THE UK MINISTRY OF JUSTICE has made limited progress on its Female Offender Strategy to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice systemic England  because it has not prioritised investment in this work, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

Women in the justice system have distinct needs and worse outcomes than men. They are more likely than men to have specific vulnerabilities that drive their offending, including experiences of trauma and abuse, and they also pose less of a serious risk to the public.

In 2018, the Ministry of Justice published the Female Offender Strategy to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system, and increase the proportion of women offenders managed in the community. The strategy contained over 50 commitments which ranged from publishing guidance for police working with vulnerable women, to creating residential women’s centres (RWCs) as an alternative to prison.

The female offender programme was established to oversee the strategy, but the Ministry decided against setting targets for the programme’s main objectives – such as how many women it expected to divert from the criminal justice system or give community sentences – because they would depend on actions from independent bodies, including the judiciary. Without clearly setting out the scale of its ambitions, the Ministry could not estimate what funding would be required to deliver the programme, or what savings the programme might achieve.

The Ministry allocated limited funding and resources to the programme. The only funding it initially made available was £5.1 million in 2018-20 for supporting women’s services in the community. Across the 2020 and 2021 single year Spending Reviews, the Ministry allocated to the programme just £13.1 million of the minimum £40 million that the programme team initially estimated it would need for certain aspects of the programme. The programme team focused funding on developing community options for women, in part because it was the most urgent need.

Despite its focus on community options specifically for women, the Ministry has made limited progress. Funding to providers for women’s services was restricted to short-term grants of less than a year because of the constraints of the government’s one-year Spending Reviews. Providers told the NAO that this made it difficult to plan ahead and sustain services. The Ministry’s plans to pilot five residential women’s centres have also been considerably delayed because of difficulties finding a site for its first centre in Wales, and resource issues. Only £500,000 of an expected £3.5 million will be spent on these centres in 2021-22.

The Ministry’s ability to make joined-up decisions has been limited. Its plans to create an additional 500 prison places for women, for example, did not consider any likely change in demand that might come from more women being managed in the community.

The women’s prison population has decreased, but the NAO did not find evidence that this was caused by the system beginning to work as the strategy intends. The female prison population decreased by 16 per cent between June 2018 and September 2021. Most (81 per cent) of the decline occurred between March and December 2020: data suggests this was probably because of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, including fewer opportunities for crime and a significant reduction in court activity. The remaining 19 per cent of the decrease happened outside this period, and did not coincide with decreases in arrests, or increased use of community options – as set out in the strategy’s aims.

The NAO recommends that the Ministry puts in place specific goals for the strategy’s main objectives, and makes a full assessment of the funding required to meet its aims. It should also set out how it will measure progress and evaluate the success of the programme.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO said: “The Ministry of Justice has not made the Female Offender Strategy a priority. The strategy is intended to improve outcomes for women, but a lack of clear goals makes it hard to evaluate progress. Even in the areas where it focused attention, such as developing community options for women, delivery has been disappointing.

“The Ministry of Justice must clarify its aspirations and priorities for women, and match these to clear actions and funding, to improve how the criminal justice system treats women.”

Dr Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of Women in Prison, said: “This vital report shows the Government is failing to follow its own evidence and strategy which acknowledges most women in prison should not be there. More money for more prison places won’t stop women being swept up into crime. What will is investing in local services.

“There is still time to get this right. The Government can and must stop plans for 500 new women’s prison places and instead fulfil its strategy to reduce the number of women in prison, by funding community solutions, like Women Centres, which provide an anchor of support to help tackle the root causes of crime such as domestic abuse and poverty.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “This report reads as a cautionary tale for everything the Deputy Prime Minister is saying on criminal justice reform. It’s not what you promise that matters, but what you deliver. Inexcusably, the government never set itself any deadlines or targets to deliver a policy on reducing offending by women. So it’s hardly surprising that the National Audit Office now confirms what others have been saying for the last three years – that thousands of vulnerable women, and the general public, continue to be failed.

“It’s easy to talk tough on sentencing, and it’s easy to publish ambitious strategies. But none of that makes the public safer or reduces the waste of money and human potential that our current approach to dealing with crime represents. Delivering real change for women at risk of imprisonment is a testing ground for what the government says it wants to do on crime more generally. Its credibility now utterly depends on putting fine words into practice.”

* Read Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system here.

* Sources: National Audit Office, Women in Prison, and Prison Reform Trust