HL Deb 28 October 2004 vol 665 cc1443-82

1.44 p.m.

Baroness Gale rose to call attention to the position of women in prison; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the subject of women in prison is a difficult and complex one, as no doubt we shall hear from noble Lords taking part in this debate. I am very pleased that a number of noble Lords with experience in this field have agreed to speak, and I look forward to their contribution. I am especially pleased that we now have a two-and-a-half hour debate rather than the one-hour Unstarred Question originally planned.

Ten years ago, the average female prison population was 1,611; five years ago, it was 3,247; in September this year, 4,420 women were in prison. Women prisoners make up a small proportion of prisoners, just 6 per cent of the prison population. But there is grave concern over the increase; it poses the question why there has been such a rise in the number of women in prison.

The criminal justice system has been designed to control and rehabilitate men. The special needs of women have tended to be overlooked, perhaps because they make up such a small proportion of the prison population. Those special needs include: their childcare responsibilities, as women are usually the main carer; the fact that they are more likely to be addicted to drugs; and their often poor physical and mental health. Over 50 per cent of women gaoled have suffered domestic abuse. One in three has experienced sexual abuse. About 25 per cent have been in local authority care during their childhood. Around 40 per cent have a serious drug problem. Many suffer from mental health problems. Some 37 per cent say that they have attempted suicide at some time.

It would be no exaggeration to say that these are, in the main, inadequate women, made even more so by being in prison. The majority of women in gaol do not commit serious or violent crimes. The excellent report entitled Prison Reform Trust Fact File states: More women were sent to prison in 2002 for shoplifting than any other crime. Just over 2,700 women were received into custody for this offence. They accounted for nearly a third of all women sentenced to immediate custody in 2002. The majority of women serve very short sentences. In 2002, 40 per cent served a sentence of three months or less, nearly three-quarters were sentenced to 12 months or less. Overall the average sentence length was 10 months". Do these offences really require a prison sentence? Are there other ways in which the debt to society could be paid, which would be of greater benefit to the women and their families? Women offenders are relatively young, with only 16 per cent over 40. As around 60 per cent of women in prison have children under 16, many children will be unable to have regular contact with their mother.

I had the opportunity of visiting Holloway Prison several months ago. Even on that short visit, I learnt so much, especially about the state of health of women prisoners and the problems of transportation of women from court to custody. I shall use Holloway as an example. Holloway does not refuse to take women prisoners, however late they arrive. It does not operate a lock out. Other male prisons do have a lock-out—they will not accept prisoners after a given time; 7 p.m., for example. Consequently, male prisoners are transferred to prison before women prisoners, as the private companies that transfer them are concerned not to have any prisoners left in their care, or in care of the police or courts, at the end of the day.

The reason that Holloway does not refuse anyone is that it is concerned that it is in the interests of the women themselves that they are dealt with as soon as possible, but, repeatedly, that is being taken advantage of by the system. Women are frequently kept on the transport van for long periods of time while male prisoners are transferred to and from court ahead of them. That long delay for women is unacceptable. Their day probably started early, in readiness for their court appearance. They then appear in court, and, if sentenced or remanded, must go through the trauma of being taken into custody. They then have to wait to be taken into custody. They are taken all around London, while male prisoners are delivered first. By the time that they arrive at Holloway and are processed through the system, it can be very late. One can imagine the state that they must be in by that time.

I understand that there are moves to improve the system of escorting prisoners and that a new escort contract came into operation in August of this year. Apparently, the option of escorting women separately from male prisoners is considered to be prohibitively expensive. I assume from that that the problem of late arrival for women prisoners may not be solved. There seem to be many new measures to improve the position of women being escorted to prison, but does the new contract take account of the effect on women prisoners of late arrival? If the women cannot be escorted into custody separately, how can the problems be overcome? I understand that the operation of the contract will be reviewed after three months. I appreciate that it is too early to assess the effects, but I ask the Minister to comment on how the matter of late arrival can be dealt with, so that women arrive at prison at a reasonable time.

The health of women prisoners is a matter of grave concern. A Prison Reform Trust report says: Two thirds of women show symptoms of at least one neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety and phobias. More than half are suffering from a personality disorder. Among the general population less than a fifth of women suffer from these disorders. Half of the women in prison are on prescribed medication such as anti-depressants or anti-psychotic medicine and there is evidence that the use of medication increases whilst in custody. Of all the women who are sent to prison, thirty-seven per cent say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life". I made that point earlier. The report continues: The number and rate of self-harm incidents is much higher amongst women than men. In 2003, 30 per cent of women were reported to have harmed themselves compared with six per cent of men. On average each woman who injured herself did so five times compared to twice for men. So while women make up just six per cent of the prison population, they accounted for nearly half (46%) of all reported self-harm incidents".

Suicides rates in women's prisons are becoming a serious problem. There has been a worrying increase in the number of women in custody committing suicide. I am aware that, in March, Paul Goggins, the prisons Minister, announced a suicide prevention strategy that applies to all prisoners, male and female. A specifically targeted and separate suicide prevention strategy is being developed for women. Although it is early days, can the Minister say whether that strategy is in place? Is there any evidence yet of improvement?

In England and Wales, there are 125 male prisons and 16 women's prisons. That means that many women are placed hundreds of miles away from their family while they are held in custody. That can mean that it is possible for them to have few visits from their children, family, or friends. They become increasingly isolated and more vulnerable as a result. There are no women's prisons in Wales, for example, so any woman who lives in Wales, and is sentenced will be a long way away from her family. I am aware that there is a small number of women prisoners from Wales, and I am certainly not advocating the building of a women's prison in Wales, but, like other women prisoners, they need to maintain contact with their children while in custody. Being far away from home will not help them or their children. The Prison Service could convert male prison facilities to create additional places for women as they have done in a few male prisons in England. What further measures can be taken to ensure women can be placed nearer their home?

I have raised several questions to which I trust that the Minister will be able to respond, but I recognise that the Government have brought forward initiatives such as the Women's Offending Reduction Programme, which will co-ordinate work across departments and agencies to ensure that policies, service programmes and other interventions respond more appropriately to the needs and characteristics of women offenders. The publication Reducing Crime—Changing Lives is the Government's plan to transform the management of offenders, including the creation of a new National Offender Management Service, which commenced in July of this year.

As I understand it, the emphasis of the Women's Offending Reduction Programme will be on greater use of community services for lower risk offenders, reserving custody only for serious, dangerous and highly persistent offenders. That approach, if successful, should mean a reduction in women prisoners. As I have already pointed out, most women do not commit serious crime; the majority commit petty offences and should not be in gaol. The programme is to run for three years. Progress will be monitored and reviewed at the end of each year. Can the Minister say whether the results of each year's analysis are to be published, so that we can all learn about the success rate of the programme as it progresses, year on year?

We are debating women in prison, and I should like to say a little about young women and girls in prison. Girls in prison will only ever make up a minute fraction of the total prison population. Girls aged 18 or under currently make up just 0.2 per cent of the total prison population and 3 per cent of the female prison population. The fact that there are now no 15 or 16-year-old girls held in prison is a huge step forward and it is good to know that this practice ended in December 2003. These are highly vulnerable and needy girls who can be best cared for in the community.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has applauded the work of the Youth Justice Board in ending the imprisoning of these children, but calls on the board to make greater efforts to develop community services so that girls are no longer detained in secure children's homes or secure training centres. Does the Minister agree with this view?

I understand there are plans to build five prisons-within-prisons for girls aged 18, the first in Downview and Eastwood Park prisons. These plans have been highly criticised by the Howard League, which, as I am sure your Lordships are aware, has undertaken much research on girls in prison. The league goes so far as to say that it deplores the Home Secretary's plans to build five prisons-within-prisons for girls aged 17, reneging on promises to find alternative ways of dealing with this age group. Can the Minister comment on how we should be treating 17-year-old girls in custody?

I have raised several matters that are of concern to me regarding women in prison, and I have drawn those to the attention of the Minister. I look forward to the debate this afternoon and to the responses from other noble Lords and from the Minister. I beg to move for Papers.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important subject. The noble Baroness is right when she mentions that the matters she has identified are of serious concern to all of us. For that reason, I am delighted—and I endorse what she said in this regard—that the usual channels saw fit to give us more time.

The number of women in prison has been rising steadily, and I am grateful that the noble Baroness has given us some figures. The stark reality is that in 1993 the figure stood at 1,580. In March 2004 there were 4,589 women in prison, representing about 6 per cent of the total prison population in England and Wales. Women constitute 51.3 per cent of the overall population in England and Wales.

Ample research has been conducted on this subject. There are some very stark conclusions that researchers have identified. Perhaps I may mention a few of them. As regards offences, women tend to commit less crime and their offences are generally less serious. The question therefore arises: why are we now imprisoning three times more women than in 1993?

Some 20 per cent of women in prison are foreign nationals compared with about 11 per cent of males. What is being done to inform foreign nationals about the way that they are being exploited by drug barons and the consequences that they will face when they are caught? Women have a different type of drug use from men, with a higher level of hard drugs and poly-drug use. What treatment models are available in our prisons? Are they adequate?

Turning to the family, women are normally the primary carers for elderly relatives and children. Around 55 per cent of women in prison have children under 16 years old and more than a third have a child under 5 years old. The question therefore arises: is prison appropriate in such cases? Because of the smaller number of women's prisons, women tend to be further away from their homes, which makes important links with their families that much more difficult. What is being done to ensure that women serve their sentences near their homes? Is it conducive to maintaining inmates' relationships with their families by keeping them away from their home surroundings?

We can also look at some other relevant factors. In terms of healthcare, women tend to place a greater demand on medical services than men. Approximately 20 per cent of women prisoners ask to see a doctor or nurse each day, which is almost twice the number of male prisoners. In one study on mental health, more than 66 per cent of women in prison were assessed as having a neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety or phobias. The comparable figure in the community is fewer than 20 per cent. Should mentally disordered women be in prison at all?

Quite rightly, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, pointed to suicide rates for women in prison, which have increased from one in 1993 to nine in 2002. So far this year, there have been 14, which is an unacceptable figure. Why? As regards self-injury, women account for more than 25 per cent of self-harm incidents in prison, but they are only 6 per cent of the prison population. Does isolation from family contribute to self-harm?

In terms of security, women generally present much lower risks than men. Women's prisons do not experience as many serious incidents, although the rate of adjudications is higher. What is the explanation for that?

