Bishop of Gloucester leads debate on positive impact of women’s centres in the justice system

On the 12th of September The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, led a debate in the House of Lords on a motion ‘to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes in the justice system’.  Her speech introducing the debate,  and the response of the Minister, are reproduced below. The speeches by other Members contributing to the debate can be seen at 

Gloucester071117 bThe Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to introduce this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have agreed to contribute to it; I am especially grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for choosing to make her maiden speech in it. I know that her extensive experience in business and the charitable sector, as well as her time working on the Youth Justice Board and as a magistrate, will inform many excellent contributions to this House. I look forward to her speech.

My interest in this issue flows not least from my experience in the diocese of Gloucester, which has one of the country’s 12 women’s prisons—HMP Eastwood Park—and the women’s centre, run by the Nelson Trust, whose work is exemplary. I now support the Bishop of Rochester in his role as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons with regards to the female estate, and I recently visited Anawim, the superb women’s centre in Birmingham. As a Christian, I believe that our humanity and flourishing is rooted in relationships. I also believe that transformation is possible, both in the lives of individuals and in systems. I will come back to these themes.

There are approximately 4,000 women in prison, which is about 5% of the total prison population. Although this is a relatively small percentage, these women present a distinct set of needs and their imprisonment has a significant impact on communities and society as a whole. The long-awaited female offender strategy recognises the vulnerabilities and challenges of women in prison. It builds on the tireless work of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. I would like to express my sincere thanks to her and to those who contributed to that strategy, not least Dr Phillip Lee, prior to his resignation. However, I fear that, 11 years after the Corston report, the strategy simply does not go far enough. We know that women’s centres work and it is time for proper investment.

I want to return to those themes of relationships and transformation. People of all ages thrive and flourish in healthy, loving relationships. Unfortunately, the majority of women offenders have experienced some sort of abuse, whether from a partner or a family member. According to the excellent organisation Women in Prison, 53% of women in prison report having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse during childhood; 46% report having suffered domestic violence; and over 30% spent time in local authority care as a child.

Where healing and rehabilitation take place, it comes from a place of trust in a relationship. As a member of the clergy, I have often been trusted with people’s most intimate personal information and it usually takes a strong relationship of trust for a woman to discuss an abusive relationship, a problem with drugs or alcohol, or a mental health problem. To that end, prison is rarely the most appropriate or effective place for these issues to be addressed, not least because so many women are assigned short sentences. On the other hand, a short stay in prison can dramatically affect a woman’s relationship with her children, harming both the mother and the child. Of course, that has an impact on the wider community. I am particularly grateful to Dr Shona Minson for her research and all that she is doing to inform magistrates and judges.

Women’s centres provide an opportunity for a different path. The Nelson Trust recently shared Sue’s story with me. Sue was sentenced to eight months for theft. She had been taking cash from the shop where she worked, in order to pay off her debts and fund her alcohol and drug addiction. She had a painful history and her daughter had been taken into foster care. While Sue was in prison she was fortunate enough to make contact with the Nelson Trust. She began to develop a trusting relationship. When she came out of prison the Nelson Trust worked with Sue. It obtained rented accommodation for her and she began participating in various courses, including on crime and its impact, preventing relapse, and self-esteem and confidence building.

When Sue was investigated for another offence, committed at the time of her initial offence, she immediately admitted it and was supported by her key worker through meetings with solicitors and another trip to court. She pleaded guilty and the women’s centre was able to give the court a full picture of how Sue had been engaging with services. Instead of going back through the revolving door of prison and risking undoing months of hard work, Sue was given a community order involving unpaid work hours, many now spent at the women’s centre where she is making a difference to the lives of other women. Sue has not used drugs since she left prison 18 months ago. The Nelson Trust is supporting her towards potential future contact with her daughter.

This example shows that women’s centres can give judges and magistrates the information they need to make effective sentencing decisions and give women the tools they need truly to transform their lives. None of this would be possible without the relationship Sue has with the women’s centre—doing things with her and not to her. This is just one of many stories from the Nelson Trust and Anawim.

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, will be conducting an independent review into how we can better support female offenders’ relationships with their families. All too frequently, magistrates do not have informative probation reports before sentencing. Action must be taken to review how women interact with the justice system and how they are sentenced, particularly by magistrates. It may be that a presumption against short sentences, as in the Scottish system, would be desirable, particularly given that in 2017, almost half of such women were given a short custodial sentence for shop theft.

