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Prisoners: Parental Rights

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered parental rights of prisoners.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

A parent’s involvement in a child’s life is nearly always a positive thing that will enhance the child’s welfare, so long as the parent can be involved in a way that does not put the child or the other parent at risk of harm. I thank Women’s Aid and the NSPCC for the attentive and tireless work that they have done on the subject of this debate.

I want to make it clear that, generally, I see no problem with people who are in prison having a relationship with their children; in fact, I believe that contact is a healthy and sustainable way to ensure that a child is not affected by enforced separation. However, when I see that parental rights harm a child, I have to speak up. I am talking about someone being able to control their child’s life after committing the most obscene crimes against them. It cannot be right that the mother of children whose own father has sexually abused them has to fight for years just to change her children’s last name because they do not want to share it with their abuser. It cannot be right that she has to seek permission from that man, who stole her children’s childhood, to take them abroad.

When a person commits such horrendous crimes against their own children, that person cannot be allowed to pull the strings from inside a prison cell. I have seen cases in which a convicted child sex offender has the rights of a father and influences the lives of the children who were his victims. I have spoken to mothers whose husbands have abused their children, and I was left speechless and emotionally drained by their harrowing stories. They told me how their children’s right to be free from their abuser is being ignored. Those occasions are rare, but when children are the victim of a parent, the parent should lose the right to be just that—a parent.

When a child is taken into care as a result of a crime that a parent has committed against them, the state assumes responsibility of those children and the offending parent’s parental rights would be removed. However, when a parent abuses a child and the child stays in the custody of the other parent, the offending parent is allowed to exercise parental control over the child. Even though access to their children would be limited, supervised or even banned, the convicted sex offender can still have a say in their upbringing. A fundamental flaw in the criminal justice system allows that to happen, and it needs to be amended. Parental rights must be challenged when they have a damaging effect on a child.

The hurdles that parents face just to protect their children and move on to a safe and happy life are unbelievable. We have heard of children who have been ordered to have contact with the parent who has committed offences against them, even though in some cases children have been killed as a result of contact or residential arrangements. The family courts are left to decide whether the abuser having an input in the child’s life would benefit the child. The objective of family courts is to treat parents in exactly the same way and to get cases over with rapidly. That blinds them to the consequences of unsafe child contact—consequences that can be damaging and even fatal.

That brings me to domestic violence and its impact on children. The routine granting of direct, unsupervised contact, even when concerns about abuse are prevalent, reveals a pronounced lack of understanding about the effects of domestic violence on women and children. The point at which a survivor leaves an abusive partner is well recognised as a highly dangerous time for her and her children. Parental separation is often mistaken as equating to the end of the abuse and reduced risk for the mother and children; in fact, the risks are intensified. Around one in five children has been exposed to domestic violence, and 62% of children in households where domestic violence is present are also directly harmed. Children are being killed by violent fathers who have been allowed to see them through formal and informal child contact arrangements.

Further avoidable child deaths must be prevented by putting children first in the family courts, as the legal framework and guidance state. Only 10% of legal professionals say that judges fully comply with the judicial guidance for dealing with child contact cases where domestic violence is an issue. Most women want their children to have a relationship with their father, despite the violence that the women have experienced, but they want to ensure that any contact would be physically and emotionally safe for them and their children. Some 45% of women experience violence after making a contact order, most commonly in the form of threats and harassment.

The culture of “contact with the child, no matter what” needs to be reviewed. Less than 1% of child contact applications are refused, but domestic abuse features in around 70% of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service’s cases, and in around 90% of cases that go to the family courts.

The system is failing children’s safety and wellbeing. The best interests of children should be the overriding principle of the family courts, but far too often that is simply not the case. I am calling on the Government to ensure that the family courts put the safety of children back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary. I welcome the revised version of practice direction 12J, which was adopted in October. It sets out new requirements for judges, including that they explain why contact will not expose the child to further harm and how it is in the child’s best interest. The practice direction requires the court to ensure that, when domestic abuse has occurred, any child arrangements ordered protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care, and are in the child’s best interests.