In 2003, 31 per cent of women in custody were from ethnic minority groups, compared with 24 per cent of men. That may in part be accounted for by the higher level of female foreign nationals. But even taking out the foreign nationals from that figure, why is it that the population of black women in prison is higher than their representation in the community?

I turn now to resettlement. While for men the first priority is getting employment, for women accommodation normally ranks much higher. Women tend to continue to try to manage children and homes from prison and are less likely than men to have partners who will take responsibility for maintaining their homes and families during custody.

There is an overwhelming need to acknowledge the extent to which drug and alcohol misuse and mental health needs play a part in women's offending. We have the consultative document entitled, Protecting the public and preventing re-offending—the Government's strategy for women offenders, which was published in 2000. I certainly welcome that initiative. The publication states that more than 10 per cent of women prisoners harmed themselves and 34 per cent considered suicide during their time in prison; 25 per cent had been in care as a child; 40 per cent left school early; and only 3 per cent were in paid employment before prison. In one survey, 50 per cent of women prisoners had suffered violence at home and more than a third had been sexually abused. One in five had spent time in a mental hospital or psychiatric ward and 40 per cent had treatment for a mental health problem during the year before going to prison. Fifty per cent of women were taking medication for a mental health problem.

Following the period of consultation, a further report was published by the Home Office in which it announced the setting up of the Women's Offending Reduction Programme. A delivery plan was issued to key stakeholders in July 2003. It looked at issues of bail and remand, sentencing, community provision, prisoner resettlement, women offender management and crime prevention—all issues to which we are still asking what is the outcome. Of course, there is a broad range of areas on which the Government have taken action, which is certainly welcome.

The initial focus obviously must be on a greater diversion of women at the pre-court and pre-sentence stages and encouraging greater use of community disposals so that custody is used only for women who present a real risk. A partial solution, if properly implemented, should be a fundamental means of improving the position of women in custody, which, effectively, will mean that there will be fewer of them in custodial institutions.

I was a member of the Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System. The Fawcett Society published its report in March 2004. The commission was chaired by Vera Baird QC, MP for Redcar, which was set up as a result of concerns about the impact of current laws and practices on women in England and Wales. It concluded that women are systematically disadvantaged. The report makes a series of recommendations which would, if implemented, create a better and more equitable way of dealing with women in the system.

The commission's recommendations in relation to prisons are very specific. The Prison Service should fully address sexual harassment in its equality action plan. The Prison Officers' Association should proactively challenge discriminatory practices and support individual women who complain of discriminatory treatment. Overall, I hope that the Minister will look at those recommendations with a view to informing us how many of them are being implemented.

Perhaps I may conclude with clear recommendations that I believe are appropriate. Ultimately, there should be a situation where only in exceptional circumstances, and for very serious matters, women should receive custodial sentences. Let us enshrine that in our sentencing guidelines. With women, we are not just sentencing an individual, we are sentencing the whole family.

2.8 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for enabling this debate to take place. Like others, I am glad that it has been allocated a proper length of time. I hope that the noble Baroness will take this right when I say that I particularly appreciate the measured way in which she has presented the situation to us. Most of us have some knowledge of the statistics, but despite the fact that behind them lies an enormous weight of human tragedy they were related to us in a measured way. Similarly, as a House we have to take a measured view of what is going on.

I shall use my time to refer to one matter and then to reflect on the general situation. I shall not rehearse the statistics already set out by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, save to say that whichever figures you look at and from whichever base you start, the position of women in prison is not getting better. That is not because the Government and the Prison Service do not want it to do so. Rather, it is due to other pressures, and it is from those that the first part of what I want to say arises.

Earlier this month I went to a meeting of West Midlands chaplains at Her Majesty's Prison, Brockhill. We received a welcome address from the governor of the prison which all those present regarded as in a class of its own. I have visited the prison on a number of occasions because it is in my diocese. It has been through the most terrible period during which there were numerous instances of self-harm and suicide. When I have visited the prison in the context of those suicides, I felt that it was a beleaguered institution in which terrible things were being suffered. However, the most terrible suffering arose when someone committed suicide. The staff and the governor all felt that they were being inspected and blamed, when in fact the situation was extraordinarily difficult to handle.

The present governor and her staff have really turned the situation around. We were deeply impressed both by her understanding of the circumstances of the people with whom she had to deal and how she addressed us about them. Most of those present were either not working in the Prison Service, like myself, or they worked in male institutions.

Imagine my feelings when I returned home from addressing a deanery synod about prison work to find a message saying that on 14 October, Brockhill prison was informed that it was to be re-roled as a male institution; that expertise—there are 200 staff working there, excluding education and health workers—was to be dispersed; and that the 167 prisoners would be dispersed. Brockhill is the only women's prison in the country that is full. All the others have spare places. I was filled with a sense of all that work going to waste, not the least of which would be the prison health centre which has cost the taxpayer £6 million to construct. It will almost certainly not be required anything like as much once the prison is re-roled. A prison inspection by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and her team is about to go ahead, which will report long after the institution has actually ceased to exist.

That represents a terribly serious waste, and in the context of the situation set out for us by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I have to say that I think that it is a very great shame. However, it is not because the Government wish women in prison particularly ill, or because the Prison Service does so. Rather, it is because the general pressure of overcrowding is leading to a situation in which decisions like this have to be taken, but which will result in increasing precisely the kind of distress referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Women prisoners are to be relocated to Peterborough when their homes are in the West Midlands. Those on remand will have to make long daily journeys to court. If they are convicted and held in Peterborough, their families will find it almost impossible to keep up proper and regular contact.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, ended his remarks by stating that when we sentence a woman to prison, we are actually sentencing a whole family, and it is to that point that I direct my more general comments. Of course I know that the Minister, his colleagues and those in the Prison Service have a sense of compassion about women in this situation, but as a society we have not addressed the fact that a sentence of six months in prison for a 19 year-old woman is not the same as a six-month sentence for a 19 year-old man. It will almost certainly be completely different.

The family connection of these young women is of particular importance in this respect. Without it, they are being deprived of precisely the influences, opportunities and possibilities which might help them to achieve a more stable life.

The fact that women are incarcerated for shoplifting is an indication that we have not yet taken seriously what "prison as a last resort" means. We have not weighed up what is a proportionate punishment—because clearly that is disproportionate. Not only that but, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, implied, we are preparing the next generation also to become inhabitants of Her Majesty's prisons in due course.

The Government need to ask what they can do to address the situation of women in prison and, in particular, they should do as much as they can to preserve the links with families.

A further general aspect of the matter is that there is no doubt that we did live in a society where men, frankly, committed crime and women, frankly, were put in mental institutions. There are now no mental institutions, and that is a major reason why the women prison population has increased. If that is the case, and if we know, as we do, that a proportion of the women in prison are there for offences to do with drugs—often offences into which they have been drawn by male operatives, who are the much bigger fish that we fail to catch—surely an emphasis on treatment, on family links and on small units, in which people can be held in close proximity if they need to be in prison, should be the direction of government policy.

I have the feeling that the Minister, his colleagues and the Prison Service would like that to be the case but, because of the context of overcrowding with which we live and the financial pressures which result on the Prison Service, these matters simply are not allowed to come to the top of the agenda. I hope that in his reply the Minister will indicate a willingness to put them far higher on the agenda so that the symptoms of women's suffering in prison can be addressed by looking more closely at the causes.

2.16 p.m.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on introducing this debate, the first one specifically on women prisoners that I can remember. I doubly congratulate her on receiving such an enthusiastic response from your Lordships that her Unstarred Question has, with a wave of the usual channels' magic wand, turned into a two-and-a-half hour debate.

As all noble Lords have stressed, the position of women prisoners is dire and the contributing factors are legion. In mentioning a few, I make no apology for some repetition as the matter is so important. The number of women prisoners has trebled in a decade; 55 per cent of women released from prison in 1999 reoffended within two years; there were 14 suicides last year and a third of women prisoners repeatedly injured themselves; two-thirds of women in prison suffer mental ill-health; and 40 per cent are drug addicts.

At the end of 2003, half of women prisoners were held more than 50 miles from their home town and a quarter more than 100 miles. Two thirds of women in prison are mothers and every year about 17,700 children are separated from their imprisoned mothers, a point stressed by the right reverend Prelate.

I shall advocate only one innovation to improve matters. Justice for Women: the Need for Reform, published in 2000, was the report of the Committee on Women's Imprisonment for the Prison Reform Trust, so ably chaired by Professor Dorothy Wedderburn. Its primary recommendation was that, A national women's justice board should be established immediately as a statutory commissioning body which would resemble in many respects the national Youth Justice Board". Professor Wedderburn envisaged that the board would oversee women's imprisonment and punishment in the community; it would establish local centres and develop programmes based in communities; it would ensure the efficient and humane management of women's prisons and the provision of suitable regimes. The board would be responsible for the satisfactory settlement and integration into the community of women prisoners and a reduction in reoffending. The location of the women's justice board within the criminal justice system would be parallel to that of the Youth Justice Board.

In a speech to the Prison Reform Trust the following year, the Lord Chief Justice advocated the same approach. He said: There should be a board responsible for women in the criminal justice system. Its responsibilities in relation to women should be similar to that of the Youth Justice Board. It should regard its primary responsibility to be to contain the growth of the women prison population". The introduction of a woman's justice board has on several occasions been put to Ministers in debates and Questions in your Lordships' House. They have invariably responded favourably; however, the Government have yet to establish the women's justice board. The Government now have an action plan for women in prison, but missing is the key ingredient of a board to take positive action and make that action a priority.

The spending review published on 12 July stated: Over the 2004 Spending Review period the Government will pilot radical new approaches to meet the specific needs of women offenders, to tackle the causes of crime and reoffending among this group and reduce the need for custody". The women's justice board should be set up as soon as possible to make sure that all that happens. It would have the necessary determination, experience and influence to put those plans into practice. When my noble friend the Minister reports to the Home Office on this debate, will he use his well known determination, expertise and influence to promote the speedy launching of a women's justice board?

2.21 p.m.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, who has done this House a service by initiating this debate. I thank her warmly for her well informed and deeply compassionate speech.

I am grateful to earlier speakers who have set out the statistics and outlined the problems of women in prison. They have made it clear why, for those who have chosen to speak in this debate and for many others, this situation calls out for government action to remedy some gross injustices.

