THURROCK MP Jackie Doyle Price rose on the floor of the House of Commons to speak on the subject of women leaving prison.
Ms Doyle-Price said:
“It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to follow Carolyn Harris. I agree with every word she said. There are some people who, when they come to this place, like to play to the gallery, and there are some who come to do the right thing. The substance of this debate is one where we need to make sure we do the right thing, because the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable people.
Many colleagues on my side of the House have a very “Hang ’em and flog ’em” approach to criminal justice—locking people up and throwing away the key. There is a place for that. However, many people who end up in our criminal justice system or in custody are themselves some of the most vulnerable people, and they are symptoms of state failure. That is particularly true of women prisoners. As we all know, quite often people who have been in the care system are over-represented on the prison estate, as are people with addiction problems, and people with literacy and numeracy issues, and that is the state failing those people.
How we deal with people once they enter that cycle of offending and reoffending is how we should judge our success in rehabilitation and making sure that we give people a second chance. We should not be writing people off forever. We know that if we do not give them the support to be rehabilitated, they will continue a cycle of reoffending. That is not good for society at all, or indeed for the taxpayer, because putting people in prison is quite an expensive solution. We need to grasp this debate head-on. We should not be letting our criminal justice system pick up the price of state failure.
Women who have been let down by the state are particularly over-represented in the prisons system. As the hon. Member for Swansea East has alluded, many are victims of abuse, whether domestic abuse or sexual violence, and trauma is symptomatic. In fact, for some of those women, prison is probably as safe and secure an environment as they have ever been in. What a travesty for our society that we let that happen.
We know that there have been many moves in recent years to recognise that prison is not the right place for people who are vulnerable and suffering the consequences of trauma. For a long time, we had a move towards different, more community-based solutions. In particular, talking about women who are also parents, what good is there to be done by putting women in prison and putting their children into care? What is going to be the positive outcome for society of that? Other solutions can be pursued, such as treatment orders combined with community payback schemes. I think we should look at that.
The direction of travel was very much in favour of this more enlightened way of treating women in the criminal justice system, but we seem to have had a change in emphasis. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the announcement of 500 new prison places comes at a time when the women’s prison population has gone down by 600. We are talking about an increase in capacity of 1,100. We ask ourselves: what signal are we showing about how we are going to deal with people who, frankly, need support to not reoffend?
In not too recent a time, the then Cameron Government had very big ambitions for prison reform and emphasis on rehabilitation, but they seem to have died with that Government. It is easy to be populist and easy to play to a gallery that wants to lock people up and throw away the key, but we need to think about what the best outcome for society is. Surely the best outcome for society is to make sure we do everything in our power to support people to get out of that cycle of reoffending.
I often say in this place that there is no public policy issue that cannot be solved by a housing solution, and that is also true of this. It is clear that some kind of security in accommodation when people leave prison is fundamental to making sure that people do not reoffend. As the hon. Lady mentioned, there are pilots in place to give that support in housing, but I helpfully suggest to the Minister that perhaps we should have more focus on those kinds of step-down solutions for housing for people who leave prison, and that perhaps that might be a better value-for-money investment of taxpayers’ money than simply expanding the prison estate.
As I say, the more we can do to divert women away from simply being incarcerated, the better it will be for society. It will prevent some children from going into the care system, and prevent that generational flow of history repeating itself in families. We also know that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, some of the offences committed by women for which they end up with a custodial sentence are not ones that justify such a sentence. In particular, they can often be with reference to debt, and again, I think we can find much better solutions for supporting people out of that.
I have little more to add, other than to reaffirm my support for everything the hon. Lady has said. We as political leaders perhaps need to give more leadership to our communities, and to be more understanding and more forgiving of why people end up the way they are. It is when people feel excluded from society—when they feel that society is not giving them a chance—that they end up in this cycle of crime and reoffending, in and out of prison. As I say, that is our failing. We need to make sure that when we pick people up for the first time, we do what we can to help them address their problems, whether that is debt, poor literacy, or all the other traumas that they may have suffered. As we know, mental health difficulties are a big characteristic of this prison population too. Let us do our bit and not simply rely on more prison places.