An absence of strategy in women's justice

Jean CorstonBaroness Jean Corston is a Labour Peer and a former Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party

It is five years this week since the publication of A Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System – a report in which I called for a ‘distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’.

The previous Labour Government gave the report almost overwhelming endorsement, and in Parliament last week Coalition Ministers in both the Commons and Lords have backed it too. Nevertheless, I am moving an amendment to Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill this week to draw attention to a yawning gap in current Government thinking and policy.

Each year, about 11,000 women are held in our prisons with just under 4,300 at any one time.  With about 83,000 male prisoners at present, it is easy to conclude that women are an afterthought in a system designed for and by men.  Women and men are different.  Equal treatment does not result in equal outcomes.  No one person or body has any responsibility for women’s prisons and in view of the fact that there are so few of them (just 13 at present), very few prison staff has the right experience.

So who are these women?

Most are mothers; about 18,000 children every year are affected by their mother’s imprisonment. Some are pregnant, drug users, alcoholics, and often looked thin and unwell. They have been sexually, emotionally and physically abused, often since childhood. Some were not in control of their lives and don’t have many choices. They self-harm, and many have mental health problems. They are poor, and have had a limited education. They are serving derisory, short sentences for petty offences, which do not warrant imprisonment, at the end of which they all too often lose their homes and their children.

But they are not all the same; they are individuals.

Last month, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said of women’s prisons:

“We cannot go on like this… without senior, visible leadership with real authority and resources to push things through.”

It all therefore, needs visible leadership and Ministerial oversight, with civil servants working together across departments to reduce the numbers of women in prison so they can be dealt with effectively in the community.  This happened before the 2010 election, with sterling work done by Maria Eagle MP and Vera Baird QC, then also an MP.  They worked with a cross departmental team of civil servants.  Officials are often more secure in their comfort zone departmental ‘silos’ but there is nothing to stop them using opportunities for creative working together.

Either way, strategic ministerial oversight has now gone.  Ministers intend to devolve the budget and responsibility for women who offend, and those at risk of offending, to probation trusts at regional levels.  The problem with this is that is there is very little experience at that level of working with women.  Contracts have been and will be awarded to organisations with no proven track record.  And without ministerial oversight, it will be easy to slip back into old ways, with women once more overlooked.

The Government has also declined to publish its strategy for women who offend or are at risk of offending, though they often make reference to it.  But we need a strategy as an overarching framework, to provide a clear steer to women’s community projects and probation trusts.  A ‘virtual’ strategy is no strategy. It is meaningless if no one knows the detail and it is impossible to monitor progress and ensure accountability.

What I ask for is not a costly option but a basic minimum requirement in the Government’s avowed intent to progress what has now been dubbed the ‘Corston Agenda’.  When the strategy is written down there will be no reason or excuse for either ignorance of the strategy or a failure to deliver.

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