HC Deb 24 January 1996 vol 270 cc265-85

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

9.34 am
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Last week, at the very moment that the Home Secretary was announcing small changes to what many of us have described as the inhumane practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners while they are in labour, a woman prisoner suffering from breast cancer was lying in the Middlesex hospital manacled to two prison officers—one of whom was male—right up to the point when her radiotherapy treatment was due to commence.

One does not need much imagination to think of the scene—the woman in her white hospital gown waiting with other NHS patients for a sensitive and personal treatment while being shackled to a man. That is the reality, I suggest, of the policy that the Government now support.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said when giving me information for the debate—information that I have checked out with the Prison Service and the hospital: The Home Secretary had given the clear impression that the shackling of women attending hospital would be discouraged. She added that all hon. Members should question the Minister closely as to exactly who should and who should not be shackled.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

The Home Secretary has given way a little in relation to women who are in hospital to give birth, but does my hon. Friend agree that this half loaf—or one slice of bread—is totally inadequate? The Home Secretary has not addressed the issue of women who are breast-feeding, and has not addressed the issue of antenatal care. During pregnancy, all women are particularly vulnerable to stress and anxiety, and there is proof that that has an effect both on the foetus and on the baby for many years after birth. Does my hon. Friend agree that shackling should be discontinued during pregnancy?

Mrs. Mahon

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend, who puts her case very well. I have some questions in a similar vein from the Maternity Alliance that I shall put to the Minister later in the debate. As joint chairman of the all-party breast cancer group, I have taken a considerable interest in women and how they feel. I have talked to many women who suffer from breast cancer, and I have listened as they described their terror at being told that they were suffering from the disease. I believe that shackling a woman who is awaiting radiotherapy is tantamount to the worst kind of cruelty, and there is no place for such treatment in a civilised society.

If such treatment is cruel, other cases of shackling that have been drawn to my attention border on the farcical or the downright dangerous. A report in the Daily Mirror gave details of patients who were chained to officers when attending hospital for treatment for pneumonia, cancer and other serious illnesses. But would you believe, Madam Speaker, that one case which was reported—and which I have pursued—was of a woman suffering from dysentery being shackled? As everybody knows, it is an infectious, notifiable disease. Some poor unsuspecting prison officer had to be shackled to someone suffering from it, so possible cross-infection is obviously considered a price worth paying to support the Government's "prison works" policy.

If the officer went down with dysentery, surely that would not be a price worth paying. The practice is mediaeval. When the woman was not chained to the prison officer, she was chained to the bed. We all know that people suffering from dysentery need to use the toilet frequently, so that woman would have been most uncomfortable hopping in and out of bed with chains on.

Except in the most exceptionally high-risk cases, the practice of manacling smacks more of the Home Secretary's Soviet style and gulag mentality towards the penal system rather than the policy of a Home Secretary in a modern democracy as it approaches the millennium. It is high time to end a shameful and degrading practice. High-risk women prisoners and other women who have simply been imprisoned because of a minor misdemeanour should not be treated in the same way.

The number of women imprisoned is not high. According to the latest figures that I received on 18 January, the current prison population stands at 51,584, of whom 2,024 are women. That figure peaked in December, when the highest female prison population, 2,150, was recorded. The latest published Home Office statistics about prison populations relate to 1993, so when we speak about the reasons for women's imprisonment and the percentage of women in gaol, we are working on old statistics.

In 1993, 37 per cent. of those imprisoned were fine defaulters, and 22 per cent. were in for theft and handling stolen goods. Those statistics also reveal that women are sent to prison mainly for minor offences. In June 1993, 39 per cent. of women in prison had no previous convictions. That seems to be the trend.

Women seem to get sentenced more often for first offences than men. During that year, just 26 per cent. of women who were held in prison on remand subsequently received prison sentences. The 74 per cent. released back into the community were either found not guilty or given a non-custodial sentence. I wonder whether any of those women were manacled or treated in an inhumane way.

Those statistics give the lie to the recent statement by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold)—I am sorry he is not present—in a recent intervention on the Home Secretary: every one of those women is either a convicted criminal or has been remanded in custody by a court which considers them to be dangerous or likely to abscond".—[Official Report, 18 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 898.] The figures show that that is nonsense. I do not believe that the 37 per cent. of women prisoners who are fine defaulters are dangerous, liable to abscond, or a threat to anyone. Anyone with an ounce of common sense would recognise that, and not make such a fatuous statement.

Fourteen prison establishments hold women, of which eight are closed prisons. It is current policy for girls as young as 15 to be held in prisons with adult women. The average cost of keeping a woman in prison is £541 a week—again according to the 1993 statistics. That figure does not include the cost of prison headquarters, so the total cost is higher.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for a Conservative Back Bencher to seek advice from civil servants in the course of a debate? Will that facility be available to all hon. Members?

Madam Speaker

It is most unusual for a Back-Bench Member to seek information from civil servants unless, of course, that Member has been asked by a Minister to do so. That is not the case now, and therefore that Back Bencher should not be seeking information from Government civil servants. I had not noticed, and I thank the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) for bringing it to my attention.

Mr. Boateng

I am much obliged, Madam Speaker.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for my action. I was checking the detail of an address with the civil servants, but I accept your reprimand.

Mrs. Mahon

A high percentage of women are in prison because they are fine defaulters or have not paid for a television licence. In 1993, 7.5 per cent., or 278 women, were imprisoned for the non-payment of television licence fees or fines related to that. I pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), who has tabled early-day motion 287 on the imprisonment of television licence fine defaulters. He should be commended on his campaign to argue that it is an absolute waste of time and shocking to imprison such people.

That early-day motion states: people prosecuted for TV licence evasion tend to be disproportionately poor, female, unemployed and single parents. It is impossible to quantify the harm and distress caused to a family when the mother, often the only parent, is taken away and incarcerated, perhaps for weeks, while the children are taken into care.

