Justice Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 92

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Justice Committee

on Tuesday 29 January 2013

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith (Chair)

Steve Brine

Rehman Chishti

Jeremy Corbyn

Nick de Bois

Mr Elfyn Llwyd

Andy McDonald

Graham Stringer

Yasmin Qureshi

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Juliet Lyon CBE, Director, Prison Reform Trust, Frances Crook OBE, Director, The Howard League for Penal Reform, and Clive Martin, Director, Clinks, gave evidence.

Chair: Ms Lyon from the Prison Reform Trust, Ms Crook from the Howard League and Mr Martin from Clinks, welcome. At least two of you are quite regular visitors to us, but you are as welcome as ever for the help you can give us in our inquiry on women offenders. I am just going to see if there are any interests to be declared.

Mr Llwyd: I should declare that I am a member of the Howard League.

Q138 Chair: Unless anyone else has anything to add, that is probably the only relevant interest to be declared.

To start us off, could you give us a concise view of the progress that has been made in implementing the Corston recommendations?

Frances Crook: Perhaps I could give an overview about my concerns as to what is happening at the moment. There was a great push towards trying to implement the Corston recommendations, particularly with the funding for the women’s centres, the establishment of women’s centres in the community and the political support for the women’s centres, both at a local level and national level, and the organisation that was set up to coordinate them. That was all good grounding but it has stalled recently. My concern is that there is support at ministerial level, but I am less convinced that there is support at Secretary of State level. We are particularly worried, of course, about the funding. If women are to manage in the community, helped to change and live lawabiding lives and not come into contact with the criminal justice system, we need to put that support network in at a local level, where they can get access to the range of services that they need to deal with their families, debt, mental health, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and their homelessness. That is where the women’s centres come in. If we do not have support for these centres, we are in real trouble.

We can see that over the past year or so that, the prison population has dropped by around 3,000-which is much to be welcomed and saves the public a lot of money, unnecessary money. This allows the Secretary of State to close prisons, which will of course save quite a lot of money-however the women’s prison population has not fallen at the same rate as the men’s. Unless there is real leadership given at a national level, we will fail to see the real changes in practice affecting so many women and their families across the country.

Juliet Lyon: I was pleased to be a member of the Corston review, following the deaths of the six young women at Styal. I had high hopes at that point that the Corston review would be the pivotal route to changing what had been a very disappointing response to previous inquiries. Just briefly, in 2000, the Prison Reform Trust published the independent Wedderburn review, which had similar recommendations to those of Baroness Corston. Following that, there was Fawcett; there was a Cabinet Office review and a joint inspectorate thematic report. There were a number of reviews, all of which said pretty much the same thing, that it would be perfectly possible in relation to public safety to reduce the number of women going to prison, that the emphasis should be on proportionality in sentencing and fairness and there should be options in the community, bearing in mind that most women were nonviolent, petty persistent offenders in the main and that many had primary care responsibilities for their children.

As Frances has said already, myriad needs had to be met, otherwise the offending was likely to continue. So when Baroness Corston undertook her review, particularly given the reason that it was brought into being, we had hopes. After it was submitted to the Government, there was a very long period of time before there was any formal response. Thereafter, the Government said that, in principle, they accepted-I think it was-41 of the 43 recommendations. But apart from some very distinct changes, which I draw attention to, the response has been slow. One change was stopping routine strip searching, in recognition of the number of women who had been sexually abused or experienced domestic violence. Routine strip searching was seen to be no longer acceptable. That was a reform that was possible because of the Corston review and that was important.

We then thought that Government would move on to some of the wider recommendations, in particular the blueprint for reform, which is included in Baroness Corston’s review, which made it absolutely clear that you needed leadership and accountability, a preparedness to work across Government Departments, and that the solutions would not all be found within the prison system, or indeed even within the Ministry of Justice. In particular, she drew attention to the health needs of women, which we would say are paramount in relation to mental health need, substance misuse and so forth. The response has been disappointingly slow, the leadership has been largely absent and there is the kind of feeling of, "Accountability-so what?"

There was a commitment last year by Lord McNally to introduce a strategy on women offenders, which we welcomed. That is still awaited. I understand that the Government want to get it right, but at the same time it is very disappointing because with each month or day that passes more women go to prison who do not need to. Compare it briefly to the Scottish report by Elish Angiolini, the former Lord Advocate in Scotland, who has led a Commission on Women Offenders in Scotland. She reported that the Justice Secretary responded immediately. If I could just read the last recommendation under "Making it work", what she required and what actually happened was that "The Cabinet Secretary for Justice reports to the Scottish Parliament within six months of the publication of this report, and annually thereafter, on the steps taken to implement the recommendations in this report." That is indeed what is happening in Scotland.

Chair: Thank you very much. Mr Martin.

Clive Martin: I would agree with both my colleagues but would add that I think Corston achieved three things in addition to the focus on women. One was the Corston Independent Funders Coalition, which is symbolic of a civic and Government coalition to tackle a wide social problem. That included investment, buyin and a will to look jointly at an issue. That was a huge success of Corston and that has gone very wobbly. In some ways-without wanting to use too strong a word-it could be seen as almost a breach of trust between Government and civic society, where you had an agreement on something and how we could progress.

The second is about the women’s centres themselves in terms of what the criminal justice system was trying to do, which was almost to stop the flow of people into the criminal justice system. The women’s centres were the best bet we have of doing that so far. That is now, of course, in jeopardy with the combination of a reduction in funding and confusion about the funding mechanisms by which they will exist.

The third thing I would say is that the whole role of the voluntary sector which Corston promoted and encouraged was, in our view, absolutely essential. Many women offenders have a bad and negative experience of statutory services-that is part of the reason they are not really engaged with them-and this offered a chance for there to be decent services, decency for women. Those three factors seem to have dissipated over the last 18 months. Our feeling is that progress is certainly stalling very badly. The engine is stalling.

Q139 Steve Brine: As to the "Transforming Rehabilitation" paper-and I am guessing everyone has read it and keeps it under their pillows at night-what is your view, and we will start with Juliet Lyon, of the implications of the proposals in that paper for any forthcoming strategy on women offenders? There is at least one paragraph in the document that relates to female offenders, which you could say is a bad thing, but you could also say is a good thing because maybe they are keeping their powder dry. What is your view on the document?

Juliet Lyon: I think the document itself is mixed. What we do welcome is an emphasis on rehabilitation. That is hugely important. In particular in relation to women offenders, I think there are one or two unintended consequences that the Government need to be mindful of before they bring anything into place. The proposal, for example, to have supervision and support for people, even those serving short sentences, will disproportionately apply to women because, disproportionately, they do serve very short sentences. I suppose, because all the major reports and work that has been done that I have referred to earlier significantly say that the solutions do not all lie within prison, there are two risks. One is that the courts will feel encouraged that they can send women to prison knowing that, even though they are serving a very short time and there will be massive disruption and separation from family, they will then get the support and supervision they need. That is essentially using criminal justice as a gateway to the kind of treatment and support they have needed in the past. That is a risk that needs to be mitigated in some way.

The other thing is that, in terms of the support and supervision, it comes with a bit of a price in that there will be an issue about compliance so that, if women breach a particular requirement, then they may be further taken through the justice system and end up serving more time behind bars. I think it is a mixed blessing, although, in principle, for anyone who needs to go to prison for whatever length of time because the courts deem it essential, having support and supervision afterwards is good. So that is one area that is potentially a bit problematic.

The other area is probation itself and the proposal to fragment the service. At lot of the women’s centres I have seen-and I was at one last week with the Minister, Helen Grant, and her officials, the ISIS Centre in Gloucester-the contribution of probation is really significant. The very good centre in Bristol is run by probation. There is probation in the Calderdale centre. Again, the partnership between probation and the women’s centre is what makes it so strong and effective. I do not think sufficient thought has been given to the particular role that different probation trusts have been playing in relation to the development of the most effective women’s centres. There are specific things that are going to need attention.

