I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the recall of women to prisons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. During my time as MP for Swansea East, I have engaged with many women in the criminal justice system by visiting prisons up and down the country and mother-and-baby units in them, and it has always been made clear to me that the reasons why women are in the criminal justice system are multifaceted and complex.
The Prison Reform Trust’s report “Broken Trust: The rising numbers of women recalled to prison” illustrates the fact that the reasons for that are also multifaceted and complex, and the number of women being recalled is rising quickly. Of course, it is right that women are recalled to prison in some instances—if they are at imminent risk of causing harm to the public or of reoffending, for example—but this debate is not about that; it is about the huge increase in the number of women being recalled to prison and whether that increase is helping women to break their cycle of criminality and creating safer communities and opportunities for the women themselves.
The “Broken Trust” report points to a number of reasons for the steep rise in the number of women being recalled. I will cover those in more detail later. I think that it will be useful now to make clear the current situation regarding the recall of women to prison. An individual can be recalled to prison if they have served a sentence of more than a day. A probation officer will normally initiate the recall. About 3,800 women are currently in prison in the UK—we have one of the highest female imprisonment rates in western Europe. The female offender strategy states that about nine in 10 women in prison on remand or serving 12 months or less pose a low or medium risk of serious harm to the public. In the year ending September 2018, there were 1,846 recalls of women to custody while on licence.
One significant contributory factor in the steep rise in the number of such recalls is the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014—affectionately known as the ORA. It introduced a provision whereby everyone sentenced to a day or more in prison would be supervised by probation services on their release. Before the ORA, those sentenced to a term of imprisonment of less than 12 months were not supervised on release. In 2017, 72% of women sentenced to custody were sentenced to six months or less, compared with 56% of men. That demonstrates how the change brought in under the ORA disproportionately affects women. As the “Broken Trust” report states, on page 3:
“From the moment it was announced that post-custody supervision would be extended to people sentenced to less than 12 months, two things were obvious: this would result in the imprisonment of large numbers of people;
and the impact would fall disproportionately upon women.”
Reforms that are meant to be supporting individuals are having the opposite effect and keeping them trapped in cycles of the criminal justice system, rather than allowing them to take positive steps in their lives. That is a direct result of the changes brought about under a previous Secretary of State for Justice. Previously, anyone sentenced to a short period in prison served their term and on release that was it. Putting in place a year of additional supervision—in addition to the prison term—with recalls if people fail to comply, is largely responsible for the huge increase in recalls.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the powerful case she is making. Does she agree that the lack of housing available to women after leaving prison contributes to their vulnerability?
I most certainly do, and I am just coming on to housing, so I thank my hon. Friend for his astute intervention.
The report from the Prison Reform Trust makes it clear that there is a lack of services available to women on leaving prison, which contributes to their being recalled. A lack of secure housing for women when they leave prison is a significant factor leading to the recall of female offenders. Of the 24 women interviewed for the report, 22 said that they required help with housing on leaving prison.
If women leave prison and do not successfully secure somewhere to live, they are more likely to be recalled to prison. The female offender strategy highlights that from April to December 2017, 39% of women allocated to community rehabilitation companies and the national probation service were released into unsettled accommodation, with 18% released into homelessness. That not only puts women in a dangerous and vulnerable situation, but directly leads to them being recalled to prison. “Broken Trust” cites the example of a female offender released from prison without secure accommodation to go to, only to be recalled for breach of an antisocial behaviour order because she slept in a park. She was then released homeless for a second time.
How do we expect women to take positive steps to rebuild their lives after leaving prison if they are not given adequate support services such as secure housing? The relentless cuts made to local authorities by the Tory Government have resulted in a dangerous lack of housing for such women. Furthermore, without a secure home, women will find it more difficult to engage successfully with employment opportunities or maintain a healthy lifestyle. With 60% of female prisoners not having a home to go to on release, we know that is a real issue when they leave prison.
Data secured under a freedom of information request made by The Guardian demonstrates that between October 2016 and June 2018 there was a 25-fold increase in rough sleeping in England and Wales among those who have served sentences of less than six months. It is an absolute scandal that women are released home- less anyway, but even if a woman is found secure accommodation, it must be suitable and provide a safe environment in order to help her rebuild her life. Otherwise, female prisoners are likely to return to the potentially toxic settings that led to their arrest in the first place, such as environments with negative influences, including being surrounded by drugs and alcohol, which often leads them to a breach of their licence conditions and recall to prison. Using drugs is one of the six categories that the National Probation Service data present for recall of an individual to prison. In the “Broken Trust” report, an interviewee shared her experience of becoming homeless once she was released from prison:
“By the third night of my release, I was street homeless. My using got worse, I fell off my script even quicker this time. My life was just chaotic. I was doing whatever I could to survive.”
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Justice said in a speech that, as part of the Government’s rough sleeping agenda, they will invest £6.4 million in a pilot scheme to help individuals released from three prisons—Bristol, Leeds and Pentonville—into settled accommodation. However, I want to know what the Government will invest specifically in accommodation suitable for female offenders and their complex needs. If support services in the community to help such women find secure housing continue to be inadequate, women will be less likely to be able to break the cycle of criminality.
Another contributing factor to the high recall rate among female offenders is the high rate of complex needs and problems. Women under community supervision and in custody with an assessment are twice as likely as the men to have a mental health need, and 60% of women in the criminal justice system have experienced domestic violence. “Broken Trust” found that a third of those interviewed needed help with mental health, drug misuse and domestic violence. The report also showed that the relevant probation officers were unable to support them adequately, given their complex needs. Female offenders are much more likely to be vulnerable, so we need to ensure that there are services to assist them in rebuilding their lives, not only to help them but to make the community they live in safer.
Another issue that distinctly affects women recalled to prison is that female offenders are more likely than male offenders to be carers for children or other family relatives, and their recall therefore affects not only them, but their dependants. The length of time for which a woman can be recalled to prison can be just a number of days, but it will cause huge disruption to her and her family. Therefore, what provision is being made to ensure that the lives of those family members and dependants are not thrown into chaos?
The female offender strategy is clear that short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing offending than community orders, and that early intervention is key to reducing the number of women entering the criminal justice system.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. There are too many women in prison, but does she welcome the Ministry of Justice’s move to reduce the number of shorter sentences available? To retain people’s faith in the criminal justice system, early release should be a privilege earned rather than a right automatically given. It is a two-way street.
I am coming on to that statement now.