Anyone who has read the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Judith McGlinchey will understand my use of the word "injustice". Noble Lords will know that, last year, the United Kingdom Government were found to be in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids inhuman and degrading treatment, because of the way in which Judith McGlinchey was treated in an English prison. She was sent to prison for four months for theft in December 2002, although the court was offered the choice of a probation order with drug treatment. She was a heroin addict; she died in January 2003, quite horribly, from conditions associated with withdrawal from heroin.

I recommend the Minister to read the judgment if he has not already done so, because I am certain that after reading it he will ask why that woman was sent to prison—to a place of punishment—for four months, for theft, when she clearly needed care and treatment. I am sure he will ask that, as I have known for many years that he is a humane and very caring person.

I hope that noble Lords saw an excellent TV programme on ITV called "Real Bad Girls". That programme was about a very small, slightly brain-damaged woman who was imprisoned for disruptive behaviour. It showed how the caring, professional and inspired staff at the prison she was in looked after and helped her. It was an example of a public service at its best. She was moved to another prison to be near her mother; three weeks later, she hanged herself. She was clearly not meant to be in a place of punishment—she needed a different sort of care.

I give one more example: the case of a woman called Paige Tapp. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has been in correspondence with me and with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, about her case, and I am very grateful to him for that. Paige Tapp wanted to commit suicide by jumping off Beachy Head. The police stopped her many times. She was eventually charged with a very serious offence—making threats to kill—because she threatened the police woman who tried to stop her that she would take her over the cliff as well. She was imprisoned and killed herself in prison.

I have given these case studies to show the House that the use of punishment is spreading more and more into territory that belongs to others. It is territory that belongs to the health services and the social services. It is not just bad policy that punishment should be used for health and welfare problems; clearly, it does not work—they are all dead. It is also deeply wrong, cruel and unjust. Perhaps this substitution of punishment for healthcare and social care accounts for our very high proportion of women in prison. Some rough calculations done this morning suggest that the England and Wales imprisonment rate for women is 8.5 per 100,000 of the general population whereas in France the rate is 3.6. We are more than double. So I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions.

Experience round the world shows that it is very easy to keep people out of prison who should not be there if it is really decided that that is what we want to do. So I would like to ask, first, has the Minister visited the Time Out centre in Glasgow—a place where drug-addicted women are sent from the courts to be rehabilitated and where the treatment is the polar opposite of punishment; it is based on encouragement, mutual support and deep respect for each individual woman? Can we learn something from that?

Secondly, will the Minister consider asking the Probation Service, which could do an excellent job in keeping sick women out of prison if it was liberated from some of the government targets, to ensure a specialist presence in court when such cases are being dealt with so that suitable alternatives can be offered?

Thirdly, there are clearly questions about the decision to prosecute. Decisions are made which on the face of it seem to be extraordinary. I have spoken before in this House about a government initiative called, in what I would regard as an abuse of language, "closing the justice gap", which means that the agencies have a target of 1 million more prosecutions. I imagine that this would mean more prosecutions of those easy to prosecute: the mad; the sick; the easy to pick up. My fears seem to be borne out. Will the Minister consider looking again at the guidelines for prosecutors on pursuing those who are ill, brain-damaged or suicidal?

Finally, I want to congratulate the Minister on handing prison healthcare over to the NHS—a reform that is much admired throughout Europe. Has the Minister considered that the remit of the Department of Health prison health service should be extended so that there is a role alongside the police when charging, the prosecution when prosecuting, and the court when sentencing to say, "This is a health problem, not a crime problem. We must deal with it another way"?

I know that in his reply the Minister will tell us about the excellent initiatives being pursued in prison to make the situation there a little better. It is right that we should hear about those, but I hope that he will also address the questions that I have raised and tell us what the Government are doing to stop prison being used in the wrong way, for the wrong people, leading often to a very wrong outcome; that is, death.

2.29 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I add my thanks and compliments to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for allowing us to debate this important matter.

According to the well known saying, the punishment should fit the crime. I believe that it should also fit the offender and the needs of society. Fortunately, the best thing for both the offender and society is that the offender should not offend again. If we are to protect society from our appalling reoffending rate, we should tailor the penalties to the nature of the offenders and the reasons behind their offending behaviour. That is not best done in prison in the cases of most women. There is a lot of evidence that the effect of imprisonment is far greater on them than on men. Although in most walks of life I am passionately in favour of women being treated exactly the same as men, we cannot ignore the massive body of evidence that shows that removing liberty from a woman has a much more harmful effect than removing it from a man. If she cares for children or elderly parents, other innocent people suffer as well.

What is that evidence? We have heard today that female suicides in custody are rising. Of course, there would be more if it were not for the intervention of the staff. I read a report recently that stated that staff in Holloway cut down five prisoners per night, and that one inmate tried six times in a single night to commit suicide. Apart from the utter despair that leads a woman to feel that life is no longer worth living, we have to ask ourselves how the situation affects staff and other prisoners. It must be unutterably miserable for them, too.

In addition, the extraordinary number of cases of self-harm indicates the very high levels of stress and mental health problems among women prisoners. In 2003, 30 per cent of female prisoners harmed themselves. It is particularly prevalent among young girls, yet 17 year-olds are still kept in adult prisons. Last year, we welcomed the Home Secretary's announcement that girls aged 15 and 16 would no longer be put in prison but placed in local authority care—although I have to say that the secure training centres to which they go are really just small prisons. However, the Home Secretary also said that, in the longer term, young women aged 17 would also be placed outside Prison Service custody. In the light of that promise, I deplore his plans to build five "prisons within prisons" for girls aged 17, reneging on promises to find alternative ways to deal with that age group.

Prison is not an appropriate place for girls under the age of 18. They are essentially adult institutions and will never be able to provide a suitable environment or a suitably tailored regime for teenage girls. Many of the girls in prison are vulnerable and damaged. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons carried out an unannounced inspection of Eastwood Park in October 2001. Inspectors met all 12 girls under the age of 18 and noted: It was impossible not to be struck by the profound personality disturbance and mental health problems that many presented and by the inappropriateness of prison, or indeed any other custodial placement for them". Research published by the Howard League in 2001 into repetitive self-harm by women and girls in prisons found that there had been 240 recorded incidents of deliberate self-harm by young women under the age of 21, and that many incidents went unrecorded. The researcher interviewed Isobel, aged 17, who was serving her first prison sentence. The trigger to her self-harm was bullying in the prison itself. She often used cutting and ligatures. She told the researcher that she felt punished by staff because they did not talk to her when she harmed herself, but just patched her up. She had been put into strip conditions, a situation not conducive to preventing her doing it again.

Why do women attempt suicide and self-harm? As we heard, the number of female prisoners is rising, yet the small number of female prisons means that they are more likely than men to be imprisoned far from their families. They are kept in their cells for long hours, with plenty of time to brood and to miss their children. Let us think about them for a moment. On Mothers' Day this year more than 6,000 children under 16 years old were separated from their mothers in prison. We have heard that two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers and many are single mothers. That means that the children have to go to the wider family or into care while the mother is in prison.

Throughout 2002, 22,000 children were affected by the imprisonment of their mother. The figures will be higher for 2003 and 2004 as the number of women sent to prison has continued to increase. Very young babies are separated from imprisoned mothers, because the bureaucratic system for admission to mother and baby units takes too long for most women who serve short sentences. For women with a child under 18 months, only five mother and baby units are available. Each case for admission is assessed on an individual basis. The intention is for the decision to be made in the best interest of the child. But if the places are full, or the baby is more than 18 months old, it is separated and in practice it is the women serving longer sentences who get the places, as they get to know how to work the system. Anyone who already has a baby is extremely unlikely to be able to take it into prison with her.

Can the Minister say how many women are given places or refused places for young babies each year? Do the Government have any research about courts' attitudes? The Howard League for Penal Reform believes that if a court is considering custody, remand or sentence, the baby should be represented in court as a party to the decision as it affects him or her. Do the Government have any plans to introduce that? Separation from the mother is a serious matter for any baby and its human rights should be represented.

The majority of female prisoners are vulnerable women and many have mental health or drug problems. Most have never received a custodial sentence before. They do not know how to cope with prison. But do we really need to put women in prison at all? To those who claim that prison is for the protection of the public, I would point out that three-quarters of female prisoners are in for minor or non-violent offences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, fewer than one in 10 face charges for violent offences. But in 2002 more women were sent to prison for shoplifting than for any other crime. That seems ridiculous.

Prison is a very blunt instrument to deal with the complex reasons for female offending and we need a more sophisticated, more subtle and more complex response to it in the 21st century. Clearly prisons cannot keep women safe. They are killing themselves. What do the Government plan to do about the rising number of suicides and attempted suicides in custody? We need much more than sticking plaster solutions such as modifications to cells to remove ligature points or appointing suicide prevention co-ordinators. We need a thorough rethink about what sentencing is for and an overhaul of sentencing practice for women.

Many reports claim that many women prisoners do not obtain the drug treatment or mental healthcare that they need. We have heard some examples of that. Neither do they get the education that they need. Prison does not work for them and it is time that this society recognised that fact. Banging up a vulnerable person does nothing for the victims of crime either. I have recently become one of those victims of crime, having been subjected to a burglary. What does do something for all the other victims of crime is non-custodial sentences where something positive is done to address the causes of that offending. That is what we hope to hear from the Minister in his reply.

2.38 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on securing this debate. It covers an important issue and she has raised significant questions, not just for the Government, but for society as a whole, as have, and no doubt will, other noble Lords.

I wish to concentrate on the issue of women in prison who misuse drugs—mentioned by other noble Lords. In doing so, I should declare an interest as the chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse that was set up as a special health authority to develop more, better and fairer treatment, working with both the health and criminal justice systems.

Drug treatment should be therapeutic, not punitive, and it must be recognised as such. With primary care trusts taking over responsibility for health in prisons, we surely have an opportunity on a nation-wide basis to improve and share practice which will be effective. Models of Care, which is a service framework for drug treatment, provides clear guidance on assessing drug users, finding appropriate treatment for them and ensuring they have support to move on to a life without a damaging drug habit. This pathway of care should be available for every prisoner who has a drug problem, men as well as women.

I visit different parts of the country to look at programmes which should enable that to happen. An issue for drug users and those in recovery is dignity. Many say, "I want my dignity back". Those who are in recovery and getting to grips with their drug habit say, "I'm getting my dignity back". Dignity is important both in prison and in building a life outside. Dignity must be enhanced and not destroyed.

