8 Nov 2016
Ten years after The Corston Report, is this the end of successful women’s centres?
Women’s centres, which provide a range of vital services to help guide women away from crime, are at risk of becoming “a thing of the past” unless immediate action is taken to secure their future, an influential panel of MPs and peers warns today (Tuesday 8 November).
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) has found that the centres have been successful in reducing reoffending, but they are now under threat following the break-up of the probation service under the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme.
The APPG has called on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to take responsibility for women’s services away from private ‘community rehabilitation companies’ (CRCs), which were set up as part of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms.
MPs and peers have found that women’s centres are struggling to get funding, while many of the new services for women provided by the CRCs are “a watered-down version of what went before”.
The APPG’s findings are outlined in a report, called Is this the end of women’s centres?, which states: “There is a real risk that high-quality services for women, particularly women’s centres, will become a thing of the past. This will have a hugely detrimental impact on the women that use these services and their communities.
“Women’s centres work; the same cannot be said of the poor imitations which are replacing them in many parts of the country.”
The APPG is co-chaired by Fiona Mactaggart MP and Baroness Corston, the author of a seminal report, commissioned by the Home Office and published in 2007, on women in the criminal justice system.
Among the many recommendations of The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system was a call for women’s centres to be developed, expanded and increasingly used as an alternative to imprisonment.
Next year, the APPG will hold a major inquiry to assess what progress has been made in the decade since Baroness Corston’s recommendations were published.
Baroness Corston, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Women’s centres have been the key success since my recommendations were published, with cross-party support, almost 10 years ago.
“I am extremely worried that centres which have helped thousands of women to turn their lives around are now under threat unless the government takes immediate action.
“Ministers must intervene now to ensure that these vital services in the justice system are not lost forever.”
Is this the end of women’s centres? reports the findings of an APPG inquiry that received written and oral evidence from Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), Police and Crime Commissioners, NHS trusts, and service providers, including women’s centres.
It states that women’s centres are specialist community “one-stop shops” for women involved with, or at risk of involvement with, the criminal justice system, among other groups. Services provided include counselling and mental health services, drug treatment, employment skills, help for women in abusive relationships, literacy, CV support, child care, and housing assistance.
The centres provide a safe space for women where they are treated as individuals and their needs can be addressed holistically – an approach identified in The Corston Report as being the best for women in the justice system.
Since The Corston Report was published, the number of women’s centres has increased modestly. The majority have been hampered, however, by instability due to short-term funding, often relying on a patchwork of support from the MoJ, local probation, charities and health bodies.
Despite the difficult operating environment, women’s centres are successful. An MoJ study found that they have a statistically significant impact on reducing reoffending, with the difference estimated to be as high as 9 per cent.
The experience of the women’s centres that responded to the inquiry was overwhelmingly negative and indicated serious damage being inflicted to women’s services.
All the CRCs that gave evidence to the inquiry said that they were complying with the Offender Rehabilitation Act (2014), which stipulates that CRCs must identify and address the particular needs of women. The inquiry found, however, that there was little evidence that this provision adequately safeguarded quality women’s services in practice.
The experience of the women’s centres that responded to the inquiry was overwhelmingly negative and indicated serious damage being inflicted to women’s services. Several received no funding from CRCs; some were providing services temporarily, but felt unable to continue long-term; and others had entered into contracts with CRCs, but this involved providing services of a much lower quality than they were doing previously or would like.
The inquiry heard that CRC lawyers inserted gagging clauses into contracts with women’s centres. This prohibited the centres from speaking out on behalf of the women, raising concerns about the services or criticising the contracts.
The report calls on the government to act immediately to protect existing women’s centres and then create a sustainable model in which they can expand and develop.
Women’s centre managers told the inquiry that the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms had resulted in more women being recalled to prison, and this was having a disruptive impact on the services that they were still able to provide. They said that women were being recalled for technical breaches of their licence, often for failing to attend appointments, and this was trapping them in cycles of short-term imprisonment.
The inquiry heard that women’s centres were trying to step in to support women who were being let down by inadequate “through the gate” services as they were released from prison. MPs and peers were told that many women are released from prison into homelessness or unstable temporary accommodation for a few nights, and women’s centre staff had found that CRCs were ill-equipped to resolve this. There are cases of women having been given sleeping bags and tents on release.
The report calls on the government to act immediately to protect existing women’s centres and then create a sustainable model in which they can expand and develop. It recommends that the MoJ should begin by negotiating with CRCs to remove women’s services from Transforming Rehabilitation contracts and commission them separately.
The report recommends that the MoJ should then ring-fence and transfer budgets to the National Probation Service, who are well placed to work with women’s centres and other providers to commission services appropriate for people living locally.
Evidence given to the APPG by a women’s centre manager highlighted the disruptive and counter-productive impact of recall:
“Anna was a 26-year-old woman referred to The Nelson Trust after having served multiple short prison sentences, primarily for low-value shoplifting. Anna is in a violent and abusive relationship and has experienced several periods of homelessness. She used substances to manage her emotions and she found it very difficult to consistently engage with the service.
“Over the period of a few years, we worked hard to engage with Anna and we could continue to reach out with support in custody through to the community. Although Anna experienced a period of positive engagement, due to a recent traumatic event, Anna became involved in street sex work. Consequently, the risks to her health and well-being have escalated.
“Anna is now pregnant. When Anna learnt that she was pregnant, she expressed a strong desire to parent this child and a motivation to tackle her problems.
“Due to Anna’s challenges and multiple complex needs, she still struggles to engage with consistent support. Consequently, Anna has been recalled to prison three times since January 2016.
“Each time she is incarcerated, her community-based support systems are unavailable to her and she reports that she is forced to become ‘hostile’ in order to survive this environment.
“Despite a team of dedicated, committed professionals, a positive conclusion is now looking unlikely. It is my view that short periods of detention have exacerbated an already high-risk situation and may well have contributed to escalating the risks for both her and her unborn child.”
Notes to editors
- The All Party Parliamentary Group for Women in the Penal System (APPG)was set up in July 2009, with Baroness Corston as Chair and administrative support from the Howard League for Penal Reform.
- The APPG comprises MPs and Members of the House of Lords from all parties and works to increase knowledge and awareness of issues around women in the penal system, as well as push for the full implementation of the recommendations of The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.
- The APPG’s report, Is this the end of women’s centres?, can be viewed online.
- The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system can be viewed online.
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