MPs say “spend to save” on women in the criminal justice system

Work with offenders on a Public Accounts Committee report

In a typically forthright report, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons says 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 COVID-19 pandemic.”

It is a long-standing political paradox that there has been a cross-party consensus about developing a women-specific strategy within the criminal justice system since the publication of Baroness Corston’s report back in 2007, but that successive governments have done very little to implement it. There is agreement that too many women are imprisoned for petty offences and that that the complex needs of many are better served by community services. This is the theme of the report by the Public Accounts Committee, regarded as one of the most powerful and influential Committees operating within parliament.

The Female Offender Strategy emphasised the importance of maintaining and expanding community services for women, to tackle the causes of offending and so reduce the need for courts and prisons. Despite this emphasis, the Committee found that the MoJ has spent just £9.5 million on community services for women over four years. In comparison it has committed to spending £200 million on 500 additional prison places for women. The Ministry’s recent funding settlement included £550 million over the next three years to reduce reoffending (by men and women). The Committee urges the MoJ to use this clear opportunity to ‘spend to save’ on community services for women.

The Committee, like the National Audit Office before it, expresses concern that the MoJ did not design its female offender programme in a way which would allow it to be held to account. It has not set out how much change it is seeking to achieve or reported its progress clearly. The Committee also criticises the governance arrangements as “weak”. In particular, the Committee highlights the fact that the MoJ does not yet have the data it needs and has not set out a monitoring and evaluation plan.

The Committee points out that the successful implementation of the strategy relies on many organisations (such as the police, courts, probation, local authorities, voluntary organisations and the health service) working in partnership to address the underlying causes of women’s offending. It has found examples in a few areas of local leadership, for example from police and crime commissioners, which has led to effective co-operation between organisations to provide support and oversight to help women turn their lives around. This is, however, far from universal and the Committee says that the MoJ is not doing nearly enough to support the adoption of good practice more generally. It acknowledges that the MoJ has taken a first step to build co-operation between government departments by negotiating a concordat with them, but notes that even this took two years longer than it had promised.

The report calls for more accountability and transparency from the Ministry of Justice. Specifically it ask the MoJ to publish immediately the 66 commitments made by other organisations to the strategy, alongside its assessment of the implementations of these commitments.

The Committee criticises the fact that, four years after the publication of the strategy, it still does not have a plan for how it will monitor and evaluate the work it is doing to achieve its aims. The Committee concludes its report with a strong recommendation that it publishes a monitoring and evaluation plan by this September and that the plan should include specific performance measures at every point in the criminal justice system as well as how it intends to identify and spread good practice.