One issue which arises in conversation with stakeholders in health and criminal justice systems is how best to help those in prison with drug problems—men and women. A key function of prison is, or should be, rehabilitation. Those prisoners who use drugs are more complex cases. Nearly half the women in prison are there for drug offences: possession, intent to supply and trafficking. A large percentage have committed acquisitive crimes to support their drug use. Many have problems of alcohol misuse and mental health and sexual abuse. The increase in the numbers of people who go to prison for drug offences has contributed to the increase in the prison population during the past 10 years.

Would the Minister agree that treating drug misuse among offenders has to be improved if we are to avoid the cycle of offending, going to prison, being released and then reoffending? Places for those who require treatment are increasing, but those who are released from imprisonment for offences involving drugs need to have support while in prison and then be connected to support outside prison to diminish the likelihood of reoffending and to increase the likelihood of improving general well-being.

A recent Drugscope report expressed concern about the number of offenders who are remanded in custody while awaiting trials for drug offences. Very few of them were a potential threat to the public. Only one in five was subsequently found to be guilty in court. Fewer than half received a custodial sentence. Remand prisoners will generally not have access to the drug treatment programmes which are available to sentenced prisoners.

The new Criminal Justice Act will ensure that the various kinds of community sentencing for adults, such as drug treatment and testing orders, will be replaced with a single community order, to which a range of requirements can be attached. Those will include drug treatment and testing. Similar proposals for the youth justice system are contained in the paper, Every Child Matters. We shall need to watch how those measures work in practice. Quality and consistency will need to be monitored.

I turn briefly to the issue of drugs in prison. There are many worrying examples. In a recent parliamentary debate, an example was given of a young woman in prison who witnessed girls of a similar age using hard drugs. She learnt a great deal about drugs, about dealing and about other crimes while in prison. The situation seems to be improving and the Prison Service reports a halving of the number of prisoners who tested positive for drugs between 1997 and 2001. However, many prisoners are still concerned about drug use in prison. Many users may avoid detection and some may switch drugs; for example, from cannabis to heroin.

Given those complexities, we need to develop imaginative programmes to enable people in prison to deal with their drug habit. We need to improve generally on family involvement for prisoners and we need programmes to persuade prisoners that life outside has something to offer other than drugs. Housing, education and employment are all essential in improving the chances of a prisoner being released with the prospect of rehabilitation, especially those who have drug problems.

Styal Prison for women, just outside Manchester, has developed a treatment programme which involves the prescription of methadone as a support to prisoners, rather than simply a cold detoxification, which, in short sentences, is highly unlikely to work and may result in tragedies, such as those related so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. Such prescribing is a realistic approach and could be applied to prisons other than just those for women.

Many voluntary sector organisations are offering support to prisoners and their families. Perhaps I may speak about just one. Adfam, which supports prisoners and their families, has a Road to Release programme. At Holloway Prison, the project is based in the visitors' centre. It offers support options aimed at helping families come to terms with, and move on from, difficulties associated with drug use. There is work with individuals and groups, and information and advice. Resettlement issues are discussed, and counselling and education in the form of workshops and a support group are supplied. There are also leaflets and a telephone and postal helping service.

People in prison are vulnerable. The drug strategy of 2002 refers to drug misusing offenders and those leaving prison, and to the measures of which I spoke earlier, such as throughcare systems. On communities, the strategy states that partnerships should work together to help those who are leaving prison and those suffering from drug misuse problems. There is clear evidence to show that such programmes work, and they provide a good return on investment from both a social and an economic point of view.

I hope that the Minister will agree that tackling drug offences positively, planning programmes for those who have committed drug-related offences and improving prison health generally should be high priorities.

2.47 p.m.

Lord Rosser

My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already expressed to my noble friend Lady Gale on securing and initiating this debate on an issue that has become the subject of much comment. I declare an interest as a non-executive member of the new National Offender Management Board and as chair of the Prison Service Audit Committee. I appreciate that I shall be reiterating many of the figures that have already been given to your Lordships, but I must ask for their indulgence on that score.

Just under a week ago, there were 4,376 female prisoners out of a prison population in England and Wales of 74,857—or just under 6 per cent. As has already been said, that figure of 4,376 is not far short of a threefold increase since 1993, but it is some 300 less than the highest figure for women prisoners reached in May this year and 2 per cent less than the number of female prisoners on the equivalent day last year. But whether the slight fall in recent months in the female prison population is the start of a welcome trend remains to be seen.

The increase in the number of women prisoners has occurred because of the increase in the number of women given custodial sentences for drugs offences from 308 in 1993 to 1,342 in 2003 and the increase in the number of women sent to prison on remand from 670 in 1993 to 1,072 in 2003. There also appears to have been heavier sentencing for some offences without any apparent increase in the seriousness of offending. The proportion of women aged 21 and over who were sentenced to immediate imprisonment at Crown Court is estimated to have risen by a half between 1994 and 2002.

The considerable increase in the number of women prisoners over a relatively short period of time has created accommodation problems for the Prison Service. They are problems that could not have been readily foreseen as it is the courts and not the Prison Service which have been making the decisions that have resulted in the near threefold increase in the number of women prisoners—an increase which, as has already been pointed out, is way in excess of the percentage increase in the prison population as a whole. Steps are being taken to seek to address the situation; for example, a new prison near Heathrow and a new prison near Peterborough, which will include a women's unit.

However the issues surrounding the significant increase in the number of women prisoners are not simply about accommodation and prison places. Women have a different profile from men in the criminal justice system. They commit less crime, and their offences are generally less serious than those committed by men. By far the most frequent offences for which adult women were received into custody in 2003 were theft and handling, followed some considerable way behind by drug offences. Women prisoners are more likely than men to be experiencing imprisonment for the first time and are less likely to reoffend.

As has already been said, women prisoners are more likely to self-harm than men; have a higher level of mental healthcare needs than men; are more likely than men to have received psychiatric treatment prior to imprisonment; and have a higher rate of personality disorders.

Just over half of women prisoners have a child under 16 and nearly one-third have a child under five. That in itself is likely to impose additional pressure on the women in prison, who are concerned about the care of their children, in addition to the impact on themselves and their children of the separation during the period of imprisonment. As has been said, that position is not helped by the fact that as there are far fewer prisons that accommodate women than men, and the possibility of difficult, costly and lengthy journeys to make prison visits is that much greater.

One issue of particular concern is self-harm. The number of incidents of self-harm involving women prisoners reported for 2003 was 7,408; 30 per cent of females held in custody in 2003 were reported to have self-harmed compared with 6 per cent of males. While females account for only 6 per cent of the prison population, they accounted for a quarter of all individuals who self-harmed and nearly half of all reported self-harm incidents which totalled just over 16,000 for male and female prisoners. The female rate of self-harm incidence was 13 times higher than the male rate of self-harm.

It has been said that in the calendar year 2003, of the 94 apparently self-inflicted deaths of prisoners in England and Wales, 14 involved women prisoners. In 2004 to date, of the 87 deaths, 13 have been of women prisoners. Indeed, in 2003, 204 reported incidents of self-harm were so serious that the prisoner involved required resuscitation; 133 prisoners were resuscitated, nearly half of whom were women; and of those resuscitated, 23 were revived on more than one occasion. Of those 23 revived on more than one occasion, almost all were women.

The increase in the number of apparently self-inflicted deaths among women prisoners since the mid-1990s is, of course, in part explained by the increase in the female prison population. However, it is also attributable to the large number of women in prison with a combination of factors that raise their risk of suicide, chiefly related to mental health, drugs and drink, troubled relationships and life experiences and previous histories of self-harm or suicide attempts. It has already been stated, that 44 per cent of women on remand, compared with 27 per cent of men on remand, report having attempted suicide in their life time, yet in the community as a whole, suicides among men far outnumber those among women.

The Prison Service has been and is developing suicide prevention strategies, especially for women prisoners. I am sure that those are issues that the Minister will comment on, but reasons of time prevent me going into them. However, I do not believe that the magnitude of the issues that the Prison Service and its staff have to address is always fully understood and comprehended, or what the situation would be like without the good work that they do.

I do not wish to suggest that the Prison Service is perfect. No one who has read the report from the CRE could believe that, but I do not believe that their many achievements receive the recognition and credit that they merit.

Of course, a very fair and legitimate question to ask is whether the position of women in prison could not and should not be improved. It is also legitimate to ask whether so many women should be in prison in the first place, particularly in the light of the recent substantial increase in numbers and the overall profile of women prisoners, which is so very different from that for men.

If the answer is that society, like the tabloid newspapers, has no problems or concerns over the recent substantial increase in the number of women prisoners, the Prison Service, working with the health service, will have to be equipped to provide the type of intensive, specialist and high-level care needed to address the conditions and problems of what has been a fast expanding section of the prison population, which differs from the male population by a good deal more than simply gender.

However, simply continuing to lock up more and more women in the light of the information we have about the profile of so many women prisoners seems like avoiding the real issues, exacerbating the problems and leaving the Prison Service to carry out a role it is not properly equipped to do and was not intended to do.

The expectation must be, surely, that the move to the National Offender Management Service will deliver clear instead of fragmented lines of responsibility for managing women offenders and a better range of more appropriate and relevant non-custodial options, consistently applied irrespective of area, available to both sentencers and those who implement sentences, than we appear to have at the moment for dealing with women offenders and reducing their re-offending.

2.56 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. I wish to follow the theme he established in his speech. Before doing so, I join in commending the Government for their decision to switch medical care in the Prison Service to the National Health Service.

Some years ago I visited Feltham young offenders' institution and its health department. Two years after switching to the National Health Service, the department reported a significant reduction in the level of self-harm in the young people it worked with. Clearly, that is a step forward.

In the Fawcett report, which has been referred to—and I say this as a note to what has already been said—there is a recommendation that: There is an urgent need to assess the viability of local custodial units". That chimes with much of what has been said previously. I hope that the women's justice board proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Acton, will be introduced—perhaps that institution could consider proposals such as this—and that NOMS will prove to be effective in this sort of new thinking.

The theme I should like to concentrate on is the support of prison officers and a recognition for the difficulty of their work. The chairman and secretary of the Prison Officers' Association recently visited the Houses of Parliament to discuss the national offender management scheme. The chairman said that he worked with men and women who are career criminals, but that most people he worked with are the sort of people we have been hearing about—disadvantaged, often inadequate, in very poor circumstances and with poor histories. He was asked, "What support do your prison officers receive in dealing with the mental health issues of the clients they work with?". He replied, "Nothing".

