I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the female offender strategy one year on.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I start by thanking the charity Women in Prison, which visited Parliament earlier this month to lobby MPs and to speak about its #OPENUP campaign, along with my own women’s centre, WomenMATTA, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Crest Advisory, the Magistrates Association, of which I am a life member, and women who have told me stories of their experience of criminal justice over the years. I also thank National Prison Radio, which is carrying a report of this debate because it knows that women in our prisons take great interest in the policy decisions we make here that affect them.
The House has long taken an interest in female offenders, especially since the seminal report by my noble Friend Baroness Corston in 2007. That report highlighted the special circumstances surrounding women’s offending behaviour and the fact that many women who offend have a history of trauma and are vulnerable. The Government’s female offender strategy, published last year, recognised that these important factors underpinned women’s offending and that custody should be a last resort. It was welcome, if late in coming. The strategy included a number of positive measures to encourage the use of alternatives to custody and to help to address the causes of women’s offending, with a focus on early intervention.
Thanks to the Corston report, we already know a lot about the characteristics of women offenders. We know that their needs are often highly complex. Issues include substance misuse and poor levels of education and employment, and many have been victims of abuse themselves. Some 60% of women offenders have experienced domestic abuse, according to the Prison Reform Trust. Many have a history of self-harm and 49% of women prisoners report mental health needs, including anxiety, depression and psychosis. Crucially, many women in our penal system are mothers; over half the women in prison have dependent children. The Prison Reform Trust says that that means around 17,000 children a year will be affected by having a mother spending time in prison.
How do these women come into the criminal justice system? The obvious route is that they will be arrested by the police and taken through the process. Indeed, 103,000 women were arrested by the police in 2017-18. Strikingly, black women were twice as likely as others to be arrested. The most common offences include theft and fraud; shoplifting accounts for 43% of those sentenced for indictable or either-way offences.