I welcome the proposal by the Secretary of State to abolish short sentences, which would make a huge difference to women offenders, who are overwhelmingly sentenced to short periods in prison. I urge him to follow through on the proposal as soon as possible in order to create a more effective criminal justice system. Furthermore, there must be a greater focus on funding for early intervention services, which have been cut considerably because of constrained budgets.
It is a stark statistic that 60% of female offenders supervised in the community or in custody who have an assessment have experienced domestic abuse. It illustrates how important it is to make domestic abuse services available to women, either to stop them offending in the first place or to help them not to reoffend. In the Women’s Aid annual survey, those who run domestic abuse services reported that the largest challenge was funding and sustainability for their services. That will obviously impact on their ability to help vulnerable women. The same report shows that one in five of all referrals to a refuge were declined owing to a lack of space. If the Government are serious about supporting women, there needs to be greater funding for those life-saving services so that refuges do not have to turn away referred women and so that they can be supported before they enter the criminal justice system.
Another report from the Prison Reform Trust showed strong links between women’s experience of domestic and sexual abuse and coercive relationships and their offending. Better funding for domestic abuse services and ensuring that the provision is consistent and joined up across the UK would provide stronger provision for women who are victims of domestic violence, moving them away from entering the criminal justice system.
Given the reports by Women’s Aid and the Prison Reform Trust of the patchy delivery of domestic abuse services for women, will the Government commit to adequate funding of early intervention services, particularly domestic abuse services, so that women are either supported not to enter the criminal justice system in the first place, or not forced to re-enter it? Early intervention services across the UK would have a positive impact on reducing the number of women in prison, thus reducing the recall rate. For example, last year the Welsh Labour Government—I am very proud that I am Welsh—introduced a framework to support positive changes for those at risk of offending, which will have a renewed focus on early intervention services to help stop individuals entering the criminal justice system and to keep people from offending. I can supply a copy of the relevant documents to the Minister should he wish to see them.
Lastly, one of the most important factors that would prevent a woman being recalled to prison is a successful working relationship between the probation officer and the individual. I want to put on the record my admiration for Napo, the union, which I know tries really hard to support the staff, as I know the staff try to support their clients. The report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation into recall described the impact that a negative relationship with a probation officer can have on recall:
“Those who have a poor relationship with their responsible officer are more likely to breach, and the fairness of enforcement decisions may affect this relationship.”
The report also showed that there was limited access to appropriate, women-only provision for female offenders. Furthermore, as I said, it is widely understood that female offenders have more complex needs than male offenders. Probation officers must therefore be properly trained in how to support offenders with complex needs, and must be able to signpost them to services that have resources to help them. That will be possible only if there are adequate support services with a joined-up approach to supporting the service user as soon as they leave prison. That, combined with positive relationships between probation officers and female offenders, would see the number of women recalled to prison fall.
Given the shocking rise in the number of women being recalled, we have to ask whether this is the most effective way of helping women to break their cycles in the criminal justice system. I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments earlier this week, which echoed the view that it is particularly disruptive to women’s lives for them to be recalled to prison, given that they are likely to have dependants. I want assurances that his proposal to abolish short sentences will be introduced as soon as possible. The female offender strategy is clear that women in prison are complex. The support services need to be well resourced so that, when they are released from prison, they have all the help they need to prevent them being recalled. Responses from the Prison Reform Trust show that a lack of secure and safe housing for women once they are released from prison directly leads to their recall. It is an absolute scandal that we are releasing women who are likely to be victims of domestic violence and have complex needs on to the streets.
There must be more funding for local authorities so that the right support services are in place and we can offer a joined-up approach to support women. Furthermore, there must be more of a focus on early intervention, which will steer women away from entering the criminal justice system in the first place or stop them being recalled. Services must be better resourced so that there is no longer patchy delivery for women across the UK.
Finally, a successful relationship between probation officers and service users is key. Probation officers must have adequate training to help female offenders, who have a variety of complex needs. I want assurances from the Government that they will provide that desperately needed funding. That would demonstrate that they are truly committed to the aims of the female offender strategy. They must properly resource the relevant bodies so that women are supported to break their negative cycles in the criminal justice system.
Order. The debate can last until 4 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 3.27 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Carolyn Harris will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 3.27 pm, it is Back-Bench time. There is a galaxy of talent waiting to be called. We will start with Wera Hobhouse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate.
Recall of female offenders has gone up by 131%—an odd number, but dramatic—in the last 12 months, since the Government introduced mandatory post-custody supervision. The reasons for the dramatic increase in recall rates are complex, but there is a common theme: community support services, which were once a lifeline for recently released offenders, are no longer available.
Women offenders are far more likely to be convicted for non-violent offences, which means that the majority—72%—are serving sentences of less than a year. Despite the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement that short-term sentences do more harm than good, they are still being issued in their thousands. The startling figures illustrating the failure of the new post-custody system highlight the inability to join up vision and implementation. Too often, women who end up in prison come from a background of systematic violence. Current research suggests that 57% of female offenders have suffered domestic violence, and 53% have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. Furthermore, research suggests that prison is not an effective deterrent for women, with 61% of those who are inside for less than 12 months going on to be reconvicted within a year of being released.
Recent recall numbers illustrate how our system fails female offenders with backgrounds of trauma. In the Prison Reform Trust’s new research paper, 19 out of 24 women interviewed said that they received no support from support officers to address the complicated and interlocking issues they faced once they had left prison, including the struggle to find accommodation, as we have heard; to identify services to combat drug or alcohol abuse; to reunite with children who were taken into care following their mother’s incarceration; and to take other steps needed to rebuild a life.
The ideas behind the extension of post-custody mandatory supervision were sound. They suggested that the Government were interested in rehabilitating offenders, not just punishing them. However, those good intentions have been smashed to pieces by the consistent and deliberate refusal to fund the services that support people transitioning from prison. Many must wait weeks after release to start receiving benefits, and universal credit claims must be made online, which is not possible for most inmates.
According to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, one in seven short-term inmates leaves prison without knowing where they will sleep that night, and only a small proportion find suitable accommodation on the day of release. One woman recalled to prison and interviewed for the Prison Reform Trust said:
“Being a homeless woman is so degrading. They will send me out to no housing. It’s a big, ‘recall me’
sign on my forehead. I have no excitement about going out. I got no place to go and an ex-partner who is very violent.”
It is a bleak situation, made worse when we remember that two thirds of female offenders have dependent children and one third are single parents. Some 95% of the children of single mothers who are sentenced to prison time are taken into care, further perpetuating the cycle of neglect and trauma.
Although female prisoners make up less than 5% of our prison population, the dramatic increase in recall rates proves that our system is failing them. There is something clearly wrong with a system in which female offenders who have served short sentences for non-violent crimes end up being recalled for many more months because they have missed appointments with their support officers due to homelessness.