The revised practice direction is a critical step forward but sadly, all too often, the guidance is not followed in such cases and children’s safety is put at risk. It is critical that all judges, magistrates, court staff and CAFCASS officers know about the new guidance and how to use it. I hope that the debate raises awareness of the new guidance and of how important it is to ensure children’s safety.

Although the revised practice direction is a step forward and places new requirements on judges, significant challenges to effective implementation remain. Training is critical to ensure that all judges, magistrates and staff involved know about the new guidance and, more importantly, how to use it. Mandatory training for judges, magistrates and all staff on all aspects of abuse and coercive, controlling behaviour should be part of a non-legislative package of measures. The training should be face to face, delivered by specialists and supported by ongoing professional development. It should cover the nature of coercive and controlling behaviour, the frequency and nature of post-separation abuse and, most importantly, the impact of abuse on victims. Training is vital to ensure that judicial guidance is implemented and that it informs safe contact arrangements for children in domestic and all abuse cases.

No child should have their life left in the hands of evil. No child should be harmed in an act of revenge or rage against the other parent. The impact of unsafe child contact can be devastating.

It is nice to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, for the first time, I think. I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. In her speech so far, she has not mentioned the parental right of women prisoners to have their children visit them. It is important to have that in place, as well as a dedicated strategy for dealing with children’s access to their mothers in prison. I am ever mindful that in Northern Ireland, two thirds of women inmates are mothers. Of those, nine tenths have little or no access to their children. Has the hon. Lady given that consideration in preparing for her speech?

I certainly have. I have just put a line through a large portion of my speech, because I totally agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says. I firmly believe that, in a healthy situation, it is vital for a child to have contact with their parent. However, I was recently contacted by a mum whose children were grotesquely abused by their father—a man who, in my opinion, does not deserve to be called their father. When someone is capable of stealing their own child’s life through sexual manipulation, their right to have a say about the future of that child should not mean that they are able to drag the mother to court at any opportunity. Such a man should not be allowed to have any influence or impact on his children’s lives, not just from the day he is convicted but from the day he takes their childhood away from them.

There is an urgent need for independent national oversight of the implementation of practice direction 12J. The Government and senior leaders in the family courts and CAFCASS need to bring about a cultural change in the family court system to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of children and non-abusive parents—parents who are left to pick up the pieces after such a terrible situation arises—are understood and constantly prioritised. That family—and that mother—have every right to get on with their lives, and the perpetrator of that crime needs to be removed from the situation.

All members of the family court judiciary and CAFCASS should have specialist training so that they understand the dynamics of domestic and sexual abuse and can recognise coercive control and the tactics used by abusive parents to manipulate their children’s lives from inside prison walls. The Ministry of Justice must ensure that safety and risk assessments are carried out in child contact and parental rights cases, especially when an abusive parent is involved. Assessments should be carried out by dedicated abuse practitioners who work for agencies that are dedicated to working with victims of abuse and adhere to a nationally recognised standard for responding to abuse cases.

When will we see the draft domestic violence and abuse Bill? I am interested in whether we can amend that Bill to take account of the cases of the parents I have talked to, including the one I mentioned whose life is being destroyed by a man in a prison cell who still tries to control the lives of her children. I thank the Minister for listening, and I hope that we can work together to try to find a solution that works for all. That would certainly give the children and the mothers and fathers who have been affected by this terrible crime some peace of mind.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I am pleased that she said that, in a healthy situation, it is vital for a child to have contact with their parent who is in prison. I will speak about that with particular reference to the excellent recent Farmer review about the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family relationships, where appropriate, to aid rehabilitation.

The Farmer review calls that a “golden thread” that needs to run through the prison system, along with the threads of employment and education, as a priority for prison governors. It says that that third strand is essential if we are to

“put a crowbar into the revolving door of repeat reoffending and tackle the intergenerational transmission of crime.”

I therefore urge Ministers to consider adding a new deputy director for families to the existing deputy director roles in the prison system. Before I highlight two ways in which prisoners’ family ties and, importantly, parental ties could be strengthened, I pay tribute to Dr Samantha Callan, Lord Farmer’s adviser, whose intelligent, thoughtful and dedicated contribution to the production of the review was invaluable.

