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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:28 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to follow Carolyn Harris. I want to compliment Kate Green on securing the debate and on all the work she has done in the area for many years.

The Scottish Prison Service is of course devolved. This afternoon I will say a little about the female offenders strategy in Scotland, but in response to Philip Davies, I want talk about the good international evidence base for treating women offenders differently.

I am glad to say that Scotland has come a long way in its approach to female offenders in recent years. Until the mid-2000s, women found guilty of failure to pay fines for non-payment of television licences could face a custodial sentence to be served alongside women who had committed far more serious crimes. We do not do that in Scotland any longer. There are far more options for dealing with female offenders, and the procurator fiscal, the prosecutor, has the option of a fixed penalty.

More generally, in 2011 the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, recognised that Scotland needed a new female offender strategy, and he commissioned my former boss, then Lord Advocate for Scotland, Elish Angiolini, to look into the position of women offenders and the prison estate in Scotland. Her commission reported in 2012, and recommended major changes to the way we deal with women offenders in Scotland.

There was only one exclusively female prison in Scotland. It is a big prison outside Stirling called Cornton Vale, which I visited in my previous profession. It was described by the commission as “not fit for purpose”, and I would agree with that. It was designed to house approximately 300 women, but there were often far more women than that, and they were not getting the services and support they needed. The commission also said that a significant number of women who were sent to prison on short sentences reoffended after release. It pointed out that women offenders tend to have complex issues and needs, with many having experienced domestic abuse, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addictions, most of which were not getting treated during their incarceration. Importantly—this refers to what the hon. Member for Shipley said—the Scottish commission did not completely condemn the use of prison for female offenders, which it recognised is necessary for serious offenders, but it highlighted the need for prisons to try to rehabilitate female offenders. As a result of that commission, plans to build a new women’s prison in Scotland with the same capacity as Cornton Vale were ditched, and my friend and colleague, the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, opted for a different approach in light of Elish Angiolini’s recommendations. He based that approach on the fact that short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending by women, and said that we needed to consider a more effective way of addressing the problem.

Instead of building a large new prison, he decided that the existing Cornton Vale would be knocked down, and that a small new prison with the capacity for 80 women should be built. Work on that has started already. In addition to that new prison, it was decided that five community custodial units should be built across Scotland, each able to house around 20 women offenders, and with a focus on addressing the underlying issues that they faced. The first two custodial units were commissioned in Glasgow and Dundee, and it is hoped they will be operational within the next two years. That will introduce a more personal and intensive approach that is more relevant to the needs of the individual. Interestingly, the BBC reported that women in Cornton Vale supported those plans, recognising that there is still a need for a custodial estate.

Let me deal with what the hon. Member for Shipley said by returning to Elish Angiolini’s report and the international evidence base that supports the view that there should be a distinct approach for women offenders. As Elish pointed out, such an approach is compliant with domestic and international law and obligations. Her commission identified three broad areas that support the case for a separate approach: the profile of women offenders, the predictors of reoffending by women, and what works to reduce reoffending among women.

For the profile of female offenders, the evidence base shows that, compared with men, women are more likely to pose a lower risk to public safety and to be in prison for dishonesty offences. They are more likely to be placed on remand and to have higher rates of mental health or drug problems. They are also more likely to have histories of physical and sexual abuse and victimisation, and to have dependent children. The commission did not say that such factors do not exist for male prisoners, just that, compared with men, women are more likely to experience them.