The Home Secretary has slickly informed the Tory party conference that prison works, but it does not work for the children of women imprisoned for fine defaulting, and whose only crime is to be poor. It does not work for the taxpayers, either; they might lose £86.50 on the television licence that goes to the Exchequer, but will fork out £541 a week for prison lodgings. That cost does not take into account the thousands of pounds extra that is spent on keeping children in local authority care.

The Home Secretary would be wise to start watching programmes such as "Coronation Street". West Yorkshire probation service has issued a news release noting: As Coronation Street's Trish is sent to prison after being caught without a television licence…many real life women are in prison for the same reason. Elly Phillips, the debts and benefits adviser for West Yorkshire probation service, has drawn attention to the absolute outrage revealed in that programme: A woman who cannot afford to pay her television licence is no more likely to be able to pay a Court fine. If she is then sent to prison the licence fee and the fine are still unpaid"— on top of that, it costs the taxpayer money— When we are talking about a mother the result is even worse: her children are often taken into care, like Trish's son Jamie, so they become the innocent victims of the system. The West Yorkshire probation service also notes: The Prison Reform Trust has reported that no fewer than 38 per cent. of all women prosecuted for all offences in 1993 were charged with using a television set without a licence. That is slightly higher than the figure quoted in the Home Office statistics. According to the Home Secretary, that practice shows that prison works.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

The population of Holloway prison has doubled in the past five years, but its budget for last year was cut. The Secretary of State is obsessed with the idea that the only thing that matters is to keep people locked up and that security is the issue of prime importance.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in those circumstances, it is inevitable that the regime for women incarcerated in places like Holloway is bound to be dreadful? That will not make prison work, because we do not just want to lock people up while they are serving their sentence: we want to ensure that, when those people are released, we are secure in the community because they will be active, rehabilitated citizens.

Mrs. Mahon

My hon. Friend puts it eloquently. I was coming to that. I want to challenge the notion that prison works, especially for those whose only crime is poverty and civil debt. I want a criminal justice system that is linked with anti-poverty social programmes based on good rehabilitation practice. I want prison really to work.

If someone does end up in prison, the hallmark of success is whether they reoffend. In fact, 40 per cent. of women prisoners are re-convicted within two years of release. If their problem is poverty, that poverty will not go away while they are in prison. The taxpayer's bill goes up, but poverty does not go away. Prison has not worked for the 40 per cent. of women who are re-convicted.

Before there are any hysterical outbursts to the effect that I worry only about the prisoner and not about the victim, I should say that I am not in favour of early release for people who have been violent, such as muggers. I would never again trust a child murderer. I would never plead for someone who had murdered children. I am in favour of a civilised system, because I recognise that people who go to prison remain human beings, whatever crime they may have committed.

Mrs. Wise

On the question of rehabilitation, which is so important, does my hon. Friend agree that the time during which a woman is pregnant and gives birth, and immediately after, is a time of renewal? There is the possibility of a fresh start—indeed, it is inevitable—in a new life. If women are degraded and humiliated at that time, it can only harden them and make them less likely to use that opportunity—and impossible for the Prison Service to use it—for rehabilitation, which could be effective at such an important time in a woman's life.

Mrs. Mahon

Absolutely. I hope that the Minister took note of that.

I am told by prison reformers, the Prison Officers Association, the probation service and others who take an interest in prisons that conditions in women's prisons are not radically different from or better than those in most men's prisons. Women have little privacy, food is not good, and they have few chances to make decisions about their lives. Many people say that rehabilitation programmes are almost non-existent. The POA in particular is frustrated about prison officers being expected to act only as gaolers rather than doing useful rehabilitation work.

The present and previous chief inspectors of prisons have both made many relevant observations. When he visited Drake Hall in 1994, the previous chief inspector stated: The residential units were in a state of dilapidation. Especially unsatisfactory were the small, dingy recreation areas, which were expected to accommodate about 80 inmates but could seat less than half that number. He went on to describe conditions in the communal wash areas, where there were no plugs in the sinks and most of the rooms were in a bad decorative state. People at the bottom of the pile, who have been subjected to poverty, especially first offenders and women in prison for civil offences, must have their feelings of rejection and hopelessness confirmed when incarcerated in such conditions.

In December 1995, the new chief inspector, Sir David Ramsbotham, took the unprecedented step of withdrawing his inspection team from Holloway. Other hon. Members will deal with that, and I mention it only briefly. According to The Times of 19 December, his team walked out of the prison because of over-zealous security, prisoners being locked in their cells 23 hours a day"— the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)— poor health care, bullying, low staff morale, inadequate education and activities, and dirty conditions". Nearer to home, two women from my constituency were sent to New Hall prison near Wakefield last year for non-payment of television licence fees. I got these statistics from the Library yesterday. Four years ago, that prison was condemned by prison inspectors, who made a total of 102 recommendations. I congratulate the prison on the many improvements that have been made since. I must put that on record, because, in the latest unannounced inspection, the Home Office report found notable improvements in facilities and an improved regime". However, there were still 20 further serious recommendations for New Hall. Although the health care system had improved, the full-time medical officer was male, which is especially distressing for women from ethnic minorities, but seems to be the norm in women's prisons. Health facilities were not good. Prisoners did not get the same facilities that the rest of us get on the NHS. The Minister should address that.

The New Hall report also pointed out that bullying was a serious problem. Girls as young as 15 are held in women's prisons. The report stressed that an increase in bullying coincided with the increased use of class A drugs by prisoners, but there was no recognised anti-bullying strategy. That is desperately needed, and is recommended by the report. There was a high level of self-mutilation among prisoners. While improvements have been made, many more still need to be made.

