violence complainant from the start. In normal courts the notification of bail sometimes goes wrong, but in the special courts care is taken to send bail decisions and conditions to the complainant.
These are the principles according to which the courts operate, and they have led to much quicker hearings. That means that there is less opportunity for intimidation or for women who may be ambivalent about giving evidence against their partner to change their minds. The courts have also reduced the number of hearings, of which there are typically seven or eight in a normal court for the simplest domestic violence case, to 3.5 on average in west London, and a similar number elsewhere. That is obviously helpful, and the figures for repeat victimisation in the west London court, which were at the national average of 50 per cent., have dropped to 32.7 per cent.
What do the courts cost? According to the Government's own evaluation, not much, and I am sure that they have read the bottom line. The courts involve a remarshalling of existing resources rather than the provision of new ones. The evaluation of the five pilot specialist domestic violence courts expressed positive views about them and pointed to the improvements. However, that was in January 2004 and nothing has happened since. In our manifesto at the last general election, we said that we would consider the effectiveness of special domestic violence courts. Now that we have considered them, can we have a commitment to roll them out nationwide?
I return briefly to the Fawcett Society's theme of the two challenges facing the courts and the criminal justice system. They are the need for a coherent strategy on violence against women, and the need to stop vulnerable women, who are often victims of violence at an earlier stage, from going to prison where they deteriorate or from where they sometimes do not emerge. We urge the Government to consider those challenges as two sides of the same coin and to examine closely the courts' role in failing adequately to protect the first cohort in general and the second cohort by too readily sending them to prison. We invite the Government to rise to those challenges.
First, I congratulate Vera Baird both on securing the debate and on what she said. I also pay tribute to the commission on women and the criminal justice system, which the hon. and learned Lady so ably chaired on behalf of the Fawcett Society, which has made an extremely valuable contribution to the debate in many ways. I hope that she feels that that contribution has gone some way to informing the debate and moving it forward.
There has been a small but perceptible shift in attitudes over recent years. There is more understanding of the parameters of the debate, certainly in Government—I acknowledge the role that they have played—and, more widely, in the legal professions. There is a recognition of the need to take further action on these issues; what is disappointing is the glacial movement on many of them. The problems have been identified, but it has sometimes been more difficult to find the solutions.
I shall not repeat everything that the hon. and learned Lady said because that would be pointless, but I agree with the basic structure of what she has said today and in her reports. There are three broad areas in which women encounter the criminal justice system: as victims of crime or witnesses to it, as offenders and as workers within it. That is a useful framework in which to set one's comments.
I shall deal first with women as victims of crime. The hon. and learned Lady is right to identify the great concern about women who are subject to violent crimes, including domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. Although such matters are dealt with better than they were at one stage, they are still often not addressed coherently, and the performance of courts and investigating authorities throughout the country is patchy. The hon. and learned Lady rightly drew attention to the value of specialist courts such as the domestic violence courts dealing with this issue, and it is right that they do. However, most people do not have access to them; even if we rolled out the programme in the way that she suggests, it would still be a considerable time before women in my constituency, for instance, had the benefit of such a court. We need to see these courts as "beacons of excellence"—to use the Government's phrase—in the treatment of domestic violence, but we must not forget the need to examine the performance of other courts, including lower courts, on these issues.
The reports also bring out the fact that there is a huge disparity in police attitudes. Some police forces have gone a long way from where they were a few years ago in dealing with complaints of domestic violence and in investigating allegations of rape. Others, unfortunately, are still fairly antediluvian in their attitudes and seem not to have the mechanisms to provide for a successful intervention. We should recognise that the police service is still seen as a masculine domain. Going into a police station—if one can find a station that is open, which is unlikely in my constituency, although I know that there are stations that are open—is still intimidating for many people, but particularly for women. The likelihood that they will then face a male officer is a great concern. One hopes that he will not have preconceptions and prejudices, but it is perhaps more likely that prejudices will exist.
