“It is undoubtedly the case that the female prison population disproportionately includes those who face huge challenges in their lives. It is also clear that prison is not the best place to address many of the issues that these people face” – Bishop of Rochester, 26.6.14
On 26th June 2014, the Bishop of Rochester and Bishop to HM Prisons, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, took part in Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill’s short debate on the measures being taken to reduce the number of women given custodial sentences. He focused his remarks on the role of community-based schemes to reduce rates of re-offending and called on the Government to look at how such projects can have a positive impact on the public purse, society and families affected by such sentences.
The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for initiating this debate. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that a number of the points that I was going to make have already been made, so I will resist the temptation to make them all over again. Indeed, many of your Lordships will have had the briefings from various organisations that give the statistics, and so forth.
It is undoubtedly the case that the female prison population disproportionately includes those who face huge challenges in their lives. It is also clear that prison is not the best place to address many of the issues that these people face. I speak as one who is married to a person who used to be the head of healthcare in a prison in a female estate and saw it at first hand. That was a few years ago and, sadly, the problems are clearly still there.
We have heard reference also to the effect on the children and wider families of women in custody. The cost is immense. We have heard about the financial cost of the custody element. The cost of the care of those children, many of whom have to go into care, is also huge. Therefore, there has to be an answer that will be good not only for social well-being, for the children and for the women themselves, but also for the public purse.
We have heard reference to one community-based initiative that addresses these points. I will share one other of which I have some experience, the Anawim Project in Balsall Heath in Birmingham, a city where I lived and worked for 18 years. It is a project supported and sponsored by two Roman Catholic charities and with a project leader from an Anglican mission society; therefore, apart from anything else, there is a bit of ecumenical working, which is no bad thing. One of their interventions, the specified activity requirement, has produced a reoffending rate of 1% in those who go through that programme—that is, one in 100 reoffend. That has to be the right way to go forward. In other community-based initiatives, reoffending rates are in the 3% to 6% range. Surely that has to be the right way. It makes sense financially as well as making sense for the well-being of individual women, their families and the wider society.
We have heard concerns expressed as to how the working out of the transforming rehabilitation programme will affect some of this, particularly the community rehabilitation companies. I join others in urging the Minister and the Government to make sure that this issue does not get compounded rather than cured by the way in which the new programme works its way out.
Reference has been made to sentencing guidelines. Clearly, it is important that the judiciary and the magistracy are aware of the alternative responses and of their undoubted efficacy in addressing some of these issues. They should also be aware of the wider effects, particularly on children, when they decide to sentence a mother to a custodial sentence.
Could we cut that figure of 3,899 by 50%, as one contributor has suggested we might be able to do? I do not see why we could not, with the kind of attention that different contributors to our debate have suggested. It should result in a gain for all parties: for the women; for their families, especially their children; for the wider well-being of society; and for the public purse. It is one of those things that should just make sense and I trust that, as a result of this debate, we may see some progress in ways that really make sense.