What I found especially shocking about the report was that 86 of the prisoners in New Hall had been victims of sexual abuse. The probation service's figures are even higher. The majority of women prisoners have constantly been found to be victims of sexual abuse. In spite of that, they still had male medical officers. That is something that could be addressed. There should be counselling for women in that situation. Perhaps there should also be an in-depth study into why they end up in prison.

Women are strip-searched by female officers before going to court, and there are searches for drug testing. Random drug testing procedures involve strict searching, which is done in front of female officers. That has led to something even more disturbing, which I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) will mention. The probation service says that the system of searching and testing for drugs is making heroin more unpopular than cannabis. Drug taking is out of control in most of our prisons.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I think that my hon. Friend means more popular.

Mrs. Mahon

It is because heroin does not remain in the system for as long as cannabis, and is unlikely to be picked up by urine samples. This degrading process does not seem to have solved the problem that it was meant to address. We should examine that.

The Minister must seriously address the health care problems in prisons. Do we want prisons to stop people reoffending when they get out? That would mean that something must be done about the penal and criminal justice systems. The Home Office should be working on both. We must think of the poor old taxpayer, who has to pay out all that money because someone has not paid for a TV licence. It is, first, an obscenity that someone should be sent to prison for that offence, but the Minister must also consider the fact that our money is being wasted to satisfy some Tory prejudices.

I shall give the last word to Beatrix Campbell, who wrote a good article in The Guardian in December. She wrote of the typical offences for which women go to prison. The article is so good that it is worth repeating what she said. She stated that typical offences committed by women involved sex and shopping. The practice of women selling sex is as old as women's desperation. We all know that women end up in prison not for selling sex, but for where they do so and whether they are caught in the system.

Beatrix Campbell states: The organised shoplifter is no threat to public tranquillity, unlike the boy burglar whose business is as much about power as it is about poverty. Breaking and entering his neighbours' homes is a personal kind of piracy and the reward is both material and emotional—the pleasure of conquest. The 'shoppie' targets not her neighbours or private property but big business". Beatrix Campbell suggests that, when women find themselves in such circumstances and are first offenders, the criminal justice system should not be tougher on women, but should try to find alternatives to custody, and should consider the poverty connection—linking crime and the penal system, and the woman's social conditions.

We should try to do something to stop women getting into such circumstances, and we should stop locking up women simply because they do not have enough money on which to live.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. There about 35 minutes left for Back-Bench speeches before the Front-Bench teams wind up the debate. Five hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye, and, if everyone co-operates, I think that all those hon. Members may be successful.

10.1 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I shall attempt to be brief.

I am sure that, when the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) applied for the debate, she had in mind principally the repugnant case of shackling women while they give birth. All of us would agree that not only women, but men, had a very emotional reaction to that repugnant spectacle, and none of us could cope with the concept. I therefore welcome the Home Secretary's commitment to bring that practice to an end.

The hon. Lady detailed at length the number of women who go to prison, and many of the offences for which they do so. She said that there are only just over 2,000 women in prison; it is also worth while saying that 59 per cent. of women are cautioned for indictable offences, compared with 36 per cent. of males. Clearly, attempts are made to keep women out of prison where possible.

In addition, the average sentence for women is about half that of men, so the courts clearly recognise that, for most offences, women should be sentenced to prison for only a brief period. It has become fairly clear over many years that, by and large, courts do not like to send women to prison, and do so only when that is the only recourse left to them due to the nature of the offence or because the women themselves—

Mr. Boateng

Does not the hon. Lady realise that, on the Home Office's own figures, women are more likely than men to be sent to prison—and for longer—for minor offences? Does that not have implications, not only for her argument, but for sentencing policy generally? Should we not be doing something about it?

Mrs. Lait

Having sat in magistrates courts when women have come before them, and having talked to many magistrates about the lengths to which they go to try to avoid sending women to prison, I know that that is the key to the argument. When a court concludes that the only solution is to send a woman to prison, it is for very good and clear reasons, and I support the court's right to do so.

The hon. Lady spoke of the attempts made in prison to rehabilitate women. On the rare occasions on which I have visited women's prisons, I have been impressed by the way in which prison officers work with the prisoners to give them the life skills that so many of them lack. Those skills include how to manage budgets and how to look after children. Many of the women who unfortunately find themselves in prison are not as competent at managing their affairs as many of us would wish.

It is also reasonable to consider the history of escapes from hospitals, which is what prompted the debate. The figures are interesting: in 1991–92, there were 14 escapes by women prisoners; in 1992–93, there were 13 escapes; in 1993–94, there were nine escapes; in 1994–95, there were six escapes; and in 1995–96, there were just two. Escapes from hospitals over those same years are four, eight and five. In 1994–95, there were no escapes, and in 1995–96 there were none.

One of the principal policies of the prison service, whether the Home Office prison service or the agency, should be to prevent escapes—the prison service has clearly succeeded in doing so.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Does the hon. Lady think that the brutality—which has been described and at which she expressed horror at the beginning of her speech—of chaining women prisoners is worth the saving in terms of escape figures, which are relatively minor, anyway? Does she think that the brutality and anger are worth that result?

Mrs. Lait

The hon. Lady will realise that the Home Secretary has said that women in labour will no longer be chained. Seven prisoners who were either pregnant or who had just given birth have escaped from hospital. It was not our decision or a Home Office decision to chain women: it was an operational decision, and the Home Secretary has now instructed that it should not happen again. Let us sincerely hope that we do not witness the spectacle of women who are pregnant or just about to give birth escaping from hospital. The Prison Service should look for the best way to meet that target.