Q140 Steve Brine: From what you have said, do I take it that you say "fragment" but others may say "introduce new providers with new ideas that can get different results" because the status quo is clearly not great? With probation leading, if two probation trusts decide to work together, pool resources and introduce new providers into it, why is that "fragment" and not "improve"?

Juliet Lyon: It is always important to look to innovate and you should not just accept that things are as they are, but community sentences in general are outperforming short prison sentences by a factor of 8.3%, so nearly 10% better already. It always seems to me that if the Government has a success on its hands it should look to build on that success rather than try and dismantle something. So why not try and make sure that all the probation trusts and services are up to the highest possible standard of the very best ones? Of course I am not saying do not introduce providers, but there is the worry that the small voluntary organisations that do so well with women in the localities will not be able to bid because they are not big enough fish so they will become sub-primes or subsub-primes of the very big providers. I am not sure that is a good equation, either in terms of their financial resources or indeed their identity as a voluntary organisation.

Q141 Steve Brine: Frances, do you agree with that-"fragment" or "improve"?

Frances Crook: Fragment, not improve. The system, which is relatively new for centres for women, is working quite well, arguably perhaps better than the system for men. The genderspecific services provided by women’s centres, and by some other community sentences, at a local level works quite well. The reoffending rate for women is much lower than for men. There are all sorts of reasons for that, I appreciate, but perhaps it is also because those women are linked into other services so effectively. The women’s centres and services specifically for women are seen as a very holistic service, not specifically just dealing with one part of their behaviour but linking them into the back story of their lives and helping them to change. That is incredibly important, but it is not cheap: it is very specialised and gender specific and it needs to be a dedicated service for women only. That is my real concern.

If the Government’s plan is to build a national or a regional bidding system for the big corporates to run these things, as Juliet says, these firms will subcontract and subcontract. Or, they will want to run their own services, because it will be too expensive to sub-prime specific services for women and therefore women will be lumped in with men, which is unsafe for many of them. Most of the women who are involved in offending have been victims themselves and require quite a lot of careful management, with extra safety and extra care, because they have often been victims of male violence, domestic violence, pimping and all sorts of things like that. So I am not convinced that the national or regional commissioning model for managing women on community sentences or post custody, which will be almost entirely allocated to run by the private sector, will serve women well at all. We would be dismantling a system which at the moment is working well.

Q142 Steve Brine: Chair, with your permission, I want to ask Mr Martin about what he says in written evidence, because it is such a big question, as to what a new strategy should focus on, or we will never get on to question 3.

Mr Martin, for our benefit, is it the case, as Women’s Breakout say in their written evidence, that since May last year the Government have not involved the third sector in its preparation of this longawaited document on women offenders?

Clive Martin: Not much, no; there has not been much engagement.

Q143 Steve Brine: They say they have not and you say "not much". Which is it?

Clive Martin: There has been postannouncement consultation about certain principles. There has not been, for example, an up-front discussion about, say, mentoring- mentoring means many different things and the voluntary sector is expert at it-such as "How could we implement it? What do we need to do to get from what is a postcode lottery to national mentoring?" There has been no consultation about that whatsoever. There has been no consultation around genderspecific services, racespecific services or anything of that nature. There has been posttheevent consultation around certain detail but not in terms of what we would think of playing to the strengths of the voluntary sector and early consultation about certain aspects of it.

Chair: I am lingering a bit because my question about strategy will emerge, to some extent, from some of the subsequent points that are going to be raised.

Q144 Mr Llwyd: One of the frustrating things about this discussion is that there seems to be overall a recognition that the prison estate for women is not working; yet not a great deal is happening at the moment and some of us are very concerned about this. Several witnesses have told us, including HM Inspectorate of Prisons, for example, that women’s prisons are too big, too far away from women’s homes and do not provide the level of care which is necessary. Why do you believe that the previous Government took the decision not to accept Baroness Corston’s recommendations to establish smaller custodial units?

Juliet Lyon: It is because, essentially, the review that occurred was an inhouse review conducted by officials who took a large prison and reduced it so that the economy of scale no longer applied and they realised how very expensive it would be to build small custodial units for women. It was an approach that failed completely to take account of Baroness Corston’s recommendations about a network of women’s centres in the community, some of which might have residential accommodation attached. Consequently, if you had looked at it from the other end of the telescope, "What could be done for vulnerable women in the community who did not represent a serious risk to the public?", you would have been left with a very small number, albeit serious offenders, who would need to be detained in units of that kind. Then you could have looked at it differently.

The other failure was not to do it in conjunction with Health but to look at the ways in which, given the level of health need, Health and Justice could work together, and probably the Home Office too in relation to the foreign national women. So there was nothing much that was joined up about the process. It said everything about simply taking prison statistics and boiling them down. Of course, if you take a prison for 600 or 1,000 men and try and boil it down to a handful of women, it is going to be incredibly costly. So I think there were other models. I do not think there was any international overview taken of smaller units in other countries, which has subsequently been done by Women in Prison. It was one of those failed exercises. It wasted about a year. It was another year following the Corston review where that was supposedly under consideration, with a disappointing outcome.

Frances Crook: I would agree exactly with what Juliet said. I perhaps will say it a little more bluntly. I think there are two reasons. One is cost, because exactly as Juliet said, the Government misconstrued the Corston recommendations as having have to build extra units on top of the prisons they already had, without recognising that the idea was to close the and end up with small units, rather like we currently have for children. The local authority-run units for children-are indeed expensive, but if we replicated that structure for women we would probably only need places for 50 to 80, maximum 100, women in those units and the other 3,900 could be released and managed in the community perfectly safely.

Q145 Chair: With 50 to 100, were you talking about-

Frances Crook: I meant women in custody.

Q146 Chair: Places or units?

Frances Crook: Places. For public safety reasons, you would only need 50 to 100 places for women in custody in England and Wales.

The other reason that the last Government failed to act, on these recommendations and this change was lack of political courage. I think they were afraid of a political backlash. It does not have to be the case; you do not have to get a political backlash. If you look at what is happening in parts of America at the moment, where the Republican party is leading on radical prison reform programmes, closing prisons and investing in community-and it has been led by the Republican right-it is possible to lead the public and talk about prison reduction in quite different terms and take the public with you. I am hoping that there will be stronger leadership given by this Government about reductions in the use of prison, which is already happening with the men but not with the women. I hope it is going to happen with the women as well.

Q147 Mr Llwyd: Ms Lyon, you referred to international comparators in terms of smaller units. Would you like to expand on that?

Juliet Lyon: I think you have Women in Prison giving evidence to you later this morning and because they have done this review of the small custodial units it would be best if they were able to respond because their document covers a number of examples. But, essentially, what we know is that we here in England and Wales are particularly keen on locking up women compared to our international neighbours, especially our European neighbours, and there have been a number of examples over the years. For example, there was a unit in Germany that was visited by Woman’s Hour, I remember, where prison staff worked alongside welfare staff. The women were curfewed to return to that centre in the evening. The children could live there, so they were able to attend school. It was kind of a transitional place, a halfway house, between a prison and being wholly out in the community. It appeared to be working very well. It was profiled by Woman’s Hour years ago in 2001. So there have been efforts to try and show a different way of managing women, not making excuses for crimes, not dismissing crimes, but a way of reducing reoffending.

Q148 Mr Llwyd: I think it is common ground that the current situation is not appropriate in terms of the female prison estate, but do you accept there have been some improvements of late?

