Female Offenders in the Criminal Justice System
The Mental Health of Female Prisoners Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
After studying the issue for a short time and visiting Cornton Vale, two shocking and disturbing facts became clear to me. The first is the appalling extent of sexual and/or domestic abuse in the backgrounds of the women, and the prevalence of mental health and addiction problems, which are sometimes but not always related to that abuse; and the second is the large number of women who simply should not be in Cornton Vale but somewhere more appropriate.

Obviously, sentencing is a matter for sheriffs, but the committee suggests that the Government consider the idea of having a separate sentencing framework for women. We certainly say that it is our responsibility to consider alternative provision. Clearly, there will be big debates about community sentences in coming weeks, and we must ensure that gender issues are recognised as part of those debates. Paragraph 137 of the report indicates that Government officials admit that such issues have not always been recognised.

I have mentioned alternative provision, and we certainly highly commend the 218 centre. We say in the report that the Government should consider having similar centres in other parts of Scotland. I was pleased to visit Glasgow sheriff court as part of the inquiry. It was very encouraging to see, in relation to a woman for whom we all had a great deal of sympathy, the sheriff using the option of the 218 centre for the disposal rather than the option of Cornton Vale. Would that the 218 centre option were available to a larger number of women.

Angela Constance, in a very important speech, referred to alternative provision for those with mental health problems. Mental health featured very strongly in the report, which has many important recommendations on that issue. For example, paragraph 51 says that there should be

"a re-examination of the way that women with mental health problems are sentenced".

Paragraph 119 makes the specific recommendation that medical reports should be available to sentencers. Mental health must be considered at the pre-sentencing stage.

We also say, in paragraph 52, that

"improvements must be made to the support that is provided both in prison and in the community to female offenders with mental health problems."

Obviously, I take on board what Angela Constance said about the limitations of what can be provided in prison. There are some necessary limitations, as the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service agreed.

However, there are also areas in which improvements could be made. For example, there is an admission in the draft Scottish Prison Service women offender strategy that, at Cornton Vale, there is

"limited psychologist input, and no individual clinical psychology."

The recent inspectorate report on Cornton Vale talks about the health team there not being at full strength—it should include seven mental health nurses. Improvements can therefore be made in Cornton Vale, but it is clear that, often, alternative provision for people with mental health problems should be considered.

The other issue that comes up in our report is what happens to women after they leave Cornton Vale. Ideally, they should be directed to community-based mental health services. However, important written evidence from the Scottish Association for Mental Health pointed out that such services

"are often too rigid and place unrealistic demands on those who may be most vulnerable."

That leads into the issue of throughcare and what happens to women once they leave Cornton Vale, to which we devoted a section of our report at paragraphs 158 to 161.

One of the most interesting reports that I have read in relation to throughcare is by an organisation called Circle Scotland, which has been doing work with women in Cornton Vale over the past two years. A review of the first year has been published. I have a particular interest in the Circle organisation, since it is based in West Pilton in my constituency. It has done excellent work with families in many contexts. The report "Circle: Throughcare for Female Offenders" is interesting because it shows what can be done with women who have been in prison if they are given support when they leave. One of the most striking facts in the report is that there is virtually zero reoffending among the women with whom Circle has worked up till now. We refer to that in paragraph 169 of our report, and I hope that the Government will examine the Circle report and will consider that approach as an important part of the way forward.

One issue for Circle is working with children, and there are important recommendations in our report with reference to children. In particular, I draw the attention of the cabinet secretary to the absence of a response to the first part of the recommendation in paragraph 67, which says: "Where female prisoners with children continue to take drugs, the Committee has made clear its view that any subsequent punishment should not impact on the child in question."

It would be interesting to hear a response to that point from the Government.

I thank the Government for its response on the other recommendations. In general, its response was positive, although there are big issues about the implementation of many of the report's recommendations.

On speech and language therapy, which is dealt with in paragraphs 72 to 74, our recommendation was to have

"a pilot speech and language therapy programme".

We received important evidence from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which pointed out that

"SLT interventions could help to prevent and reduce the female re-offending rate by increasing oral communication skills, by enabling the individual to access a wider range of rehabilitation programmes, thereby empowering them to change their offending behaviour."

The Government's response to that was not entirely positive, although it has said that it will examine the evidence. I hope that it will do so soon and take that recommendation on board.

February 11th 2010, (Column 23845-7) Follow up question to the Justice Minister Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I thank the cabinet secretary for his positive response to most of the recommendations in the Equal Opportunities Committee report on female offenders in the criminal justice system. Will he respond to the one recommendation that he ignored, namely that if female prisoners with children continue to take drugs, any subsequent punishment should not impact on their children? Does he believe that, in determining visits by children, the rights and interests of the child should be paramount?

Kenny MacAskill (The Cabinet Secretary for Justice):
It is clear that we have to take into account the rights of the child. I fully accept that in the spirit in which Malcolm Chisholm has raised the matter. There are security issues but, the point that has been made is clear. We must realise that the link with the child is fundamental to the best way of trying to ensure that the prisoner does not commit further offences and can be rehabilitated.

We also have to address another point that Malcolm Chisholm and others have raised: tragically, 50 per cent or more of the children whose mothers are in Cornton Vale end up in institutions themselves. If we are to break that cycle of offending, we must ensure that appropriate action is taken. I am more than happy to continue to discuss that matter with Malcolm Chisholm and to ensure that the SPS takes it on board.
February 11th 2010, (Column 24049-50)