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.

Alert me about debates like this

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

I agree both that we need women’s centres to develop all over the country and that they need certainty of funding so that they are sustainable.

We have seen other problems with delivery of the strategy. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I describe the transforming rehabilitation programme as a total failure. It has not been able to deliver, for example, specialist provision for women through community rehabilitation companies, and at the moment we do not know what the new probation model will look like for women. Through the Gate simply has not happened as envisaged.

There are even basic things such as women not being able to apply for universal credit in advance of their release date, or to apply for housing. They will not get a house because they do not have their children living with them, which means that they cannot have their children living with them because they do not have a house when they are released. It is the case that 13% of women are released to no fixed abode—a truly terrifying prospect—and only 22% to secure permanent accommodation, according to Her Majesty’s inspectors of prison and probation. As a result of the lack of a safe destination to release women to, many will be forced to return to the abuser, who may be the root cause of their offending, and will turn to alcohol, drug or other substance misuse and to reoffending.

Pre-sentence reports are still being prepared without full information and without being informed by gender considerations. Sentencers are not always taking account of the interests of children when sentencing a mother to or remanding her in custody, yet the impact on children of a mum going to prison is absolutely dire. Fewer than 10% of children remain in their family home when a mother is imprisoned.

What do we want to happen, and will the Minister offer us assurances that some of these suggestions will happen? First, will he look at what can be done systematically to ensure that the police, wherever possible, divert women away from arrest? That is being considered now by the all-party parliamentary group for women in the penal system, which I have the honour to co-chair with Baroness Corston and Victoria Prentis, whom I am very pleased to see present at this debate.

Will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to spread retail diversion schemes such as we have in Bury, in Greater Manchester, across the country? Will he say how the Government are working with non-police prosecutors, so that we can end the use of custody for TV licence offences, truancy offences and so on?

Crucially, what will the Government do to secure sustainable, adequate funding for community provision and particularly for both women’s centres and the range of partners that work with them? Can the Minister say what role he envisages for the new probation service? How will it develop women-specific programmes, or will women’s centres become the default model for provision? What can be done to build sentencer confidence in community provision? I would argue that one step that the Government must take is to ensure proper information for sentencers and proper training for them on the outcomes from community and custodial sentences. Will the Minister ensure that gender-sensitive, gender-informed, pre-sentence reports are made mandatory and that there is suitable training for report writers? Will he say what the Government can do to put more emphasis on, as part of community sentences, treatment orders, including, as the Magistrates Association has suggested, financial planning support?

All stages of the process must take account of the best interests of children, so will the Minister ensure that sentencers do follow the guidance, which exists, that they should consider the impact on children in sentencing a mother and that they should ensure that arrangements are made for them prior to sending any mother into custody? Better still, in my view, would be ensuring that alternatives to custody are considered in all cases for primary carers.

Will the Government now move forward to legislate for a presumption against short sentences as a matter of urgency? Will they also adopt the suggestion, from the Committee that scrutinised what is now the Domestic Abuse Bill, to introduce a statutory defence in that legislation?

When transforming rehabilitation was first proposed, I thought that post-release supervision was a good idea, but having seen it in practice, I have changed my mind. In 2017, about 1,000 women were recalled to prison while on supervision following a custodial sentence of under 12 months. In the context of the female prison population as a whole, that is a lot of women. Its use appears to be ill judged, disproportionate and harmful.

Will the Minister consider ending post-release supervision and replacing it with holistic support, including housing, education, mental health and employment? No woman should ever be released into homelessness—can the Minister guarantee that that will not happen? Can he guarantee that no woman—or man—will ever be released on a Friday, when services are not available on the weekend to receive them? Will he once again press the Department for Work and Pensions to expedite the ability to start the universal credit application process before a woman is released from prison? Finally on my shopping list, will he ensure that a women’s centre link worker is placed in every single women’s prison?

I urge the Minister to continue the roll-out of the full-system approach across the country, because it works. In Cleveland, where they do not have it, 67 in every 100,000 women offenders are imprisoned, in Greater Manchester it is only 25 per 100,000. A whole-system approach should not be criminal justice driven. We need place-based, gender-informed, holistic preventative services in every local authority accessible to every vulnerable woman. That is the women’s strategy I would like to see; I urge the Government to embrace it.