THE PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE (PAC) says in a new report it is clear that implementing the 2018 Female Offender Strategy, “has been a relatively low priority for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and was so even prior to the Covi-19 pandemic.”

The aims of the strategy are widely supported but “actual progress delivering it has been disappointing”:despite an emphasis on expanding community services for women to reduce the need for courts and prisons,

The UK Government spent just £9.5 million on community services for women over four years compared to a commitment to spend £200 million on 500 additional prison places for women. The MoJ’s recent funding settlement included £550 million over the next three years to reduce reoffending by men and women: the Committee says “this money provides the MoJ with a clear opportunity to ‘spend to save’ in community services for women”.

The strategy is not underpinned by the goals or metrics that would allow MoJ to be held to account on the strategy or demonstrate its value. Successful implementation of the strategy relies on the police, courts, probation, local authorities, voluntary organisations and the health service working together to address the underlying causes of women’s offending, but the Committee says it is only in a few areas where local leadership, for example from police and crime commissioners, has led to effective co-operation between organisations to make it work.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Once again we see a situation where government is unwilling or unable to prioritise the investment needed to reduce the ruinous financial, social and human costs of our creaking criminal justice system.

Imprisoning a vulnerable woman who perhaps has children – who may then also fall between the cracks – is the very picture of the cost-shunting that became the hallmark of our criminal justice system long before the massive new challenges of the pandemic. The result of this gap between rhetoric and reality is an unacceptable human and economic toll.

Government must finally put the money where its mouth is on criminal offending and ‘spend to save’ for the benefit to all society, families and individuals.”

The committee’s report comes only three days after a briefing by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System said that prisons are unable to meet the health needs of women and in fact make them worse. MPs and peers found alarming evidence of poor living conditions and rising self-harm.

Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The government made the right move when it launched a strategy to keep women out of prison, but unfortunately the implementation of that strategy leaves a lot to be desired.

“Instead of investing in services that would guide women away from crime, ministers are wasting millions on expanding a prison system that cannot meet their needs, which only compounds the problem.

“It is time for a joined-up approach. There are numerous strategies across government to tackle issues such as drug abuse, mental illness and violence against women and girls – and a large number of the women targeted by the female offender strategy will also be captured by these.

“The challenge is to bring the different strands together, and for the various departments involved to show leadership, grasp the nettle and deliver on their many promises.”

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

* Sources: Public Accounts Committee and Howard League for Penal Reform