I spoke later to the secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, who had been a psychiatric nurse before entering the Prison Service. He talked about the importance of relationships between prison officers and their clients—and I am talking about the general population, but it is very relevant to the female population. It reminded me of other prison officers who have talked about young people coming into prison and for the first time experiencing something like a father figure in their prison officer.

We have discussed self-harm. I worked in a hostel and dealt with a young person who self-harmed. It is an immensely distressing experience, not only for the people working with these young people but also for the clients in the hostel at the time. Surely, we must do more in those circumstances about recognising the caring role. I recognise that we have to be realistic about it. There is a heavy weight of care involved in working with the prison population and with women in prison.

There is an interesting parallel with other areas with which I am familiar, such as residential care with children. Until 1998, 70 to 80 per cent of the residential childcare workforce had no relevant qualification to do the work that they did. Prison officers receive training; but I understand that our prison officer training is about the shortest in western Europe. We also heard from prison officers that continued professional development, the add-on training that they are supposed to receive, is very much inhibited by the fact that they are dealing with such a crisis managing the rising number of prisoners.

So we see the problem of neglecting carers. We see the problem of neglecting those working in children's homes. We see the problem of neglecting foster carers and we see the problem of neglecting parents who are bringing up children on their own. We see the problem of undervaluing care of children and adults. We know that 50 per cent of women in prison have personality disorders and we know that personality disorders are strongly linked to a poor parenting experience. Prison could be one part of beginning to alleviate such problems. If individuals in prison, women or men, can have a decent relationship with a decent prison officer during their time in prison, that can be a step towards breaking out of that generational problem of neglect and of never experiencing a carer who provides for them.

Elsewhere, I have witnessed support being provided for carers by introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or child psychotherapist into a children's home to work with the whole staff group on a regular basis in a sort of consultancy role, where they will talk about individual children and how the team is working together. The President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Michael Shooter, was recently discussing that and saying that that is what he used to do with children's homes but, regrettably, it is so difficult to do now because of the shortage of psychiatrists and because consultants do not want to leave their consulting room.

That might be very relevant to the Prison Service, especially where it works with women, when there are concerns about self-harm and suicide. If prison officers had the opportunity of support consultancy with a psychiatrist from time to time, they would be supported in the stress that that work carries with it and would learn better how to refer people who are seriously mentally ill to proper mental health services. As I said, their relationship with their clients would be greatly improved.

The Fawcett report also referred to sexism within the Prison Service: sexism against female prison officers. Male prison officers would sit and read pornography while women prison officers were around and there was poor treatment of female prison officers by some male officers. There are also reports of how women in prison were referred to as girls by prison officers. There are many factors behind that sort of behaviour, but I suggest that one is the brutalisation that comes about when one is working in an environment where there is such distress and one receives little support to deal with it.

I hope that we can better recognise the care that prison officers are obliged to supply to the people for whom they provide. I hope that we can do more to prevent young people and young girls entering prison. Much effort is today going into the Government's anti-social behaviour programme. I wish that a similar amount of attention could be given to the need to provide better youth services. I see that my time is up. It is not a question just of investing money, it is also about political commitment. Youth services are a local government responsibility and if the Government really want them to improve, they must push hard on all sides. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

3.4 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, I join everybody who has spoken so far in congratulating my noble friend Lady Gale on introducing what was to have been a short debate. We should also congratulate the usual channels on abandoning the habits of a lifetime and allowing more time for a debate. They have allowed a most extraordinary range of contributions thus far, and I am sure that there are more still to come.

It would be very hard for anybody listening to the debate so far not to be moved, shaken and upset by the weight of evidence that has been put before us from a variety of sources and in the most extraordinarily authoritative terms. I rise with very great humility in this distinguished company to make a very short contribution.

Noble Lords will be aware that over the past couple of decades there has been a growing relationship between prisons and professional arts practitioners of all kinds. Some very interesting work has been created, including remarkable theatre and opera productions—such as those of Pimlico Opera—inside prisons, involving mixed casts of professional performers and prisoners.

I salute all those who have been at the forefront of these initiatives, but today I should like to single out the work of Clean Break Theatre Company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I congratulate the company on reaching this milestone, although it makes me feel incredibly old, as I remember it in its very early days. I am very grateful to the current Clean Break team for providing me with excellent briefing for this debate.

Clean Break was founded in 1979 by two women prisoners at Askham Grange prison. It is the only theatre company in the UK for women who are or have been in contact with the criminal justice system. It has four main aims: to expand the skills, education and employment opportunities of women prisoners, ex-prisoners and ex-offenders; to produce high quality original theatre to provide a powerful and unique voice for such women; to educate the public on the issues surrounding women and crime; and to encourage access to the arts and arts education for individuals who would not normally have such access.

It achieves these aims by providing opportunities for women offenders and ex-offenders to develop skills, confidence and creativity and a chance to rebuild their lives through a rehabilitative programme of professional support and education and also by commissioning new writing and mounting professional productions in order to raise awareness of issues relating to women and crime.

Clean Break has just completed a tour of its latest production, which is called "Compact Failure" and is set in a women's prison, to HMP Cookham Wood and HMP Send. Women from HMP Askham Grange were also able to see the play at York Theatre Royal.

Clean Break reports that reactions from women prisoners who have seen the production have been enormously positive. Their own experiences are acknowledged in the play, and they are supported, through a participatory workshop, to examine for themselves issues in their own lives through the lives of the characters. Opportunities such as this can be life-changing, since they provide a chance for women to explore their own experience in a creative, supportive environment. They also act as a vital contact point for women who may consider studying with Clean Break when they are released.

The company regularly undertakes outreach work in prisons across the south-east, encouraging women to access education and training on release. Every year, more than 70 women take advantage of Clean Break's training programme at its north London base; many of them gain qualifications in the arts and progress to higher education, employment, work placements, further training or volunteering. Those are all key factors in reducing the risk of reoffending. Two recent graduates of a major London drama school began their journey into higher education by completing access courses with Clean Break following initial contact at HMP Send.

The company has also been involved in piloting one of the first drama projects designed to meet literacy objectives in prisons. Some 94 per cent of the women participating in the project gained a level 2 literacy qualification. In addition, the company is involved in a national research project called REACTT, designed to measure the impact on offending behaviour of contact with the arts. Good information on this issue is hard to collect as long-term tracking of ex-offenders is difficult, but this research should provide some important new data to support the clear anecdotal evidence of benefit.

Other noble Lords have spoken eloquently of the conditions in which women are held in our prisons and of the kinds of distress they can experience while they are there. One of the biggest problems many of them face, however, is negotiating the transition from prison back into the community. Regrettably, there appears to be insufficient support available to them when that moment comes. As we have heard from many other noble Lords, they are often imprisoned far from their own homes and communities, making resettlement even more difficult, and have suffered a deterioration in their mental health, self-esteem and confidence as a result of their imprisonment, which makes moving on from prison very frightening. Clean Break is the only service of its kind available in the United Kingdom, but its resources are stretched and it is unable to meet the needs of all the women who could benefit from its programmes. Women who are not released into the London area, for instance, are especially ill provided for.

I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that the work done by Clean Break and other organisations using the arts to address the needs of the prison population is of immense value, bringing potentially transformative opportunities to women whose lives are in crisis. When he comes to reply, could he say whether the Government have any plans to increase the level of resource available for this kind of work? There is great need for more of it.

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Gale for instigating this debate. Knowing how tenacious she is when she cares about an issue, as she does about women in prison, I was not surprised to find that we have more time for the debate. I am delighted about that.

I congratulate the Government on some of the initiatives they have taken. Noble Lords have mentioned some of the initiatives, which include a new range of custodial sentences, elements of which are supervision in the community; a more integrated approach to women's offending; the Department of Health and the Home Office working together, to which I shall briefly return later; and the Women's Offending Reduction Programme, the action plan for which was launched in March 2004 and the aim of which is to reduce the number of women offenders. Those are good examples of the Government's recognition of the special problems that women face and their willingness to tackle them. As always, however, there is always much more to do.

Earlier this year, with my noble friend Lady Gale, I visited Holloway Prison. I recognised a great improvement since my previous visit some eight to 10 years before. In particular, the reception area was bright and cheerful. The visitors centre—which is run by a charity, the Prisoners' Wives and Families Society—has a snack bar, toilets, baby changing facilities and a children's play area. There is also a children's play area in the visits room. That was a far cry from my previous visit. Flowers, magazines and newspapers can be ordered for women prisoners through approved shops. The mothers and babies unit was brighter and obviously caring staff were helping the mothers and the play group was in action. The atmosphere was certainly much lighter and more positive than I remembered.

Seeing babies behind bars, however, is still a chilling phenomenon, and a worrying factor remains: there appears to be no comprehensive policy on women and children in prisons. For example, the ages of the children who can remain with their mothers in prison is not uniform throughout women's prisons. Other problems have been highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

The difficulties faced by the families of prisoners was brought home to me in stark detail earlier this year. Like others who have spoken, I am a member of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, and I attended a meeting to hear the sad and deeply emotional story of one family affected by the mother's imprisonment. The woman had embezzled money, admitted it and was convicted. The family recognised that she would be imprisoned and vowed to support her throughout and to keep the family unit intact. She had a young son whom the father looked after during her imprisonment. So far, so good—or as good as it could be in the circumstances. But what next?

The mother was moved from prison to prison, often at very short notice; the family was not told, or told only when they arrived at the prison they thought she was in. Like many women—indeed, 25 per cent—she was moved to prisons 100 miles from her home. When her husband and son located her and visited, their visits were curtailed because of bureaucracy. Often, the long-awaited visit of one hour each fortnight was cut to 30 to 40 minutes. Such brief visits often took over five hours for each round trip. The cost of such treatment to the family, both financially and emotionally, was obviously great. The fact that that husband could tell us, strangers, of that treatment with quiet dignity and without bitterness and recrimination—outwardly, certainly—moved me deeply. Surely there must be a better system.

I want to raise specific issues on which the Minister might be able to comment. On the previous occasion when I spoke on the issue, I welcomed the closer working relationships instigated by the Government last year between the Prison Service and the NHS, and looked forward to hearing how it was working. Some of us had been pressing for it for a long time. Like other noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, I believe that this is the way forward.