Centrally, that issue cannot be separated from the continued use of short-term sentences, which are destructive and do not work as a deterrent to crime. There needs to be a presumption against their use and an increased use of non-custodial punishments. If we as a society believe that our prisons should rehabilitate as well as deter, we must properly invest in support services. Leaving our ex-inmates to fend for themselves while imposing strict regulations on them greatly increases their chances of reoffending. Testimonies suggest that some ex-inmates deliberately reoffend to be readmitted to the system, where, crucially, they have a roof over their head. That cannot go on. We can solve it, but it needs political will and the right financial support.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate. With our prisons stretched to breaking point, it is important to have a mature and considered debate about penal reform in the country. From statements made by the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, and most recently the Secretary of State for Justice about the futility of short prison sentences, it seems that on this occasion the Department wants to engage in a fruitful discussion.
Two weeks ago, I had a debate on short sentences where I called for a ban on prison sentences under six months. I believe that short prison sentences should also be at the front and centre of today’s debate on the recall of women to prisons and that is where I will focus my remarks.
Short prison sentences are an ineffective way to address the root causes of criminality, as they cause disruption to people’s lives, as my hon. Friend so eloquently described. They are too short to help inmates to rehabilitate and serve only as a punishment, which leads to increased reoffending rates. It is important to have this debate because, more often than not, women in particular are caught in a cycle of short prison sentences; and reoffending or recall despite their being convicted of non-violent offences adds to the chaos and uncertainty in their lives.
The 2017 “Guide to Proven Reoffending Statistics” found that both men and women who receive short-term prison sentences were considerably more likely to reoffend in the future. Most women receive prison sentences of less than 12 months and are more likely to reoffend than a male who has a comparable sentence. Short sentences place greater strain on an already overcrowded prison system and do not provide inmates with adequate time to become involved with rehabilitative programmes. Not only are our prisons facing staff shortages, but cuts to prison services mean that inmates cannot access important services that prevent reoffending.
The Government can and must do a better job of bolstering social programmes that aim to reduce the rate of offending among individuals who commit petty crimes. Many who do so feel they have no other option, especially if they are affected by addiction or mental health issues.
It seems to me as well that we cannot talk about this issue without talking about the Prison Service and the real problems that people within it are facing. Over the weekend, a constituent of mine appeared in The Daily Mirror and talked about leaving the Prison Service after only five days, simply because the training was not good enough; he felt intimidated and scared. How can Prison Service staff deliver rehabilitative programmes if they are leaving the service because of lack of training and because of intimidation and threats of violence? The Government need to address that.
It seems that the justice system is blind to the impacts of short prison sentences on mothers and their families. Women are more likely to be a child’s primary carer, so these sentences have greater impact on their lives than on the lives of their male counterparts, who do not often have that experience of being primary carers. Children of women in prison find themselves struggling when it comes to basic necessities, including housing, health and education. In many respects, many of them have failed in the system before they have begun.
The Government can do something about that. According to a Prison Reform Trust report in 2018, every year over 17,000 children in England and Wales experience their mothers going to prison. Just imagine that: suddenly the primary carer in their life is gone; suddenly there is discord and disharmony in their life. Their education will be disrupted, whether they like it or not. The children of prisoners are more likely to be ill. Often, they are displaced from their home and their lives are uprooted. They have to enter new schools, often with the stigma of knowing that their classmates know that they are the children of prisoners. They may be separated from their siblings. All of this sounds almost like a Charles Dickens story, but it is happening in this country in the 21st century, and it is something that all of us, as Members of Parliament, should be concerned about and should do something about.
According to the 2018 female offender strategy document, roughly 60% of female inmates are victims of domestic violence. As a result of horrific abuse, these women find themselves in dire situations, with a limited pool of supportive resources. They may be coerced into a life of crime by an abusive partner, or they may turn to petty crime to provide for themselves and their children. If somebody is particularly shoplifting for food, it seems common sense to me to ask why. Are they hungry? Rather than make them criminals, is it not far better to offer them hope?
Women with abusive partners often find themselves cut off financially and unable to keep up with a variety of payments, ranging from bills to council tax payments. Women sent to prison due to non-payment become entrenched in a cycle of instability. How are they supposed to create a better life for themselves and become proactive citizens if they are imprisoned and thrown back into the exact same situation that led them into trouble? If someone is falling behind on their bills, such as council tax, the wrong place to send them is to prison, because that just criminalises them.
I firmly believe that women do not belong in prison, especially if they have not been convicted of a violent crime. They need support and should be placed in a facility that is at least designed to rehabilitate and educate them. These women require a safe space where they can learn valuable skills that allow them to live independently, thus removing their need to return to crime; instead they can become useful citizens to society.
The probation service does not facilitate support for recently released inmates. Indeed, as Wera Hobhouse said, since reforms such as the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 were made, recall numbers for women have risen by 131%—a shocking statistic when compared with the 22% recall rate among men. Something is wrong when for so many women the system is not working. Between 2017 and 2018 more than 1,700 women were recalled to prisons, which is roughly half the female prison population.
In addition to attempting to restabilise and normalise their lives, these women have the added stress of maintaining contact with their probation officers. The constant threat of being recalled creates a lack of trust between offenders and probation officers, and trust is key to ensuring that those women do not return to a life of crime. Offenders have no one to turn to if they face having to slip back into petty crime in order to survive. If a probation officer is on the lookout only for a perceived risk of offending, it seems unlikely that they will be someone to whom an at-risk offender can turn for help.
Two weeks ago, I called on the Government to abolish the practice of administering short sentences to non-violent offenders, and instead to focus their efforts on establishing rehabilitation services, residential centres, and the use of community service orders. For women who are also themselves victims, short stints in prison only cause more problems in often chaotic lives. I am impressed that the Secretary of State acknowledged that short prison sentences do not work. I urge him and other Justice Ministers to put their words into action, to abolish short prison sentences for women, and to create a system that benefits and builds trust in the whole of society.
It is an honour to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on her excellent opening remarks.
When the Government brought forward their proposals for transforming rehabilitation about five years ago, I was critical of the plan to separate probation into the National Probation Service for the management of high-risk offenders, and community rehabilitation companies for the management of low and medium-risk offenders. I was critical of the contracts given to community rehabilitation companies, because I did not see the justification for breaking up a successful probation service in that way. I feel that my concerns have been proven right, as shown by the failure of the Working Links contract the other day.