I have mentioned the difference between operational decisions and Home Office decisions. On the subject of women in hospital, we all know that, while those in the Prison Service are hard-working and have tremendous commitment, they are not known for their imagination. It was probably the lack of imagination that led to the policy of chaining women. Now that that policy has been abandoned, I hope that more sensible and imaginative ways will be found to ensure that women do not escape.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

Does my hon. Friend accept that it has never been Home Office policy to shackle women in labour?

Mrs. Lait

It has never been Home Office policy, but an operational decision was made by the next steps agency to restrain prisoners outside prison from April 1995—I think that that is why many people have accused the Prison Service of lacking imagination, and I suggest that the problem arose there.

That problem has been remedied by an instruction from the Home Secretary, and, I hope, some imagination will now be applied to the issue of restraining prisoners effectively when they are outside prison, so that, while there are no more escapes, we are not faced with the repugnant spectacle of women in labour being chained to their beds. That is the key to ensuring that the Prison Service can make progress and achieve its aims and the targets that it has been set.

The more often there are crises, the more often Ministers intervene in the agency's work. As a result, the agency finds it more difficult to follow the policy that we all wish it to follow—that of working effectively and efficiently, allowing it to deliver an effective service to prisoners, ensuring that the public are not affected by prison escapes, and providing an element of rehabilitation and training during a prison sentence.

10.10 am
Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

The debate must be placed in the context of the Government's recent problems concerning the care of pregnant women in prisons, which we all have in mind. What an embarrassment that matter has been for the Government. How costly it has proved. It was obviously a contributory factor in the decision of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson) to cross the Floor of the House, giving the very strong impression of a Conservative party that was split and falling apart. That latter impression has not been corrected by the performance of Ministers at the Dispatch Box in recent weeks.

Having for months brazenly bluffed their way through with categoric denials of the allegations made by Opposition Members, Ministers have been exposed and humbled. I do not blame them for not knowing from personal experience what was going on. They were fed inaccurate information by the people on whom they relied. I assume that someone in the Prison Service continues to smart from the fury of the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), when she was forced to carry the can for their mistakes.

The question now is whether we can be sure that the official information that will no doubt be the basis for the Minister's response today is as good, as accurate and as reliable as it should be. When the issue of pregnant women and new mothers was at its height, I was struck by the number of newspaper commentators who wrote, "What do those women expect? They did not go to prison for a rest cure." Those callous words from poisonous pens were revealed more starkly because, at that very time, the Government were conceding their errors. I should add, however, that those poisonous pens were not all directed at those who were in prison. Some of them were, and have been, directed at the Minister.

On Monday night, my wife telephoned me. She said, "May I read you a letter? I am incensed by an article that I read in the Manchester Evening News, attacking the Minister, and I hope that it will not cause you any political problems if I write in, defending her."

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)


Mr. Davies

I said, "All right. Read me the letter." The attack that was made on the Minister was indeed couched in the most personal terms, ignoring the political arguments entirely—an argument that would not have been presented against a male Minster. I said, "Fine; send it in."

When I spoke to my wife yesterday, she said, "I feel much better. I have sent it off. Sometimes I write these letters and never send them." I said, "That's fine. Are you going to start defending me against some of the attacks made on me in the papers?" She said, "No; you are attacked too often—day in, day out. I can't afford the pen and the paper to defend you."

We can be sure that some of those self-righteous authors will not retract their views, despite the evidence presented today by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon).

There are more women in prison than ever before—about 1,800—yet, when one considers the reasons that they are there, and especially the enormous proportion, about 47 per cent., who are in prison for defaulting on fines, it is impossible not to question whether there are not more effective ways of ensuring that justice is done and the community served.

Neither I nor the Liberal Democratic party take a soft view toward real criminals. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Halifax. Hon. Members will understand that, as the representative of Saddleworth, I have no problem with the idea that a woman sentenced to a life sentence for a crime that at other times would have deserved a capital punishment should indeed serve a sentence for life.

However, the obscenity must be ended of many women—many of whom are inadequate or impoverished, driven to extremes, but who have struggled to keep families together, making do on limited resources with no help from a partner, if any worthwhile partner exists—ending up in prison for fine default or for being unable to pay for a television licence.

A sentence in such cases may be only seven days, and to a judge that may seem nothing more than a slap on the wrist, but seven days to the person involved—especially if they have never been in prison—means humiliation and despair beyond belief. It means kids taken into local authority care, and costs to all members of the local community.

The Government may try to wash their hands of that by saying, "It is up to the courts to decide on the sentence," but it is up to the Government to ensure that the courts have a proper range of alternative, non-custodial, options on which they can call. The fact that Britain now has the fastest increasing—and, I believe, the largest—prison population in Europe, clearly demonstrates that it is failing in providing those non-custodial options.

For once, surely money cannot be used as a reason—not when it costs about £25,000 a year, for heaven's sake, to keep a woman in prison. For that money, each individual person sentenced instead to a non-custodial alternative might have a personal supervisor, probably with a chauffeur-driven car, to take them to their job each morning.

Mr. Sweeney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vast majority of people who are ordered by the courts to pay fines pay those fines, that people who default and end up going to prison are volunteers, and that, were the possibility of sending such people to prison to be withdrawn, it would send entirely the wrong signal to people who are fined, and encourage them not to pay their fines?

Mr. Davies

I believe that the courts should sentence people when they are obviously in breach of the law, but we are debating what type of sentence it should be. I am suggesting to the House that non-custodial sentences offer sensible, practical options—and practical options for the courts—which should be explored more often than they are. The very fact that the number of women in prison is increasing so sharply shows that non-custodial options are not being explored properly.

Imprisonment is the right option if society needs protection from an individual. It is the right answer if the crime committed against another human being deserves the most serious punishment. It satisfies society's justifiable desire for retribution in some cases, but no one should pretend for a minute that it helps society.