However, I have a question on one element of the initiative. According to the Prison Officers' Association, the initiative is not working as it should. As overcrowding continues, the POA maintains that healthcare is getting worse, suicides are increasing and untrained operational support-grade staff are being employed as what they describe as "suicide watchers" instead of trained prison staff, who may have the expertise to assist a prisoner. The Prison Officers' Association also believes that there is a lack of clear direction from the joint Prison Service/Department of Health unit. My noble friend Lord Rosser outlined the needs in that area most powerfully. Knowing that women are more likely to self-harm and more likely to depend on medicinal care than men, that worries me greatly. I hope that my noble friend can set my mind at rest on where our healthcare in prisons is going.

A second special issue is women who have not been sentenced but who are on remand. Women on remand are entitled to daily visits. But, again, bureaucracy bites; institutional factors step in. They suffer constant moves, and obviously that mitigates against family contacts and exacerbates an already stressful and often disorientating situation. I know quite well of one instance where remand prisoners have been sent to a prison in Suffolk from as far away as Shrewsbury and Bournemouth. Is that really necessary?

Lastly, I want to draw attention to women in Northern Ireland. I wish to highlight an article that appeared on 19 October in the Belfast Telegraph about a public inquiry into, 'endemic failures' in the imprisonment of women in Northern Ireland". It referred to a report written by Professor Phil Scraton, of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Queen's University, and Dr Linda Moore, an investigations worker with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It described what were said to be, appalling conditions faced by women and girls … imprisoned at Mourne House in the high-security Maghaberry prison". The findings included failure by the Prison Service to implement recommendations made by the Prisons Inspectorate in 2002, inappropriate use of the punishment block for suicidal and self-harming women and girls, and allegations of bullying of women with mental health problems. I understand that the recommendations from the report are being studied by Peter Russell, the director-general of prisons in Northern Ireland. He has already recognised that, all was not well in Mourne House". I hope that the director-general in Northern Ireland will move quickly to establish what is needed to rectify the situation, which appears to have been ongoing.

I recognise that difficulties surrounding women in prison cannot be solved overnight. I also recognise that the Government are genuinely trying to improve matters. So I shall end optimistically, with a quote from the Social Exchange Unit report: The problems in prisoners' lives are often highly complicated and inter-related. They require a co-ordinated multi-agency response, within prison, across the crucial transitions between community and custody, and sustained long after release''. I sincerely hope that these are not just words on paper, but that they develop into actions.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on her good fortune in securing a full debate on this urgent subject. I intervene to make one brief point. If it were accepted, it would greatly benefit women and their children—some 22,000 children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said.

I understand that, in the Netherlands, women with responsibility for children who receive a prison sentence are allowed—encouraged, indeed—to return home before starting their term of imprisonment. The purpose of that respite of a few working days is to enable them to make the best possible arrangements for the care of their children during their absence from home. That was the situation in the Netherlands only a few years ago, and I imagine that it continues.

The Dutch practice seems eminently sensible. It allows the mother to say, "Good-bye" and avoids her abrupt disappearance, which can be so harmful to her children. It must help the well-being and mental health of all the children in question. In some cases, it may prevent their having to be taken into care at great expense, simply because no proper arrangements have been made. Could the Minister say whether British courts already have discretion to grant the kind of respite that I suggest? If they do, will the Government advise the courts to make full use of that discretion?

I have raised these points in the past without success. I urge the Government to give them full consideration and to discover what has been the experience in other states. Best practice should surely prevail throughout the whole European Union.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I beg the indulgence of the House for speaking in the gap. It was only at a very late hour this morning that I discovered that I could be present in the House after all.

I was keen to participate for two reasons. The first is my respect for my noble friend Lady Gale. It has been strengthened by her contribution today. I have had the opportunity to talk to her privately, and I know that it is a deep, ongoing commitment of hers. The whole House should be grateful for the way in which she has given us an opportunity to debate the subject.

The second reason is that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. At the moment, it is preparing a report on suicides in prison and in custody. It would be wrong of me to give any indication of our conclusions, but it would also be wrong to miss the opportunity to share some of the impressions that I have formed during the work that we have done. I expected that work to be disturbing: I have found it even more disturbing than I had feared.

It is not an issue limited to women prisoners—although it is particularly acute, I think, for them—but I frequently ask myself how many of the people whom I see should be in prison at all. The conclusion that I have reached is that very few should be. They are in prison simply because of the failure of our society to provide what we should provide for women in great need and distress.

One of things that greatly impressed me during our work was what I heard from prison staff and prison officers. We should emphasise that many in the Prison Service do outstanding work. We would betray them, if we did not take seriously their anxieties. They frequently tell people such as myself that they do not believe that the people whom they are looking after should be in prison and that they are expected to do it on behalf of society because of society's failure to make proper provision for what is necessary.

Prison staff tell us that the women who are there are frequently in a mess. They have desperate confusion in their lives. It is as a result of the mess in which they find themselves that they end up incarcerated in that way. Prison staff will also tell us countless examples of abuse. They say that sometimes the one good thing about those women being in prison is that while they are there they are safe. But frequently they fear that on leaving prison they will be subjected once again to the abuse that has aggravated their situations.

I have only one more minute in which to finish. One prison officer made a particularly telling remark. I asked him, "When I go back to my political responsibilities, what, above all, do you think I should concentrate upon"? He said, "Training". I said, "But there is more training now". He said, "The paradox is the more training we get, the more we understand how we haven't got the training we need to be doing the work that we are doing".

Therefore, I suggest that the logic of what the Government are doing in supporting more training only emphasises the need for still more. In that work, one group of people whom we should also applaud—an initiative that has tremendous significance—are those prisoners known as "listeners" who have been trained by Samaritans and others to do excellent frontline work in terms of providing the sort of care that is needed. But the overriding question that we should all be concerned about is: what is our responsibility for a system in which women are in a place where they should never be simply because we fail as a society to provide what is necessary?

3.27 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for initiating this debate, which relates to those women who represent some of the most damaged and vulnerable members of our society to whom we should have a particular duty of care. I am so glad therefore that it has become possible to debate the issue properly. It has implications for the very nature of our society, how we deal with and care for our weakest members and also what kind of society we are inadvertently laying in store for ourselves in the future.

We have heard from right across the House today the litany of the extent of the colossal human damage that women in prison represent. There has been a remarkable consensus. If I make some repetitions, I hope that noble Lords will bear with me. Even by comparison with the male prison population—let alone the population at large—that litany encompasses, in a disproportionate way, degrees of mental illness and psychosis, drug addiction and use, self harm and suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse, running away as a child and leaving school well before 16 years old, lacking any qualifications, being in local authority care, homelessness before or after prison and as we know, crucially importantly, separation from their children, most of whom then have to leave the family home in order to be with other carers.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the scale of human misery in the welter of statistics that we have heard and that are so important. But one cannot measure misery. These really are, in that wonderful phrase, people who are "acquainted with grief".

That truly terrible litany raises the fundamental question of whether incarceration in prison is in any way appropriate as a response to women's offending as a proportionate punishment, if that is what the Government want, as a means of deterrence, let alone to effect reparation or properly address any of that damage. We should ask whether the prison services, heroic though much of their work is, should be asked to field and manage such people. Just the other day, one governor told me that the women in her care are sentenced and come to her more on the basis of need than of risk—the very point that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just made.

The basic reality, of course, is that more women are imprisoned for shoplifting than for any other offence, while under 10 per cent have committed offences of violence against the person. These are not in the main people from whom we have to be protected, and yet the figures for incarceration are rising inexorably.

It is to be regretted that the separate management of women's prisons has been moved back under the control of area managers, which means that the specific needs of women inevitably receive less attention, and we know of inconsistencies in regime and management between prisons in different areas. Reference has also been made to the suggestion that there should be a women's justice board along the lines of the Youth Justice Board, which would give this issue a proper focus. I would be grateful to know what are the Minister's plans in this area.

But the bigger question for the Government is this: should they not consider as a matter of priority a different approach to female offenders whose profiles, problems and indeed punishments clearly demand a rethink? Is prison appropriate? As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, asked: is punishment appropriate? I would suggest that the evidence is overwhelming that for the vast majority of women, prison is simply inappropriate and that the Government should consider, inter alia, developing gender-specific, community-based programmes with local supervision, support and rehabilitation. The programmes established in Glasgow and Worcester are good examples. Here I must declare an interest as this is one of the recommendations of the strategic, grant-making initiative called "Rethinking Crime and Punishment", which I have chaired for the past four years and which has government support.

I note that, in the Government's Women's Offending Reduction Programme action plan of March 2004, there are aims to, pursue alternatives to custodial sentences for women". I do hope that the Minister can confirm that this is going ahead and that he can give us chapter and verse on how the Government plan to do this, and in what time-frame.

My second overarching point is that the impact on families, in particular children, of incarceration is incalculable, but must be taken into account. Of the different statistics from which noble Lords have quoted, I have today chosen to cite the fact that 17,700 children are affected each year by their mother being in prison. The figure rises to something in the order of 125,000 when fathers are included. At any one time, two-thirds of women prisoners have dependent children under the age of 18. Such separation is hugely damaging to both mother and child. It inevitably affects the mother's ability to be a good parent. Children's experience of parenting is undermined and it has implications for their own parenting in the future.

Having myself set up the first visitor centre some 30 years ago, I have seen at first hand the ripples of distress caused to families and their children, 30 per cent of whom now suffer from significant mental health problems. I repeat: 30 per cent of these children have mental health problems. They also experience difficulties at school in the form of bullying, being ostracised and, for the duration of the prison sentence, are unlikely even to be able to stay in their own homes. On top of that, as we have heard, the mother is often imprisoned miles away from home.

Visitor centres can at least provide some succour and support when they are properly manned and managed. I should like to put the record straight on a point. On 14 October I said in your Lordships' House that the newest women's prison, Bronzefield, did not have a centre. It does in fact have an unmanned waiting room. While the Prison Service has no real targets to maintain family ties, the least it could do is to ensure that every prison has a proper centre, not merely a waiting room, so that the quality of visits and their crucial value in maintaining family contact can be supported as far as possible. Can the Minister give us any assurances on that?

But my more fundamental point is that the implications for society are that each time we imprison a mother we are punishing innocent children, where our duty of care as adults is most profound. Is this right or what these children deserve? Should we not be looking at ways to manage and treat their mothers that does not involve incarceration and separation?

Even more disturbingly, research shows that the chances of these innocent children being themselves drawn into the criminal justice system are significantly increased. In other words, we are actually creating the conditions from which the next generation of disaffected, anti-social or offending young people may come. The ripples of distress go wider and wider.

That is why I say that how we manage women offenders and their range of problems is not only a reflection of how we deal with the most needy and the most vulnerable—their children—but also impacts on the very nature of our society in the future. We really must think again.