Juliet Lyon: I accept that, as things stand, women sometimes have their lives saved by going to prison. We could step from here into Holloway now and we would see women arriving in the most terrible state, women who have been sleeping on the streets, women who have been trafficked into offending, women who are so rattling with drugs, or for whom binge drinking has become something that is so habitual and they are in such a terrible state, that that period of time in prison will stabilise and sometimes save their lives and improve their health. It is a terrible indictment that for some women prison is a safer place than any options they have in the community. Often, when I talk to women in prison they are talking about whether they can escape domestic violence. There was a selfhelp group set up at Styal prison, for example, by the women to try to discuss ways they could escape going back into violent relationships.

I would not ever underestimate either what prison can do in the current circumstances or indeed what staff try and do. The defining difference between what happens in a large, closed women’s prison and a women’s centre, which you can see if you visit a women’s centre, is that women in a women’s centre have to take responsibility for their lives. They are given support and encouragement and often probation supervision if they are on a court order, but the whole requirement is on them to change their lives. They have to get out of debt, have to look after their children and have to address addictions or get the mental healthcare they need. As I said, all of that is with support, but they are taking responsibility; it is in their hands. Women in prison are infantilised. They often behave like girls, and they are often treated like children or young girls.

Q149 Mr Llwyd: What discussions have you had with the Ministry of Justice in relation to the ongoing review recently announced of the female custodial estate?

Juliet Lyon: We have had a brief discussion and we are hoping that next week, when we are seeing the official who is leading for women, who is coming to the Prison Reform Trust offices, that we will have further discussion. We are not clear who is leading that review. We are clear that it is intended to be radical, that we are not just talking about, "Let’s look at the women’s prisons and where they are situated," but rather geographically what is needed across the country, which I think would involve re-roleing or closing establishments, so that there would be a more sensible picture in terms of location. It is very important that that review is joined up with the potential for and the actual provision of women’s centres and other facilities for women that are provided by Health.

Q150 Mr Llwyd: Location is a crucial issue, isn’t it, because of the proximity to family and so on?

Juliet Lyon: Absolutely. You are right, but the other thing, which is a very sad truth, is that women will trek across the country to take children to see their dads-they will go miles-and you meet them in visitor centres and many have travelled all day. You can visit a women’s prison and be in a visitor centre and it is half empty. The statistics bear that out. If you look at the research, very few women have visits. Often, there is no one at home who is looking after the children who would be prepared to take them to visit their mum. Sometimes, they don’t want visits. A colleague of mine at Prison Reform Trust, when she was in prison, did not want her daughter to visit; she felt it would be too traumatic and was prepared to forgo that. It was very painful, I know, for her but she could not bear her daughter coming into that environment.

Q151 Mr Llwyd: Is it true as well that there would be a number of kids, unfortunately, who would be taken into care due to those circumstances?

Juliet Lyon: Yes, but it is a smaller percentage than public perception. Records we have been able to examine indicate less than 10%. The vast majority are farmed out to family and friends. Sometimes that is successful, sometimes not. But a lot more care and attention could be paid to dependent children. It was pleasing to see the Sentencing Council changing their guidelines in relation to drugs offences and looking, in relation to mitigation, at people with primary care responsibilities, which obviously included the few men who are lone dads as well as the single mums.

Mr Llwyd: Thank you.

Frances Crook: The Howard League gave evidence to the UN special day of discussion on the children of prisoners, and we published a report on the children of women prisoners. We estimate-nobody knows exactly-that around 17,000 children every year are affected by the imprisonment of their mother. So I hope that the review will not just look at the prison estate and provision for women once they are sentenced but will look more widely at sentencing patterns and the unnecessary use of custody.

One of my concerns is particularly the unnecessary use of quite intrusive community sentences. As Juliet says, sometimes prison is used as respite care for women but also magistrates sometimes oversentence women to very onerous conditions in community sentences because they want to help sort out their lives. They may get a woman in front of them who is very chaotic and needy and, in a benevolent way, they think that if they pile on the provisions this can help sort her out. Of course, it does not. What it does is ensures that she will breach because she cannot do it and she will then end up in custody as a result of that.

So a review of the estate cannot just look at the prison society, what happens in a prison. The answer to that question will inevitably be wrong because it is the wrong question. We do not want to look at what happens to women in prison because we want to make sure they do not go there in the first place. It is expensive and damaging and it leads to more crime. What we should be looking at in any review is a much wider vision of sentencing options, sentencing practice, community provision, funding arrangements and genderspecific services.

Q152 Yasmin Qureshi: Good morning. I want to ask questions regarding reducing the use of custody and expanding communitybased provisions. Despite all the changes that have been taking place in the last number of years-and there seems to have been agreement or crosspolitical consensus on this issue about trying to reduce the number of women in prisons-as the Howard League has noted, there has been no real discernible impact on the number of women in prison, and in fact the number of women who are imprisoned who are assessed as being at a higher risk of harm to themselves and others is about 3.2%. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation has expressed that perhaps sometimes too much emphasis has been placed on women who have not committed serious offences and not enough on the vulnerable women. Do you agree with the fact that the progress that has been made since the Corston report came out in expanding the network of community centres and diversion schemes has not impacted on the number of women in prison? What do you think, realistically, can be done, in addition to what has already been done, to help keep vulnerable women from custody and from the criminal justice system itself? What practical further steps can be taken?

Clive Martin: There is such a leadership gap here. I will give you an example which I think demonstrates that. I chair something called the Ministry of Justice Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group. We were asked by Crispin Blunt to prepare an overview on behalf of the voluntary sector of what we saw in commissioning for women’s services and how we could redesign the system, which we did. That was submitted. Despite it being requested at that level, there has been absolutely no engagement from the Ministry of Justice around that, so much to the extent that in December we decided to have a public conference: 120 people came; Dame Helena Kennedy gave the keynote address; it was chaired by Dame Anne Owers; and no one from the Ministry of Justice even turned up at that conference. So there is a yawning gap in leadership in the sector.

The reason I made that point is that years ago Professor Rod Morgan did some research around how, unless sentencers are kept aware of issues to do with who they are sentencing, the type of sentences they give and so on, it falls from their agenda. There has been no consistent leadership around this issue for a long time. We do not see it in training programmes for the judiciary, and we do not see community alternatives to custody being promoted in the media.

Returning to the previous discussion, things like small custodial units do not sound like prisons, so people shy away from promoting them. It is really difficult just to point to one thing, but what I think we can point to is a general lack of taking this issue seriously as something that can be progressed at almost every level from political and official level right the way down. That is what needs to be addressed, and it is where my colleagues here and other colleagues in the room from the third sector are really trying to push on this agenda because it is quite difficult to see where that leadership is going to come from.

Q153 Yasmin Qureshi: Leaving the issue about the leadership to one side-say you had a fantastic leadership-what we are asking about here is what practical things can be done? What further do you think can be done to try to reduce the number of women in prison? We hear there are women’s centres coming up. We know there are all sorts of programmes in place to ensure that women do not end up in custody, but they do. So I was thinking about the practical issues. If you had a perfect wish-list and a perfect leadership, what would you like-what are the three things you think could be done-to reduce the number of women in custody?

Frances Crook: One thing I would like to do is to abolish the short prison sentence for women-I would like to do it for men as well-and that would make a big difference. The average prison sentence for women from magistrates courts is eight weeks. It is nonsense. It is interesting is that the number of men sent to prison by magistrates has dropped very significantly over the years, by a quarter each year, but the number of women sentenced to prisons by magistrates has only dropped by about 10%. So magistrates are still sending far too many women for prison for very short periods of time. It is incredibly distressing for the women and it is very expensive for the taxpayer. The Howard League is currently doing some research on this, so I am giving you early figures which we put together arising from Freedom of Information requests and, which we will be publishing. If we could get rid of short prison sentences and do some work with magistrates-because they are the gatekeepers to the system-we could then end up closing prisons and reinvesting that money in community services for the women. It would reduce crime, save lives, help children and help communities and community safety. Everybody would benefit from that. So the short prison sentence is the key to changing the system for women.

