Justice minister Simon Hughes has said he will open talks with local authorities in January to discuss implementing a strategy to divert women offenders away from custodial sentences.
Of the 85,625 prisoners in England and Wales, 3,902 are women. Most female prisoners are serving short-term sentences for non-violent 'petty' crime, with two-thirds serving sentences of six months or less.
Hughes (pictured) was speaking at a panel discussion on a report entitled Women in Prison: is the penal system fit for purpose? last night. The report, co-written by Felicity Gerry QC, says there are strong social and economic benefits to keeping women out of prison.
The average cost of a woman's prison place in £56,415 - almost three times the cost of an intensive community order at £10,000-£15,000. Offenders who were properly supported within the community were more employable and better able to reintegrate into society, and suffered less psychological harm and 'institutionalisation' than those serving prison sentences.
Hughes said there had been excellent research, 'sufficient to persuade anybody in my view, led in particular in Greater Manchester by the police, health and probation authorities', that the issue of diversion should be looked at across the country.
'I'm ambitious, even in the next six months, that it should be extended to the other five metropolitan areas in England - Merseyside, West Midlands, South and West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear and Greater London. If we do that, we would have that sort of diversion coordination covering 39% of the population.'
Hughes, who hopes to start implementing diversion in February, said: 'I was urged to proceed cautiously. I don't want to proceed cautiously, I want to proceed boldly so that we actually apply that everywhere.'
The Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP also predicted that the next government, of whatever complexion, would be unable to raise the budget for civil legal aid.
'Labour have said they may actually have to cut legal aid further and that was made clear from their [party] conference platform,' he said. 'So we have to make sure there are other support mechanisms in place.'
He referred to the government's initiative to support litigants in person, which would be extended to all courts in England and Wales 'as soon as possible'.
Challenged directly on the lack of legal aid following the government's cuts, Hughes said the law was clear on whether a person had access to justice and whether that required them to have legal aid.
'Access to justice does not require you to be legally aided and represented necessarily. They don't follow one from the other. But there are normally agencies who will act as advocates and they should be available [everywhere],' he said.
Also on the panel, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, former president of the Supreme Court, suggested that the Sentencing Council should consider setting different sentencing guidelines for men and women.
While the same principles ought to be applied to women and men he said he felt strongly about the position of women with children. 'If you split a mother from children by sending the mother to prison, the consequences for society of doing so are horrific.
'Much more thought needs to be given to this particular problem. Obviously having children cannot be a licence to commit crime because you're not going to have any penalty for it. But I don't believe sufficient consideration is being given to the consequence to the family.'
Lord Phillips also voiced open criticism of justice secretary Chris Grayling's stance on crime. He praised Kenneth Clarke as a 'good justice [secretary] who was persuaded of the desirability of reducing the prison population.
'We now have a justice [secretary] who's back to "tough on crime". "Tough on crime" is something that I really don't like to hear because it produces bad results.'