3.36 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I, too, join the whole House in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for such an excellent start to the debate, the tone of which has been so informed.

I know that statistics can be manipulated to make them support whatever we wish. However, the statistics for women in prison are truly shocking, unequivocal and speak for themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has given us all a lesson in bringing statistics to life.

I should like to highlight the problems facing women detained in prisons. There is very little new to say. Problems such as drug abuse, family issues and mental health will not go away. I hope that the debate will convince the Government that there is no room for complacency. If we do nothing, the problems, like the prison population, will rise.

The main statistic overhanging the debate is that there were three times as many women prisoners in 2003 than in 1993. It is therefore very disappointing that at the beginning of the year there were 19 prisons in England and Wales and now there are only 17, Edmund's Hill and the female unit at Winchester prison having been closed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester has drawn attention to the dreadful disruption caused by the re-role of prisons, particularly women's prisons.

These closures have not helped the many problems that women in prison face, one of the most important of which is separation from the family. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, drew attention to this in the most eloquent way. The scarcity of prisons means that the women tend to be far away from their homes, which makes the important links with the family more difficult. The Prison Reform Trust found that the women, on average, are held 63 miles away from home. It is worth noting that nearly 50 per cent of women prisoners are mothers and that around a third have children under the age of five.

The impact which lack of contact has on the children involved in these situations is truly dreadful; a worse start in life for these children can hardly be imagined.

A particularly difficult statistic is that mothers in prison have an average of 2.1 children each. Research suggests that separation from the family, and particularly mothers from young children, contributes significantly to the levels of depression in children. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, referred to the number of mental disorders to which prisoners are subject. She has rightly drawn attention to the increased dependency on medication in prison. It has been said during this debate that approximately 20 per cent of women prisoners ask to see a doctor or nurse each day—almost twice as many as the male prisoners. Clearly, more resources are needed for healthcare in those prisons, although I pay tribute to the Government for bringing health in prisons within the National Health Service.

Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the worrying trend of increasing suicides in prisons. Self-inflicted death rates, although we need no reminding, have gone from one in 1993 to nine in 2002, 14 in 2003 and 11 so far this year. That is really a most worrying trend. One of the most chilling statements that I have heard today is that from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that five prisoners have to be cut down at Holloway every night. I have been told about the trauma throughout the prison, in the days of capital punishment, when there was an execution—but the sheer numbers of deaths in these prisons must in a different way be equally traumatic.

I refer to one particular shortcoming in the prison system to which females are particularly vulnerable. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, have also drawn attention to the issue of prisoners on remand. Between 1992 and 2002, there was an increase of 196 per cent of female prisoners on remand, compared with only 52 per cent for males. Of the 12,000 women sent to prison in 2002, no less than two-thirds, as noble Lords have been informed, were on remand. Following trials, six out of 10 do not receive custodial sentences and one in five is acquitted.

The excellent report produced by the Prison Reform Trust, Lacking Conviction, concludes that, custodial remand is used too frequently by the courts due to unacceptable failures to gather, present and transfer information about the needs and experiences of vulnerable women". The report makes a number of recommendations: that custodial remand, must be reserved for those charged with serious or violent offences". It recommended that there should be "a wide-ranging review" and that a, network of small, local women-only supervision centres", should be set up. In particular, it recommended: An increase in the provision and an improvement in the quality of court based diversion schemes for women with serious mental health problems". It is salutary, and not for the first time, to consider how women prisoners are treated in other countries. An excellent study by the Fawcett Society notes two examples. In Russia, mothers of children under the age of 14 who are convicted of all but the most serious offences are routinely given suspended sentences until the child reaches the age of 14. In Germany, women are housed under curfew with their children in units attached to prisons but located outside the gates. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, has reminded us that the imprisonment rate for women in France is substantially lower than the rate in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has drawn attention to the Dutch experience. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Government study the treatment of women offenders in other countries, particularly those in Europe, and have an open mind about adopting some of the best practices.

Finally, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the organisations that work so hard to improve the lives of women currently being detained. It would be invidious to mention names, but their contribution to the welfare of prisoners is immense. I venture also to suggest that many noble Lords, certainly myself, have benefited from the briefing which those organisations have given us for this excellent debate today. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

3.44 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on obtaining this debate and on obtaining one of a decent length. This is a very important issue and I certainly welcome the opportunity to discuss it. The opportunity to reply to a debate such as this is my payback for the duties that I perform at the Home Office from time to time with my noble friend Lady Scotland. As I say, this is an absolutely vital issue.

I want to speak in some detail on the work of the Prison Service's Women's Team and the Women's Offending Reduction Programme. I assure noble Lords that I shall write to them regarding any points I do not cover.

This is a serious problem. At the outset I pay my tribute and that of the Government to the people who work in prisons. The Prison Service does not send women to prison. The Government do not send women to prison. Indeed, Parliament does not send women to prison. It is the courts that send women to prison. This debate should be replied to by someone responsible for the courts. However, if one questions what they do they become very sensitive about what they consider to be interference. I shall comment on that further later as I deviate from my notes.

Many statistics exist. I do not want to trade statistics as I have not heard any that are inaccurate although occasionally I hear myths being perpetuated. It is important for those who examine these matters to understand the situation. In the past decade there has been a massive increase in the number of women in custody. The figure has risen from 1,560 in 1993 to more than 4,600 in May this year. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that at the end of June this year 49 per cent of women in prison had been imprisoned for drug offences or violence against the person. It is a myth that they are all there for shoplifting. I am not saying that one is a lesser offence than the other, but shoplifting is not identified anyway. We all know of relevant examples, some of which have been given today, but the total figure for theft and handling, which encompasses shoplifting, accounts for about 14 per cent of women in prison. I refer to that figure in the context of the myths surrounding why people are in prison.

Virtually none of the points that were made today are points with which I or the Government would disagree. Our debate has been extremely constructive. In some ways the debate constitutes a missed opportunity for Members of the other place. When I was a Home Office Minister in 2001 and 2002 a long debate on prisons took place initiated by the late Lord Longford, sadly just two weeks before he died. I told my colleagues in the other place that they were missing something in not having debates on prisons and penal reform of the kind that take place in the House of Lords. If I had the power to do so I would lock the Cabinet, the judges and MPs who rant about this place in a room and make them watch the video of this debate to show them how constructive it has been. There has been hardly any "bitching" or carping at all about what is a very difficult situation. What is more, we have not only heard problems being raised; many solutions have been offered. It is not an issue for which it is impossible to find solutions.

Some 76 per cent of women are sentenced to terms of 12 months or less. That in itself points to the key question of whether prison should have been imposed for the offence in question if a term of 12 months or less was involved. We have been given many examples of other countries that appear to cope with the situation. However, we seem unable to do so.

Drugs are an issue. As with male prisoners, the use of drugs by women prisoners has increased. The incidence of drug related offences has risen. However, there are differences regarding men's and women's use of drugs. Women in custody tend to have a more severe poly-drug use and are more used to hard drugs such as heroin. The family issue has been raised. For women, their children and family are the main focus of their lives. Some 55 per cent of women in prison have children under the age of 16 and over one-third have a child under the age of five. Some 71 per cent of the children had been living with their mothers just before their imprisonment; I shall come to the point about the time just before imprisonment, because of issues raised by noble Lords.

Distance from home is a serious issue, and I shall come to it in a moment. There are relatively few women's prisons. I think that the grand total is 18 at the moment, with a women's unit at Durham. Durham and Edmunds Hill are to re-role by the end of December. I shall come to Brockhill in a moment.

The subject of healthcare was raised. Women tend naturally to place a greater demand on medical services than men. Almost twice as many—20 per cent rather than 10 per cent—ask to see a nurse or doctor each day. Drug abuse and mental health are often linked. More than two-thirds of women prisoners interviewed for a national survey were assessed as having a neurotic disorder such as depression, anxieties and phobias. The comparable figure in the community is less than 20 per cent. Half of women present with some form of personality disorder. Many of the disorders are linked to suicide and self-harm.

It is a major issue—a tragedy that is on the increase that must be attended to—that the death rate of suicides and self-inflicted deaths in prison has increased dramatically, from one in 1993 to 14 in 2003. Population growth of women in prison alone cannot account for that increase. The general rate of self-inflicted deaths has increased. Key factors are drug use and high levels of personal risk factors for self-harm and self-inflicted death. I do not have all the answers. This afternoon, I have heard some worrying issues about the lack or absence of training of the staff on suicide watch. It is difficult, as I know from listening to what staff said when I visited prisons as a constituency Member of Parliament or when I was at the Home Office—although it was not my day job—when I spent some Fridays doing the odd unannounced visit.

Women generally commit less serious offences than men—there is no question about that. In security terms, they present much lower risks. It is important to ensure that the security measures used are proportionate to the risks presented.

The issue of foreign nationals has not been touched on to a large extent, but in some ways it distorts the statistics for women in prison, for reasons that are self-evident. Some 18 per cent of the women are foreign nationals, compared to 11 per cent for the male estate. More than 50 per cent of the foreign national women in UK prisons are from Jamaica, with 90 per cent serving long sentences for drug importation. There is no possibility of their going back to Jamaica to serve their sentences. The majority are not drug users; they have been used as mules. That is a serious issue. By definition, that also alters the ethnic origin figures for women, which is 50 per cent higher than for men.

Resettlement raises another issue. No one should leave prison without means of making ends meet or a place to live, but for men the key thing when leaving prison is employment. For women, accommodation ranks a lot higher, because family responsibilities often make employment impractical. Accommodation provides the basis for family life. We have to take that into account.

I want to respond briefly to some points before I come back to those that I said that I wanted to raise. The long journeys from prison were raised by many noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. We are conscious of the difficulties of moving prisoners from court and between prisons on their long journeys. One noble Lord said that a woman was moved from a prison a hundred miles away and the family were not told about it, so they visited the wrong prison. That is inexcusable. I shall not stand at this Dispatch Box and defend that practice. I do not care what pressures are on the system; that is unacceptable and should not happen. When anyone is moved in prison, it should not be the case that the family are not informed, but it should particularly not happen to a woman being visited by her children. There are difficulties.

The new purpose-built women's prison at Bronzefield opened in June. It is in Ashford in Middlesex, and is capable of accommodating 450 prisoners, with much improved facilities. It will cover women for the south-east and now takes a large part of Holloway's catchment area. A new catchment area for Holloway and Bronzefield has been determined after careful analysis of journey times. These issues have been taken into account in the planning. In addition, the prison in Peterborough is due to open for women in March 2005. That will involve further adjustment to catchment areas, which should result in improved journey times for families who are visiting their relatives in prison.

