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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Shadow Minister (Wales) 3:02 pm, 24th July 2019

I welcome this debate, which has been sponsored by my hon. Friend Kate Green. There is a cross-party dynamic here today and I pay tribute to Dr Lee, who progressed this issue during the two years that he was in post. I also pay tribute to Mr Gauke, who I am reliably informed has just resigned. Their approach got buy-in from across the political divide.

I had the fortune, although perhaps “misfortune” is the word, to visit a women’s prison, at Eastwood in Gloucestershire, with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about 10 or 12 years ago. It was a depressing experience. The women in the prison freely gave evidence through their dinner time; they were rewarded by getting leftovers for their meal. We sent them a box of House of Commons chocolates as a reward, and they were not even allowed to receive that present. We need to treat all those who are in the criminal justice system with respect.

There is compelling evidence to indicate that custodial sentences of six months or less do not work. The Government have, at last, recognised that and have proposed to do something about it.

All women in prison are disadvantaged, but women in Wales are doubly so. Throughout 2016, 62% of sentenced women entering prison across England and Wales were serving sentences of six months or less. The comparable figure for men was 45%. In Wales, a massive 74% of women prisoners are serving sentences of six months or less. The cost of keeping a person in jail is a massive £50,000 a year. Some of those women are in jail for not paying their TV licence. It is £154 for TV licence; it costs £150 a day to keep that woman in jail. Women are put in jail for not paying their council tax. I am really pleased that the Welsh Government took the initiative earlier this year not to pursue people who have not paid their council tax for a custodial sentence.

I pay tribute to the women’s centre in Rhyl, run by the wonderful Gemma Fox: it does fantastic work on a shoestring budget. She only has about nine volunteers at the moment, and they look after 300 women a year. One hundred of those women have gone through the penal system. The women’s centre is not given the resources it should be, and more women are ending up in custody; in fact, North Wales is the worst police authority of the 43 in the country for sending women to prison.

Some 80% of austerity cuts have ended up on the shoulders of women. That has a consequential effect on their world view and on their ability to provide for their families. As a last resort, many of them have committed crimes, such as shoplifting or not paying their bills, and they have ended up in prison because of that.