Chair: We are running a little short of time, but there are a couple of supplementary points on this which I wanted to allow for. One was from Mr de Bois and the other from Mr Chishti.

Q154 Nick de Bois: This is a minor diversion, but to the main point, Mr Martin. You have mentioned that you are on an advisory panel to the Ministry of Justice on this subject, the third sector.

Clive Martin: Yes.

Q155 Nick de Bois: What is that panel called? The second question is: from what you are saying, it sounds to me like it is not just a case of not being listened to; you are not being engaged with. Have you made clear representations of your dissatisfaction and is there any point in you continuing on this basis?

Clive Martin: It is a question I ask myself frequently.

Q156 Jeremy Corbyn: What is the answer?

Clive Martin: In all honesty, the answer is getting to the point of why. This is a Ministry of Justice, thirdsector advisory group. Publicly selected representatives from the third sector sit on this panel. The last representation was just last week about the effectiveness of this panel. It is used, as I say, as a retrospective consultation mechanism. We, in an attempt to change that last year, set about producing these things which we call "Task and Finish" papers. The first one was on commissioning, the second one was on women offenders, requested by Mr Blunt, and the third one has been on youth justice. They have all had varying ambitions. As I say, with the one on women offenders, no action has been taken on it at all despite being requested by the Minister. So your question is an entirely serious one about, "What is the point of this?" It is something that we are continuing to raise.

Q157 Rehman Chishti: Clive and Frances, you have both talked about sentencing and the judiciary. Were representations made by you to the Sentencing Council about looking at the mitigating features-for example, you have the UN Bangkok rules, which were signed up to by the United Kingdom saying that issues with children should be taken into consideration as a mitigating factor-and, if so, were they then considered and have some of what have been put forward as mitigating or aggravating features been taken into account?

Frances Crook: We have been recommending for more than 15 years that the rights of a child should be represented in court-that there should be, in effect, a guardian ad litem or some other structure for recognising the wellbeing of the child. When you separate a child forcibly from its primary carer, in any other circumstance, apart from the criminal justice system, that child is represented and their welfare and well-being is the primary consideration. When we come to sentencing for a criminal justice purpose, that child’s well-being and welfare is ignored. It may be a mitigating circumstance but I do not think that is strong enough, and the Howard League has been recommending various different sentencing bodies that the child should be represented because, in making the decision to send a mother to prison for eight weeks for shoplifting, or some such, the well-being, welfare and impact on the threeyearold child who is going to be separated for that eight weeks should be considered and put in the balance of decision making.

Rehman Chishti: Sure.

Frances Crook: We will continue to fight for that.

Q158 Graham Stringer: In evaluating women’s community projects, where does the balance lie between well-being indices and reoffending statistics?

Juliet Lyon: One of the things that have been a bit difficult is that it is entirely appropriate to ask women’s centres to be called to account for their outcomes, but they have been continually told that they represent too small a sample to be significant. So, in research terms, it has been difficult to draw data out from the women’s centres. Some are better at collecting data than others and some have had more help than others, but I think it is fair to say that there needs to be a balance struck between well-being outcomes, health and welfare outcomes and reoffending outcomes. If you sort out things, particularly in relation to health, then the likelihood of reoffending reduces markedly. That has been shown in a number of studies, both for men and women.

I was not able to answer the question earlier about what we would do if we were to change things, but there are some things that are changing that will reduce women’s prison numbers, one of which you have alluded to in relation to the women’s centres and the health outcomes. You will probably know that the Department of Health-funding from DH, but in partnership with the MoJ-are setting up liaison and diversion schemes in police stations and courts across England. They have a commitment to do that by 2014. They promise £50 million to do so. Those will positively advantage women. They will advantage everybody who has a learning disability or a mental health need, but they will positively advantage women because, proportionately, there are more women in that circumstance than there are men. So, in terms of health and welfare, there are some strides being taken and there are the new Health and Wellbeing Boards, which would capitalise on that.

The other thing that we have not alluded to, and I am sorry to bring it in on the back of your question, is that the LASPO Act-Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012-has introduced the "no real prospect" test in relation to remand and bail. Again, significantly more women are generally held in custody awaiting trial, sometimes in order to obtain a mental health assessment, and that is the link with your question. Magistrates are no longer allowed to do that unless they have very particular reasons for remand. If someone is facing no real prospect of a custodial penalty for their offending, then they will not be held in custodial remand, which means that women’s prison numbers are going to drop. It is the perfect time, given that they are going to drop, to do something, one, about the leadership, two, about the estate, but in particular about the women’s centres and creating a network of alternatives for the courts.

There is leadership from the new Minister, who, I think, wants to succeed in reform and has a reform agenda of her own. It is the first time in a long time that a Minister has been given responsibility for women’s prisons as a group and for women offenders. That is important, but, unless opportunities are grasped, then it will slip through our fingers. The Crime and Courts Bill was carrying an amendment, introduced in the Lords, about women, and we were really disappointed to see that the Government have just applied to strike out that amendment at the Committee stage of the Bill. So maybe the Government are failing to grasp some of the opportunities presented.

Q159 Graham Stringer: You took the opportunity to give a very comprehensive answer, but within that answer are you saying that the statistics that are kept now are poor and not valuable and do you have a suggestion for improving those statistics?

Juliet Lyon: They vary from one women’s centre to another. It is helpful having a coordinating group, Women’s Breakout, and it is helpful that the Ministry of Justice has wanted to try and encourage or help people to evaluate, but the fact is that, as things stand, you would not get from each women’s centre the kind of quality of statistics that you would get from the best. Again, it is a question of learning from the best. How can information be kept and how can it be co-ordinated across different local authority departments such as health and housing? Would you say it was a success, for example, that a woman who had been in a desperate state who came to a women’s centre, secured safe housing and was able to keep that safe housing because she was a good tenant, was able to look after her child, who had maybe been in and out of other arrangements, but still occasionally shoplifted because she had not fully broken her drug habit? You need to think how we would evaluate that as a success. Her offending is beginning to drop, it has not ceased altogether, but other aspects of her life have been changed to the point that she is likely to be able to take more responsibility for her life.

Q160 Graham Stringer: You touched on the answers to my next two questions as well, so we can be relatively brief. Where does the shift from local to national commissioning lead us-the postCorston agenda?

Juliet Lyon: The shift from local to national?

Graham Stringer: Yes.

Juliet Lyon: We referred to it earlier in relation to concerns. Potentially, it is not a good move because what we have seen, and what Baroness Corston saw in her review, is local partnerships operating on a very localised basis and quite particularly the partnerships between the probation trusts and the women’s centres, which appear to be doing very well. We are not clear yet how that will work in terms of national commissioning. It is important nationally to have some ringfenced moneys. What is going to make the difference is money and you could say justice reinvestment-if you are closing women’s prisons, you are going to have some money available to reinvest in more effective services-and law, and I have referred to, currently, the amendment that is at least a legislative foothold for reform. But, if you cannot corral law and money, then I am not sure that just relying on national commissioning will be enough. National commissioning has a place in that it will say, "We will ringfence moneys or insist on moneys for women and prioritise women," but it cannot do what can happen locally and we have not seen the arrangements in terms of how it is proposed to interrelate the local and the national. But Clive may have seen that through CLINKS.

Clive Martin: I want to make the point that there is a distinction between national commissioning for the whole estate as it is proposed in the rehabilitation revolution-and, as a result of that national commissioning, some service or other gets devolved locally for women-compared with maintaining a national commissioning model for women separate to the general commissioning model, if you see what I mean. While there are some advantages to the latter, where there is a national commissioning model that at least can ensure that the money dedicated to those services goes to women, I think there is some potential in that. In the former model, where we are talking about bundling up probation services into 16 different lots that are let to a prime contractor-and within that lot there then seems to be some complicated thinking as to how you have rehabilitation services for people coming out of prison as some sort of subcontract to that lot, so you get the same provider and then as another sort of subcontract to that you have something for women in there-it feels like it is all devolved far too many times for it to have any real meaning and it is losing value the whole time because of the way that and profit taking and so on have to work. There needs to be a distinction between the current national commissioning model, from which women fall out as a consequence of that, to having a separate national commissioning women’s pot that might work.

