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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:46 pm on 24th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 3:46 pm, 24th July 2019

Of course, Mrs Ryan. I am grateful for the reminder, because the mover of the debate, Kate Green and I served on the Justice Committee together for some years. I pay tribute to her for this debate and for her work.

I will just address the remarks by the Opposition spokesman, Imran Hussain, for whom I have very high regard. I think he is a little unfair when he suggests that all the work that needs to be done under this strategy, or the progress that he envisages, could have been achieved in just one year. Those of us who have worked closely with the criminal justice system for many years know that the best and most sustainable reforms take time. We are dealing with a developing cohort of prisoners—men, women and children—who have differing needs and who need to be managed sensitively. It is not an easy task.

In saying that it is not easy, I am not shying away at all from the nature of the responsibility that I and the Ministry of Justice have to get this right. That is why, in the strategy, there was a refreshing frankness about the need to acknowledge the issue and to get not only the language but the approach right.

[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Today’s debate has been, in great measure, mature, sensible and evidence-based, and I welcome the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members. My hon. Friend Philip Davies is right, by the way, in his figures when it comes to sentenced women offenders; about one third of them are in custody because of offences of violence against a person. He is correct about that. He is also right to remind us that justice must be equal, and that there will be plenty of occasions when, regardless of the gender of the individual before a judge, that person will have to go to prison for serious offences. I think David Hanson, a former Prisons and Home Office Minister, acknowledged that.

We should not shy away from the reality facing judges and magistrates: there will be times when custody has to be the option, bearing in mind the seriousness of the offence. What I want to see from the criminal justice system—I speak at a time of change; we have an interregnum in my Department—is a system that is smart, not just in the use of resources, but in the administration of justice and our penal system, in a way that means that, when people have served their punishment and are released from custody, we end up with fewer victims of crime, not more. That is what reducing reoffending is all about.

There have been a lot of important pieces of information today; I agree with hon. Members who made the point that most custodial sentences for women are short. In 2018, 77% of custodial sentences for women were less than 12 months, compared with 62% for men. Over the same period, 55% of female offenders were sentenced to a custodial sentence length of up to and including three months, compared with only 35% of male offenders. To balance out the correct statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley cited, last year just over one third of immediate custodial sentences for women were for shoplifting offences, compared with only 11% for men, and the average custodial sentence served was just under two months.

I went to Eastwood Park women’s prison a few weeks ago, and the average sentence length there is about 10 weeks, which is not enough time to do much with a convicted prisoner or to do meaningful work, other than to provide as much support and help as possible for women who are often in a very difficult position. We must all understand the point about vulnerability and the evidence base about the female cohort in order to get this strategy right.

Female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems. The figures are stark: it is 49% of women and 18% of men. About 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse. Female prisoners are more likely to have been taken into care, experienced abuse or witnessed violence in the home as a child. Clear evidential facts rightly underpin our strategy.

The figures relating to custody for non-payment of television licences are, I am glad to say, low. Four women were admitted to custody for non-payment of television licences in 2018, and in the same year three women were admitted to custody for non-payment of council tax. It is important that I put that on the record for balance. Sadly, too many people in our country are living in very straitened circumstances, and plenty of people in those circumstances do not end up in the criminal justice system. We must be very careful when we talk about the cycle of poverty and what it means for offending. Having represented many women in very difficult circumstances as counsel, I know the challenges that many of them face. The lives that they have led are not lives that anybody here would choose to lead. I have seen it for myself. Eastwood Park was familiar to me because some of my clients served sentences there. That is why I was particularly interested in seeing its excellent mother and baby unit and talking to the women, some of whom were in for longer periods. Their experiences and what they had to say were profoundly interesting. Some of the younger women I met were in for only a very short period, but even to my unclinical eye some were clearly vulnerable.

The strategy recognises those facts. It recognises the range of women’s need. In setting out the three-pronged aims, it reinforces and embeds what Baroness Corston found in her groundbreaking report of 2007. The aims are that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system in the first place, that fewer women should serve short custodial sentences, and that we should create a positive environment that supports the rehabilitation of women who need to be in custody.

Hon. Members have spent much time rightly examining the work that has been done. Some criticism has been made of the £5 million multi-year funding. Of course, that is not the only part of our response to support women who are themselves victims or in a cycle of offending. I am sorry that an hon. Member who intervened in the debate but is no longer present found the system to be unduly bureaucratic. We must ensure that the way the funding is spent is based on sound evidence, and that it has a positive effect. That funding is being rolled out effectively, sustaining and enhancing 26 services to develop new women’s centres and to pilot innovative specialist services across England and Wales.

I make no apology for piloting initiatives. We have to get this right. The Government were rightly criticised for jumping the gun when it came to transforming rehabilitation and making assumptions that sadly could not be sustained. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Edward Argar—who sadly could not be with us today because he is addressing the House on an urgent question—and I feel very strongly about that. This is also about the work that is being done more widely.