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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell 2:51 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. It is a pleasure to follow Kate Green, who has long had a passionate interest in the area of women’s justice. I lost count of the number of times that I sat in the Minister’s position listening to her make as good a contribution as she has just made.

For those who do not know, I was the Minister responsible for commissioning the women’s justice strategy. I held on to that position as long as I could, to see the strategy published before resigning over Brexit. In the end, I could not hold on any longer and it was published two weeks after I resigned. It had been ready for a few months. I was fighting hard—I lost the fight—internally for the funding that the hon. Lady alluded to. I do not blame anyone in particular for that; I blame the broader political scene and its short-termism, in which it is believed to be better to fix a few toilets in a prison than to invest long term to try to reduce the number of women in prison.

In response to likely challenges from my hon. Friend Philip Davies, I viewed the women’s justice strategy as a Trojan horse. The principles underpinning it are applicable to men, but the political reality is that doing it for men is much more difficult, because there are more prisoners in the male estate, and given the types of crimes that men are committing, with a few obvious notable exceptions, managing the media and public opinion is more of a challenge, so I thought it was sensible to concentrate on women first.

In the main Chamber there is currently an urgent question on a youth institution for which I was responsible for two years. The youth justice system is also crying out for a revolution in the way it manages people in custody. I tried to do that, too. I have a deep understanding and respect for the Minister, who faces challenges of trying to reform this area. It is difficult, because it only takes one headline in the newspaper for everyone to get the jitters. As a consequence, it is a tough Department to work in and in which to bring about reform.

This strategy went quite some way towards achieving reform. I would like to put on record my huge admiration for the civil servants involved in the process. We worked extremely hard on this. I view this as the biggest piece of work that I achieved in two years. It involved a hell of a lot of evidence gathering, and I had to visit every women’s prison and a number of women’s centres across the country. The strategy, which was published last year, was the culmination of a sizeable piece of work and everyone involved in writing it should be congratulated.

When I became a Minister in 2016, the first thing I read was the Corston report. I had already booked a summer holiday when I was appointed Justice Minister. I did not expect to be a Justice Minister, although I am glad that I was, because I think a doctor in the Ministry of Justice was exactly what was required. I took away a lot of things to read that summer. Most people are currently looking at their phones waiting for news of ministerial appointments; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is doing so. Those who are appointed should go away and think, and spend two to three weeks reading before immersing themselves in the Department. The problem for Ministers is—with the greatest respect to the civil servants present—that the Department sucks them in and they cannot think, and work out what they want to do and what should be a priority.

When I came back after that summer recess, I decided on three priorities, including women’s justice. I inherited a challenged relationship with the women’s justice lobby. It took time to work on that. Everyone in that group, which used to meet quarterly, worked extremely hard, because we could see that this was the right thing to do on a number of levels. Anyone who visits a women’s prison and speaks to prisoners—whatever they have done—is immediately struck by how often they are vulnerable. They often have tell-tale signs of self-harm on their wrists, poor eye contact and a history of coercive relationships, domestic abuse and drug use. Often, as has been alluded to, they tend to be those who are charged for not paying utility bills because they are the homemaker, so their name is on the account and they are disproportionately affected when those bills are not paid.

Visiting those institutions, one thinks, “If they have done things wrong, there needs to be a punitive element.” In fact, I have never met a female prisoner who has not admitted that they have done something wrong and accepted that there should be a punitive element to their sentence. However, prison and custody must be a road back to not offending, and that is quite clearly where we fall down, not just in the women’s system but in the men’s and, particularly, the youth system. Every time I came away from visits to those institutions, I thought to myself, “Continuing to do the same thing is the definition of madness.” We have to try to find a way of making these women law-abiding citizens, supporting them in that process and breaking the cycle that means their children are disproportionately likely to become offenders too.

The idea that came about was residential women’s centres, which is within the strategy; suffice it to say that it was going to have a more prominent place there. The original plan was to build 10 women’s centres, including one in Wales—I say that for all the Welsh Members of Parliament who are present. We recognised that there were some regional disparities in the provision of services for women offenders, which the strategy sought to address.

We also wanted to explore a different way of funding public services, and we got some way with that idea, but it never made it into the strategy. I think private finance initiatives are a disgrace. I was responsible for one particular PFI contract as a Minister—there is a former Minister present who knows which contract I am referring to—which was signed under the Labour Government 12 or 13 years ago. I did not want to go down that path of a quick fix and building some new buildings. Rather, I wanted to put in place something that was sustainable. I had some pretty detailed conversations with charities and philanthropic donors about them covering the capital investment, while the Government would have been responsible for the revenue costs. The idea was that if I could persuade various institutions to build or to extend existing institutions that are often charitable, the Government could step in and guarantee the maintenance costs. I think the idea has merit across Government and I was frustrated at how difficult it was to get people in the room to discuss the concept. The original plan was to do some match funding across the country and to commit revenue. We thought we could create a virtuous circle—starting with 10, moving on to 15 buildings—and, at the same time, selling off prisons that would have been released, as the number of people in prison was going to fall away.