Having gone through the investigative process, we then have the court process. In many ways, that, too, is not very friendly. The Fawcett Society reports bring that out, and I do not propose to cover the same ground. However, there is a failure to recognise the particular difficulties that many women have in attending court when they are family carers, or to provide for them in any sensible way. I have often brought up the closure of small courts, which has an effect on victims and witnesses. It has a disproportionate effect on those who do not have their own transport and have family commitments of which they cannot easily divest themselves. They face a barrier if the nearest court is many miles away, and is not accessible by public transport. We need to address the fact that few courts take seriously the difficulties involved in providing child care facilities for those with younger children. Many of the support systems for victims of crime are still inadequate. The continuing follow-up, following the conviction of an assailant, is insufficient to provide the support that people need.
The numbers of women in our prisons have increased significantly, although they still represent a small proportion of the prison population. In 1993, there were 1,560, and in 2003, 4,461. As the hon. and learned Member for Redcar says, that is due largely to crimes not of violence but of acquisition, normally shoplifting. Many are serving short sentences, whose effectiveness in preventing recidivism is dubious. In their cases, it is clear that prison does not work.
The effect of prison on the individual and her family, however, can be considerable. There is a disproportionate propensity among women prisoners to self-harm and suicide. That should worry us. The innocent families of women who are sent to prison are hugely affected: they are subject to stigma and privation as a result of the women going away, and can find themselves in considerable difficulties as a result of the imprisonment. As there are few women's prisons, their geographical distribution is extremely skewed, so in many cases women are sent to prisons that are a long way from their families.
All that suggests that, first, the courts should more often use dispositions that do not involve a custodial sentence—they are more effective—and, secondly, early intervention is a more satisfactory answer for an offending female, so it should be resourced and used more effectively.
I must apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I was not speaking sufficiently in the direction of the microphone. It is unlikely that I was speaking quietly. I shall increase the volume a little, but I do not want to bellow.
Women prisoners also have a propensity to mental health problems. That suggests that mental health provision to women's prisons should be increased. It is certainly inadequate at the moment.
Taking all these factors together, it is demonstrable that short-term prison sentences are often not the answer to women's offending behaviour. Courts do not always—particularly in the cases of women from abroad—take into account the circumstances of offenders who find themselves under duress, and the effect of that on their behaviour. It worries me that there is a substantial population who have effectively been trafficked here, and who are required to commit offences. They are really the innocent victims, rather than the perpetrators, of criminal offences.
I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is probably wrong to criticise the courts about this, because if one goes to the average women's prison and ascertains the proportion of women who are there for drug importation-related offences, there is no point in criticising the judges for putting them there for sentence. If that is to be an area of criticism, it must lie with Parliament for having made absolutely clear that those sentences have to be imposed in tariff fashion.
That is a valuable intervention.
I turn now to women working within the criminal justice system. The hon. and learned Member for Redcar gave a clear exposition about the deficiency in numbers of women working in the criminal justice system. That is so in the case of judges, chief constables, chief probation officers and chief Crown prosecutors. In all those professions, there is a gross deficiency in the number of women represented at senior levels. In the case of the police, there has been a welcome advent of women chief officers, and there are now a few scattered around the country but, of course, not nearly enough to represent the population as a whole.
Women in the police say that there are still distinct institutionalised discriminatory processes within the service, despite the best endeavours of those who are trying to institute equal professional practices. There is still a distinct propensity to divert able women officers into particular specialisms, which often do not have the highest status, and therefore act as a bar to senior promotions. That is unfortunate because there should be no differential: some of the most effective police officers are women who have had the opportunity to use all of the specialisms available within their profession. That fact remains, and the situation is probably the same within the probation service, although the present financial constraints of that service mean that is difficult for all probation officers to meet the demands that are placed on them.
Within the legal profession, there is an extraordinary pyramid that has been illustrated time and again. The majority—59 per cent.—of law graduates are women, and 50 per cent. of lay magistrates are female. At the bottom end, as it were, there is no discrimination, yet that pyramid tapers towards the top end. There is, at long last, one female Law Lord, but no more than that, and there is a gross under-representation of women at the level of High Court judges and QCs within the Bar.
Underpinning that taper is a pay differential, which has still not been satisfactorily explained to me, both within the solicitors' profession and the Bar. There is also a wastage of able women at the level of pre-partnership in solicitors' firms, and a similar wastage at the Bar: some women face difficulties in reaching the level of silk. Only 8 per cent. of QCs are women, yet the hon. and learned Lady is a very fine advertisement of the value of women QCs.
