I have some stuff to put on the record, so on this occasion I will not.
The Corston report and others have stated that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who offend, and I completely agree. There is no reason why we should be locking up so many vulnerable women who have committed non-violent offences that are, in many cases, crimes of poverty.
Prison, regardless of the length of sentence, even if it is just a matter of weeks, takes away a woman’s job, home and family—everything that has been proven time and time again to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. For those who have committed dangerous offences that leave them a danger to the public, of course, custody is still necessary, but for many, many women, that is simply not the case. Indeed, the Government themselves have recognised the complex challenges that women face and acknowledged the need for change, setting out in their much-delayed female offender strategy that criminalising vulnerable individuals has broader negative social impacts, that short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders and that good community management works.
To address those issues, the Government set out three main objectives in the strategy: 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, despite their warm words in the female offender strategy, we have seen little from the Government about turning vision into reality.
At the end of June, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Edward Argar, who is not here today, issued a written statement on the progress that the Government had made. While he stated that he wishes to celebrate what he calls “improvements”, he should be doing anything but celebrating. What the Ministry of Justice has achieved is simply unacceptable for a year’s worth of work. It just is not good enough.
The first problem that the strategy encounters is woeful underfunding, setting out just £5 million over two years in community provision for women, including an initial £3.5 million grant. Not only is that money already earmarked and allocated elsewhere as part of the violence against women and girls funding, but it is well short of what experts have said is needed.
The Government’s own Advisory Board on Female Offenders told the Justice Secretary that the strategy requires at least £20 million, a view shared by Dr Lee, himself a former Minister, who has confirmed that the strategy is £15 million short. We often disagreed on things when he was my opposite number, but on this issue he had passion and vision, and I thank him for that.
Nor have we seen any progress on the development of the promised residential women’s centres, despite their forming a core part of the female offender strategy. The hon. Member for Charnwood told the House in his written statement that the Ministry of Justice has
“recently concluded our first phase of consultation with local voluntary and statutory agencies”,
“We will continue to consult with partners as we refine…the pilot.”
That is far from good enough.
The Corston report of 2007 made the recommendation to deliver the first network of women’s centres, and the Labour Government delivered it. We acted. We helped to develop and nurture that network, which has proven itself time and time again as a real, productive alternative to custody and has been met with praise by all those working with it.
Yet despite this body of evidence and the fact that their proposals are just a revision of the last Labour Government’s policy, the Government still feel that there is a need for an extended trial. They do not need to conduct a trial. We know that women’s centres work. Instead, they should either be getting on with their residential centres, or investing back into existing women’s centres and those who operate them to expand the network. Over recent years, it has been devastated following a series of cuts imposed by the Government’s reforms to probation, which led private probation providers to see their obligation to women as a requirement not to provide holistic support, but just to provide the option of a female supervisor.
Despite their stated desire to see fewer women in custody and on short-term sentences, the Government have also made little progress on reforming sentencing for female offenders. Women are still being sent to prison for non-violent offences where they are absolutely no danger to the public. They are still being sent to prison for poverty-related offences such as shoplifting or, quite disturbingly, for petty offences such as TV licence evasion—a point made earlier. The hon. Member for Shipley will want to know that women are sent to prison for that at a greater rate than men are.
Is that the society we want, where vulnerable women are sent to prison for petty offences such as TV licences? The Government are also still locking up vulnerable women whose needs and challenges cannot be addressed in prison. In particular, they are still locking up women who are homeless, and at a greater rate, with the number of homeless women sent to prison rising 71% from the 2015 figure.
In conclusion, last year we were promised a strategy that we were told would change the way women are treated in the criminal justice system, building on the highly influential Corston report. But a year on—a year in which the MOJ could have radically transformed the criminal justice landscape for female offenders—we have seen nothing of the sort. The Government should be ashamed of the lack of progress that they have made in the past 12 months. There is an overwhelming consensus among those who work with women and among hon. Members here today that we should be doing more to help female offenders. If this Government will not do it, a Labour Government will.