We know that women get caught in the so-called revolving door with short prison sentences. They lose their homes and often lose custody of their children, even to adoption. This often exacerbates that downward spiral into more serious offences and an inability to secure employment. This is why a focus on women’s centres is needed: in their daily provision and where possible, appropriate residential provision, they can provide that place of relationship and trust. Properly resourced women’s centres can provide everything from early intervention right through to supporting women through the entire criminal justice system. For women who are already in prison, centres such as the Nelson Trust and Anawim have teams who engage with women in prison and then through the gate.

This is not simply about tackling the presenting offending—the “what”—but rather, providing a holistic trauma-informed approach which focuses on the “why”. Caseworkers in a place of relationship focus on getting to the heart of the women’s story in order to address what are often complex needs. A number of reports have shown that women’s centres offer an inspiring and effective alternative to custody, not least in their multi-agency work. However, they have been operating on a shoestring and, at present, there simply is not enough resource. If the Government are committed to transforming the justice system, as the female offender strategy suggests, they need to commit and invest in it. We know it costs approximately £47,000 per year to keep a woman in prison, and yet we know that women’s centres can work effectively with approximately £4,000 per year per individual. Moreover, the benefits of women’s centres are multiplied if they can operate as a network so that women can stay close to their families. If we do not have a whole network of women’s centres, we will not see the fruit of provision.

I would like to encourage the Government to dream a bit bigger and be a bit bolder. Similarly, I hope that all parties will commit to properly funding this network. In 2017-18, we spent more than £400 million on probation and services for women; £5 million for women’s centres is a drop in the bucket and will not be enough to transform the system. Let us give a proper network of women’s centres a proper go.

Shortly after Dr Phillip Lee’s resignation, when the female offender strategy was published, he shared his concerns about the failure to secure all the funding required. He also made it clear that he had full faith in the Secretary of State to navigate the Government’s spending review in order to benefit vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system. I am hugely encouraged by this and by the appointment of Ed Argar, and I look forward with hope to seeing the funding for women’s centres secured.

There need to be enough women’s centres, and they need to be appropriately funded so that magistrates and the public can trust that they can improve outcomes in the justice system. I hope that the Government will back this strategy with vision and proper investment, and with a focus on relationship and transformation.

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con):…My Lords, I first add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on securing this important debate. I also thank all noble Lords, whatever their gender, for their contributions to it.

I particularly wish to note the contribution of my noble friend Lady Sater, who is clearly eminently qualified to make a contribution by way of her maiden speech in this debate. I look forward to her further contributions in this House.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for coming to speak to me. I am grateful for her having shared her knowledge and experience in this area with me. I am equally grateful for her not having shared her severe cold with me, but I hope she is recovering.

Various statistics have been noted, but clearly we understand that, although far fewer women are represented in the criminal justice system, those who are there and who come into contact with it are among some of the most vulnerable women in society. Many face complex circumstances, including histories of abuse, mental health issues, low income, unstable accommodation and, of course, in many cases, the experience of domestic violence and the disruption which that engenders.

It is a recognition of this vulnerability and need that underpins our Female Offender Strategy, which was published in June. I pause to acknowledge the work of my honourable friend Phillip Lee in respect of that matter. Our strategy sets out the Government’s intent for improving outcomes for women in contact with the justice system based on a vision that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system and in custody, especially on short-term sentences. We want to see a greater proportion of women managed in the community and managed successfully. We want to see better conditions for women who, for safety or other reasons, need to be held in custody.

If we are to achieve the aims of such a strategy, then we must recognise that community services lie at the heart of our approach. We know that the third-sector-led women’s centres can offer valuable support to help vulnerable women address their needs and turn their lives around, thereby reducing the risk of offending—examples have been given by a number of noble Lords. Women’s centres are often at the heart of the multiagency whole-system approaches to female offenders. These aim to provide holistic, gender-informed support to women, from first contact with the police and at all points of the justice system.

I referred to gender-informed support, and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised the question of gender-informed probation services. That is a matter of training and experience: it is a matter of ensuring that those engaged in the provision of probation services understand the particular and peculiar needs of women in the justice system. Certainly, that is something that we aim to ensure going forward.

The right reverend Prelate asked what assessment has been made of the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes for women in the justice system. It would be difficult to undertake a full assessment, as women’s centres offer support to women with a wide range of issues and needs, not all of whom have been referred by—or, indeed come into contact with—the criminal justice system. We also know that women may be supported by other local agencies. We estimate that there are approximately 80 women’s centres in England and Wales. More than 50 of these support women in the criminal justice system, with more than 30 being engaged with community rehabilitation company contracts.

