Sentencing (Female Offenders) — [Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:30 pm, 16th October 2012

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and I congratulate Philip Davies on securing it. It is useful for debates to be formed on the basis of fact, and I think that we will all go away and have another look at some of the statistics. However, I do not think that we will all necessarily jump to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman.

I take exception to the charge of inappropriate political correctness and hysteria on my part and on the part of the Minister. We are trying to devise a criminal justice system that is sensible, just, effective and helps to reduce reoffending and the number of victims. I think that that is something that we all share, and we are trying to do it within a very tight budget. In the past, I have agreed with the hon. Member for Shipley on issues such as indeterminate sentencing. It is slightly rich for him then to say that we are all getting a bit woolly-headed and soft. We are not; we are trying to deal with these issues sensibly.

If we take a look at what we know about women in the criminal justice system, the first thing that we see is that there are far fewer of them than there are male offenders. As the hon. Gentleman said, women make up only 5% of the prison population. However, being a minority has meant that in the past they have not been served as appropriately as the male population. For example, as well as committing less crime, the female population tends to commit different types of offences. Importantly, they are less likely to commit violent crime. Conversely, we know that they are more likely than their male counterparts to be given a custodial sentence for their first offence. We will all go away and frantically try to check that out. Their most common offence appears to be theft, particularly shoplifting. Once there, women experience prison differently from men. Despite inhabiting only 5% of our cell spaces, female offenders account for nearly 50% of all incidents of self-harm that happen inside prison walls. The majority of women in prison are serving short sentences of six months or less. Once out, the majority of them reoffend and are back within one year. Clearly, something is not working.