The other thing to say in the midst of all of that is that, potentially, the new police and crime commissioners could play a far more significant role in terms of women offenders than they could elsewhere because of the size, local knowledge and so on. It is difficult to see how they could influence anything that is too national.

Frances Crook: Can I say something?

Q161 Chair: Can I get clear what Mr Martin is really saying there? There are certain advantages in having a separate commissioning model for women and that, if it existed, probably would be a national commissioning model, but it brings with it all the disadvantages that you have talked about earlier of engaging local organisations and small local providers. So is it really an attractive option for you?

Clive Martin: The problem at the moment is that the centre has very little authority in ensuring what happens with its intention. So once something goes to a local probation trust, or so on, nothing can happen and we with Women’s Breakout have suggested that, at least for the next year or two, there is a central pot retained for women’s services that can be quite targeted and there can be local decisions has to how that is spent, who it goes to locally and so on. But there is a way of ensuring that that money reaches the people it is intended to reach.

Q162 Chair: But you have been telling us for much of the morning that the centre has not been doing it very well because what it has been doing is commissioning places in prisons for women in inappropriate parts of the country and saying to the judiciary, "Don’t worry, we have plenty of prison places for women."

Clive Martin: No. The money for the Corston Independent Funders Coalition came from the centre, was match funded and went to the women’s centres. So, in terms of rehabilitation, there is certainly potential for that to happen.

Frances Crook: Can I say very quickly that I think the commissioning model is very restrictive? It is treating people as if they are a garage: you bring your car in, get a service and out it goes. The trouble with people is that they are not rocket science. Rocket science is simple because it is mathematical but people are very complicated. The women’s centres have been funded in a different way. They have been funded to provide a more holistic service, which is more imaginative, creative and people-centred. If we have a national commissioning model, with the Government giving money to G4S, G4S then telling the women’s centre to, "Do this, and we will fund you to provide this service in this way", that will go wrong and that will be very negative. A commissioning model for the women’s centres is stifling: it stifles innovation, humanity and creativity, and will fail.

Q163 Chair: So what should it be?

Juliet Lyon: If you are going to use the paymentbyresults model-which is fairly untried so it is frightening and worrying that so much emphasis is being placed on it, but if you were to do that-the only way you would save the local women’s centres from disappearing as subsub primes would be to change the nature of the payment so that the large amount of money came first, in terms of the commissioning, and the results were then rewarded by a smaller amount of money. But the current proposals, as they
they stand, under payment by results, mean that a voluntary organisation might have to wait a year, or even two years, before they can claim results payments. Many of those small charities would go out of business and their trustees would not allow them to take that level of risk. You would need to change the nature of the model in order to make sure that, if you insisted on using that model, it worked.

Q164 Chair: We are very exercised about the commissioning model and were taken by surprise somewhat when the Government announced a national commissioning model in general in the rehabilitation White Paper. Can that model be made to deliver what you all agree needs to be delivered given that creating centres necessarily involves other kinds of local activity, other departments, other local authority departments and would appear to be something that would more naturally go with the kind of grouping that we have seen with youth offending teams, for example?

Juliet Lyon: Might I say something about it? I appreciate that in mentioning the Youth Justice Board we are not, it would appear at the moment anyway, going to achieve what the Wedderburn review requested, which was a women’s justice board, about which Lord Windlesham contacted the Prison Reform Trust to say, "If you don’t get the women’s justice board, you do realise you will not secure the other recommendations?" At the time, I wondered if that was right. I now know that he was right.

It is very interesting, over the last five years, supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, that we have been able to work alongside the Youth Justice Board, the Home Office and the MoJ, as well as the local authorities with the highest child custody and work with them intensively, with the net result that child custody has dropped by 45% in five years. It is perfectly possible to drop the women’s prison population, I think, in three years by a similar size. But it would be helped massively if there were such a thing as a women’s justice board and the kind of drive, leadership and focus that that would bring with it. The nearest parallel is the Youth Justice Board or indeed the way the troubled families work is progressing. Even if Government will not consider a WJB, they need to use some of the elements and success of both of those to make this work. What is frustrating-and it is good that you are having the inquiry-is that we have all been here before. This is not a new problem, but there happens to be a situation now where it could be resolved. As I said, there is the potential for dropping numbers through remand, mental health and learning disability diversion and through a new commitment by Government. We have to seize on it, and civic society groups like the Soroptimists and the National Council of Women, who want this to happen, are determinedly lobbying for it to happen.

Frances Crook: Can I end on perhaps a note of dissent, which I think makes it more interesting? Having said that the Howard League is very concerned about the lack of leadership, I am less convinced that the answer lies in structural alterations. The Howard League has been a Youth Justice Board sceptic over the last 10 years or so. The Youth Justice Board initially presided over a huge explosion in the use of custody and a diversion of money from children’s services to the youth justice system, and has only recently in the last few years worked with voluntary organisations, like the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust, to reduce the use of custody. I am not convinced that structural alterations will provide an answer and the kind of leadership we want to see for the change in the way that women who come into contact with the criminal justice system are treated. I think it is a more subtle response that is needed, a more political and financially driven response, and perhaps there are other lessons to be learned. So I am a bit sceptical about the structural thing. That is perhaps quite helpful because we do not always agree on everything, but generally we agree on what we want to see; it is just about how to get there.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed for your help. We are very grateful. We have some more witnesses to see.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Jacqueline McKenzie, Chief Executive, Female Prisoners Welfare Project, Hibiscus, Deborah Cowley, Director, Action for Prisoners’ Families, Rachel Halford, Director, Women in Prison, and Sherry Ashfield, Principal Practitioner (Female sexual abuse), the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, gave evidence.

Q165 Chair: Rachel Halford from Women in Prison, Sherry Ashfield from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Deborah Cowley from Action for Prisoners’ Families and Jacqueline McKenzie from Hibiscus, we are very glad to have you with us this morning and grateful to you for giving your time to help us get a better understanding of this subject.

We have been listening, as I think you have latterly, to organisations which have worked in this field for some time, but I am very interested in your view as people in daytoday contact with women who have come through the criminal justice system or are coming into it. Do you think the Corston recommendations, in so far as they have been implemented up to now-and that is to a very limited extent-have actually made any difference to the people you are dealing with?

Rachel Halford: The one key difference is the stop of strip searching now, unless it is on informed information. That is the one biggest thing. We have seen some changes within the prisons inasmuch as now there are programmes where all prison staff have womenspecific training. I was thinking about this earlier-what my things would be that I would say off the back of it-and I guess it would also be investment into the women’s community centres, which you have heard a lot about this morning, that initial investment and commitment to providing an alternative to custody for women. They were the key things at the beginning.

Would you like to know my view on where we are now? Unfortunately, it feels a little bit like we have gone backwards. There has been a lack of movement. There is no strategy from the Government. Much has changed-I have to say, coincidentally-since you announced your Committee’s inquiry. There seems to have been a lot of movement over the last few months, but, essentially, once the change of Government came into play, the initial investment into the women’s centres has gradually changed. I think Clive mentioned about the Corston coalition and the commitment of money that they made in partnership. Then there were the changes, the lack of commitment around money again. The women’s centres now are in jeopardy with the localisation. You have heard a lot this morning already about there being no central driver making sure that there are these services for women. As we move forward, at the end of March this year we do not know exactly what is going to happen to the women’s centres.

Q166 Chair: Presumably, you have been affected by the general austerity atmosphere, the funding limitations on local authorities and would-be partners in women’s centres.

