HL Deb 02 May 2000 vol 612 cc922-6

2.40 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many women were in prison in England and Wales in March 1996; how many in March 2000; and what plans they have to forestall a further increase.

Lord Bach

My Lords, in March 1996 the number of women in prison in England and Wales was 2,120 In March 2000 the figure was 3,392. The size of t he female prison population depends on the individual sentencing decisions of the courts, in which the Government cannot, of course, intervene. However, the Government take seriously the needs of women in the criminal justice system, and keep them under review in the context of sentencing policy and when considering new initiatives.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but is not this a thoroughly dismal increase? Does he agree that there is something particularly sad and destructive about a women's prison with its air of families destroyed and children abandoned? Instead of spending millions of pounds on two new prisons for women which are planned For England and Wales, will the Government look again at this whole subject in the light of the fresh ideas set out in Professor Wedderburn's recent report and focus in particular on the possibility of devising effective means of punishment outside prison which would avoid some of these disastrous consequences?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we welcome the Prison Reform Trust's report, Justice for Women and the Need for Reform as a major contribution to the thinking on the treatment of women in the criminal justice system. As the noble Lord will know, the Prison Service and the Home Office supplied the trust inquiry with data about women in the criminal justice system and information on regimes in prison.

The noble Lord will know, too, that a working group has been established to develop a strategy in regard to the treatment of women in prison which will provide an opportunity for wide consultation on this issue. Its next meeting will be on the 15th of this month.

The serious recommendations made in the report will be considered extremely carefully by the Government. The noble Lord would not expect me at this stage—it being less than a month since the report was first published—to say which proposals may or may not be accepted. The noble Lord's record in this field is extremely well known and his remarks are taken very seriously.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, how many girls under the age of 17—particularly 15 and 16 yearolds—are still in prison? Does not the Minister agree that they would be better off in full-time education rather than learning more criminal skills before they come out of prison?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness the exact figure. She will know that at present females under the age of 18 are held in a number of young offenders' institutions. But, under the detention and training order, from April of this year we have begun to place them in non-Prison Service accommodation. That is a step which I believe the noble Baroness and the whole House will consider to be progress.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the proportion of women with no or few previous convictions who are sentenced to imprisonment is higher than for men in similar situations? Does he further accept that most women do not commit serious violent crimes and that more than 8,000 children are affected by the number of women in prison today? Will he look back at the 1991 report of the Probation Inspectorate which stated that women would benefit more from intensive probation and community service orders rather than imprisonment?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it is important that we bear in mind that sentencing women to prison presents particular problems, largely to do with children. A large proportion of women sentenced to prison are the mothers of often very young children, so the noble Lord makes a good point. However, there are offences that women commit, alas, which are dangerous to the public, even if they are not violent offences. For example, a large part of the increase in the offences for which women are sent to prison is connected with drugs. That does not mean possession of drugs but the selling of drugs, dealing in drugs and, sometimes, the importation of drugs. There can often be some mitigation for women—they can, for instance, be under pressure from male partners—but these are serious offences which are a danger to other women and to other people in general.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the excellent report published last summer by the Catholic Agency for Social Concern, with the support of the Church of England and other Churches? Does he agree that ensuring the best possible care for the children of mothers serving custodial sentences should be firmly on the Government's agenda, as recommended by the report? Does he further agree that sometimes there are unsatisfactory arrangements for the children of women in prison, partly because the mothers do not think they will receive a custodial sentence and do not make any provision for them? Would it not be a good idea to look at the Dutch proposal for deferring sentence for a few days to ensure that proper care is in place?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the answer to all the right reverend Prelate's comments is "Yes". These are all matters that need to be looked at seriously and with speed. As I said, there are particular problems involved in sending women into custody which revolve around children. The children of course suffer—but sometimes the courts are left with no alternative.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government cannot absolve themselves of all responsibility for the level of sentencing, whether of women or of men? In the era of the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, the prison population went up by 50 per cent in four years because of his pronouncement that prison works. Will the Minister look again at his answer that the Government are not accepting responsibility for the level of imprisonment of women or of men?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I spoke only the truth. Individual sentencing decisions are, and must be, for the courts to decide. My noble friend is right to the extent that governments have a role in setting out the parameters of sentencing policy—this Government will be no different from any previous government—and that what Home Secretaries say and do plays a part in sentencing patterns. But—and this is critical—it is up to the court to decide in each individual case what the appropriate sentence should be.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, further to what the Minister said about the number of women in prison for drug offences as a result of being influenced into offending by partners, does he think that an amendment to the legislation is required so that where a woman is convicted but the court is satisfied that she committed the offence because of the influence of an undesirable or criminal partner, there should be provision for a lower sentence?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it does not need the law to say that. I speak from some years of experience in the courts in this field. Any self-respecting defence lawyer would raise the issue that the woman had been influenced by the man—it is not always that way round but mostly it is—and, in my experience, any judge who did not take some notice of that, if it was established, would be successfully appealed against.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the noble Lord rightly explained that many women are in prison because of dealing in drugs in some way, but many, many more are in prison because of the effect of taking drugs or of drinking too much. For those people, we know perfectly well that prison is neither a disincentive to their behaviour nor a cure. Do not the Government have it in their heart to say that they will come to Parliament with a measure that will lead to fewer people going to prison? They should not shuffle this matter off onto those who carry out the sentencing. It is not good enough simply to say that the Government have a role. Something must happen. The figures are disgraceful. I am very glad that my noble friend has raised the matter.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the Government, too, are glad that this subject has been raised because it is a very important and worrying one. I remind the noble Baroness that under the provisions, which still apply, of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 an offence has to be so serious that only a custodial sentence is appropriate. That is still the law. At the same time, it is right to say that a good deal is going on in terms of rehabilitating drugs offenders, both women and men. But the noble Baroness is quite right to say that a large number of women are in prison first and foremost because they are drug addicts. It is vital that, whether it is inside prison or, it is to be hoped, outside prison, something positive is done about that.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, is the Minister aware that New Hall prison in Wakefield is designated as an officially overcrowded women's prison? One of the particular problems concerns sanitation. Women are put together in cells which were not designed to be shared. They are locked up for 12 to 14 hours at night and have to share the one lavatory between them, which is unpleasant and degrading. Is the Minister able to give any indication as to whether that can be avoided in the future?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not know the answer to the right reverend Prelate's question. However, I promise to look into the issue to see whether there is a solution and write to him.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, is the Minister able to account for the more than 50 per cent increase in women prisoners? Is it that women are committing more crimes or that the crimes they are committing are more serious?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Baroness is "both". The population has nearly doubled over the past number of years and the reasons given in the report mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, are accurate. More women have been going through the courts and a higher proportion are receiving custodial sentences, and for longer periods. But I point out again that 50 per cent of the rise in the past five years is due to drug offences. So the answer to the noble Baroness's question is "both reasons".