The Ministry of Justice has made limited progress on its Female Offender Strategy to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system because it has not prioritised investment in this work, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

Women in the justice system have distinct needs and worse outcomes than men. They are more likely than men to have specific vulnerabilities that drive their offending, including experiences of trauma and abuse, and they also pose less of a serious risk to the public.1 In 2018, the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) published the Female Offender Strategy (the strategy) to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system, and increase the proportion of women offender managed in the community. The strategy contained over 50 commitments which ranged from publishing guidance for police working with vulnerable women, to creating residential women’s centres (RWCs) as an alternative to prison.

The female offender programme (the programme) was established to oversee the strategy, but the Ministry decided against setting targets for the programme’s main objectives – such as how many women it expected to divert from the criminal justice system or give community sentences – because they would depend on actions from independent bodies, including the judiciary. Without clearly setting out the scale of its ambitions, the Ministry could not estimate what funding would be required to deliver the programme, or what savings the programme might achieve.

The Ministry allocated limited funding and resources to the programme because it prioritised other strategic aims, including dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The only funding it initially made available was £5.1 million in 2018-20 for supporting women’s services in the community. Across the 2020 and 2021 single year Spending Reviews, the Ministry allocated to the programme just £13.1 million of the minimum £40 million that the programme team initially estimated it would need for certain aspects of the programme. The programme team focused funding on developing community options for women, in part because it was the most urgent need.

Despite its focus on community options specifically for women, the Ministry has made limited progress. Funding to providers for women’s services was restricted to short-term grants of less than a year because of the constraints of the government’s one-year Spending Reviews. Providers told the NAO that this made it difficult to plan ahead and sustain services. The Ministry’s plans to pilot five residential women’s centres have also been considerably delayed because of difficulties finding a site for its first centre in Wales, and resource issues. Only £500,000 of an expected £3.5 million will be spent on these centres in 2021-22.

The Ministry does not have a good understanding of whether it is making progress towards the strategy’s wider aims. No performance measures were set for the strategy, which means the Ministry cannot identify if trends in the data on women in the criminal justice system align with its objectives. As a result, the Ministry’s ability to make joined-up decisions has been limited. Its plans to create an additional 500 prison places for women, for example, did not consider any likely change in demand that might come from more women being managed in the community.

The women’s prison population has decreased, but the NAO did not find evidence that this was caused by the system beginning to work as the strategy intends. The female prison population decreased by 16% between June 2018 and September 2021. Most (81%) of the decline occurred between March and December 2020; data suggests this was probably because of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including fewer opportunities for crime and a significant reduction in court activity. The remaining 19% of the decrease happened outside this period, and did not coincide with decreases in arrests, or increased use of community options – as set out in the strategy’s aims.

The NAO recommends that the Ministry puts in place specific goals for the strategy’s main objectives, and makes a full assessment of the funding required to meet its aims. It should also set out how it will measure progress and evaluate the success of the programme.

“The Ministry of Justice has not made the Female Offender Strategy a priority. The strategy is intended to improve outcomes for women, but a lack of clear goals makes it hard to evaluate progress. Even in the areas where it focused attention, such as developing community options for women, delivery has been disappointing.

“The Ministry of Justice must clarify its aspirations and priorities for women, and match these to clear actions and funding, to improve how the criminal justice system treats women.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system

Notes for editors

  1. In 2007, the government commissioned the Corston Report, following the deaths of six women at Styal prison within a year. The report stressed that the underlying reasons why men and women offend and their response to interventions and rehabilitation differed.
  2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.

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