I know that such matters are being addressed in rhetorical terms, if nothing else. I hope that the new judicial appointments commission will do much better. However, it seems abundantly clear that until we achieve a degree of parity in the legal profession, we will have a one-sided, one-gendered profession that will not serve the country as well as it might.
I look forward also to the first woman Lord Chancellor. Now that there is no bar, as the result of the passing of legislation in another place, there is no obstacle in the way of the hon. and learned Lady as the first woman Lord Chancellor. I look forward to her undertaking that role in the near future. But there we are: even in the House we have difficulties recognising the fact that there should be equality of treatment in the legal profession at the senior level. The Equality Bill, so ably championed by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will do some good in that respect, as the hon. and learned Lady said. However, despite the improvements in recent years, there is a still a long way to go.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I suspect that I shall give the Minister ample time to respond, and I am sorry that there has not been more participation. I welcome this opportunity and congratulate Vera Baird on securing the debate. I was aware of the Fawcett commission's work; indeed, my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan was involved in it prior to taking her place on the Front Bench, and I know that she found it particularly valuable. I certainly found the conclusions interesting and useful.
The issues that the hon. and learned Lady highlighted—which I am delighted to hear will be considered further in work by the commission—are absolutely the right ones. Women confront a series of problems in the criminal justice system, whether as victims, defendants or participants—I adopt the same model as Mr. Heath—that need to be addressed.
It is sensible to start with women as victims. One of the problems with the debate is that it is difficult to know the extent to which the much-needed reforms introduced by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 will work in practice. That legislation may provide compelling improvements in the way that women are treated as victims in the criminal justice system.
I certainly acknowledge, from personal experience, that the courts can be a difficult and hostile environment for victims at the best of times. That is particularly so if the offences of which the victim comes to give evidence have major emotional and physiological content. In truth, that is often so in the sorts of case about which the hon. and learned Lady talked. I do not think that that is necessarily a gender issue, and in some cases the problem applies to men who come to give evidence. However, in the order of things, it is women who are principally put in that position.
The lack of facilities in court for people to be found a place to sit before giving evidence, the delays that are inherent in the criminal justice system—all practitioners and judges try to eradicate those delays, but they continue to plague us—and the difficult task of balancing the right of the defendant and his representatives to cross-examine with the right of the victim to be protected from intrusive questioning are all difficult matters. My experience is that much can done without any statutory change at all, simply when people are much more sensitive to the underlying issues. There I agree with the hon. and learned Lady.
It is unfortunate, but although we often see wonderful examples of good practice in court that create an atmosphere in which justice can be done and the victims can feel that they have been treated properly, we are still confronted by plenty of examples where that does not seem to happen. That seems to be due to ignorance, although on some occasions it is possibly due to prejudice. However, I suspect that ignorance underlies it, which raises issues about judicial training, and potentially the question of providing continuing training for advocates in areas that are slightly removed from advocacy but that relate to proper conduct in such cases. There are some fertile areas for exploration in relation to these topics.
As the hon. and learned Lady knows, in the domestic violence legislation we have provided for some changes in the law in practice in court. It is too early to say how that will work out. However, these are positive steps and we welcome them. The Government were right to take them, and I hope that they produce some benefits.
The second area about which I wish to speak is that of women as defendants. The hon. and learned Lady put forward an astonishing statistic about the average period of imprisonment that women undergo. I believe that there is universal agreement that very short sentences are entirely useless—whether for women or men—so that statistic raises serious issues as to why that average stands as it does. However, an average is an average; it would be necessary to examine carefully how it is working out in practice.
As I said, there is a universal view that short sentences—under 12 months spent in custody—allow for no opportunities of constructive rehabilitation and training. What, therefore, is going on? I suspect that what is happening—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome highlighted—is that, as a consequence of societal changes, the number of women going through the criminal justice system has been increasing. Although it may be true that the majority of these women are being imprisoned for shoplifting offences—I suspect that that must be for persistent repeat offences, because it is unlikely that someone would be imprisoned for a first time offence of that nature—there has also undoubtedly been an increase in the involvement of women in violent offences. I suspect that that increase has taken the criminal justice system largely by surprise, and that it has been unable to respond adequately—people have been flapping around searching for a solution.
