Jean to host cross-party summit on controversial women’s prison

Jean will convene a cross-party summit tomorrow to discuss the controversial proposal to build a new women’s prison at Inverkip Road in Greenock. Representatives of the Scottish Greens, the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems have confirmed they will attend, along with concerned groups including Women For Independence, Engender, Howard League Scotland and Circle Scotland.

The female prison population has risen by 120% since 2000, despite conviction rates remaining stable. The Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini QC, recommended that the existing women’s prison at HMP Cornton Vale be closed and replaced with “a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public”, but the Inverkip Road proposal is for a 300-capacity prison, 70 places larger than Cornton Vale.

Jean said:

“We imprison far too many people in this country. Women offenders in particular are far less likely to represent any danger to the public, and locking them up is far more likely to cause harm to their families – possibly including increasing the likelihood of their children going on to offend.

“I believe the Scottish Government understands the need for better community sentencing and less incarceration. They should have the courage of their convictions and put their money into making community sentencing work, not building a dumping ground for women in case it doesn’t.

“I’m really encouraged that this will be a genuinely cross-party meeting, with every party except the Conservatives already confirmed. We will really benefit from the expertise and views of campaigners and experts from Women For Independence, Engender, the Howard League and Circle Scotland.

“I think everyone is in agreement in our aspirations for more effective, more compassionate handling of women offenders, so I’m hopeful for a really productive meeting that’s about working out how to get there rather than scoring political points.”

The meeting will be held on Thursday afternoon at a venue near the Scottish Parliament, so that attendees will not cross the picket line in support of the one-day strike action by the PCS union.

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Speech: Women’s Employment Summit

As the deputy convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the women’s employment summit, which I was fortunate enough to attend last month. I am glad that the role of women in the workplace and in wider society has returned to the chamber for debate, although I am saddened to acknowledge the continuing need for such debates.

We have come very far in a very short space of time, but a lot of work remains to be done and I know that the minister Angela Constance and the Government are determined to take that forward. It is important that we lower—and eventually eliminate—the barriers and ceilings faced by women in the workplace, particularly given the recession’s disproportionate impact on them. After all, according to statistics, women are more likely to work part time and to be more affected by Westminster’s welfare reforms.

As I have done in the past, I draw the chamber’s attention to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report “Tapping all our Talents”, which sets out a strategy for increasing the number of women working in STEM areas. Produced by a working group that included the inimitable Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the report is a searing indictment of the barriers that are faced by women who wish to study and work in those areas and sets out in stark detail just how big a barrier gender can be to entering certain occupations.

On 2 August, “Women’s Hour” on BBC Radio 4 featured a discussion with Christine Ashton, who has been named as the 12th most influential woman in IT in the UK. She advertised service manager posts, hoping to attract applications from women, but did not receive any. The show-stopper was this: when she readvertised the posts, having dropped the salary by £20,000, many more women applied. We can leave a debate on the issue of reverse psychology for another day, but I think that that anecdote indicates the scale of the problem.

I believe that women will go into politics when women encourage other women to become involved. There is no doubt that they have the skills, experience, ability and talent but without the confidence to apply for posts or to get politically involved or involved in communities, women will remain reluctant. Some of those experiences must be factored into the correction strategy, and I hope that women will inform that process.

In response to Margo MacDonald’s point, I note that in the “Women’s Hour” discussion Christine Ashton said that women comprise 17 per cent of the IT workforce in the UK and 18 per cent of that workforce in Europe. It is clear that this is not just a Scottish problem. However, we should share things as widely as we can, and I was pleased to hear the minister say that that was one of her ambitions.

Members across the chamber will agree that actions speak louder than words. As someone who is always happy to speak on equality matters, I am especially heartened by the Scottish Government’s determination to pick up the baton and put in place a strategy that will complement its work in so many key areas. In the 21st century, gender, age, ethnicity and disability should not prevent individuals from fulfilling their potential.

Speech: Women and Work (June 20th)

As a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the vital work that is ahead of us to ensure that we remove as many barriers as possible for women seeking to enter their chosen career. I welcome, too, the minister’s announcement of the summit in September, which is perfect timing.

It is not just unemployment among women that should worry us, although that has doubled since early 2008. We should be equally concerned about the type of work that women undertake. Recent figures suggest that just over 40 per cent of employed women are employed part time, compared with roughly 13 per cent of men. In many cases, that is because flexible working policies have not been fully implemented by organisations, forcing those with young families to seek reduced hours in order to balance their work and home lives. That can have a knock-on effect on career progression and family income, which is not healthy for the economy or for society.

Linked to the issue of career progression is career choice. The Royal Society of Edinburgh released a report entitled “Tapping All Our Talents” in April this year, which details a possible future strategy to boost the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and halt the current situation whereby, unbelievably, 73 per cent of female STEM graduates drop out of the sector, which is an issue that we must investigate. The report also presses women to be more proactive in seeking out opportunities, to take risks and to step outside their comfort zone. I urge all of the members present to read that report and to consider how best to take on board its constructive recommendations for stopping that brain drain.

Equally striking is the disparity between economically inactive men and economically inactive women who have chosen to look after their families. Currently, 31 per cent of economically inactive women fall into that category as opposed to 5 per cent of men—those figures may be due to the continuing discrepancy between maternity and paternity leave, or they may be due to trouble accessing childcare.

As the Minister for Youth Employment mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government is beginning to tackle the issue of childcare by increasing the number of free nursery education hours from 475 to 600. That will make a huge difference to a number of women—certainly in my ken. Putting in place family-friendly structures through the national parenting strategy must continue to be one of our priorities, as must mitigating the disproportionate impact on women of Westminster welfare reform as best we can within the current constitutional parameters.

Women at all levels face challenges. Currently, there is a 10.7 per cent pay gap between men and women in full-time employment across Scotland. That gap is exacerbated by a glass ceiling whereby only 36 per cent of higher-level jobs are held by women. Indeed, only 35 per cent of the members of this Parliament are female. Like my colleague Shona Robison last week, I find it hard to believe that

“there are not equal numbers of … suitable male and female candidates across the parties”,

and even harder to believe

“that the best candidate just happened to be male on so many occasions.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2012; c 10062.]

I encourage all members to give this issue some serious thought. Although society has taken some large strides in the past few decades to level the playing field, as always there is more that can be done.