HC Deb 09 June 1997 vol 295 cc785-6
11. Ms Corston

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proportion of convicted women prisoners in England and Wales are serving sentences for non-payment of fines. [925]

Ms Joyce Quin

At the end of the first quarter of 1997, women sentenced to imprisonment for default on fines represented around 0.2 per cent. of women serving a prison sentence in England and Wales. The number of fine defaulters in prison is now falling steadily.

Ms Corston

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her welcome and excellent appointment. Has she had time to look at Home Office research published last July which found that despite the welcome fall in the number of women fine defaulters, they are generally unemployed and have multiple debts of some £1,300? Would it not be more appropriate to find other means of punishing those women as, in most cases, they have shown not unwillingness to pay a fine but inability to do so?

Ms Quin

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words of welcome. She has raised an important matter. We must find ways to ensure that imprisonment is seen only as a last resort. We shall look closely at the issue of fine defaulting in the coming months.

Mr. Garnier

I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on her new appointment. In regard to the main question, has she looked at the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997?

Ms Quin

Yes. We believe that it is helpful in many respects. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind words. As the question refers in particular to women prisoners, I should also like to make it clear that, as a new Minister in the Home Office, women's prisons and the female prison estate are matters that I shall look at carefully in the near future.

Mr. Howard

I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment. Will she tell us a little more than the Home Secretary did a few moments ago about the Government's plans to sign new contracts for privately operated prisons?

Did she share the Home Secretary's previously expressed view that such prisons are "morally repugnant"? If so, when did she change her mind?

Ms Quin

I am somewhat surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should choose to ask a supplementary question on a main question about the proportion of convicted women prisoners serving sentences for non-payment of fines. The main question has already been answered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Among other things, we are considering the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee report, which made some very interesting proposals on that subject.