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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:42 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 3:42 pm, 16th October 2012

We could go round in circles, but I shall repeat myself: the sentencing framework and guidelines are gender-neutral and everyone is equal before the law. The sentencer has an obligation to take into consideration all factors relating to the offence and to the offender. In our judicial system, if the sentencer failed to do so, we would have an unjust system.

We need to be careful when interpreting the statistics, many of which have been cited by my hon. Friend today. At a high level, for example, the figures show that 10% of male offenders and 3% of female offenders were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. The average custodial sentence length for males was longer than for females, at 15 months and 10 months, respectively. Equally, however, proportionally more males than females received sentences in 2011 for serious offences such as violent crime, sexual crime and robbery. There were also differences in the severity of offences committed within the groups. For example, 343 offenders were sentenced in 2011 for murder, but only 23 were female offenders.

The available statistics on aggravating factors suggest that a similar proportion of males and females sentenced to short custodial sentences are persistent offenders. In June 2011, around half of both men and women serving sentences of six months or less in prison had 15 or more previous convictions.

A number of mitigating factors are particularly associated with women offenders, including the high prevalence of mental health needs and child care responsibilities. Prisoner surveys tell us that more than a quarter of female prisoners reported having been treated for a mental health problem in the year before custody, compared with 16% of male prisoners.

Women are also more likely than male offenders to have child care responsibilities, and 60% of mothers with children under the age of 18 lived with those children prior to imprisonment, compared with around 45% of fathers. So there is a nuanced story behind the statistics, which reflects the fact that every offender, whether male or female, is a unique individual. Whether offenders are punished in custody or in the community, the Government are committed to ensuring that both men and women who offend are successfully rehabilitated.

For those offenders who are best dealt with out of court, we are piloting mental health and substance misuse liaison and diversion services in police custody and at courts by 2014. We are also developing intensive treatment options in the community for offenders with drug or mental health problems, including four women-only services in Wirral, Bristol, Birmingham and Tyneside.

In prisons, we are piloting drug recovery wings for short-sentence, drug and alcohol-dependent prisoners at three women’s prisons: HMPs New Hall, Askham Grange and Styal. We are also ensuring that courts have the right mix of punitive and rehabilitative requirements available when sentencing female offenders to community sentences. The National Offender Management Service is providing £3.78 million in this financial year to fund 31 women’s community services that can be used as part of, or in conjunction with community sentences. To protect the provision of services for women in these times of financial challenge, that funding will be embedded within the baseline for future probation trust settlements with a requirement that it results in enhanced services for women.

We have issued gender-specific standards in all areas of the prison regime, including training for staff working with women offenders in prisons, now extended to services provided in the outside community, and new search arrangements, ending routine full searches of women prisoners.

Seven mother and baby units in England and Wales provide an overall total capacity of 77 places for mothers, with capacity for up to 84 places for babies to allow for twins. Mother and baby units provide a calm and friendly place within prison for babies to live with their mothers. They enable the mother and child relationship to develop, thereby safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare.

In closing, I thank the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), as well as Jenny Chapman, for contributing to the debate. We can continue to improve how we tackle offending together only if we continue to address the wide range of factors associated with offending, whether the offenders are male or female. I welcome the constructive and knowledgeable contributions from all hon. Members this afternoon, as they have highlighted how important it is to continue to focus on responding to the specific circumstances of women offenders.