It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend Philip Davies on securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the steps that justice agencies are taking to address women’s offending. Before doing so, I want to set out two important parts of the wider context on female offenders: to explain how our current sentencing framework deals with gender and to show how important it is to look carefully at the evidence on how women are sentenced by the courts.
To begin with, therefore, it is important to be clear about how our sentencing framework is gender-neutral: everyone is absolutely equal before the law. The same criminal offences and maximum penalties apply to every case, regardless of the offender’s gender. Alongside that, however, we also need to remember that every offender who is brought before the courts is unique. A long-standing principle of our justice system is that courts should consider the full circumstances, not only of the offence but of the offender, when sentencing. A sentencing framework that did not allow courts to take into account individual circumstances would not be a just one.
In many cases, an offender’s personal characteristics, such as previous convictions, failure to comply with earlier court orders or abusing a position of trust, can all be treated as aggravating factors when sentencing. Other personal characteristics, however, may provide mitigation. Previous good character, age, physical or mental health and caring responsibilities are all factors that courts can take into account when deciding the appropriate sentence.
All such factors may apply to both male and female offenders. For example, that an offender is a primary carer for dependent relatives is the important fact for the court, not whether the offender is the mother or the father. Probation pre-sentence reports give courts the detailed assessments that they need to make informed judgments about the factors that they should take into account.
I should make it clear that courts need to weigh mitigating factors against the others circumstances. For example, although it is recognised that parental imprisonment can have considerable effect on the lives of children, caring responsibilities will not necessarily mean that an offender will be spared prison. The overriding aim of the courts will always be to impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offence and that is proportionate to the culpability of the offender and the harm caused.
We need to bear in mind all such issues when looking at the sentences imposed on male and female offenders. Differences in the type and severity of sentence given to men and women may be attributable to a wide range of factors, such as the type and gravity of offence committed and the individual’s previous offending history.