Prison is a breeding ground for crime. It is an admission of society's failure. It solves nothing. People who have committed crime through poverty, and are imprisoned, return to poverty. Those who have committed crime because of alcohol or drug dependence return to that dependence. If crime in this country is to be reduced effectively, it is time we explored more realistic, practical, sensible ways of ensuring that our means of imposing that justifiable punishment, meeting the court's requirements and reprimanding the people involved does not result in the problem and its consequences for society becoming worse than they are already.

10.18 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

In the past few months, much more heat than light has been expended on the subject of the treatment of women in prisons. Not least, it has caused the hysterical actions on the part of two of my colleagues, who have changed heart over that issue, yet have not even bothered to turn up for this morning's debate. The hysteria appears to have died down almost as quickly as it flared up.

We all have 20:20 vision with the benefit of hindsight. The debate—to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State has responded in a sensible and a responsible manner—has focused entirely on the treatment of women who are allowed out of prison in order to use the public health service. I am sure that most hon. Members would have campaigned at some time to give women prisoners the right to receive the best medical treatment available. However, we must remember that such women are serving custodial sentences, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) pointed out, many are persistent offenders.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) is being a little sentimental when she suggests that there should be different rules for women. Women should not be judged by lower standards than men. It should not be assumed that, because they are women, we expect less of them in terms of obedience to the law. If women offend persistently—it has been pointed out that women are sent to prison not for non-payment of licence fees, but for refusing to obey a court order—they must be answerable to the law like everyone else in the community. Otherwise, what is to stop any woman saying, "I don't want to pay for my television licence, and I know that I can't be imprisoned for it, because I am a mother"?

I have experience in helping female constituents and their families with their problems. They receive an enormous amount of assistance from social services, which often includes financial help to settle immediate monetary problems.

Mrs. Mahon

I do not think that women should be treated differently from men—although perhaps women have different problems. Does the hon. Lady believe that it is a good use of taxpayers' money to incarcerate a woman in prison for a week or a fortnight and to take her children into care for default of payment of a television licence fine?

Mrs. Gorman

Like the hon. Lady, I deplore the fact that that occurs. However, my annoyance is rooted in the fact that women—who generally have more common sense than men—persist in committing the crimes that put them in that situation. I taught girls in London secondary schools for 10 years, and I know that it is silly to pretend that women cannot behave as badly as men. If they persistently refuse to obey the laws of the land, they must be dealt with accordingly. I stress that point to Labour Members who have sought to make enormous political capital from the issue.

As a Member of Parliament, I have been very interested in the plight of women who are charged with murder and who are unable to plead provocation as a defence—we do not need to go into the details of how provocation occurs. A few years ago, I visited Bullwood Hall prison at my request—unfortunately, my experience is not up to date—where I was permitted to interview 13 women who had been imprisoned for first degree murder. They included Sarah Thornton and Kiranjit Ahluwalia—whose name I can never pronounce, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) will assist me.

I made an extensive tour of the prison, and what I saw does not match the descriptions of the treatment of female prisoners. I saw a family room equipped with toys which is used by children—who are separated from their mothers in those circumstances—when visiting the prison. I saw a gymnasium in a very large hall, and I was assured that tutors visited the prison to assist women with exercises. I saw the kitchens and the food that the women were served for lunch.

I also talked freely with the prisoners. At one point, I was alone with 13 prisoners, who expressed their grievances to me. I visited Miss Thornton, who was at that time in the prison hospital, in a very clean and neat room to herself. She sat curled up in the middle of a bed that was made up with clean linen. There was no attempt to restrain her, or to prevent me from speaking to her.

One can speak only about what one has seen. Of course, I was intimidated by the banging doors, the chains and the locks and keys, but the conditions in that prison were not offensive.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I worked in the Home Office formulating prison policy in relation to women and young offenders. I assure the hon. Lady that most women prisoners are held in Holloway, not in Bullwood Hall. Is she aware that, when the new chief inspector of prisons visited Holloway, he walked out halfway through the day because he was so disgusted by the conditions there?

Mrs. Gorman

I am, of course, aware of those reports, and, like everyone else, I am concerned about them, and await more details. I find it surprising that an institution in which many women are incarcerated is allowed to get into a dilapidated state. In similar circumstances, I would want to clean up the conditions in which I was living.

The cells that I saw—admittedly it was a small prison, but the women had been convicted of very serious crimes—were nothing like what the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) describes. Perhaps female prisoners should be given the opportunity to contribute to the general maintenance of the prison, including the cooking and cleaning. I think that that would be excellent therapy.

That brings me to the amount of time, energy and taxpayers' money that the Government spend on rehabilitating prisoners. The Government have spent a phenomenal amount of money in an attempt to improve conditions for prisoners—who, I repeat, are incarcerated because they have committed offences against society, and society has demanded that they receive a custodial sentence. Government spending on prisons has doubled since 1979; more recently, it has increased from £1.35 billion in 1995–96 to £1.4 billion in 1996–97. The Government are doing their best to improve conditions within the Prison Service, not just for those who are incarcerated but for those who work in our prisons.

Even more important is the amount of time that is being devoted to ensuring that male and female prisoners learn skills that will prove useful upon their release from prison. I hope that that will include courses in simple accounting, which may help some women to balance their budgets.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

But they are locked up many hours a day.

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Gentleman remarks that female prisoners are locked in their cells for long periods. However, 38 per cent. of all prisoners have their cells unlocked for more than 12 hours a day during the week. That compares with much longer periods spent in their cells 10 years ago. The prison regime is becoming much more humane, and is providing rehabilitation opportunities for male and female prisoners. Prisoners are able to exercise on outdoor pitches, and the prison library provides education opportunities.