The hon. and learned Lady rightly highlighted the fact that in some instances one cannot distinguish between victim and criminal. In many cases—this applies to men as well—people who are victims of crime are also perpetrators of crime. However, in the context of violent crime, I have no doubt that that correlation exists in relation to women. Indeed, one of the reasons why more women may be involved in violent crime in general—such as girl teenage gangs on the street—may be that there is a greater incidence of violence against them. We do not know. The Fawcett commission may be interested in examining that area, because it is certainly an area of societal change. It may reflect a greater sense of empowerment in women generally, so that they stray into more male areas. It is a worrying phenomenon, and I suspect that the courts are unable to cope with it and do not know what to do about it.
We always assumed in the Fawcett commission that although we were studying women, and expected to find that they were at the sharp end of features of the criminal justice system, our findings would have application to men as well. We hope that some of our recommendations will play out in the area of male involvement.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for reminding me of that—I had temporarily forgotten it. I well remember the circumstances in which my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham started to work on the commission. I know that she was delighted to participate in that work.
In relation to women as defendants, there is also the question of prisons. The truth—I think that it applies to the custodial system generally—is that the variability is astonishing. I know that the commission visited Holloway. I remember discussing it with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham, who was horrified by the conditions there. Against that, not so long ago I visited Send prison near Guildford, and I was impressed—although I am always hesitant when talking about the prison system, because changes seem to happen in it very quickly. There were opportunities for drug rehabilitation at Send. In excess of 50 per cent. of its inmates were foreigners, most of whom were serving prolonged sentences for offences linked to drug importation, but despite having to cope with that situation, it provided a humane regime for the women incarcerated there; there was a great deal of hope in the atmosphere. The trouble is that such examples are all too rare.
The link between self-harm in women and imprisonment, and the problems associated with women's prisons generally, as well as the fact that many women prisoners have serious mental health problems—that applies to male prisoners, too—are important issues. It is also the case that many women who commit offences that bring them to public notice, as opposed to merely the notice of the courts, experience degrees of demonisation that are often unjustified, and that they experience them because they are women. That is a societal problem with which we have great difficulty in grappling. Given all those circumstances, I am unsurprised that mental health problems are prominent.
The hon. and learned Member for Redcar highlighted the fact that considerable progress has been made with regard to practitioners in the system, including Law Lords, members of the Court of Appeal, and High Court judges. The criminal justice system often operates at a lower level than that, and it is now unusual to find a court where there is not a female Crown court judge sitting, along with other colleagues.
However, there are serious problems in the recruitment of women to the judiciary, and they are rather more complicated than has sometimes been acknowledged. In recent years, there has been a tendency to look at career structure, and to identify as the key obstacle the desire of many women to take a period off work in which to have children, but I am coming to the conclusion that that is not the real problem. The real problems were highlighted in a recent meeting of the all-party group on the Bar that I attended. The first is the number of women who are deterred at an early stage from pursuing careers in advocacy or the solicitor profession. Recruitment statistics suggest that there is a large input of women, but many leave the profession within three or four years of starting in practice. Secondly, what has always been underestimated is that the problem for women who take time off to have children is not that period itself, but the period when they have returned to work—as my wife, who is a barrister who has returned to full-time practice after having had children, points out to me. That is potentially the busiest time of their careers, and it is when judgments are likely to be made about whether they are suitable for appointment to the judiciary, if that is their chosen career option. It is the time when the ambition of many women filters away; they do not put themselves forward for promotion when plenty of them are worthy of being appointed.
These are complicated issues, and I very much hope that the judicial appointments commission will address them. We have welcomed its creation, and I hope some changes will flow from it. We must encourage—subject, of course, to the overriding consideration of merit—a wide pool of talent, and we must ensure that women are represented throughout the criminal justice system. That is essential; it applies not only to advocates and judges, but, as the hon. and learned Lady said, at every level, whether that be the police or the National Offender Management Service. We all know that in those areas, particularly in the police, there has often been a culture that many women may not find congenial in terms of participation. There are some big issues to address.