I note the comments that have been made about some of the difficulties surrounding those contracts and those engagements. Noble Lords will be aware that we are addressing the issue of existing CRC contracts: they are intended to be terminated and reviewed going forward, and it is our intention to ensure that the community rehabilitation companies understand the need to engage with the voluntary sector, and in particular these centres, as part of their supply chain.

Data from some centres has clearly found the way in which they have been effective. Women supported by women’s centres contracted to CRCs clearly have a lower reoffending rate than those who have no contact with the centres. Data from the Brighton Women’s Centre found that, for every 100 women supported by the centre, there was a reduction in the frequency of reoffending by between 27 and 29 offences.

Alongside the work that women’s centres do, there are many other community services that are effective in supporting the complex needs of female offenders. As set out in our strategy, we are encouraging local areas to adopt new ways of working by developing a multiagency approach to these issues—often termed a whole-system approach. We hope that the whole-system model brings together local agencies, criminal justice and both statutory and voluntary organisations. Together, they should be capable of providing the sort of targeted support that female offenders need. That has to be complemented by the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies, which are clearly going to be key partners in ensuring that female offenders receive targeted support, not only through the gate but once they are back in the community.

To give an example, the whole-system approach set up in Greater Manchester in 2014 has provided effective outcomes for female offenders. We know, however, that the availability of women’s community services across England and Wales does not always match the demand for those services. We want to see a sustainable network of women’s community services and centres embedded as an integral partner in the delivery of public services for female offenders, making better use of their potential as places where support and interventions can be delivered in an appropriate form and at an appropriate time.

Clearly, such a network cannot be delivered without funding. We know that women’s centres have a wide range of funding streams, but that they often face issues of sustainability, creating uncertainty for staff and putting services at risk. If we are to deliver the commitments in our strategy, we need to ensure that we have sustainable community provision that will meet demand. That is why the strategy announced the investment of £5 million of cross-government funding over two years in community provision.

As part of this investment, we have launched an initial £3.5 million grant funding competition for 2018-19 and 2019-20 to sustain and increase community provision, including whole-system approach models, for female offenders. This community provision is intended to include women’s centres and we hope that the funding will also help providers to leverage additional funding from other sources.

Some concerns have been raised at the level of this funding, which builds on the £1 million seed funding that we are investing in the whole-system approaches between 2016 and 2020. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is sufficient funding for the female offenders strategy, and this is the start of a new and significant programme of work to deliver better outcomes. We will have the opportunity to revisit funding issues as we take that work forward.

We know that a truly sustainable network of community provision requires the support and involvement of many partners, not just of government. Our strategy therefore announced that we will work across government and with other partners to develop and agree a national concordat on female offenders. This will set out a cross-government approach to addressing the needs of this cohort of vulnerable women. Importantly, it will also seek to provide the leadership that stakeholders tell us is necessary to bring about change at local level. The concordat will act as a statement of intent, agreement and understanding about how statutory and third-sector services should come together to provide what I would term a joined-up response to supporting vulnerable women in this context. Through early intervention, we want to see fewer women coming in to the justice system.

For those women who do offend, we want to provide support from first contact with the police and at all stages of the justice system so that we can effectively address the factors that lie beneath their offending behaviour and thereby reduce the risk of reoffending. It is important to acknowledge that women’s centres must be supported in their work with female offenders by an effective probation system, which sees offenders regularly, identifies their particular rehabilitative needs and secures access for them to the right forms of support. Equally, it is vital that courts have confidence in the probation services delivering those services in order that they can give proper consideration to effective community sentences, as distinct from custodial sentences.

We also recognise that the probation system needs to improve. We are taking decisive action to stabilise and improve the delivery of probation services by setting out our intention to end the current CRC contracts early and put in place new arrangements, as I mentioned, from 2020. We are consulting on our proposals and look forward to hearing the views of a range of stakeholders, including how probation services can best meet the needs of female offenders.

Alongside that, we want to explore what more we can do to improve outcomes for female offenders. The strategy has committed us to working with local and national partners to develop a residential women’s centre pilot in at least five centres in England and Wales. Through the pilot, we hope to develop a robust evidence base for what could be an effective, sustainable and scalable model for improving outcomes for female offenders. We will take that consultative approach to designing and delivering the pilot models, engaging with potential providers, partners and investors, both nationally and locally. We want to ensure that the models we take forward are appropriate for the local context of each site. I look forward to sharing more details with noble Lords as that work progresses.

For the moment, I thank noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate, and I reiterate our commitment as expressed in the female offender strategy that we recently published.