Mr. Corbyn

While we agree that prisoners should have education opportunities, there is a serious problem in that regard in Holloway prison. Due to a shortage of prison officers, many women spend much time—sometimes up to 23 hours—in their cells every day. That is very wrong. There have also been enormous cuts in the budget of the education department at Holloway prison. Female prisoners' opportunities for education and self-improvement in prison have been wiped out by staff and spending cuts. In her response, perhaps the Minister will tell us how the Government intend to improve the education facilities at Holloway prison.

Mrs. Gorman

I am sure that my hon. Friend will do that.

Some 58 prisons run re-employment focusing courses and job clubs which prepare prisoners for a return to the work force, and 113 prisons provide advice on housing and employment issues. I am sure that such advice will prove especially helpful to women, whose problems are rooted in their inability to manage their budgets and pay the rent. It is very upsetting if women are constantly forced out of their homes and must seek new accommodation.

Sentence planning is in place for all prisoners serving 12 months or more, so, while they are in prison, a prison officer can counsel prisoners to plan for the time that they are discharged. The Government's record of improving conditions in prisons, making them more humane and enhancing the chances of prisoners ending their sentences with a better attitude and of being more organised undoubtedly represents an advance on the conditions that once prevailed—and long may they go on improving.

There will inevitably be times when we can find cause for criticism. If we lived in a perfect world, we would not need to be here in the first place.

10.30 am
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to hon. Members on both sides of the House, for the fact that, due to a previous commitment, regretfully I will not be present for the wind-up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on securing this Adjournment debate on an issue of paramount importance.

Conservative Members have argued that women who fall foul of the law should not be treated any less leniently. No Opposition Members would argue against that—if women offend, they must be punished. However, I strongly argue that, as most women prisoners, who number more than 1,000 according to Home Office figures, are imprisoned for minor offences that do not involve harming an individual—such as defaulting on fines—they should not be incarcerated. It is entirely possible for an alternative form of punishment to be applied to women who are in the main mothers, and preponderantly single mothers. We are punishing not only them but their innocent children.

If the Government listen only to the argument that society is protecting the taxpayer by imprisoning such women, I remind Conservative Members that it costs more than £451 a week to keep a woman in prison, and that a child taken into care costs the taxpayer £45,000 a year.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

When I visited Holloway prison nearly two years ago, women were faced with a terrible and stark choice once their babies reached the age of nine months. If a woman wanted to stay in Holloway, because, for example, she had other children in London, the baby was taken into care. If she wanted to keep the baby with her, she had to go to a prison in the north of England, thereby facing separation from her other children. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an appalling way to treat mothers?

Ms Jackson

I agree absolutely. That is an appalling way to treat mothers and a ghastly lesson for their children to learn—that society has no care or feeling for them. The Howard League, for whose information I am most grateful, states that estimates lead it to believe that more than 8,587 children are left without a parent because their mothers are serving prison sentences for, in the main, minor offences. The league deems the true figure to be infinitely higher, as many women sent to prison for minor offences do not reveal that they have children, because they are afraid that they will be taken into care.

The issue of how society punishes mothers who have offended against the law must be reviewed. Currently, society is punishing not only mothers but their essentially innocent children.

10.33 am
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on initiating this debate, with the typical generosity of spirit that we associate with her, and in such a thoughtful way.

We should try to put the issue in the wider context of what has been happening and is happening in the Prison Service. The service has a contracting budget. Governors are expected to lower the unit cost per prisoner over the next two or three years, but there is a rising prison population. It currently numbers 52,000, but that figure varies one way or the other by 500 prisoners each month. Most experts agree that the figure will probably rise to between 56,000 and 57,000 by the end of this year.

That situation must be underwritten by the co-operation of the Prison Service, yet the morale of the people who work in it has never been lower in living memory. They have been confronted with privatisation and market testing, and they feel that the contribution they could make is constantly undermined by the Government, and by Home Office Ministers in particular. Even governors who occasionally get into difficulty, in some cases through no fault of their own, are scapegoated by Ministers.

Miss Widdecombe

indicated dissent.

Mr. Howarth

Well, in that context, the co-operation that the Government need to implement any reasonable prison policy is not there, which cannot be ignored.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) must be the only hon. Member who maintains that one can readily define a split between policy, which is the prerogative of Ministers, and operations, which are allegedly the sole province of the Prison Service. I will, for the hon. Lady's further edification, quote directly from Hansard the Home Secretary's statement last Thursday:

We are confident that the revised policy provides the correct balance without reducing security to unacceptable levels."—[Official Report, 18 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 893.] We have it from the mouth of the Home Secretary himself that handcuffing and chaining women during labour was a matter of policy. He conceded that in his statement.

Most sensible Members in all parts of the House accept that that practice was unnecessary and certainly barbaric, but I wish to distance myself from some of the more personal attacks made on the Minister of State.

Mr. Boateng

Hear, hear.

Mr. Howarth

However, the Minister cannot and must not maintain that she did not know about the practice. The chairwoman of Whittington hospital trust had written to the Prison Service about the practice. I mentioned the matter when I had a private meeting with the Minister and the Director General of the Prison Service, and voiced my concerns in early December.

Mr. Corbyn

Does my hon. Friend recall that, when we visited Holloway prison just before his meeting with the Minister, we met some of the women who had been handcuffed in Whittington hospital? It was clear to us both that Whittington had complained about the handcuffing of women entering the hospital for treatment, often for antenatal care, and that the issue had been raised with the board of governors and the prison governor. The concerns were well known by a range of people. I find it surprising that the only individuals who did not know of them were at the Home Office. I find that scarcely believable.

Mr. Howarth

I confirm my hon. Friend's observations. He has saved me having to make those points myself. When we visited the prison, I was concerned about the policy and the wider difficulties. I am not at all surprised that the chief inspector's staff walked out of Holloway prison during their visit. That is the sorry pass that we have come to.

