Women offenders’ support network faces funding crisis

Projects that help to keep women offenders out of prison unlikely to receive continued funding from the Ministry of Justice

A funding crisis is looming for a groundbreaking network of centres set up to help to keep women offenders out of prison, according to a report published today by an all-party group of MPs and peers.

Baroness Corston, who was the author of the landmark 2007 official report on women in custody, said the network of 44 one-stop-shop women’s centres and other community projects that play a key role in diverting women from custody have no dedicated funding from March.

Corston’s intervention follows warnings from Labour MPs that centres such as Chepstow House, in Stoke, which works with women ex-prisoners to tackle problems of drug use, prostitution and domestic violence, may “come crashing to an end this coming March”.

The prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, is to make an announcement shortly about the new funding regime, but has already made clear that the current scale of funding cannot continue and only those projects that are working best will be supported.

The award-winning Together Women Project has been told it is unlikely to receive continued funding from the Ministry of Justice, which could lead to it closing its doors within weeks. The programme has supported 806 women in Yorkshire and Humberside, and those who have been through it have a reoffending rate of 7%, compared with a national average of 36%.

The 2007 Corston report led to a £15.6m programme to provide a national network of women’s centres and to develop bail support, including hostel places, to help keep women out of prison. Its main recommendation – to replace the existing network of 14 women’s prisons in England and Wales with small custodial units of 20 to 30 women – was rejected by Labour ministers as neither feasible nor desirable.

“While a great deal has been achieved, there is more to be done and the coalition government has a responsibility to continue to support women in the penal system,” said Corston. “If we are to rely on the one-stop-shop women’s centres to play a key role in the diversion of women from custody and in giving women alternatives to reoffending, then these centres will need funding to continue.”

Some 68% of women in prison have been jailed for non-violent offences, compared with 47% of male inmates. The number of women behind bars has risen by 236 since January last year, despite an official target to reduce numbers by 400 by March 2012.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the government was committed to providing women offenders with effective community-based alternatives to custody. “We have identified funding to sustain community projects that are critical to diverting women away from crime in their local areas and an announcement on future funding will be made shortly.”

The prisons minister has told MPs that £10m was put aside to set up the schemes and that his department was not in a position to sustain funding at its current level. He said they would have to seek support from local agencies and would have access to a £100m transition fund and potentially the so-called Big Society bank.