I welcome the debate and congratulate the Equal Opportunities Committee on the important job that it has done in producing its report.
As Elaine Smith mentioned, the Parliament has wrestled with the issue of female offenders over a long period of time. The Equal Opportunities Committee has always been an important forum for addressing such questions, particularly with regard to understanding that the justice system often treats women most unfairly and further victimises them, and the committee has debated those broader issues over the years.
The committee's report and today's debate highlight the need for us to pursue a gendered understanding of the justice system. We need to understand why women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic abuse and male violence, and we need to address our policy with regard to that understanding. It is a simple truth: if we do not ask why, we will not change behaviour and create circumstances in which we can eradicate domestic abuse, for example.
It is important to speak about women's experiences. We need to ask why women suffer disproportionately from mental health problems and end up in jail, and why their offending behaviour is remarkably different from that of men.
The minister referred to the issue of knife crime. Women are rarely the perpetrators of knife crime, but many women are mothers who will sleep easier at night if we address the problem of knife crime and the risk that it poses to our sons.
I would be grateful if the minister could confirm that he and his department will continue to take a gendered approach to the issue of male violence against women. As is the case with understanding why women end up in the situation that they do, the answer involves addressing the pattern and then eradicating it. That attitude explains why we on the Labour side of the chamber resist a mechanistic approach to sentencing, which the minister has advocated—as if the different needs of men and women could be captured by taking a blanket approach to sentencing.
The irony is that a sentence of six months or less might keep a woman who has been abused by a man safe from male violence. It should be recognised that short sentences can have a different impact for women victims of male violence from that which they might have for men.
Hugh O'Donnell: I have a hypothetical question. What would happen if a female was obliged under pressure to carry a knife or bladed weapon for her boyfriend? Would she be prosecuted under the mandatory sentence system?
Johann Lamont: We have made it clear that that is appropriate, and we need a justice system that asks those questions.
I return to my point about sentences of six months or less. Ninety per cent of aggravated domestic abuse crimes do not attract a custodial sentence at all, and the remainder attract a sentence of less than six months. The respite that women get when men are sentenced, even if it is only for three or four months, can make a life-changing difference for them. Therefore, any sentencing policy cannot involve the type of blanket presumption that the minister makes.
The cabinet secretary referred to the period during which I was Deputy Minister for Justice. I was aware back then of the temptation in the Scottish Executive, as it was then, for departments to operate in silos. I urge the minister to ensure that his justice policies are shaped by an understanding of equality issues and by the views of the equality unit and the national group on violence against women.
We all recognise that women offenders often represent failures of systems to support women at an earlier stage in their lives. It is essential that local services understand women's needs. That is why I continue to press the Government to ensure that single outcome agreements are subject to equality impact assessment. If they are not, the problem of some services not meeting women's needs will be compounded. I was troubled when I read the following in the committee's report:
"Members of the Committee were deeply concerned to hear that some women deliberately commit offences purely to access the services provided in Cornton Vale prison."
How scary a comment is that, and how serious a comment on the lives of far too many women? It shows what their lives outside prison are like. We have to redouble our efforts to ensure they have access to services and to refuge, our efforts to tackle offenders, and our efforts to support those who face abuse.
We need certainty in funding. That is a challenge for the Government, as it would be for any other. However, it highlights the importance of considering the role that prisons play in supporting women. I understand why people say that prison cannot help everyone who goes in for short periods, but I do not accept the view that nothing can be done and that short sentences are therefore a failure. I refer the minister to the routes out of prison project, which is run by the Wise Group. James Kelly mentioned that. In that project, life coaches work with people while they are in prison—sometimes it is the first time that it has been possible to capture them—and provide a bridge out into the community. I urge the minister to provide that service for women prisoners as well, because such support is critically important to them.
Families Outside, the group that Robert Brown mentioned, is right to talk about the disruption to families and the shame that they experience. It is critical, then, that we ensure that there is sufficient funding for the voluntary organisations that people trust. Statutory organisations are often dangerous places for families in such circumstances. I also urge the minister to reflect on what we should be doing in schools to support young people. We need to understand the barriers to learning that can exist when children face such circumstances.
I finish on Elaine Smith's point that we have to consider the issue in relation to an equality perspective. It is about women's lives, their education and employment opportunities and their lives as young people. We need to fund services as much as making pronouncements on justice policy if we are to ensure that we address women offenders' needs.