At the time of those proposals, I supported the introduction of post-release supervision for those released from short custodial sentences, and I thought that the Government’s proposed model of through-the-gate support would help to resettle offenders in the community, help women in particular to manage complex and chaotic lifestyles, and contribute to a reduction in reoffending. In the light of experience, I now think I was wrong to believe that that model of supervision for those released from short custodial sentences would be beneficial, and that is partly because of the way in which such support has been delivered.
There has been a lack of genuine through-the-gate provision—to the gate, possibly, and possibly provision after someone is released, but it is not the genuinely, seamless, through-the-gate offer we were promised. As we heard, that was compounded by the chronic lack of support services in the community. That resulted in deeply perverse consequences for women who are massively and disproportionately affected, as shown by Ministry of Justice figures for the proportion of women subject to recall. It is particularly concerning that, in contrast to the experience of men, women released from short custodial sentences are likely to be recalled to prison. The figures flip round the other way for male offenders subject to recall, who have usually received longer custodial sentences.
In addition to the design failures and the problems with the lack of community support, we know that there are real problems with the community rehabilitation companies that provide the specialist support that women subject to post-release supervision should receive. I have heard reports of women receiving phone contact only from their supervising officer, a lack of women-specific support and programmes designed specifically to meet the needs of women, and chopping and changing supervisory staff, which makes it difficult to build that relationship of trust between supervisor and the woman being supervised. It is also clear that most women appear to be recalled not because of further offending, but because of a failure to comply with the terms of their supervision. According to a written answer I obtained from the Minister for prisons on
As we have heard, there are particular reasons why women might find it more difficult to comply with the terms of an order. They may have childcare obligations. If it is difficult to get childcare, they might find it hard to get to a supervision meeting. There is the difficulty of managing complex household needs, the lack of access to stable housing, difficulties accessing transport—women who are less likely to have access to a car may have particular problems with that—and women’s greater range of vulnerabilities. That experience of going in and out—of short periods of custodial sentence and then of being recalled, perhaps on more than one or two occasions—represents a cat and mouse situation that does nothing to help stabilise chaotic lives and support those women away from a path of reoffending. Nor does it help the Lord Chancellor in his rightful ambition to reduce the prison population.
It is clearly time to radically rethink the policy. The Minister will be familiar with the whole-system approach we have adopted in Greater Manchester over a number of years. I firmly believe it offers a much better model of support for women. I am pleased that many of the concepts we have used in the whole-system approach have found their way into the female offender strategy, but I urge the Minister to be much more vigorous and determined in effecting those principles. He should take a “what works” approach to policy and abandon one that clearly does not work.
First, the Minister needs to consider what genuine, through-the-gate support will look like. How can that be designed and resourced for the move from prison into the community? Secondly, we need a commitment to proper investment in community provision. In particular, that should be in sustainable and adequate funding for women’s centres. Thirdly, as we have heard, we need better processes for information and decision making by supervising officers when considering recall, and that means better staff training. We urgently need legislation for a presumption against short custodial sentences coupled with building greater confidence in community alternatives, as we are seeing in Scotland. We know that short custodial sentences are particularly damaging to women and their families. They also fuel the recall problem.
Fundamentally, I ask the Minister to join me in rethinking the policy of active post-release supervision that we signed up to in 2015. It is not clear that it is doing any good, but it is quite clear that it is doing quite a lot of harm. I am persuaded that it was not the right policy to adopt. I hope the Minister will be prepared to reconsider it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important and timely debate on an issue that does not receive nearly enough attention or the attention it deserves. I have long been deeply passionate about reform of our prisons system, particularly in Wales, and I have campaigned on the issue since first being elected to the House.
I preface my remarks by making it clear that nothing in what I am about to say undermines my fundamental belief that any person of any gender should be subject to the same consequence under the law if they commit a criminal act. My comments are not about watering down justice, but about looking at improving outcomes for the benefit of everyone: the offender, the victim and society more broadly. Central to that is a sincere belief that it is foolish and wrong-headed to continue with the “lock up, throw away the key and crime will reduce” attitude to criminal justice, which simply does not work.
Research published last year by the Prison Reform Trust showed that the number of women recalled to prison has more than doubled since the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 was passed. That demonstrates that the Government’s rehabilitation strategy is not working. The problem is worsening at an alarming rate. The message is clear: the 2014 reforms to recall must be reversed at the earliest opportunity.
There are no women’s prisons in Wales. I have said before—the Minister knows this—that I would never advocate for one to be opened, but that in itself makes things doubly challenging for women prisoners in Wales, who are uprooted and taken far from their communities, often after committing relatively minor offences. It is for that core reason that we should urgently address short sentences—their damaging impact demands our attention. I believe strongly that getting rid of those sentences and replacing them with other punitive measures closer to home would create better outcomes all round.
Simply put, locking women up for a few months many miles from home leads only to increased alienation, increased problems for families and carers, and, perhaps most damagingly, an increased likelihood of reoffending and recall. They should not be in prison to begin with. Indeed, the Government’s own female offender strategy underlines that shorter sentences are far less effective than non-custodial sentences such as community orders. It also hammers home the point that early intervention is key to reducing the number of women who enter the penal system in the first place.
We know that homelessness is a big catalyst for reoffending and recall to prison. Six out of 10 women prisoners have no home to go to when they are released. Given that the nearest prison for women living in my constituency is more than 50 miles away, in England, that can force women on to the streets, far from their own communities and any support networks they may have.
I urge Members to take a second to try to put themselves in the shoes of a woman who is convicted of theft and given a prison sentence of less than six months. In that time, that woman will be unable to pay her rent and will be evicted. She will have no money to secure a new property, and little or no means of travelling back to the community she lived in and any fragile support systems she may have access to. It is no exaggeration to say that the prospect of going back to prison eventually becomes appealing compared with the terrifying alternative. In its recent report, “Broken Trust”, the Prison Reform Trust stressed that the lack of housing post release needs to be addressed urgently.
The huge distances women are placed from home can have a terrible impact on their ties with family and friends, with bonds often shattered during their imprisonment. Children, loved ones and friends face long, expensive travel and short visiting hours, and the ensuing relationship breakdowns can easily escalate into the breakdown of formal support networks. Too often, women are left in truly hopeless situations, facing the most appalling isolation. The 2014 recall reforms mean that if a woman in a vulnerable situation commits even the most cursory transgression, she can find herself back inside, and back in the well-known cycle of institutionalisation, with all the perils that poses.
Our criminal justice system should, at its core, be about reducing crime, yet the situation as it stands is pure smoke and mirrors, with the supposed short-term win of detaining women for short periods masking the actual impact. The longer-term cost of that—namely, an ever greater number of potential victims of crime—is not only counterproductive but, frankly, shameful.