Rachel Halford: Absolutely, and, I have to say, within the prisons. We work in all 13 prisons and we have seen a huge change within them, the numbers of staff in particular. You cannot run an effective prison where there is rehabilitation if you do not have the staffing to resource that.

Q167 Chair: Has the gender equality duty been significant? Has it made any difference to what happens and how women are treated?

Sherry Ashfield: Certainly, looking from the perspective of the more highrisk women, we have seen no indication that it has made any difference whatsoever. As to the level of treatment provision that is available for those high-risk women, who we acknowledge are a very small minority of the overall female offending population, it still remains very difficult for them to access any form of adequate service provision. For example, if you had a male sex offender, there would be an expectation that they would go through a sex offender treatment programme, they would do that in custody or they could do that in the community. If you are a female sex offender who is actually sentenced, particularly to a long sentence, the probability is that the resources will mean there would be nothing available for you, either when you are in custody-

Q168 Chair: So there would be no programme.

Sherry Ashfield: There would be no programme. That filters down to the PSR stage, so, at the point at which you are going into the system, the lack of programme may mean that you do end up getting a custodial sentence because there aren’t other options being made available to the courts and to the judiciary.

Q169 Steve Brine: Thank you very much for coming. What would you like to see come out of the MoJ’s review of the custodial estate? Maybe you would like to see it shrunk a lot, but I am keen to explore the options for managing female prisoners. What would you like to see come out of their review of the estates, starting with Deborah Cowley?

Deborah Cowley: Just quickly, I want to say what I thought about Corston as well, because Corston did not deal much with families of women offenders, but in so far as it did it talked about small custodial units, which people have talked about a lot already. Also, it emphasised the importance of cooperation between local social care, health services, prisons and criminal justice. We still do not have the small social, local secure units, but also for a long time there was no, or very little, meaningful cooperation between criminal justice and local services, especially prisons and local services. That has started to happen now but not noticeably specifically in relation to women’s prisons, even though they are facing greater difficulties as a result of distance and also the higher needs of women that Frances Crook referred to in terms of the fragmentation of the family that happens and less likelihood of someone remaining in the family home and holding the family together.

I would like to see the small local units, but I would like to see an acknowledgment that there needs to be engagement from the very beginning with local services and an understanding, which is now coming about in criminal justice, I think, that in fact that does not mean your locality, the locality even for the small secure small unit. How small can they be? There may very well be issues about crossing local government boundaries and PCCs and so forth.

Rachel Halford: What would I like to see? It goes with the gender equality as well, so there is a real inequality here around the categorisation and I would like to see that reviewed. Whereas in the male estate there are A, B, C and D categories, in the women’s estate there are "open" and "closed". The impact of that is that women serving slightly longer sentences are unable to move through the sentences. There are 200 and something places in open prisons. Together with that, there is a lack of womenspecific programmes. What we know is that with women there is a high rate of mental health problems. The mental health diversion schemes are fantastic, but what we also know from our experience is that mental health issues are not highlighted until the woman is in prison. It is not until she has come off the drugs or she is away from the situation, the violence, that the mental health symptoms become known.

Consequently, going back to what Sherry was saying, there is a lack of specific programmes. I would like to see more investment and consistency across the estate. At the moment, there is one specific programme and that is in Foston Hall. They can take a cohort-it is a care programme-of eight to 10 women every 10 weeks. That means actually there are not a lot of women that are going through their sentence planning. What we would like to see is more programmes across the estate.

Q170 Steve Brine: Sherry, do you want to add anything to that?

Sherry Ashfield: Yes. Can I add to that that, as well as seeing more programmes, we need to look at how the programmes knit together? While I think there is a lot of advantage and forward movement in relation, for example, to the personality disorder agenda, when we look at where that fits in relation to other programmes for high risk female sex offenders or other high risk offenders, they are not actually matching up together. So you have one department that is making pronouncements about one thing but, when you check with another department about how that is going to impact on your particular client group, they do not know.

Q171 Nick de Bois: My questions are for Jacqueline McKenzie, if I may. Just before I ask you a general question-which is pretty much an open goal for you-I would like to put some context in, if I may, quickly. Can you tell me if you know what percentage of female prisoners are foreign national prisoners and also how many of those you believe may be as a result of trafficking? Have you got very broad headline statistics on those? You may not. I know it is a bit of a low ball to throw you.

Jacqueline McKenzie: Partially. The problem is always about definitions. In terms of the statistics for foreign national prisoners, for women we believe it is about 15% and it varies. There is a margin of error of 2% either way. In terms of those who are trafficked, we work with quite a lot of women who we believe are trafficked but there are still problems about the definitions. So we do not have statistics at the moment but we are in the process of conducting some research.

Nick de Bois: That would be helpful. It was just a statement that accompanied the "No Way Out" report and I was trying to put some context on it.

Chair: Before we leave foreign nationals, could I ask Mr Corbyn to come in on that? Were you going on to something else?

Q172 Nick de Bois: No. I was going to stick on this subject, Chair.

Your report threw up one or two successes where you felt that the stay in jail at the end, down to immigration appeals, had been shortening, which is encouraging, but overall how do you think foreign national prisoners can be provided for in any new Government strategy? What will make the difference? I would also like to know, if you wouldn’t mind, to put that in context, what your concerns or positives might be about existing and future commissioning arrangements. Will it make it harder, worse or whatever?

Jacqueline McKenzie: What we would like to see are issues that are a step before, which are around sentencing and sentencing guidelines, because we are still seeing far too many women who would be described as foreign nationals going to prison for nonviolent offences, offences where it is quite clear that they are a victim, people who are coerced into drug trafficking, people who we believe-there is substantial evidence to suggest-may well have been trafficked and also the vast number of women who are currently in prison for passport document offences. We have some clients at the moment who have recently served prison sentences because they undertook education in the UK and, because they were without status, used a false identity to undertake this training. They served very lengthy prison sentences as a result of this. So I think, if we are looking at reducing the overall female prison population, what people go to prison for is one of the contributing things that we can look at.

Q173 Nick de Bois: Can I take that example up? You said for a "fairly lengthy" time. Some people may argue-and some of my constituents may believe-that it is quite hard to get sent to prison these days. So you are saying, basically, that people are going to jail for documentation fraud. What sort of length of sentences are they getting?

Jacqueline McKenzie: We have come across one person who was sentenced to 24 months, but usually it is nine to 18 months.

Q174 Nick de Bois: But this must be pretty substantive. Was it on a commercial basis? Were they profiteering from it?

Jacqueline McKenzie: No. I suppose one would say that perhaps they were deemed to be profiteering because they have got an education at the expense of the British taxpayer. So there are issues-no one is saying that there aren’t-but the main one is: is this an issue that needs to be dealt with through a custodial sentence?

Q175 Nick de Bois: Can I ask you a process question, if I may? Someone who is a foreign national in prison is likely to be removed from the country at the end of their sentence. At what stage does immigration get involved and could you see any improvements around that?

Jacqueline McKenzie: It varies really. Sometimes, as soon as the person goes into prison, they are served with a deportation order because, as you know, if someone is sentenced to more than 12 months, an order for deportation is automatic, so they start engaging with immigration lawyers and they are in the process. But very often there is confusion about the person’s status. We have had people served with deportation orders who are actually British nationals, so there are all sorts of confusions, and sometimes it is not until the very end of a sentence that somebody is served with immigration papers.

Q176 Nick de Bois: In truth, that is a UK border issue with men, women and all sorts of people. How does it impact on women in prison so seriously? Why is it such an issue with women in prison?

