Readers will no doubt be aware of the Government’s austerity policies which have seen cuts to social security benefits, restrictions on eligibility to some benefits, suppression of public sector pay and reduction in spending on other schemes such as free school meals and sure start schemes. These measures hurt everyone who is in a lower paid job or out of work but it has been proven that austerity measures and the economic environment over recent years have had a greater impact on women than on men. Analysing the impact of the austerity measures introduced since 2010 the House of Commons Library research reported by Sarah Champion MP in 2017 revealed that 86% of the burden of austerity falls to women. The Women’s budget group published an equality analysis of the 2017 budget measures (available online) which gives more detail about the impact on different groups and this backs up the finding.
A particular concern highlighted by many women’s groups is the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) which replaces all the separate in and out of work benefits into one single payment. This means that all tax credits, child benefit and other benefits are paid in one payment to only one person in a household. Before UC tax credits and child benefits relating to children and child care were paid to the main carer of the child(ren) which in most cases is the woman in the household. UC also introduces the payment of housing benefit to the claimant rather than Landlord, as part of the single monthly payment. In a household struggling to make ends meet due to austerity measures the staggering of different benefit payments across the month can help with money management and the payment of housing benefit direct to the Landlord takes away the terrible choice that many parents and carers face of paying the rent or feeding hungry children and heating a freezing home. Payment of UC in one sum monthly removes these safeguards.
In addition to the general concerns about UC the single payment can only be made to one person in a household. For those experiencing domestic abuse this increases the risk of financial abuse which disproportionately affects women and disabled people. Many Probation and Family Court practitioners will have worked with women who have only survived and kept their children fed and warm due to the direct payment to them of child related benefits and tax credits.
So how does all of this increase the number of women in the criminal justice system? A 2015 report by the Ministry of Justice provides some clues. Women are far more likely than men to be prosecuted for TV licence evasion, more likely to be to be sentenced for summary offences and more likely to be sentenced to a fine. The most common indictable offence for women was shoplifting. This supports anecdotal evidence from practitioners that women are more likely to be prosecuted for offences relating to the home and family for example TV licence evasion, failure to send the children to school and theft committed to feed children. Women are more likely to be convicted for benefit fraud than men but on conviction more likely to be given a suspended sentence than men and less likely to be given a fine.
The Corston report of 2007 explored women in the criminal justice system and highlighted women’s routes into offending as different to those of men. The report particularly noted that women commit more acquisitive crime and less serious violence and professional crime. Women with a history of abuse or violence are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Relationship problems and coercion by men feature strongly as routes into offending and substance misuse is a greater factor for women than men. Crucially the report noted that the solution to women’s offending is a whole system issue and the underlying difficulties need to be addressed to provide routes away from offending.
When Government policies place disproportionately more women in poverty and exacerbate issues relating to abuse it is obvious that more women will find their way into the criminal justice system. Sadly at exactly the time they are needed most the women’s centres set up in response to the Corston report found their funding at significant risk following Transforming Rehabilitation when the former Probation Trust arrangements with them came to an end. Over the last four years’ political pressure has led to a renewed focus on the needs of women in the criminal justice system, prompted by the Justice Select Committee report in 2014 – Women Offenders: After the Corston Report (available online). This has resulted in women’s centres receiving additional funding and even in new centres opening as well as a new focus on holistic services for women. The split in Probation in 2014 has resulted in a deterioration in services for all clients despite the best efforts of dedicated staff but holistic support and the “one stop shop” approach recommended in the Corston report is impossible in a fractured Probation system.
The recommendations of the Corston report in terms of the justice system itself still need urgent work but as Baroness Corston herself notes this is a problem that needs a whole system approach and we cannot ignore the impact of austerity on women and the link to their route into offending. If we truly want to see a change in society and fewer women in prison (with all of the associated problems that causes for them, their family and for society) we must address inequality at all levels and in all areas of life.