The 1997 Labour Government were famously elected on a promise to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Although that Government’s record in this area was sometimes chequered, they had at their heart an understanding that the causes matter as much as the crime. We must address the elephant in the room: why do women commit relatively low-level crimes in the first place? Lots of Members have referred to that, and I make no apology for reinforcing what they said. A six-month prison sentence will not help a woman who was forced to steal to feed her children. A short time inside will not help a woman who has a long-standing addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling. Being put behind bars will not help a victim of domestic violence who lashed out in response to years of oppression. We need to look again at the causes of crime rather than having ridiculous blanket sentencing regimes.
In 2017, the charity Women in Prison found that 84% of women entering prison had committed a non-violent offence. It is precisely for such crimes that women receive relatively short custodial sentences. In the same year, the Ministry of Justice itself found that shorter sentences were
“consistently associated with higher rates of proven reoffending”.
I am pleased that this week the Justice Secretary mooted a move away from short prison sentences but, as with everything with this Government, we will have to wait to see whether the reality stacks up to the rhetoric—perhaps the Minister will give us some assurances about that. But—it remains a but—if what the Secretary of State said this week is true, we might at last have a real opportunity to start turning around the damaging trend among female offenders.
The Prison Reform Trust’s “Broken Trust” report is a call for action that the Government would do well to heed. I support the trust’s call for the establishment of women-specific community services, including multi-agency outreach services. The complex nature of crime and its causes demand such a multifaceted approach. We cannot blindly continue to treat prisoners as a tick-box exercise, assuming that they will integrate well into society after they leave the prison gates. Far greater attention therefore needs to be paid to work with local authorities and the devolved Administrations.
There are pressures on housing throughout the country, but until we integrate housing services with the prison system properly, we will never sever the link between women leaving prison and elevated levels of homelessness. Too many of us see the blooming numbers of rough sleepers on our streets, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. However unpalatable some might find this, women leaving prison have just as much right to council services and support networks as any other residents in need.
Justice Ministers must work much more closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that those prisoners who are eligible to claim welfare support when they are released have the right information well in advance of the day they walk out of the prison door. Given the plethora of issues with universal credit, I do not hold out much hope of the Government taking action on that—they have consistently let down the most vulnerable in society.
Time does not allow me to discuss all the Prison Reform Trust’s recommendations, but if the Minister will do one thing today, please let it be this: agree to implement each of the report’s recommendations or, if he feels that any cannot be implemented, to explain why not. Some recommendations will cost, but failing to act will have far more significant financial implications for the Treasury long into the future.
In truth, although it might not always be popular to advocate increasing funding to help released prisoners to reintegrate, it remains the right thing to do. Nine years of Tory austerity make the case even more strongly. The fact remains that investing in rehabilitation and specific support services for women who are in prison and, crucially, who are leaving prison, will reap economic rewards as well as social dividends. Reducing the rate of recall to prisons will, in the long run, slacken the strain on our Prison Service, which is reaching breaking point in many places—in some places, it is broken already.
We have heard from the prisons Minister that he is prepared to resign should he fail on prison safety, which is a major problem. However, it is just as important for the Government to get to grips with the issues outlined today, not least because if prisoner numbers constantly increase in the long term—increase as the Government fail to get a grip—prison safety will only worsen.
My remarks are not a counsel of despair, and the Justice Secretary’s comments this week give rise to some cautious optimism, albeit after significant pressure from the Opposition. Warm words, however, mean nothing if they do not translate into meaningful action. I hope that my message to the Minister is clear: this week’s welcome news cannot simply be about giving the Government a good news day amid the Brexit chaos; the Justice Secretary’s words must translate into real investment in support services and rehabilitation, with a nuanced focus on women and their individual needs. Only then will we truly begin to start reversing this deeply worrying trend.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this incredibly important debate. As a member of the Justice Committee, I have visited a number of prisons, including Downview women’s prison. On every visit to a prison, I hear stories about punitive, arbitrary and often completely avoidable recalls to prison.
Recall appears to operate more harshly in relation to prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for public protection. Although IPP prisoners account for a small proportion of the female prison population, it is important to mention them in this debate. I acknowledge that there are prisoners who pose a genuine risk to society, but the opinion is widely held that IPP sentences are not the way to deal with them. Such sentences have now been abolished and the Parole Board has a priority target of reducing the IPP prison population significantly. Of the 440 women recalled to prison in the three months between July and September last year, four were IPP prisoners. Although there are substantially fewer women on IPP tariffs compared with men—I think there are 46 women on IPP tariffs—between 2010 and 2017, 40 women were recalled due to breach of their licence conditions.
At present, an IPP prisoner’s licence can be terminated only after the they have completed 10 years in the community following their release—an extremely lengthy period. I have significant concerns that the terms by which the licence and recall system operates are set at too low a threshold, with the result that prisoners flip between detention, parole boards and release on licence once more. I urge the Minister to look at the issue of removing the last of the IPP prisoners in the prison estate with some urgency.
In the year ending September 2018, there were 1,846 recalls of women to custody while on licence—a significant number, considering that the current female prison population stands at 3,809. The first set of data since the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act shows that more than three times as many women were recalled to prison since the ORA changes.
As has been said extensively in this debate and others, short sentences have huge implications for women and their families. A recent report by the Prison Reform Trust show that 17,000 children in England and Wales are affected by maternal imprisonment. Those 17,000 children might have to be cared for by somebody else, be rehomed, leave school or drop out of education altogether. Sometimes recall is necessary, but a decent justice system is also a humane one. In the current system, licence conditions are often seen as a tick-box exercise, rather than a more holistic approach being taken. It is clear that it is not working. Those 17,000 children did not commit crimes, but recall can have a catastrophic impact on them.
We must not forget that, although women can be perpetrators of crime, more often than not they are victims of crime. The Prison Reform Trust data shows that, shockingly, nearly 60% of women prisoners have previously experienced domestic abuse. If we are to solve the issue of female prisoners, this debate must go well beyond recall and prisons, and delve into the wider issue of women in society. As the Prison Reform Trust succinctly states:
“women can become trapped in a vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity. Their situation is often worsened by poverty, substance dependency or poor mental health.”
Given that women are often the principal carers for children, it is obvious that the impact of recall and imprisonment is far-reaching.