In conclusion, I welcome what the hon. and learned Lady has said. I am particularly pleased to hear that there will be an opportunity for the commission to do further work; I did not know that. I congratulate her on securing the debate and on putting her points forward, and I look forward to hearing the Government's response from the Minister.
First, I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird on her contribution in steering the Fawcett Society's commission on women and the criminal justice system, which covers such vast ground that it has been useful to have a proper, quality, in-depth look at its results and conclusions, and to hear such a warm welcome for many of its findings.
I want us to pay tribute to the commission's work, but I do not want to give warm words of welcome only; I want to consider what action might be taken in several areas. We know that reform in the criminal justice system can be fairly gradual and slow, but good steps forward are being taken. However, there is still a long way to go toward an equal and fair justice system for all that is more sensitive to the needs of certain groups of society, particularly women—the largest group in society. It is important to set that work in the wider context of what the Government are doing on women's policy in general. We want to ensure that there is an improvement in gender equality in all areas of policy and work, and we must keep at the forefront of our minds the basic principle that all people must be equal in the eyes of the law and that we must therefore have fair approaches to achieve equal opportunities.
My hon. and learned Friend talked about the positive duty being put into the Equality Bill to give the promotion of gender equality a statutory footing much the same as the existing duty on race equality. That will go a long way toward delivering some of the more general aspirations of the commission's recommendations on duties on public bodies. We need to work out the implications for each public body, particularly those in the criminal justice service. I would like to consider them one by one and write to my hon. and learned Friend about progress on that, and about how the measure will apply to the Sentencing Guidelines Council and other bodies. That is an important issue: how in generality we can say these things, and how they will work out in practice.
We should always remember the difficulty that the criminal justice system has had in dealing with domestic violence. Of course, that crime affects both men and women, but women are disproportionately afflicted as victims. Everybody has the right to feel free from crime and to feel that when a crime takes place it will be dealt with justly by the criminal justice system. We must make significant changes regarding domestic violence, particularly to aid women who have been victims; there are major steps that we can take.
We need to be much more determined to tackle the issue; the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 is the biggest overhaul of domestic violence legislation for at least 30 years, and is a crucial part of our wider strategy to prevent domestic violence by protecting and supporting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. The Act ensures that both civil and criminal law offer the maximum protection to all victims to stop violence recurring and to bring offenders to justice. The Act is clear and straightforward and will significantly aid women. For example, it makes breaches of non-molestation orders a criminal offence, so that the police have clearer powers of arrest when attending incidents, and will extend the eligibility of non-molestation and occupation orders so that victims can make an application for protection even when couples have never married or lived together.
We need to make it more widely known that common assault is an arrestable offence, to ensure that police can get perpetrators away from the scene of a crime so that violence does not escalate. In the courts, we need to ensure when sentencing that restraining orders can be imposed for any offence, so that victims can have immediate protection and will not need to make a separate application to the civil courts, as used to be the case. Cases would be held in a criminal court without the restriction order, and people would not have to be accompanied over the road or to another side of town to the county court to get the restraining order in place.
We need also to enable courts to impose restraining orders on acquittal for any offence, if they consider it necessary to protect the victim. Again, that will mean that victims will get more immediate protection without the need for a separate application to a different court. These are specific and detailed but important changes to the law that start to shift the balance in domestic violence, and will make an appreciable difference to many women who are the victims of domestic violence crimes.
There are other measures, too. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the specialist domestic violence courts, which the Fawcett Society's commission has been keen to see not only properly evaluated but rolled out more across the country. That initiative has so far seen seven specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales, which are being evaluated. The term refers not necessarily to a free-standing building or a particular jurisdiction, but rather to a better and more tailored specialist way of dealing with domestic violence cases in the magistrates courts. Common features include the better identification or flagging-up of cases to facilitate clustering or fast-tracking them through the system, the pre-trial hearing aspect mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend—the use of that opportunity for pre-trial reviews for better progression on the case—and better multi-agency working between the different public sector bodies that can help to find solutions.
