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

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

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Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 3:24 pm, 24th July 2019

I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Green on securing the debate.

It is 12 years since Baroness Corston published her review, which looked at the vulnerabilities of women in the judicial system. In that review she highlighted the disproportionate and inappropriate sentences that women face for minor, non-violent offences and the chaos and disruption experienced by their families. She spoke about the many women who were, and still are, victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction and childhood neglect and who end up in prison because of a lack of support. In 2017, 10 years after the Corston review, 74% of Welsh women in prison were serving sentences of less than six months—double the number serving such short sentences when the report was published. With no female prison in Wales—and we do not want one—those women serve their sentences an average of 101 miles from their family. What help is that to a woman who is in turmoil, or to a child who desperately misses their mother? In April, the Welsh Labour Government scrapped outdated and disproportionate prison sentences for those getting into council tax debt, who more often than not are women. It was clear that sending those women to prison for perhaps 12 weeks because they could not afford to pay the money they owed was going to be of no benefit to anyone.

One of the key necessities is an increase in the number of women’s centres as an alternative to prisons; it is essential. Earlier this month, I visited the Nelson Trust in Gloucester. It was like a breath of fresh air for me. Women offenders were being supported, educated and counselled in a suitable environment, enabling them to remain with their families and preparing them for a future away from the criminal justice system.

The Government have committed in the strategy to developing five more women’s centres as a pilot across England and Wales. I ask them please not to forget Wales. Women’s centres are central to the success of the female offender strategy. They make financial sense and will benefit society as a whole. Not only will female offenders be supported in a trauma-informed environment, but when they complete their sentence they will be in a position to move on with their lives with a positive outlook for their future. At the moment, too many women leave prison in dire straits after serving short sentences. They are often homeless, unemployable and desperate, which is why reconviction and recall rates are so high for female offenders.

The key to all that I am describing and to the strategy as a whole is, as with most things, funding. None of the recommendations or promises in the strategy can happen if the Ministry of Justice does not commit to them financially. We know that there will be money available from the sale of HM Prison Holloway. That should unquestionably be used to improve specialist services for women across the criminal justice system, such as the Treasures Foundation, founded by Mandy Ogunmokun to provide a safe female-only recovery environment to support women to overcome their issues and equip them with the tools needed to live a healthy and happy life. We need further settings like that, across the UK, to transform women’s lives. We urgently need the Government to make a commitment showing that they are serious enough about the strategy to make the funds available. We have to get it right. We owe it to society and to the women we should be supporting.