To ensure that the arrival of women in prison receptions is timely, the court escort contract managers have written to all courts asking them to give priority to women's cases when listing them for hearings. That enables women to start their journey time from court to prison earlier and has had a positive effect on the prisons and the courts. From the end of August this year, as my noble friend Lady Gale mentioned, the new court escort contract came into effect. There are agreed delivery times for all prisoner movements to courts and improvements in that service are expected, particularly in relation to longer journeys. Time will tell and Parliamentary Questions and scrutiny in this House and the other place is the way to hold the Government to account on that. I shall not repeat the results of the surveys because the average distance from homes is 67 miles and the average time is 1 hour and 28 minutes. But averages are very misleading, as we all know.

Regarding juvenile girls in prison—although some noble Lords have said that as a point of principle young women should not be there, anyway—the creation of five new juvenile units will enable the Prison Service to redesign completely the services for young women in custody. That is assuming that the courts continue to send young women into custody without checking whether there are alternatives. But the units must meet the needs of those who are sent there by the courts. They deserve to have their needs fully met. The juvenile units will have increased staffing ratios to ensure greater interaction with young women. That is fundamental. If there was one theme that ran through many of the speeches it was the issue of training and interaction of those who come into contact with women in prison.

Staff who work in the units have been specially selected and will undertake training on working with adolescents. The Prison Service is currently developing a national operational specification for the units and the key elements will include advocacy services, substance misuse services, health services—including services to meet the mental health needs of these young women—and the learning and skills services.

The right reverend Prelate raised the issue of Brockhill. Colleagues might remember that when I was at the Home Office I did not make that many visits on a Friday, but I made a few. I used to arrive in the car park outside a prison and ring the Prisons Minister's private office at the Home Office and say, "By the way, I'm in the car park" at Long Larton or at Brockhill, "and I am just going to make a visit. That's all". I used to present myself at the gate and say, "I'm from the Home Office, I would like to meet the governor". I had never been to a women's prison and one morning in 2002 I went to Brockhill. I left wanting to burn it down. I told that to Martin Narey and the Home Office. I was appalled by what I found.

I found incredible support among prison officers for the fact that that prison was the wrong place. I should tell the right reverend Prelate that it has not yet been decided whether to re-role Brockhill. If that re-role takes place, it will not happen like it happened before, because when it became a women's prison, Brockhill was re-roled overnight without any warning whatever; without any training for the staff. Basically, it was a young persons' probation hostel in the early 1970s and 1980s. Many constituents wrote to me from Brockhill. If it is to be re-roled, women will not be there and will be more adequately involved in the more modern prisons.

When I was at Brockhill there was an ongoing dispute, which was not the reason that I was there. There were male prison officers from other women's prisons who were also appalled at the facilities there. I know that matters have been improved there—the health centre has been provided recently—but at the moment the re-roling has not been decided, so the matter is not as clear cut as the right reverend Prelate may have been told. It is true that a re-role is being considered, but the Prisons Minister has not yet approved the change or whether it will happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, raised the very important issue of the role of drama and arts in rehabilitation. The Prison Service understands the importance of arts and drama in prisons as not only educational and recreational, but as a rehabilitative medium by facilitating prisoners, especially women prisoners, to participate in art therapy programmes. The Clean Break Theatre Company has given performances in Holloway and other prisons on many occasions and prisoners have found the performances to be worth while and enjoyable. The Clean Break Theatre Company will continue to be welcome in the prisons of this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the issue of the care of children when their mothers are sent to prison. I have a classic sentence in my notes and, in some ways, I am a little reluctant to read it out. I shall read it because, while all these matters need qualification, sometimes one has to state the bald facts and not sugar-coat the answer. Allowing mothers to go home after sentence to make care arrangements for their children is not within the gift of the Prison Service. That is self-evidently true. That does not mean that one could not facilitate some kind of arrangement if it was required. As I have already mentioned, we are taking steps to improve the reception of women into prison so that it does not take place late at night. I am not quite sure why some male prisons are able to lay down the law about not accepting anybody after seven o'clock while women's prisons cannot lay down the law and refuse to accept anybody after five o'clock. I have not quite worked that out. If it can be done for the men, I do not see why it cannot be done for the women. There may be a peculiar factor involved. Perhaps it is because women's prisons are further away. However, as I have said, we are taking steps to list cases involving women earlier in the day so that the issue does not arise.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was right to raise that point, as were noble Lords who gave examples which show how other countries such as Germany and Holland can cope with that problem. We do not need to invent the wheel to address what needs to be done.

We have made arrangements for mothers and babies. We have around 120 places for mothers and babies up to 18 months. At the moment, only some 50 are being used and they are being used for the reasons that the courts have decided. Mothers with babies can be temporarily accommodated in prison. The situation is not completely satisfactory, but work is being done to improve it.

I shall speak about some of the issues relating to the Women's Team before moving on briefly to the Women's Offending Reduction Programme, which has seen some positive results. Among the key achievements of the Prison Service's Women's Team is the publication of a women's prison allocation strategy that aims to ensure the effective allocation of prisoners based on the length of sentence and their identified needs, including family ties. Housing advisers have been recruited for all women's local prisons. Four prisons have been supported in the transfer of health services to primary care trusts. The national service framework for healthcare of women in custody has been completed. Methadone maintenance programmes will be in place in all women's prisons by the end of the year. At present, they are in place in all but two prisons; Cookham Wood and East Sutton Park. Lead substance misuse nurse posts now exist in all women's prisons. The mental health in-reach teams have been funded and developed in all women's prisons. Research into factors that increase the risk of offending among women has been commissioned. This research, being carried out by the University of Leicester, will explore pathways into offending and include the role of early family experiences.

Obviously, there remains much to be done in the second half of the year, but work is already going on into the plan for 2005–06. Among the issues that will have particular focus are family networks, financial support and debt and institutionalisation and life skills. I am confident that these improvements will continue to be made in meeting the needs of the women in prisons.

In terms of wider initiatives, there is no simple answer: I do not make excuses. The Prison Service is one part of the chain. As I said, the Prison Service does not send women to prison. But to that end, the Women's Offending Reduction Programme has been developed and was published on 11 March this year, as my noble friend Lady Gale said. This is a three-year programme of work that encourages joint working between departments, agencies and other organisations to tackle the range of factors that impact on the reasons why women offend.

It aims to reduce the number of women in custody by focusing on the greater use of community disposals that offer appropriate packages and interventions that are better tailored to address the complex range of factors that impact on women's offending. I fully agree with what has been said. Women are affected by prison in a different way from men. There is no question about that, and it does not matter what age one is. Women are affected differently, and we have to take that into account.

Two key target groups are women with mental health problems and women with substance misuse problems. In order to meet their needs, the programme operates in tandem with the Department of Health's women's mental health strategy and the national drug strategy.

The Home Office and the Department of Health have been working together closely to ensure that the needs of women offenders with mental health problems are properly met, with a focus on diversion from custody and getting them into appropriate community-based mental health services and interventions as early as possible. The programme includes "Accommodation Plus" pilots for young women. The National Probation Directorate, the Prison Service and the Youth Justice Board are jointly funding innovative housing-related pilot schemes that aim to meet the housing needs of young women involved in, or at risk of, offending, while, at the same time, providing access to a range of additional support services that can respond to other risk factors, including mental health problems and substance misuse problems.

The publication of 6 January this year, Reducing Crime—Changing Lives, which has already been referred to, contains the Government's plans for transforming the management of offenders, including the creation of the National Offender Management Service. The emphasis will be on greater use of community sentences for lower-risk offenders. By definition, women pose a lower risk than men; we know that. The use of case management will also be a key feature of the new service, with end-to-end management ensuring a co-ordinated and joined-up response.

In order to reduce the number of women in custody and increase the potential for diversion, the programme will focus on improving sentencers' confidence in community disposals that offer appropriate packages and interventions and are better tailored to meet the particular needs of women offenders.

When noble Lords read this debate in Hansard, they will see that what I am basically describing is the women's justice board, which was advocated but has not yet been created by the Home Office. I supported it from this Dispatch Box when I was a Home Office Minister. It has still not been brought about, but I think that we are doing it in all but name. The proof will be in the pudding. It is not my job to make policy on the hoof. Nevertheless, that recommendation was made and it has widespread support, but it has not been put into operation by the Home Office.

The offenders' management programme will focus on reducing the number of women in custody and increasing the potential for diversion. It will improve sentencers' confidence—that is, the courts' confidence—that the other alternatives will work. Therefore, we are bringing about the board in all but name.

I hope that what I have said will convince the House that the Government are taking the issues seriously. I shall ensure that other Ministers and, indeed, Members of the other House take them seriously. It is a tribute to this House that we can, in a civilised way, have this kind of debate on what is a fundamental issue in terms of penal policy. We have brought out some of the problems and advocated some of the solutions in a rational way and not in the way that the media sometimes portray the issue.

4.7 p.m.

Baroness Gale

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for responding to the debate in the open and straightforward manner to which we have become accustomed. Quite often when I am listening to the Minister, I have an image in my mind: he creates vivid images. The one that will stay in my mind was the idea of having the Cabinet, Ministers and Back-Benchers watching a video recording of our proceedings. I hope that, if he can arrange that, there will be a viewing area so that we can see all the reactions.

I thank him very much for giving a full response to the points raised in the debate. I said earlier that I was very pleased that the debate took place over two-and-a-half hours. I am also pleased that so many noble Lords put their names down to speak, but I am absolutely delighted that two other noble Lords chose to speak in the gap, making 17 speakers in this extremely serious and interesting debate.

As the Minister said, what came through was the general theme that we are all concerned about the fact that most women should not be in prison. Many women in prison suffer from mental health and emotional problems. There is also the problem of low self-esteem which is shown by the self-harm and the attempted suicides that take place. I am certainly pleased with the measures that the Government are taking, but we have a long way to go before we can get the situation right.

Once again, I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. I am sure that we shall return to this issue. I cannot possibly respond to all the points, but I am pleased that people with great experience in this area have chosen to speak today. I put myself down as a beginner and I feel honoured that noble Lords chose to speak in the debate. I am eternally grateful to them. We have raised an issue of great importance; it is one to which I hope we shall return. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes past four o'clock.