Jacqueline McKenzie: It is a big issue because, first, a lot of those women are eventually released. Very usually-the thing that most people don’t like to hear about, but usually-they are able to assert their human rights and go on to win their cases. We certainly find this with the cohort we work with. Whether that is the case generally, I don’t know. We probably work with about 35% to 40% of foreign national women, but we do find a lot of them go on to win their cases. What you have in the process, because the system is so lengthy and so complicated, is stress factors. Nacro recently published a report which showed that there was increased suicidal ideation with foreign national women, increased depression and low mood. A lot of that is attributed to the problems of trying to establish whether you are going to be put on a plane back to somewhere and your children are going to remain in care in the UK.

Q177 Nick de Bois: I am struggling to understand-and I will not press this any more, but I have constituents who have been fighting cases like this who are not in prison and I am trying to understand-why this is something of great concern to the female prison population. It is a concern to lots of people who undergo those stresses. What am I missing here that makes it such a different problem for someone incarcerated?

Jacqueline McKenzie: They have additional stresses because they are incarcerated, I would have thought, and often their children are put in care as a result of the incarceration and they have lost their homes as a result of their incarceration.

Nick de Bois: Which are all credible.

Jacqueline McKenzie: So there are all sorts of additional factors, but your question was specifically about foreign national prisoners, so of course this is multiplied in the general population of foreign nationals, but a foreign national prisoner is going to have the additional stress if they have immigration issues on top of having to serve a sentence for a criminal offence.

Nick de Bois: Thank you.

Q178 Jeremy Corbyn: This is a question to Jacqui. Thanks for coming to give evidence today. What sort of advice is available routinely for foreign national women in prison, and, related to that, how often will they move between different prison estates, which can lead to complications on communication?

Jacqueline McKenzie: Yes. In terms of the quality of advice, it varies. If I had commented on the question about what worked arising out of the Corston report, I think it is the coming together of the Corston Independent Funders Coalition, which enables the provision of services in the community to organisations like Hibiscus and many others-we are not alone in this-who are able to provide quality advice and signposting to women in that group. Generally speaking, most of that group are reliant on immigration solicitors and advisors-the OISCregulated people-and we see very poor quality advice indeed. The problems of staying in the prison estate after you have served the sentence-that is, being held by the immigration service-are often prolonged because of poor immigration advice. There are instances where people really have reached the end of the road and perhaps ought to go, but, as a result of immigration solicitors taking their money and giving them false hope and putting in judicial review after judicial review, their time in the prison estate is actually prolonged. There is also the case of people moving around estates. We have lost touch with clients. I lost touch with clients in my previous incarnation as a lawyer and I have lost touch with clients now that I am at Hibiscus, so the movement around estates is a real problem.

Q179 Jeremy Corbyn: When you are dealing with women who are convicted of drugmule offences, do you have any evidence about how many of them are subsequently removed to a place of even greater danger because of returning to the place they have come from, not under threat necessarily from the authorities but under threat from the people that coerced them in the first place?

Jacqueline McKenzie: We do not have lot of data about that. We are going to be collecting some. We are going to Jamaica next month to look particularly at Jamaican cohorts, but we have had anecdotal stories of people under threat and we have heard of one death. But I have to put on record that we have not been able to substantiate this and will not be able to do so until next month.

Yasmin Qureshi: May I make a clarification about the issue my colleague over there raised about the sentencing? It is in the sentencing guidelines that, if you are in possession of even a forged passport, six months’ imprisonment is the starting tariff. It is quite common to get six to 12 months in prison for document offences.

Chair: In that case, I think we can turn to Mr Chishti.

Q180 Rehman Chishti: Good morning. Under the heading "women and children", you will be aware that 17,240 children were separated from their mothers in 2010. Linked to that background, what would a familyfriendly female custodial estate and regime look like? There we are-all yours.

Deborah Cowley: I will start off with that. The first thing is that family would not have far to travel. The family would know from the beginning where to go and what to expect. They would also know that they were able to ask for help. So there needs to be courtbased information services for families so that they can get the help they need. One of the big things is that visiting would be easier in a familyfriendly prison, and if your family is fragmenting that is a difficult thing. Another big thing is that children should be able to visit, and it has been touched on before. Children who are in care do get accompanied visits but often they are very few, so it might be twice a year. Children need to see their families often. Also, children have to be accompanied by an adult right the way up to the age of 18, so there are big issues in the way of children visiting and they could visit more often if that was taken away.

Another important thing I want to talk about is that a familyfriendly prison would be one that asked automatically whether a prisoner was pregnant when she came in. That does not routinely happen at the moment. It does in some places, but it does not routinely happen. On finding out if a prisoner is pregnant, and also when she has nearly had the baby, there should be a particular provision made. At the moment, there is no allowance made in budgets for additional food for pregnant prisoners. There is no arrangement for them to be able to eat frequently. Also, once they have had their babies, they are expected to go back to work after six to eight weeks, which is not in accordance with what women who are not in prison would expect and it interferes with attachment, and the whereabouts of that work might be very difficult. Actually, anybody who has had a baby knows that they do not get into a settled routine till three months. It is a really hard thing. These are some of the most vulnerable mothers in the country and I would want to make sure that they were getting the equivalent care to very vulnerable mothers in the community.

Q181 Rehman Chishti: Can I stop you on that? I have raised with the Minister the issue about when somebody comes into prison and they have checks for mental health, dyslexia and other health issues, because, unless those issues are clarified, the person who is in custody may not be able to communicate as effectively as they could, but also the issue of pregnancy. Aren’t there any checks, like all the other health checks that are taken as soon as you go into custody? Doesn’t that take place at the moment?

Deborah Cowley: No.

Q182 Rehman Chishti: Would anyone else like to comment, or should I move on to my second question?

Sherry Ashfield: I would like to add to that by saying that, if we are going to have familyfriendly prisons, we also have to accept perhaps the less palatable aspects about risk and safeguarding. One of the concerns that I have-and I have seen it coming out in the 2011 report on female offenders in the community-is the lack of attention that is being given to safeguarding issues right across the estate and an assumption that mothers will be able to parent very effectively. A lot of them can, but there are some mothers who will present a range of different risks to their children, both in the community and while in custody. That may mean they need additional help to address some of those issues, but what we are generally seeing is that there is a lack of awareness about the safeguarding duty that all the agencies, not just the statutory agencies but the voluntary and thirdsector agencies, have in relation to ensuring that all children are kept safe. That means looking at their emotional safety as well as their physical safety.

Q183 Chair: You are dealing with female sex offenders, among others, aren’t you?

Sherry Ashfield: Yes.

Q184 Chair: The numbers are not all that large as a whole, but they do seem to get rather ignored in all the discussion about provision for women in prisons.

Sherry Ashfield: Absolutely, and the safeguarding issue is not just about the female sex offenders. The 2011 report by one of your colleagues, "Equal but different", was just looking at female offenders per se and one of the things they identified in their review of the prisons, the probation service and record keeping was that there was a distinct lack of detail paid to safeguarding issues. In almost half of the cases that they looked at there were safeguarding issues in relation to children that were not being addressed, and some of those issues related to the mothers themselves. So, yes, there are particular issues we are very aware of because of the highrisk category that we work with, but right across the female estate, working with female offenders, it is an issue that is quite unpalatable and very often one we don’t want to think about.

The other issue that we may not want to think about is that not every woman who has children wants to retain or resume the role as mother and primary carer. We have to train our staff to be able to hear when women are saying, "I may love my children but I may not want to resume the role as primary carer with them." In our experience, that is something that professionals find hugely difficult.

Q185 Jeremy Corbyn: Can I ask, coming in on this one-and thanks for the evidence you have given us-what is the view of all or any of you of how long a mother should keep her child in prison where she has a longer sentence? I have met women in Holloway who are extremely stressed at their children being taken away from them or others that feel it is right because they do not want their child in its early years developing in a prison environment. Do you have views on this? This is for women who have substantial sentences.

Sherry Ashfield: Again, I would like to see a system where we can respond to the individual needs both of the mother and also of the child.

Q186 Jeremy Corbyn: A flexible approach.

