The government’s Female Offender Strategy published in 2018 set the direction of travel for working with women in contact with the criminal justice system.
The aspirational nature of the strategy was highly welcome. With its intentions to reduce the women’s prison population and the number of women entering prison on short custodial sentences, it signalled an important shift in emphasis from custody to supporting women in the community.
The strategy made a number of commitments including investment in community provision for women, piloting ‘residential women’s centres’, and the development of a ‘National Concordat’ on women in contact with the criminal justice system.
It is therefore surprising that last week the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced its intention to create 500 more places in the women’s prison estate.
Alongside this there was also an announcement of the successful recipients of core grant funding for organisations providing community services. The provision of core funding for voluntary organisations is extremely welcome but this funding must be spent by 31st March 2021 and there is currently no plan for further sustainable funding.
The long-awaited concordat was also published and positively it encourages the voluntary sector, government departments and statutory partners to work together and invest funding in community solutions. This is welcome but ultimately undermined by further MoJ resource being directed into prison expansion.
This blog provides further reflections on the latest developments.
Prison expansion: the wrong direction of travel
Clinks is highly disappointed in the plans to expand the women’s prison estate with an additional 500 places to be built into existing prisons. The decision contradicts the intentions of the government’s female offender strategy.
The investment would be more effective at improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system and reducing reoffending if directed towards community provision and diversionary schemes delivered by women-centred, trauma-informed services. The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers should be viewed as an opportunity to work with the Home Office and police forces to ensure a focus on diversion from custody.
Funding for community services supporting women
Last year, the MoJ invited applications for grant funding that was made available for community services supporting women. This was intended to be core funding aimed at supporting with costs such as wages, rent and bills. 38 organisations were successful in receiving almost £2 million of that funding.
Clinks highly welcomes investment in core costs to sustain vital services provided by women-centred charities. Covering the costs involved in running an organisation, not just direct project or service costs, is vital to the women’s sector’s sustainability and ability to thrive not just survive.
However there were challenges with the complexity of the application process and with timescales for applying for - and spending - the grants which made it difficult for the voluntary sector to engage with. Nonetheless we hope that this grants programme signals a recognition of the need for this type of funding. We hope to work with the MoJ to take forward learning from this process and ensure appropriate, accessible and sustainable grant funding for the sector in the future.
The National Concordat
The aim of the recently published Concordat is to create more effective, cross-sector partnerships in order to better address the multiple and complex needs of women in or at risk of contact with the criminal justice system and improve their outcomes. It aims to do this at two levels:
- At the national level the Concordat looks at how government departments should work together to identify and respond to the needs of women. It contains an agreed cross-government commitment to support women and an action plan for doing so. It is positive to see a number of key departments already signed up to this including the Department of Education, Public Health England and more.
- At the local level the concordat intends to support the development of local partnerships and improve collaboration. In particular the concordat promotes the wider adoption of Whole System Approaches (WSAs) across more areas in England and Wales, offering evidence, advice and best practice examples on doing so. Feedback from areas that have implemented WSAs has been positive. However in each local area the existing infrastructure can look quite different and there is some concern that the focus on WSAs does not recognise and support the range of other local solutions and creative responses that there are for supporting women facing multiple disadvantage. These responses may be more appropriate and tailored to local needs.
We have some concerns about how partners and local areas will be incentivised to sign up and take on the task of implementing a WSA. In addition to this we feel that the concordat lacks the necessary teeth to hold those that do sign up to account on their commitments. It is unclear who the local leaders should be and where responsibility lies for overseeing implementation and reporting back on progress.
While we are welcoming of its ambitions, there has been no dedicated resource committed to driving the Concordat forward. Without this - particularly at this time of crisis - areas may struggle to achieve the outcomes desired. To ensure a WSA becomes successfully embedded and achieves long-term change, organisations providing tailored support to women - especially women’s centres - need sustainable funding as they are integral to the model.
Residential Women’s Centres
The Residential Women’s Centre (RWC) model developed by the MoJ as part of its strategy consists of:
- A residential element where up to 12 women will reside at the RWC for a maximum of three months.
- A support hub located on the same site where a range of services will provided. After residing at the RWC, women will continue accessing services from the support hub for as long as their sentence requires. Women in the community can also access the hub.
The RWC is aimed at women who would otherwise receive a short custodial sentence. Instead women will be given a community sentence with a residential requirement. It was announced the first RWC will be in Wales and the search for a site is underway.
We have held two events so far on behalf of MoJ to update the voluntary sector on the progress made in developing the RWC model and to consult organisations on their views. Briefings with the delegates’ feedback has been provided to officials to support with further refining the model.
We are concerned about the funding, timescales and locations of the RWCs. It is not yet clear what the financial envelope is for the pilots; where in England they might be located (as well as where in South Wales the RWC will be); and what the timescales are for implementation. We continue to engage with the MoJ on this work, raising our concerns and seeking updates for the voluntary sector.