On 30 November 1995, 2,072 women were held in prisons, as has been mentioned. Not all had been convicted—about 400 were on remand. The women's prison population has been growing, and we must be honest and admit that the offences for which women are held on remand or convicted are generally in a different class of criminal than those typically associated with men. The figures show that 37.1 per cent. of women are in prison for non-payment of fines, and only 7.6 per cent. are there for violence-related crimes.

Mr. Sweeney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

I will not give way, because I have only a short time, and the Minister will have only a short time. The hon. Gentleman has intervened often enough.

The pattern of crimes committed by women is wholly different from that associated with men. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), in a typically eccentric contribution—

Ms Abbott

She is not eccentric.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is characteristically generous.

There is a difference between women in prison and men in prison, and that has been recognised since Victorian times. I do not know which history of women in prison the hon. Member for Billericay has read, but I am sure that she is a fan of the utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham. Even he accepted that there is a difference between women in prison and men in prison, and that the arrangements for them needed to reflect that.

I would like to say much more, but time forbids. It is necessary sometimes to pause in the operation of public policy, and if the great furore that has taken place over the past few weeks produces anything good, it should be a reassessment of what we want to achieve by putting women in prison.

I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the Prison Service has three aims. The first is to punish, which is a legitimate step to take on behalf of society. The second is to protect society by removing some people from general circulation to prevent them from creating more mayhem in the community. The third must be—I know that the Minister accepts it, because she has said so before—rehabilitation. Without rehabilitation, the whole process is a waste of time.

We must question whether the Prison Service is achieving those aims. It is not doing so in Holloway or in Styal, which has a high level of drug abuse among its women. Perhaps it is time to pause and ask what we are achieving for women in the prison system. Are those punishments for non-payment of fines the most appropriate ones?

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

What would the hon. Gentleman do?

Mr. Howarth

I shall deal with that, if the hon. Gentleman will hold himself in patience.

Are there alternative ways of punishing and rehabilitating women that might be more appropriate and more effective? I wish to make an offer to the Minister. Will she set up an inquiry, not necessarily a high-profile one, to consider what alternatives may be available to punish women for non-payment of fines?

If the Minister was serious about that, and appointed the right people, who were prepared to consider the problem dispassionately and thoughtfully, we would be willing to co-operate—as, I am sure, would other parties in the House. If we could arrive at a formula for punishment that was acceptable to the House, was recognised as sensible by the general public, and, most importantly, was a more effective way to deal with the problem, we would all gain. Public policy, the Minister and the Opposition would all gain, and we would deal with the problem more intelligently.

If we could stop slinging abuse across the Dispatch Box—something I would never do to the Minister—and pause to give some thought to how we are dealing with the problems, we would reap the benefits. I make that offer to the Minister seriously, and I hope that she will take it up. I also hope that, after this debate, we shall start to deal with the problem more effectively and sensibly, instead of trading slogans all the time.

10.46 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

I wish to start my reply to this debate by paying a tribute to the Prison Service. It has come in for much unfair criticism for some time, and it is right to put on record what it has achieved.

Escapes are now down by 77 per cent. compared with the figure when the Prison Service became an agency. No prisoners are now held three to a cell, and have not been since March 1994, compared with 1,053 in April 1992. At the end of December 1995, 17 per cent. of the prison population were held two to a cell for one, compared with 21 per cent. in April 1992. More than 96 per cent. of prisoners now have 24-hour access to sanitation, compared with 70 per cent. in March 1992. All that has been achieved against a background of a prison population that has risen from 43,400 in April 1993 to 51,300 in mid-January 1996—an increase of 18 per cent.

The Prison Service has provided more than 5,000 new and refurbished cells since it became an agency. Prisoners now spend 7 per cent. more time in purposeful activity than in 1992–93. At the end of December 1995, 36 per cent. of prisoners were unlocked for more than 12 hours per weekday, compared with 24 per cent. at the end of March 1993. All that has been achieved, not just against the rise in prison population, but against a reduction in the cost of a prison place of 2.4 per cent. in real terms.

The combination of the fall in escapes and the rise in purposeful activity, unlocked time and access to decent sanitation points clearly to a lack of any conflict between security and rehabilitation. It is often suggested that there is a natural conflict between the two, but, as the clear statement of purpose outside every prison demonstrates, we are committed to security.

Mr. Boateng

The Minister is arguing that there is no conflict between security and rehabilitation. Does she believe that Richard Tilt, the acting Director General of the Prison Service, was wrong when he said: The problem for the Prison Service is that we are trying to balance security with treating people humanely. They are often in conflict"? Who is right, the Minister or Mr. Tilt?

Miss Widdecombe

There is no conflict between the two statements. It is clear that Mr. Tilt made that statement about a particular issue. He was explaining, as I myself have had to explain to the House, that sometimes there is a difficulty in balancing security against dignity. There is no conflict between the two purposes of the prison system—to hold people securely in custody and not let them escape, and to rehabilitate them and raise the chances of their being returned to society as law-abiding and useful citizens. The second purpose is also a major contribution to public protection, and there is no such conflict.

Now that I have said that rather fiercely to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), may I thank him for his sedentary intervention in support of his hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr Howarth), when he condemned the attacks on me? I also wish to pay especial tribute to the wife of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies). I hope that he will convey to her my genuine thanks for what she has done.

I have listened with great care to the points that have been raised this morning. I regret that, because of the time constraints, I will not have the opportunity to answer them all. I shall, however, try to deal with some of the points raised in the time available.

I turn first to the opening paragraphs of the speech by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North, in which he said that I should not claim that I did not know what was going on. It is very important to put the record straight. I have never claimed, in the House or outside it, that I did not know what the policy was. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will remember that, when he came to see me, the acting Director General of the Prison Service gave him, in my presence, a full exposition of what the policy was. I have never claimed not to know it.