Sherry Ashfield: Yes. That will depend a lot on the physical location in which the children are living within the prison conditions. Some of my colleagues may have more information on that.

Rachel Halford: I would agree. It has to be flexible, absolutely. The location is really important. If you were having smaller custodial units or you look at some of the open prisons, then why couldn’t the children stay for longer? But you have to look at the impact on the child. Hence, I think the limit now is 18 months. It is very difficult. I have worked with women who are serving longer sentences whose children have been taken away at that 18month point, and actually for the mothers, as traumatic as that has been, they have felt that it has been for the best, not for them to be separated because there was absolutely no way they were going to be able to leave with their child, but for their child to be in a different environment, to be in a normal environment, they felt was better in the long term for their child.

Q187 Andy McDonald: Can I ask you about mental health and accommodation issues? The recent criminal justice joint thematic inspection of alternatives to custody for women offenders examined the work of probation and community partners and found mental health housing was generally poor. We have heard that many women are released from prison and find themselves homeless. You have touched upon some of these issues already, but what specific gaps are there currently in the provision of accommodation and mental healthcare for women offenders and those at risk of offending?

Rachel Halford: Accommodation is a no brainer. It goes without saying that there are huge problems with accommodation across the board. A fundamental need for anyone who is going to not reoffend and succeed when reintegrating back into society is accommodation; they need finance and accommodation. Accommodation is really limited. There are six probation hostels for women in the country. There isn’t one in London, which is absolutely insane. Anyone in London who needs to go to some kind of accommodation, like probation, would have to go to Reading or Bedfordshire.

As far as mental health accommodation is concerned, we are talking about supported accommodation and it is limited. I do not have a huge knowledge base. My knowledge base on the availability is really small and I believe that is because there is a limited availability on mental health supported accommodation. The support has been minimal across the board, but I have to say that now we have the introduction of the personality disorder pathway. What comes with that is this-and it is fantastic because this is for women who have higher mental health needs: there is an opportunity of working within the prisons, through the gate, into the community, into accommodation and into their own accommodation with specialist support. So there is an opportunity of something new happening here and it is a pathway-which is NOMS and national health-which is fantastic. We will wait to see what the outcomes are, but it is something that is happening in the prisons and in the community, and we would hope that there would be increased provision within the community off the back of this.

Deborah Cowley: One of the things about having a familyfriendly prison would be that, if there were proper engagement with family members where possible, in terms of sentence planning, it could be a huge advantage in relation to accommodation subsequently. We have an example where a prisoner’s mother was ignored when she moved to a different prison, having had a very good relationship, and her daughter was sent to a hostel next door to a men’s hostel where her whole behaviour was around inappropriate sexual relationships with men and she needed support to stop that. Family members can be a really important part of that planning.

Sherry Ashfield: One of the concerns I have is about longterm accommodation. While you are right that the hostels do an incredibly good job for women with very complex needs and have a history of providing extremely good service provision for them, at some point they need to leave and then they move into another form of supported accommodation in the community, but usually that is quite time limited as well. I am quite interested to see where we go in terms of the personality disorder agenda because we know from working with women with disordered personalities that they need a high level of stability over a very long period of time. So the accommodation that we have is not great, it is in very low supply and also it really is very time limited and very much geared to specific points in someone’s sentence.

Certainly, we have seen women who have ended up coming back into the system maybe four years after their index offence, and when we looked with them at what went wrong a lot of it was about transitional periods, moving from one form of accommodation into another. So when we are talking about accommodation we need to think not just about what happens at the point at which a woman is released but actually be projecting quite far forward and thinking, "Where will she go next and have we all the things in place that we need to?"

Q188 Andy McDonald: Do you think there are some opportunities with the proposed national commissioning regime, working alongside local arrangements, to plug these gaps to some extent? Do you have any optimism that that may happen?

Rachel Halford: In what way?

Q189 Andy McDonald: We are talking about new arrangements coming on board for probationary rehabilitative services. Can they address these gaps that you have identified?

Jacqueline McKenzie: They will only be able to address them with the provision of more accommodation and more housing and, as a step before this-which is also problematic and which we think perhaps is more to do with prison or possibly probation and of which I think the members of this Committee must be fully aware-arrangements for women coming out of prison are not always very well organised. For instance-and we do not just work with foreign nationals, by the way-this is an example of a nonforeign national who was released from prison about three weeks ago, who had nowhere to go. She was a victim of domestic violence so could not go back to what was her family home. She could not find any accommodation and we spent, I think it was, two to three days literally trying to find her somewhere, which included walking up and down the high street trying to book her into bed and breakfast at our own cost, which we had great difficulty doing because she had no ID because her ID was at the home that she shared with her former partner. So the arrangements that are made before people are released are equally as important as the ones that happen afterwards and the longterm housing plans and so on, and that ought to be part of any new strategy.

Rachel Halford: Absolutely. We are looking at some really big implications as we move forward, so it is important that that plan is in place. For many women, particularly returning to London, for example, they want to go back to their local communities-that is where their support networks are-but we have the universal credit system, so we have this cap on benefits. We have women who are, on a daily and weekly basis at the moment, having to leave their accommodation. Because there is no social housing, they are in private accommodation. That was a fantastic answer and it has been a solution that has worked really well; and now, all of a sudden, they are being evicted from this private accommodation because the benefits cap has meant that they cannot afford the accommodation and the only accommodation we can find them that is appropriate is right out in the sticks in the outer boroughs, so they will lose all their contacts. We have women who are not eating so as to provide the extra rent, the topup for the rent, because their benefits don’t cover it. That is just so that they can stay where they are familiar with and feel safe.

Q190 Andy McDonald: It seems to be a matter of common sense that, if you have improved access to better accommodation and better mental health services, that it is going to impact upon the rates of reoffending.

Rachel Halford: Absolutely.

Q191 Andy McDonald: Can you give any evidence that would support that proposition or is it simply a selffulfilling statement?

Jacqueline McKenzie: It is not just selffulfilling. For instance, our client would have got into shoplifting-which I think is what she was in prison for originally-if we had not been there to pick her up, because she needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. What was she to do? That is a real and very current example.

Rachel Halford: Exactly the same, we have many examples of projects that we run. We work with Through the Gate and mental health specialist projects, where we engage with the women prior to them leaving the prison, engage them with the local communities, walk beside them and encourage them. One of the things that we find when we work with women is that a great many find it really difficult to form relationships-and they have. They find it very difficult to engage with the statutory services-that is, community mental health and probation-and what they need is the support of an independent voluntary organisation that is going to work with them to engage with the other agencies, to help them understand the need and the benefits for them of engaging with these other agencies. So we have projects.

I can give you an example of a project we ran just outside Manchester: 47 women came through the project, Through the Gate. At the end of the year, 46 still had not reoffended. It is proven and that is just one example. It has been proven time and time again that, walking beside a woman, with Through the Gate support to enable them to address their issues and reintegrate back into society works, absolutely works.

Q192 Chair: Thank you very much. Did you wish to add something?

Deborah Cowley: Sometimes it is very difficult to prove that the intervention you have provided, the particular accommodation or whatever, has resulted specifically in lower offending or desistance. I am very keen that we should be able to look at the research evidence that there is of the relationship between, for instance, accommodation or strong family ties and desistance and to be able then to point to intermediate indicators and say, "This person is accommodated according to good practice," or, "This person has established or maintained strong family ties and therefore we can deduce that there will be less reoffending." That is often overlooked. It means also that for interventions that have more than one outcome, both accommodation and family ties, you can turn both ways. So people working on strong family ties can turn to the Prison Service and say, "Look at what is happening. This is a strong family." But you can also turn to the "troubled families" team or to children’s health and say, "This is what has been achieved here, too." It is a way that we can stop compartmentalising everything and produce more than one effect.

Chair: Thank you all very much indeed. We are very grateful to you for your evidence.

Prepared 12th July 2013