Some 84% of sentenced women entering prison committed a non-violent offence. When I spoke to the women in Downview Prison, I was struck by the fact that none of them was the ringleader in the crimes they had committed. All the women I spoke to were ancillary to the crimes and all the ringleaders were men, so the situation needs looking at holistically. At present, women are more likely than men to be given a prison sentence for a first offence, with one in four women sentenced to less than one month and 55% to less than three months. Women are also more likely to complete their community order or licence period supervision successfully, so there is a huge question about whether the vast majority of women prisoners ought to be in prison in the first place.
The 2007 Corston report called for a distinct, radically different, visibly led, strategic, proportionate, holistic and women-centred approach. Much of the report focused on community support, sentencing reform and alternatives to custody. I fear that, 12 years on, progress on women prisoners has fallen far short of Baroness Corston’s original recommendations. The Secretary of State for Justice has signalled an intention to move away from the model of short sentences, but in regard to women and short sentences, Baroness Corston remarked that short sentences
“do not successfully deflect from further offending and for many women make their lives and those of their children worse.”
Why has it taken 12 years to reconsider short sentences when their effects have been known for so long?
The Select Committee on Justice found, in our recent work on transforming rehabilitation and introducing a presumption against short sentences, which we recommended, that volatile short stays in prison can exacerbate the issues in play, rather than reduce reoffending. It has been shown that offenders serving a community sentence typically have a reoffending rate 7% lower than that for similar people serving prison sentences of less than a year, so surely that is where the emphasis should be—on delivering rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.
Women are only a small percentage of the overall prison population. Their distinct issues often go unnoticed or are not focused on in the context of the significantly greater number of men in the prison estate. I therefore welcome the message from the Ministry of Justice in relation to short custodial sentences, but I want to see legislation on that issue and more robust community sentencing, so that those who are passing sentences have confidence that no non-custodial sentence—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate Carolyn Harris on a typically thoughtful and persuasive case. Indeed, I think that every Member in the galaxy of talent here today has contributed thoughtful and persuasive arguments.
I agree absolutely that hon. Members are right to express serious concern about the huge increase in the number of women recalled to prison. As we heard, the number has tripled since the introduction of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. That is truly an extraordinary and shocking development. I understand that the latest statistics show that there are 29 recalls to custody for every 100 releases of women offenders on licence. I am not usually one to make comparisons with other jurisdictions, but I will do that today. Although there are difficulties in making direct comparisons, it is interesting to note that in the 10 years to 2015—the figure is not completely up to date—the comparable figure for Scotland is between four and five recalls per 100 releases—one sixth or less of what we are now seeing in England and Wales. We have to ask why that is.
Kate Green made a very honest speech about how she had been persuaded at the time of the 2014 reforms, but now, in the light of the numbers, she has reconsidered. I think that if I had been in this place in 2014, I would have been attracted by what the Government were apparently proposing, but the numbers in themselves do seem to make a case for repeal of the 2014 provisions relating to supervision after sentences of less than 12 months. At the very least, there must be a significant review of how those provisions are operating. Even during the passage of the Bill, prison reform organisations warned that many people serving short prison sentences have complex and multiple needs, which increase the likelihood of breach of licence conditions. As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, the Prison Reform Trust is among those who have concluded that that is exactly what has happened, referring to a “coercive response” that was brought about by the Act creating a distrust between offenders and responsible officers. The trust stated:
“The threat of recall accentuates the fault lines in relationships that are already fragile, inhibiting women from confiding in their responsible officers about difficulties that, eventually, lead to their recall.”
Accordingly, two-fifths of recalls for women are apparently down to a failure to keep contact with a responsible officer, which contrasts with the figure provided by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that suggests that only a quarter of recalls relate to further offending behaviour.
For the second and final time I will compare this system with how things operate in Scotland. In Scotland there is no automatic requirement to supervise those released after a sentence of less than four years, although judges can impose a supervised release order in certain cases where that would be necessary for public protection. That might provide a better balance and focus than the system introduced in England by the 2014 Act, and a lack of compulsory supervision does not mean that support is not available.
I know this is a strange thing to say, but most people who reoffend were released on a Friday when there is no access to services such as housing, social security or whatever. What is the experience in Scotland? Has anyone considered the days on which prisoners are released?
I must confess that I do not have the answer to that today, although the issue has been flagged up to me previously. I will look at it again to see whether a policy is in place to try to address that issue, as it seems significant.
There is broad agreement that women who are released on licence desperately need more support, and we are finding that supervising officers are simply not able to resolve or help with problems of unstable housing, debt, abusive relationships, mental health and the various other issues that hon. Members have highlighted. In fairness, the Government recognised that in their most recent female offender strategy, published last summer, which notes that a
“lack of access to supportive community services can contribute to recall to custody” and that the aforementioned problem of not keeping in touch with supervising officers was driven by a lack of safe accommodation, as well as substance misuse and other issues.
Few Members present would not agree that residential support in the community that provides holistic support to turn lives around is far preferable to prison recall. The Government’s strategy document gives various examples of successful residential support options, including the marvellous Turning Point 281 centre in Glasgow. Such places are not soft options; they are a serious challenge to help women turn their lives around and address the root causes of their being on the wrong side of the law, whether that is substance abuse, adult or childhood trauma, financial problems or debt, mental health issues, or domestic abuse. As hon. Members pointed out, we need a coherent, comprehensive and joined-up network of services, and that requires resourcing a whole-system approach with sustainable funding, such as that described by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston.
My most important point—here I agree with everyone who has spoken in the debate so far—is that short-term prison sentences of less than a year are, to all intents and purposes, pointless. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said, the Scottish Government are moving to a presumption against sentences of under 12 months, which hopefully will lead to a significant reduction in the number of women receiving custodial sentences. I also welcome and support the positive moves made by the UK Government. Short sentences do not allow time or space to address the root causes of offending behaviour, and as hon. Members have said, they often exacerbate existing problems, breaking up families and social networks and disrupting employment and housing.
Reform could make a significant difference and help far more women to turn their lives around than locking them up and making things worse. I encourage and support the Government in that endeavour. Again I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East on securing this debate. She is right in what she has argued for today, and I very much hope that the Government have listened.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow so many strong and passionate contributions. I thank my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris for securing this important debate. She is a passionate advocate of supporting women in prisons and vulnerable women more generally.
The “Broken Trust” report found that the number of women recalled to prison has more than doubled since the end of 2014. Equally shocking is the fact that 40% of recalls were due not to breaking conditions or reoffending, but to losing contact with the offender manager—a point made by several Members today. It is not right. It is heavy-handed, disproportionate and in no one’s interests but those of the probation providers.
The conditions for recall were set out by the National Offender Management Service, now Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, who put forward a test by which recall decisions must be judged. The test operates on a scale, with “threat to the public” at the top, but the test is clearly not being adhered to. Recalls should be for public safety alone, either to protect members of the public or to prevent imminent offending. Instead, it has become a box-ticking exercise for private probation companies more interested in profits and contracts.
