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30 January 2019updated 27 Jul 2021 4:07am

Daniel Hannan is right about one thing: Fiona Onasanya should not go to jail

Short prison sentences particularly impact on women, who are more likely to serve them than men. Just a few weeks in prison leave women vulnerable to losing their jobs, homes and children. 

By Andrew Neilson

Daniel Hannan is right. Or, at least, half-right. On one thing. I can’t possibly comment on how right he is about anything else.

What was one of the sages of Brexit right about? Well, yesterday he broke off from tweeting about the backstop to opine on the case of Fiona Onasanya, the Labour MP jailed for three months for perverting the course of justice. Hannan said:

“Fiona Onasanya should resign as an MP. But is it really sensible to send her to prison when she is no harm to anyone, and when convicted burglars so rarely get custodial sentences?”

Daniel Hannan is wrong to say that convicted burglars rarely get custodial sentences – they almost always do – and sentencing guidelines mean burglars are being jailed for longer than before. The problem with burglars is that they have to be somewhat inept to get caught, rather like a Member of Parliament.

Where Hannan is entirely right is to point to the futility of sending this woman to prison. Fiona Onasanya was convicted of perverting the course of justice: that’s an offence which is viewed as terribly serious by the justice system, because it’s foundational to the whole edifice that those before the courts should pay the law due regard. But when we boil away the less than edifying story of this case, we are left with the essence of the matter: a woman has been jailed for driving at 41 mph in a 30 mph zone.

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Sadly, the courts have a thing for jailing women pointlessly. More women are sent to prison for theft than for violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, fraud, drugs and motoring offences combined. Only 3 per cent of the female prison population is assessed as representing a high or very high risk of harm to other people.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, which the Howard League supports, recently conducted an inquiry on women and sentencing. The APPG found that short prison sentences particularly impact on women, who are more likely to serve them than men. A few weeks in prison leave women vulnerable to losing their jobs, homes and children. Yet just over two thirds of women sentenced to immediate custody were given sentences of less than six months in 2017, and 246 women were sentenced to prison for less than two weeks.

Fortunately, ministers have begun to question publicly the efficacy of short sentences, for both men and women. Rory Stewart has supported scrapping prison sentences of under six months or less in all but cases involving violent crime and sexual offences. At the beginning of the year he told the Daily Telegraph:

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“You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. They come (into prison), they meet a lot of interesting characters (to put it politely) and then you whap them on to the streets again. The public are safer if they have a good community sentence…and it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.”

Well, Rory Stewart is right. And Daniel Hannan is half-right. Nobody, Fiona Onasanya included, should be sent to prison for a few weeks when they present no danger to the public.

Andrew Neilson is Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform.