13 April 2005

S2M-2689 Women Offenders

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 13 April 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

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Women Offenders

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The business this afternoon is a debate on motion S2M-2689, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on women offenders.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is right that the debate should be relatively consensual, as none of us wants to lock up people unnecessarily. I will make an unlikely start to my speech. My equality credentials exceed those of the minister, as Scottish National Party members find it possible to support the motion and all the amendments and I expect my colleagues to vote accordingly. However, Mr Fox will not receive our support if our amendment is passed, purely on the mechanical basis that his amendment would delete our amendment. If our amendment is not agreed to, we will support Mr Fox's amendment.

That said, the motion and amendments in the Business Bulletin are simply words—they might enable us to agree on the broad policy direction, but that is probably all that they do. Let us start by agreeing a statement that was made previously in the Parliament:

"I suggest that the only relatively sure method of dealing with the problems associated with women in prisons is to make a significant reduction in the number of women going to prison or undergoing any kind of prison service. That should be the core policy objective."—[Official Report, 16 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1774.]

The difficulty is that that was said by the Deputy Minister for Justice, Angus MacKay, on 16 December 1999. It was not said yesterday. In fact, there will be members present who have no idea whom I am speaking about, as he left the Parliament before they were elected.

How have we done? The conviction rate for females has risen a little in the most recent statistics, from nine to 10 per 100,000. That is just about the figure that it has been for 10 years. We males should not in any sense be complacent, as the conviction rate for males is 53 per 100,000. Yes, that figure is declining, but it is more than five times greater than the figure for female convictions. Crucially, however, the number of women in prisons has risen by some 50 per cent. Let us therefore not confine our assessment of the Government to its words and its motion today. We should never judge any Government simply on its words; we must judge it on its achievement and we must track that achievement.

The most recent statistical bulletin on criminal justice was published in March. It shows that, for example, 58 per cent of the crimes of indecency are committed by females—crimes related to prostitution. Interestingly, the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill, which is about to be considered at stage 2 by the Justice 1 Committee, will, for the first time, create a criminal offence for the person who makes use of prostitution, although only in the limited circumstances of the prostitute being aged between 16 and 18. We should look again at prostitution and consider moving the criminal burden from the prostitute to the user of prostitutes.

An astonishing 69 per cent of offences under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 are committed by women. That simply means that they are convicted because they have no television licence. The situation is interesting, as the statistics also tell us that more than half of all custodial sentences in 2003 were for three months or less and that four fifths of all custodial sentences were for six months or less—I inadvertently said 12 months in my earlier intervention. Among women, short sentences are even more prevalent. In 1999, speaking as a back-bench member, Richard Simpson said:

"The degree of recidivism—repeated minor offences—among that population"

of women prisoners

"is very substantial. Prisoners are admitted for very short sentences, often for failing to pay fines, which may have remained unpaid for a long time."—[Official Report, 16 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1765.]

By 2001, fine defaulters represented more than 40 per cent of prisoner receptions in Scotland. For women, the figure is probably much higher, although, mysteriously, speaking as a minister in 2001, Richard Simpson said that only two prisoners in Cornton Vale prison were there for fine default. He may well have been right at the time, but that seems at odds with other figures.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): I do not dispute the figures—certainly not with Mr Stevenson, who tends to be good at quoting such things. Nevertheless, does he accept that some women have got into a cycle and prefer, for their own reasons, to do the time and that, therefore, the figures include women who just refuse to pay their fines?

Stewart Stevenson: The convener of the Justice 1 Committee is entirely correct on that matter. On the other hand, we have a criminal justice system that criminalises someone for not paying for a TV licence, although that is only like not paying council tax, the bill for having papers delivered to their home or a phone bill. The licence fee is a fee for the provision of a service, yet, uniquely, it is a criminal offence not to have a television licence, whereas non-payment for other services is a civil offence with civil remedies for the recovery of money. I make the constructive suggestion that the Executive might talk to colleagues at Westminster about whether, in the modern world, it is appropriate that non-payment of that specific fee, for which payment has to come out of the household budget, should, uniquely, remain a criminal offence.

Cathy Jamieson: I wonder whether the member would be interested to know that the overall figure for fine receptions in Cornton Vale in March was 26. I am led to believe that two women are in Cornton Vale today for fine default. We have had discussions in the chamber about the point that he raises. It is important to acknowledge that people in the circumstances that he describes could end up being imprisoned if they fail to pay their fines. We believe that other measures can be taken and we wish to address the issue. I hope that he will acknowledge that and give us his support.

Stewart Stevenson: I thank the minister for the update on the figures. The fact that there were 26 fine receptions in March illustrates the problem. I am delighted to hear that there are only two women in prison for fine default. However, that suggests that those who are imprisoned for not paying their fines are in for a few days. I am not quite sure what the benefit to the prisoner or wider society is of putting people in prison for a week or a fortnight, because the Scottish Prison Service cannot offer them anything in that time. If the Executive takes action on that, it will have our support.

Some of our women prisoners are in the wrong place. The issue is not just about Cornton Vale. Craiginches prison has a small female wing; it is doing its best and is improving on its previously dismal record. Given that it is a local jail, the inmates have the advantage of being closer to their families, so the disconnection is less than it would be otherwise. However, by being in a small unit in a general jail, of which Craiginches is one example, inmates are denied the specialist support that might be provided by a specialist jail—the minister will know that I am a great fan of specialisation.

I acknowledge that Cornton Vale has made progress. In 1998, Andrew McLellan's predecessor, Mr Fairweather, described it as a casualty clearing station, a psychiatric ward and an addictions clinic. Yes, we are making progress, but it is clear that there is much more to do. In 2001, in a debate that my colleague Roseanna Cunningham initiated, the Executive said clearly and unambiguously that we were giving paramouncy to what prisons do over what prisons cost. I hope that that remains the case.

I visited the 218 centre in Glasgow and was impressed by what it was doing; we certainly need more centres. I know that its work has been praised beyond Scotland. We also need to do more to ensure that sheriffs make greater use of non-custodial sentences. There is an upfront cost in moving from prison to community disposals, but the long-term benefits are both financial and societal.

For those whom we lock up, we have to ensure that we do better things while they are in prison. I visited the women's wing of Bapaume prison near Paris about three years ago and found that the industrial activity there was relevant and interesting; the women were making baby-changing mats and could imagine other mothers using their work and they had a real-life office in which they were acquiring skills. That was all terrific. We must focus on equipping people who get into the criminal justice system with new skills by ensuring that the system re-lifes offenders, so that victims will not relive their hurt as crimes are repeated. We are happy to support the Executive motion.

I move amendment S2M-2689.1, to insert at end:

", coupled with the necessary resources for the Scottish Prison Service, local authorities and voluntary organisations to enable them to make their contribution to achieving this goal."


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