The key to the successful operation of specialist domestic violence courts is the availability of good advocacy or a support worker who can help a victim to navigate their way through what can sometimes be a complicated spaghetti of statutory and voluntary support, to make it clear and help them to walk though the process. We have evaluated that and have found that the specialist courts enable the development of best practice and can improve victim satisfaction and inter-agency co-operation, as well as increased public confidence in the area in which they are based, and reduce the number of cases that do not need to proceed to a hearing. It has also been evident that some of the specialist domestic violence courts often result in more community sentence punishments, which are more rehabilitative than the custodial approach.
We are convinced of the benefits of specialist domestic violence courts coupled with dedicated support for the victim. I am pleased to be able to say that earlier this month, in conjunction with the Home Office, an extra £1 million has been announced for next year to develop more specialist courts, supported by the advocates. We hope to have 25 such dedicated domestic violence courts by the end of 2006—a step in the right direction. We all want to see more done at a quicker pace, but the investment in public services really makes a difference. It is a classic example of where money and resources can benefit our criminal justice system.
We want to develop the first integrated domestic violence court where the criminal and family aspects of cases are dealt with in one court, and we want to pilot that by the end of the year. That will be an innovation in the way that our justice system works. In addition, we refer sentencing issues in domestic violence cases to the Sentencing Advisory Panel, working with the Home Office, to develop a register of civil orders so that the courts and the police will know about previous non-molestation and occupation orders.
Good progress on domestic violence has been made across the board, but more work still needs to be done. I want to continue to work with the Fawcett Society and my hon. and learned Friend in developing policy. Women are concerned about the effect of domestic violence on children and it is important to recognise that all too often children can be victims of domestic violence, as a result of witnessing crimes. We have tried our best to introduce changes and improvements so that better consideration is given to a child's needs under the criminal justice system. I cannot refer to all the matters that we are focusing on, but I wanted to highlight that aspect.
My hon. and learned Friend categorised the experience of women in the criminal justice system by referring to their work as practitioners or in the judiciary as defendants or offenders, and as victims and witnesses. Historically, women have faced barriers to justice, but recently changes have been made to the rules and procedures of courts to bring about improvements. For example, women are routinely cross-examined less frequently now about their previous sexual history in sexual offence cases because of changes introduced under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. There is still some way to go, but that was a positive change in the law.
Given the special nature of sexual offences and sensitive evidence, victims of sexual offences are automatically eligible for special measures. In other words, the protection that is provided for the victim or witness makes it a little more palatable for them to participate in the court process. That applies to younger witnesses, too.
The Minister has hit on a topic that adds force to my argument that a holistic approach should be taken towards violence against women. He is right: special measures are available automatically to a victim of sexual abuse, but not to a victim of physical, domestic abuse. Such measures must be applied for and are ordered only at the court's discretion. People at the CPS are experts in such cases and they make applications early to specialist domestic violence courts so that women can be assured of protection. However, outside that, when women are close to the hearing, they do not know whether they will receive protection. In itself, that is obviously a deterrent to their sticking with the case, and it is a prime example of when we must consider domestic violence across the board and reconcile the two different approaches.
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. The application of special measures is a rapidly developing area of public policy. We have been discussing it in respect of a wider number of cases, including antisocial behaviour cases, when people often need to be encouraged to come forward to give evidence. We must bear in mind the wider principles of public justice being carried out in a public forum, but more can be done more quickly. I ask her to watch this space for announcements on such matters.
I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Lady and I am interested to hear the Minister speak in agreement. I tabled amendments to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, as it then was, in the terms set out by the hon. and learned Lady, but they were rejected by the Government. If there has been a change of heart, I welcome it.
I want to study carefully the recommendations that are being made and ensure that we can find a way to reconcile them with some of the other principles of justice. There has been a shift of culture within the criminal justice system generally and a wider acceptance of the benefits that special measures can sometimes bring to the justice system, such as screens for witnesses and better assistance for them in the court room.
The Office for Criminal Justice Reform has been working on a victims and witness delivery plan. It was published some weeks ago and provides better directions to local criminal justice boards on how to improve services. It sets out seven national priorities to cover minimum standards for victims and witnesses, and principles with which both sides of the House will agree. The substantially resourced and funded initiative known as "No Witness, No Justice" has also begun to change the culture of the criminal justice system, as different Departments that do not necessarily talk to one another are joining things together to ensure that, from the point of reporting a crime through the court process, going to prosecution and ensuring that a good case is put in the court, witnesses are navigated and helped through the system. That is valuable and to be welcomed.
