HL Deb 30 March 2004 vol 659 cc1171-3

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the proposed closure of two women's prisons is consistent with their policy of locating women prisoners close to their families.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the decision to change the role of Her Majesty's Prison Edmund's Hill and the female unit at Winchester Prison was taken in the light of many factors. The impact of the change on the women at those establishments was considered when making that decision. It is anticipated that there will be a slight improvement in the overall closeness to home for women prisoners. However, there may be a small number of prisoners who are located further from home as a result of these re-roles.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Will she accept that experience suggests that when women prisoners, or any prisoners for that matter, are suddenly moved from one prison to another, many of them will have not the slightest idea where their destination prison is as most people do not have a very good sense of the geography of this country? That can be extremely disturbing for the prisoner involved.

Will she agree with Cherie Booth, for example, that too many women are being jailed for petty offences? In the light of that, and having already spoken about the introduction of the national offenders management system, what will happen to prisoners jailed for relatively minor offences before the NOM system comes into place, which is not due for several years?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, can I just unpack some of those questions? I do not agree that women have no idea about their destination. In particular, with regard to the move that took place from Winchester to Send, we were very concerned about the arrangement. The women were spoken to at the therapeutic community and the operational manager for women's prisons spoke personally to all the women involved to discuss what was to be expected with the relocation. The women decided that they wanted to move the therapeutic community to Send.

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important for people to know where and why they are going somewhere and how they will be transferred. That has been very much taken into account.

We have made it clear that we do not believe that prison is the first option for those who commit small non-violent offences and that other means of treatment are perfectly proper. That is clearly set out in our new strategy for dealing with women. We endorse many of the comments that have been made by Cherie Booth and others about the need to look at the issue sensitively and appropriately.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that with regard to the therapeutic community project that has been under way at Winchester, the funding was ring-fenced? Can she guarantee that after the Thursday of this week, when funding for women's prisons is taken within funding for all prisons in the regions, the funding that has heretofore been available for the therapeutic project will continue?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I call certainly reassure the noble Baroness that the work that is being done in the therapeutic community is very highly prized and valued and that it may be an exemplar of what we may be able to achieve elsewhere. Although I cannot tell the noble Baroness that it will be in perpetuity ring-fenced, I can reassure her that we are ensuring that arrangements are in place for the longer-term development of the therapeutic community at Send. That will include re-establishing the therapeutic culture and putting in place a programme of regime activities. I hope that gives the noble Baroness some reassurance.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, have the Government given particular consideration to the needs of three categories of women prisoners in the course of these moves? I refer to those who are older, those with serious mental health problems and, above all, those who are terminally ill.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, of course the needs of those three categories of women are taken into account. However, the noble Baroness will also know that the needs of women with young families are also important; the level of disruption that that causes is a matter that we take very seriously. The noble Baroness is right to highlight the issue of mental illness, age and terminal illness. All those issues need appropriate and proper consideration.

The Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

My Lords, following what the Minister has just said, is she aware that both St. Edmund's Hill in Suffolk and the therapeutic community in Winchester, which I believe is the only one of its kind in Europe, have been in existence for only two years? They have built up specialist staff and local volunteer networks. Is it thought that the closure of those units for women, particularly vulnerable and disturbed women, is in any way balanced by the short-term gain of places in prisons for men?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I make it clear to the right reverend Prelate that we very much understand the importance of this work. That is why the director of therapy and the other members of the therapeutic team have already moved, at least for the initial transition period. We are maintaining that system of help and care. I also acknowledge that building appropriate local volunteer networks is of immense importance. We accept that the pressure of adult male prisoners and the current and future capacity of the female estate was an influence in taking the decision. However, I remind noble Lords that new prisons at Bronzefield near Heathrow and at Peterborough will be opening in June 2004 and March 2005 respectively. Therefore, we hope to have 450 places for women in June. That is a significant issue.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the majority of women remanded or sentenced to prison are involved in one way or another with illegal drugs? In Styal, for example, 75 per cent of receptions have drug problems. What effect does the Minister believe that the closure of the two units will have on the ability of the Prison Service to deal with those problems?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, those issues are being addressed. As I have tried to make clear, the needs of the women were fully taken into consideration before the decision to move them was taken.