Female Offender Strategy: One Year On — [Joan Ryan in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges 2:30 pm, 24th July 2019

My hon. Friend makes a good point; we know that traumatic brain injury is one of the routes by which women come into custody, and we see disproportionate representation of women with brain injury inside our prisons.

What sentences do women receive? Fines are most common and their use has been increasing. They are often seen by criminal justice practitioners as an effective and swift means of justice. But as the Magistrates Association points out, many women cannot afford to pay the fines that are imposed, which leads them into debt or pressures them into reoffending.

By contrast, the use of community penalties has been falling since 2015, with community penalties representing only 5% of sentences received by women, which is half the rate we saw a decade ago. While there has been a welcome fall in the number of women sentenced to custody, three quarters of those who received custodial sentences were imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months. I believe that short custodial sentences have been shown not to be effective and not a good use of money. Some 70.6% of women receiving a custodial sentence of under 12 months in the period from April to June 2016 went on to reoffend. Such sentences are not achieving a reduction in reoffending.

Many women are in custody now as a result of being recalled to prison following release and during a period of post-release supervision. That has been exacerbated by transforming rehabilitation changes, which introduced post-release supervision for those who had served short custodial sentences. In practice, the failure of such supervision arrangements to recognise women’s caring responsibilities, their lack of access to transport and their anxiety about leaving the house is leading many women to miss appointments. They are therefore in breach of the terms of their release and find themselves going back in through the revolving door of recall.

I contend that our system is clearly not working for women or for wider society. That was understood by the Government too, because the 2018 female offender strategy sought to address a number of those concerns and issues. What specifically did the strategy introduce? It introduced some £5 million over two years for investment in community provision, including £2 million for programmes to address domestic abuse, and a pilot to introduce five residential women’s centres. The strategy was explicit in its ambition to reduce the number of short custodial sentences served by women. It introduced new guidance for the police on dealing with vulnerability, and guidance on whole-system approaches, such as we have had for a number of years in my home city of Manchester. It also sought to introduce a national concordat on women offenders.