What I said was that I did not know that concern had been expressed by the Whittington hospital about Holloway practice. That statement was utterly truthful, according to the knowledge I had at the time. When I came into the knowledge that had not been available to me, I took the earliest possible opportunity to rectify the situation. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that what I have said is a truthful statement?

Mr. George Howarth

I would never accuse the hon. Lady of deliberately misleading the House or anyone else, but can she confirm that, when we met on 10 December in her office with the acting Director General of the Prison Service, I raised with her the fact that I was aware that Whittington hospital trust had been in touch, possibly initially with the Department of Health but certainly also with her office, to raise its concerns about the medical implications of what was going on? She was aware of that at the time. If I remember rightly, she said that she had had some dialogue with a ministerial colleague at the Department of Health about some of the issues that worried the Whittington hospital trust.

Miss Widdecombe

No, there is some confusion here. I had certainly had dialogue with my noble Friend Lady Cumberlege, but that was on the subject of health care throughout the Prison Service, not on this specific topic. That is where the confusion arises. I was assured, I queried the assurance, and I was reassured that there had not been any specific complaints about Holloway practice from the hospital to the prison. I do not think that there is any point in rehearsing the matter much further; I have stated the position as it was.

Ms Corston

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

No, I am pressed for time. I should like to give way; indeed, I have already given way twice in the course of my summing up. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North did not give way at all.

Mr. George Howarth

Yes, I did.

Miss Widdecombe

There have been claims by the Opposition throughout this debate that women prisoners and women in general, on being sentenced and convicted, are treated more harshly than men. It is worth recording that, in 1994, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 16 per cent. of adult males were sentenced and cautioned for indictable offences, and were given either an immediate or a suspended prison sentence. The number of adult women similarly treated was 6 per cent.

The use of community sentences for female prisoners has also been mentioned. I regret that we have no published figures later than the year 1993. Nevertheless, those figures show that 6,885 female offenders received probation orders, 2,998 received community service orders, 803 received supervision orders, 696 received combination orders—making a total of 11,382 female offenders who were the subject of community sentences. In the same year, the number of female receptions in prisons for immediate custody was 1,929. I therefore do not think it true to say that there has been a disproportionate use of prison.

We have also heard much from the Opposition about the imprisonment of fine defaulters. When they arrive with us, it is always because the courts have exhausted all other remedies. There has to be a final deterrent, but it is still worth keeping the problem in proportion. On 31 October 1995, there were 414 fine defaulters in the entire prison estate, of whom only 19 were women. So, at any given time, less than 1 per cent. of the female population is in prison for non-payment of fines.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who initiated this interesting debate this morning—on which I neglected to congratulate her at the beginning—brought up the problem of a Holloway female prisoner with breast cancer. As she has raised the matter, I think it worth pointing out that that prisoner goes to the Middlesex hospital four times a week. There are two officers on escort duty, and as far as operationally possible the prison makes every endeavour to ensure that both are female. I do not claim that they have always been female, but efforts are made to that end. Physical restraints are applied as a result of a risk assessment.

The Home Secretary made very clear our policy with regard to treatment in hospital. It is worth repeating some of it, although I do not intend to go into all of it, because it is important in respect of the essential point that the hon. Member for Halifax has raised: how we treat people who go to hospital for treatment for conditions other than pregnancy.

First, the Home Secretary made it clear that female prisoners who are admitted to hospital to give birth will not have handcuffs or other physical restraints applied to them from the time they arrive at the hospital until the time they leave. So, while a mother is attending to her child after birth, breast-feeding and so on, she will not be subject to restraints.

Secondly, female prisoners attending hospital for antenatal checks will not have restraints applied to them in the public waiting areas of hospitals. Restraints will not be applied at all during antenatal appointments. The hon. Member for Halifax expressed concern about the use of restraints when difficult treatment is being given, and I understand that point. Restraints may be applied if there is a particularly high risk of escape. Indeed, the hon. Lady herself conceded that restraints would be necessary in such cases.

For cases not associated with pregnancy, governors retain their discretion to decide what security measures are necessary. They must do a thorough risk assessment; following that, some female prisoners can go to hospital on temporary licence—in which case, they take themselves and bring themselves back. But in most other cases, physical restraints will be used.

If, following the risk assessment, the governor decides that restraints are unnecessary, they will not be used. In such cases, the prisoner will be accompanied and supervised by Prison Service staff. If there is a medical objection to the use of restraints at any time, the policy remains—it is not new—that restraints must be removed.

In the concluding minutes of this debate, I want to give a breakdown of the population of female offenders. There has been much talk today about the pettiness of the offences for which, allegedly, most female offenders are in prison. The precise statistics are as follows: violence against the person, 11 per cent.; sexual offences, 0.4 per cent.; burglary, 3.8 per cent.; robbery, 2.1 per cent.; theft and handling, 40 per cent.; fraud and forgery, 10.5 per cent.; drugs offences, 10.4 per cent.; other offences, 16 per cent.; offences not recorded, 5.8 per cent.

A specific point about the provision of education at Holloway was mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). Education in the prison is provided by Kingsway college, and additional money has been put in the education budget for Holloway this year. Far from suffering a cut, therefore, it has attracted additional money.

I should like to say a few words about our overall aims—

Mr. Corbyn

And staffing levels.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, even preceding the inspector's report, we recognised that there were problems and had put in an extra £326,000, with a specific view to provide extra staff. Following the inspector's report, we drafted in some temporary staff to plug the gap before permanent staff were employed. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. If he has worries about this, he is welcome to raise them with me at any time, as I am aware that he has a genuine constituency concern.

In the final minute of the debate, I should like to say something about our overall aims. I am committed, as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North admitted, to a rehabilitative regime in our prisons. I can think of nothing more—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Time's up.

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