In a report following up its previous work on women offenders, the Justice Committee concludes that positive steps are being made in meeting the needs of women offenders, including improving the support available to help them take responsibility and improve their lives, and says it is important that this is sustained by the next Government.
The report draws attention to a number of caveats to this assessment, including the minimal progress in reducing the number of women in custody.
The Committee welcomes the cross-government focus on reducing women's offending following the establishment of the Advisory Board on Female Offenders. This has resulted in a clearer direction of policy towards women offenders. The Committee considers that it is too early to assess whether this constitutes the best approach to steering an effective high-level strategy.
The Committee is encouraged by the personal determination of the current Minister, Simon Hughes MP, to reduce the women’s prison population but it is concerned that the high turnover of Ministers chairing the Board might have impeded progress on its overall objectives.
Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee said:
"Although there has been some progress, we are disappointed that the female prison population has not fallen as much as might have been possible with a more focused drive to deal more effectively with women offenders in the community.
We had hoped to see a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, with women who have committed serious offences being held in smaller units, and a greater use of alternatives to prison, including improved access to women's centres. Neither the previous nor the present Government have been willing to accept the logic of that approach, even as a medium-term aim."
New probation providers
The Committee would like to see a substantial fall in the women’s prison population in the coming months and years. The key to this will be improving the provision of sustainable and effective community-based services which meet the specific needs of female offenders and women and girls at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
The Committee says it is too early to assess whether the Government's Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, in particular the requirement for new probation providers to take account of these needs, will be sufficient to safeguard the long-term funding of women's centres, which remains haphazard.