I wanted to attend this debate, Mr Hollobone, but I had to be in the Chamber for a statutory instrument and could not be in two places at one time—although, I do try to do that sometimes. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Prison Service must answer the question as to why the use of recall of women continues to increase when they are far less likely to commit serious offences? Why is the trend not slowing down as it did for men? That poses a question for the Minister, who must consider how the resettling process is carried out. Can it be improved and regulated better? Clearly it can.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That point has been made by various Members today and the questions have been posed. I will continue to explore further some of the concerns he raises.
Because of the bureaucratic approach, probation companies are not respected or trusted by the women they should work with. Instead of seeing the complex needs that women face, probation companies look past them and see them as risks, so that homelessness, joblessness, poverty and childcare are not needs to be met, but risks. It is outrageous, particularly when years of austerity has closed independent support networks and therapy groups in the community and left probation as the only means of assistance. The probation companies see the women not as vulnerable but as potential reoffenders, whereas others would see them as women who needs help, and they issue them with recall orders, sending them back to prison, even though they have done nothing wrong.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, I want to cite real examples. One woman slept rough for two weeks before signing for a flat in a new area. She contacted the probation service to say that she had settled in but that she had not heard from them and did not know whether to attend the old or the new office, the address of which she did not know. She was instead told that there was a warrant out for her arrest and then returned to prison for 14 days. That directly affected her settling into the new area and delayed her social services assessment. As if that was not bad enough, her paperwork stated that she had been recalled because
“a period of stability in custody would benefit her”.
She had a house and she had stability, but still they recalled her. It is shocking.
Probation staff are under significant pressure, with ever-growing workloads and directions from above to fulfil quotas. The culture of privatised probation means that no thought is given to the rule to consider the specific needs of female offenders. We have seen that clearly with community rehabilitation companies believing that that need is fulfilled not by funding a network of women’s centres, but by making available a female offender manager. With pressure to be rid of female offenders so that CRCs no longer have to deal with their often complex needs, what is created is the disproportionate and excessive recall that many hon. Members have spoken about today.
The rapid rise of recall is worrying, and so too is the disproportionate and negative impact it has on women. By repeatedly dragging women back into our prison system, we are trapping them there. A woman might complete her short sentence, but if she does not get help she may be recalled, serve a couple more weeks and then get out. If she still cannot get help she may be recalled again, thus entering a cycle. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East was absolutely right to describe it as being trapped in the criminal justice system.
The Ministry of Justice has abolished the use of IPP sentences—imprisonment for public protection—as my hon. Friend said, but it has created problems by locking in offenders with no prospect of getting out or ever actually being free or alive and kicking. Make no mistake: prisons are in a state of emergency. Women cannot access help in them, violence has exploded and safety has plummeted. Far too many women are killing themselves, and many more are committing acts of self-harm.
That leads me to the question of the suitability of prison and short sentences for women in the first place—an issue that many hon. Members have spoken about. The women we are locking up have committed crimes of poverty such as petty theft. More than 80% are inside for non-violent offences, and they are often troubled and vulnerable. More than half have mental health issues, have suffered child abuse or domestic abuse, or are struggling with substance misuse. There is no way we can deal with the problems that drive them to offend in the first place in prison because there are not enough experienced officers or the support services to aid them. We are clear that we must end super-short sentences, which cause too many women to be in prison for petty crimes. That is the only way women will be able to access the support they need to tackle their offending. That is the only way we can keep the public safe.
The Justice Secretary spoke about this matter on Monday, and the Prisons Minister has done so on previous occasions. I sincerely hope that we do not see another plan that comes to nothing in reality. We are having this debate because of a plan that has come to nothing. At the heart of the rise in recall is the Government’s failure to address female offenders’ needs and reduce their reoffending. If we do not have women offending or serving short sentences in prison, there will be no one to recall.
The Government set out a strategy and goals nine months ago, but they are yet to set out how they will achieve them. They offer warm words but no way forward. They propose residential women’s centres, which are a revised policy of the previous Labour Government, but they have promised only five and there are no signs of where they will be, how they will be funded and who they will be for. Will they house homeless women or those with housing? Will it be judges or the probation service and the Prison Service that send them there? Months later, we still do not have those answers. Perhaps the Minister will start by answering some of those pertinent questions about the female offender strategy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be very helpful if the Minister could show us, either today or in due course, the evidence about the efficacy of residential women’s centres? An even better solution might be simply to support them in their own homes and in the community.
My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point. She is right, and I hope the Minister will address that issue.
The Government also delivered a huge funding cut to the female offender strategy. They promised £50 million but reduced it to £5 million over two years. How they intend to achieve any of the strategy’s goals with such insufficient funding, particularly given that it is double-counted and has already been announced elsewhere, is a mystery. I do not want to alarm the Minister, but there is just one year of the strategy and £5 million left, with no sign of progress or more funding next year. Again, can the Minister provide answers about where the money for the five residential centres will come from? What progress has been made? Those are important questions that he and others have not yet answered.
The excessive use of recall for troubled women who have done nothing wrong after release, and whose recall is the result not of their failings but of those of CRCs, is an absolute scandal. The Government were warned that the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 would force women through needless hardship, but they neglected to listen.
As well as providing answers to the questions that have been asked, the Minister must use his response today to announce a review of the impact that the extension of recall for short sentences has had on women. He must set out plans that will ensure that people are detained only on the orders of judges, not probation officers. Ultimately, he must set out a coherent plan for ending short sentences, which trap many vulnerable and troubled female offenders in the criminal justice system, and for ending the involvement of private companies in our probation system, which has left it target-driven, not people-driven.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, which I seem to be doing quite frequently. I congratulate Carolyn Harris, who is a doughty and effective champion for her constituency and for women in the criminal justice system—the House is lucky to have her among its Members. I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken today and recognise the work of many organisations in this space, including charities and others, such as the Prison Reform Trust, whose report has been frequently cited. I reassure hon. Members that I will consider the contents of the report carefully.
Hon. Members have understandably highlighted their concerns about the rise in the number of women recalled to prison since the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. The hon. Members for Swansea East and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) clearly and effectively set out the context and complexity of the cohort of female offenders we are talking about. Quite rightly, they highlighted that many women who offend are not only offenders and perpetrators, but victims.
Many hon. Members cited the powerful statistic that about 60% of women in custody have suffered some form of domestic abuse or domestic violence. In the context of those multiple and complex needs, it has also been highlighted that the crimes for which many of those women received custodial sentences were non-violent crimes that did not appear to present any physical threat to broader society.
