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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:11 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend my hon. Friend Kate Green for securing this debate and I add my tribute to hers. Mine go to the women’s centre, Eden House, in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol East, and to the women who generously told me about their experiences. I will try to concentrate my remarks on my reactions to the written statement and will cut out the bits that hon. Friends have already mentioned.

The vision, established a year ago, stated that the Government wanted to see

“fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, fewer women in custody, especially on short-term sentences, and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully;” and

“better conditions for those in custody.”

However, a recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston shows that the total number of women in custody has increased slightly over the past year. It also shows that the number of women coming into prison for the first time has decreased slightly. A report by the Prison Reform Trust last December showed that the number of women recalled to prison has more than doubled in the past year, and that has happened since the introduction of the Government measures supposedly designed to support people on release. The report reveals that more than 1,700 women were recalled to prison in England and Wales in the past year and that reforms are making things worse, trapping women in the justice system.

I will group bundles of questions together for the Minister; I am also happy to report to him in writing because I understand that he is covering for a colleague. First, what comments does the Minister have on the numbers? Where has the number of women increased in the past year, contrary to the aim of the strategy? What are the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system as a whole? That is also important if we are to evaluate success. How is the Minister learning from the lessons of the very welcome decrease in numbers of women entering prison for the first time? How is he using that information to inform the ways of reducing the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system in the first place?

We all want to prevent more crime. That also means we would prevent more women coming into the criminal justice system. What is the Minister doing to reduce the numbers of women returning to prison owing to lack of support? What progress can the Minister report on in providing them with better conditions while they are in prison?

The statement also mentions the new policy framework. I was glad to read that that was to include duties, rules and guidance and so on, particularly on issues such as caring for perinatal women in prison. I am pleased about that, but I want the Minister or a colleague to tell us how many babies have been born in custody since the policy framework was published and the extent to which their care followed the policy framework and guidance. What was the impact and what lessons can we learn? I apologise to the Minister, but I still have a lot of questions.

Another action is Lord Farmer’s review for women, a welcome development commissioned by the strategy and published recently. It looked at how supporting female offenders in custody and the community to engage with their families lowers recidivism. Whatever anyone says about why we might treat offenders in a particular way, if it lowers recidivism and crime, why would we not want to do it?

Our noble Friend in the other place, Jean Corston, already made those arguments 10 years ago. The Women in Prison report reiterated the case recently in “Corston + 10”. The recently published research evidence briefing, “Why Women’s Centres Work” by DMSS Research, also summarised the research evidence on the benefits of women’s centres to female offending, which is surely something we all want to promote. Why did that review take so long, and why are we not able to see a clear timetable for when the Government will consider the recommendations and the findings? Perhaps it is because we are between Governments.

The statement goes on to say that there should be a women’s residential centre pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. It also mentions partnerships with other agencies, multi-agencies and whole-system approaches. But why only a pilot? Why all the scoping and consultation? The implementation of the Corston report and the evaluation of Corston projects has provided us with all the piloting we could possibly need, especially in a time of low funding. The cuts and the privatisation imposed by the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government really undermined the sustainability of the Corston project in Bristol, Eden House, which was once a great example of a holistic service.

I know I need to close, Ms Ryan, because I have had my four minutes, but I want to urge the Minister and his successors, whoever they may be—perhaps the Minister will be among them—to work with the women’s centres, because what we really want to see is the gender and trauma-informed work across the country, with a proper national network of women’s centres. They do such great work. We want engagement with the members who have experience of such work so that we can do it as well as possible for all of our sakes, but particularly for the women and children.