I would not want to neglect some of the good that we in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are doing, even in our little corner of the system. For instance, our target is to install video links in 75 per cent. of magistrates courthouses by 2006, and we are ahead of schedule in that roll-out. There will be separate waiting areas: that may seem basic and obvious, but it is vital so that a witness does not necessarily have to sit next to the defendant before going into court. It can be an intimidating process and it is amazing that witnesses sometimes have to do that. We are aiming to cover all magistrates courts by 2008, and we are on target for all Crown courts too. Witness liaison officers are being appointed in magistrates courts to be a more welcoming presence at the entrance to the court. A number of these changes are very positive, but more needs to be done, and we must keep our foot on the accelerator.
The other aspect of my hon. and learned Friend's comments, based on the Fawcett Society's report, covered women working within the criminal justice system. Women have historically experienced under-representation, not just in the judiciary but as practitioners in general. Although it is not now true in the magistracy, where about half of magistrates are women, it is regrettably still true in the professional judiciary, where women make up just 23 per cent. of district judges in magistrates courts, 10 per cent. of circuit judges, 10 per cent. of High Court judges, 5.5 per cent. of Court of Appeal judges, and just one of 12 Law Lords. There have been notable changes in recent months, but much more can be done.
I do not have too much time to go into the improvements that can be made. However, at the Women Lawyers Forum held on
Turning to the Court Service itself, more than 66 per cent. of staff are women, and 43.6 per cent. are in higher management grades. Although only 28 per cent. are senior civil servants, we recognise that it is not just at the level of the players in the courts themselves, but at that of those who support and administer the courts, where better equality is needed. We are doing our bit there too. The Bar Council has published figures showing that 44 per cent. of barristers in employed practise are women, and that 48 per cent. of barristers in self-employed tenancies are women. There is a general shift but, as Mr. Grieve said, the question is what we can do to break through that ceiling and ensure that women have the opportunity to progress to senior level. We need to work much harder to ascertain what those factors are and to tackle them one by one. We must not let these obstacles arise.
There has been a universal welcome for the creation of a judicial appointments commission that is independent and much more transparent in how it appoints the judiciary, and we hope that it will be established around this time next year—on
We will undertake all judicial office appointments from
Of course, the overriding criterion for appointment is merit, and we would not want to depart from that. I was glad that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs recommended that the Bill be amended to ensure that the judicial appointments commission have a statutory duty to seek to increase the diversity of those applying for judicial posts, subject to that criterion of merit. Improvements have been made, but there is more that we can do. I look forward to the work of the judicial appointments commission.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar also talked about the experience of women in the criminal justice system as offenders. She particularly noted that female victims of crime can also be offenders, and that offenders can be victims. Sadly, there can be a cycle, and we often find the same people in the criminal justice system on either side of a case.
I note in particular what my hon. and learned Friend says about prison policy. That is not a direct part of my portfolio in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but we take particularly seriously issues such as the experience of prison life and the stresses and burdens that it can create. I am particularly worried about the propensity for suicide and self-harm in prisons. We need to do much more work on suicide prevention, and need to focus on women, among whom the preponderance of suicides in prison is much greater.
We are also pleased that the Fawcett commission has broadly supported the women's offending reduction programme, which aims to tackle the factors that affect the reasons why women offend in the first place and to reduce the number of women who end up in custody by ensuring that community-based services and interventions are tailored better to meet women's needs.
Some of the approaches from the beginning to the end of the criminal justice system can be improved to make us more sensitive to the issues that affect women and to their different experiences in the system as victims, witnesses, defendants and offenders, and as practitioners in the judiciary.
We want to ensure that we aim at all times for a justice system that is fair and balanced for all. That must be our objective. It is good news that the Fawcett Society has secured extra funding to continue its work. The Home Secretary helped to relaunch the "One Year On" study, and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will continue in her work to keep pushing public policy makers to ensure that we attend to these issues as regularly and as routinely as possible.