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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:20 pm, 24th July 2019

I thank Kate Green for setting the scene, and for her contribution. We live in a world where “equality” is a buzzword. We should strive for equal pay for equal labour, for the right person to get the job regardless of their gender and for all jobs to be open to any gender. However, being equal does not mean being the same. That is why we need a dedicated strategy for female offenders. That is what I want. The pressures and outcomes are vastly different and need specialised attention.

The issue is complex and I can see where difficulties arise in a family scenario. Whether we like it or not—we probably do—there is a need for compassion and understanding in the process. There is the option of a curfew. That causes difficulties if an offender’s child gets sick and needs to go to hospital. Another issue is the burden of fines and the effect that they can have on the child. It is difficult to find alternatives to prison, but we must look for them. However, I firmly believe that if dependent children are a factor, we must strive to do what we can for the family unit while still ensuring that the duty to justice is met. We do not say it should not be met; we are saying it needs to be looked at differently. We must ensure that any punishment dished out to female offenders affects their children as little as possible.

Figures show that 54% of female offenders have children under the age of 18. Having their mother in prison can be a difficult experience for children. Those are complex issues, but some families have to face them; that is what the debate is about. However, we can and should explore alternatives to prison to ensure that children are affected as little as possible. I agree with Lord Farmer’s report citing the importance of maintaining family ties for female offenders to ensure that they do not reoffend. He says that prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend and that that is even more important for women than men. Women make up just under 5% of the prison population in England and Wales. Yet they are more likely than men to reoffend. For that reason it is paramount that we focus, in the time they are in prison, on trying to prevent female offenders from reoffending.

There is a problem that needs attention. Serving short sentences could cause women to lose their jobs and could have other big effects on their lives. Reports indicate that in that situation inmates are more likely to be exposed to mental health issues and to self-harm. Those issues are specific to the female population. I do not say those things do not happen to men, but the numbers I am aware of through the stats and information we have indicate to me that we have to do something for them. If we want to stop them reoffending, we must ensure that prison does not seriously damage female offenders to the point where they do reoffend. Damaged people are more likely to break the law, owing to a sense of hopelessness. That is a fact.

It is, however, striking to read the stories of women finding prison an experience of being treated better inside than outside. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of women prisoners have experienced domestic abuse. Prison can therefore be both a positive and a negative experience. It is important that the Government work to stamp out domestic abuse in the UK and help women escape from their abusive partners and find an alternative to resorting to prison to escape the abusive partnerships they are trapped in.

I concur with the Magistrates Association, which has highlighted the importance of making appropriate community sentences available for all. It has said that the justice system must be part of the process of early intervention, by supporting proper signposting or diversion where appropriate—not simply for women, but for all of those for whom it is suitable.

Time has beaten me, so I shall say only this. We have to do better at intervention, especially when statistics tell us that there is less chance of reoffending and more stability for children with the approach in question. I sincerely believe that the punishment must fit the crime regardless of gender, but there must be a red-line standard that is not crossed for female offenders.