On 18th May 2021 the Bishop of Gloucester took part in the fourth day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech. She focused on criminal justice, violence against women and girls, and online safety:
My Lords, I too look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Fullbrook and Lady Fleet. In my few minutes, I shall briefly mention women in the criminal justice system, the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, violence against women and girls and the online safety Bill. I refer to my interests in the register, as Anglican bishop to prisons.
I begin by asking: when will we see a renewed timetable for the 2018 female offender strategy? While I welcome the implementation of some of the deliverables, analysis by the Prison Reform Trust shows that the Government have met less than half the commitments. The concordat published last year does not appear to have been progressed. Then there was that shocking announcement of 500 new prison places for women, totally at odds with the strategy’s direction to reduce the number of women in prison. What evidence is it based on, and why is the designated £150 million not being spent on women’s centres and implementing the concordat?
The Government have pledged to give every child the best start in life. I am a big proponent of prioritising the early years. But, related to today’s subject, I would say that if one of the justifications for the new prison places is to allow children to stay overnight with their mothers, this seems a strange way to implement the Farmer review findings. It would be far better if those mothers who do not need to be in prison were supported in the community with their children. Again, why are policy proposals seemingly ignoring evidence and expertise?
Perhaps that is a good segue into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In our scrutiny, we will need to ask whether it is supported by the evidence available and reflects a clear strategy and ethos that can be justified ethically. While I welcome certain proposals, such as diversion and community cautions and empowering problem-solving courts, other aspects raise serious concerns. For example, the use of life sentences for younger offenders seems to undermine any chance of reform and redemption. The measures relating to longer sentences seem to ignore the fact that decades of lengthening sentences have done nothing to improve outcomes for offenders or prevent cycles of reoffending. Yet the myth is perpetuated that longer sentences will provide greater public protection. Rather than policies being driven by evidence, it seems that they are driven by populist views and some headline cases. Furthermore, there is a woefully little focus on rehabilitation and what happens during someone’s sentence. Thus, victims and communities, as well as offenders, are poorly served, and longer sentences will only put more pressure on our overcrowded prisons. It is also troubling that after all that has transpired in recent years, little attention is paid to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
We did good work in this House on domestic abuse with the Act. Yet a number of issues remain, not least the vulnerability of migrant victims. The pilot project must be closely watched. I look forward to the publication of the violence against women and girls strategy, and, once again, I commend Australia’s framework for primary prevention. I would also welcome greater consideration of the contributions of faith groups in the future VAWG strategy.
I want to end by commenting on the draft online safety Bill. Within the commendable commitments to safety, there is still work to do. From my conversations with young people around physical appearance and self-worth, I urge the Government to encourage more diverse representation in advertising and to ban, or at least restrict, the use of altered images.
I must close. I will finish by encouraging the Government to ensure that future legislation is based on evidence and research and underpinned by a clear ethos of the flourishing of all people.