As hon. Members have highlighted, the female offender strategy—one of my first ministerial decisions on my appointment last summer—set out our future ambition in this area. Kate Green highlighted the whole-system approach at work in Manchester, which we have looked at in that context. I look forward to meeting the deputy Mayor in the coming months to talk to her about her work in that area and the Manchester experience.
Considerable progress has been made. I appreciate the comments of Imran Hussain and I have updated his fellow shadow Minister, Gloria De Piero, who is well aware of our progress in spending that money, which I will touch on, and the longer term plans. I do not take his comments in an unpleasant way; I taken them in the spirit in which they are intended. He is keen to see progress, as are we, and as a diligent shadow Minister he is rightly prodding and pushing me to make sure that we continue to make progress.
Although serious crimes will still justify a custodial sentence in some cases, we were clear in our vision, which was set out in the strategy, for fewer women to get custodial sentences, especially short custodial sentences, and for women to serve custodial sentences in better conditions when they are imposed. The evidence suggests that short sentences simply do not reduce the risk of reoffending among women who have such sentences imposed on them. Our aim must be to protect society from crime and to reduce the number of victims. We must therefore look at what reduces the risk of reoffending, future offences and victims. That runs through the heart of our strategy.
In the shorter term, as we deliver on that strategy and vision, we must ensure that we support women under supervision in the community, so that they are not recalled to prison, with all the disruption and distress that causes. Hon. Members have rightly highlighted the impact on family life—often a short sentence or recall is not enough to make a difference to the life of that woman or reduce the risk of her reoffending, but more often it is enough to make matters worse, causing huge disruption to accommodation, family life and home life.
The hon. Members for Swansea East and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) highlighted that the best point at which to intervene is not when a woman is in the criminal justice system or in custody, but before getting to that point. It is better for such women, for society and for their children to maintain their family life, reducing the risk of their falling into offending. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to work in Wales in that respect. Within the Ministry of Justice, I am the Minister responsible for relationships with the devolved Administrations, and I look forward to working with Jane Hutt—I have met her already—on that and with the Welsh Government on the blueprints for female offenders, to ensure that we have a joined-up approach.
It is also important that such support is gender and trauma informed and helps a woman as a person, rather than taking place in a silo. Hon. Members have touched on a number of factors that play a part in recall—multiple needs, housing, substance misuse, trauma—and on what the statistics say about why most women have been recalled to prison. The main reason comes down to the particular challenge of an offender being out of touch with the supervising officer.
In 57% of cases of women offenders being recalled, the offender had failed to keep in touch with the supervising officer; where the sentence was for less than 12 months, in 71% of cases of female offenders being recalled to custody, again the offender had failed to keep in touch with the supervising officer. I do not mean that they had simply missed an appointment with the probation officer and therefore needed to be punished. Indeed, the power to recall any offender to custody is not to be used punitively. Rather, the probation officer had felt that all reasonable efforts to trace an offender had been exhausted and that there was no other way to bring the offender back in touch.
We must recognise that in some circumstance there is something inherently risky in a situation in which a probation officer is unable to assess an offender’s risk because contact cannot be made. Recalling such an offender might sometimes be unavoidable. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge highlighted those female prisoners serving IPP sentences, and I will reflect carefully on the points she made. However, there can be a number of underlying reasons for an offender to be out of touch, particularly female offenders, given their complex needs, which in many cases form the context of their offending. The HMPPS guidance therefore encourages probation officers to identify alternatives to recall wherever possible, while upholding the integrity of the conditions imposed in the licence.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting Brighton Women’s Centre, which I am pleased to say we recently awarded funding as part of the female offender strategy. That centre, like many across the country, is an excellent example of how women’s centres can play an important role in supporting female offenders to turn their life around. The proposals for five residential women’s centres, which Jean Corston would argue she originated back in 2007, have attracted a lot of attention and form an important part of our approach. Clearly, the foundation of the support services for women will always be in those women’s centres, working in and with the community.
I was grateful that the Brighton service users were willing—incredibly courageously—to share with me, a stranger, their stories and backgrounds. I was particularly interested to hear about the excellent work that Brighton Women’s Centre is doing in partnership with its local CRC. It has begun to use the centre as the location for probation appointments—a trusted space with trusted people—and it means that women who are already using the centre to address other needs can meet their probation officer in an environment that is already familiar to them.
I was told that this co-location model has already seen a 15 percentage point improvement in attendance for reporting appointments for female service users at the Brighton Women’s Centre premises between July 2018 and December 2018. That provides me with optimism. There are models out there that can help to drive down the number of women being recalled to prison because they do not keep in contact with their probation officer. Of course, they can also address other factors that might be problematic in those women’s lives.
We are also working hard to meet the needs of those women who are newly released on licence. CRCs introduced through-the-gate services in 2015 to support offenders in their transition from prison to the community, by providing resettlement support for accommodation—rightly highlighted by many Members today as a hugely important challenge for those leaving prison—and support with employment, finance, mental health and substance misuse.
We know that these services are not currently meeting the standard required. That is why we are investing an additional £22 million a year over the duration of the current CRC contracts, to improve the support given to all offenders on release from custody, with new and enhanced arrangements from April this year. They will include sustained support to find proper accommodation and employment on discharge from prison, and there will be approximately 500 more staff working with offenders after April 2019.
The important role that women-specific services, such as women’s centres, can play in helping a woman to turn around her life is clear. We have announced and awarded the £5 million of investment, alongside our female offender strategy, to support community provision. That is allocated to a range of organisations to support and enhance existing provision, and to develop new services.
In conclusion, we are clear that we wish to see fewer women being recalled to prison for breach of licence and fewer women serving short custodial sentences, and we believe that we are adopting the right approach to achieve that.
I thank everyone who has spoken today for their contributions, because we have had a really grown-up debate. If colleagues will indulge me and my emotions slightly, I spend a lot of time when I am in my constituency, and when I am visiting other parts of the country, meeting women who are in this situation, where they are in prison or have been recalled to prison. Unfortunately, because of the nature of their lives, they will not have heard what we have said today; they will not know that we are interested in them and care about them. All they feel is that the whole system is meant to set them up to fail. They do not really care that we are having these discussions; they are more interested in what we are going to do to help them. So I ask the Minister please to bear in mind that most of these women are victims, all of them have experienced trauma, and it is our moral duty to make sure we do not continue to set them up to fail. If I could hug them all better, I would, but unfortunately I have only one pair of arms. I thank everyone again for coming today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the recall of women to prisons.