First, I encourage Ministers to consider providing Skype or other face-to-face digital platforms where family visits may be difficult. BT’s slogan, “It’s good to talk”, might be a cliché, but it is incredibly important for people to keep relationships with their families or other significant individuals alive while they are in prison. Men who can ring their children every evening have a reason to stay out of trouble throughout the day. One prisoner told the Farmer review:

“If part of your prison routine is to do homework with your child or ring home regularly to hold a quality conversation with her, this is a strong deterrent to taking a substance that would mean you were unable to do that because you were ‘off your head’.”

The high cost of phone calls is frequently raised by external prison organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust as a cause of considerable resentment across the prison estate. I understand that costs should fall when the contract with BT is renegotiated in April 2018, and plans to digitise the entire prison estate with cable networks and to put a phone in every cell will further reduce call costs. However, that system will not be fully installed and functioning until 2021, and a prison service that values relationships needs to do more to help people stay in touch with their families and particularly their children.

Although phone calls are highly valued, the prison service should consider adapting to new forms of communication that are becoming commonplace in the community. That is not about giving every prisoner an iPad, although I have been told that women in some high-security prisons in the US have access to iPads in the interests of staying in touch with their children. Virtual video visiting is gradually being made available in prisons in Northern Ireland, such as Magilligan Prison. Although I would be concerned if we got to the point where that replaced face-to-face visits, Skype-type technology can enable prisoners to “visit” their own homes and see their family members in that context, and remind them of what they have to gain by settling into their sentences, getting out as soon as possible and not returning.

I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that children whose mothers are in prison are, on average, 64 miles away from them. I agree wholeheartedly with what she says, particularly about electronic interaction. Does she agree that, if we are to overcome the sheer distances, particularly for Welsh prisoners—there are no women’s prisons in Wales, although I am not advocating for one—we must find new technologies to enable mothers to interact with their children?

I absolutely do. Although keeping prisoners close to home has to be the goal wherever possible, the challenges of the prison population make that hard, so it is not unusual for prisoners to be some distance from home—so far that families may even have to stay overnight if they visit. I wholeheartedly concur with the hon. Gentleman.

Technology that is being put into prisons to facilitate virtual court appearances could be adapted to improve contact for families on the outside who may otherwise have to make a superhuman effort to come into prison. Foreign nationals are unlikely to get visitors. In his report, Lord Farmer mentions meeting a man in prison who had been in local authority care since he was a child and whose only relative was his 93-year-old grandmother. It is impossible for her to visit, but if someone helped her with Skype she would at least be able to see him again. Imagine an A-level student close to her exams who was unable to visit her dad in prison but could communicate with him using a tablet, or a mother with a child with a health problem who would otherwise have to choose between visiting her partner in prison or keeping a vigil by that child’s bedside.

Of course there have to be safeguards. The Farmer review recommends that, in the interim period before full digitisation, empowered governors should be able to make Skype-type communication available to the small percentage of prisoners whose families cannot visit them due to infirmity, distance or other factors. A booking system and application process would mean that prisoners’ requests to access video calling technology had to be cleared by the governor. Alternatively, tablets could be made available in visiting halls, as apparently happens on the juvenile estate in Tasmania. Family members might need help to access video calling technology. Funds from the assisted prison visits scheme could be made available to people who needed to travel to a local voluntary organisation for help to make a call, for example. Will the Minister consider what can be done between today and full digitisation to ensure that families can maintain contact through these innovative means?

The second point I will make—more briefly—relates to the use of ROTL: release on temporary licence. The latest, up-to-date policy on ROTL procedures is unpublished and awaited by governors. I urge Ministers to ensure that it is published as soon as possible. Research indicates that the use of ROTL to maintain and develop family ties contributes to reducing reoffending. Respondents to the Farmer review—prisoners, families, organisations and academics—considered that it should be used more. They told Lord Farmer that that would give prisoners the opportunity to adjust gradually to family life outside of prison and to spend more time in responsible roles such as parent or partner.

I agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she agree that the emphasis when making decisions about release on temporary licence should be that it is not a privilege for the offender but in the best interests of the offender’s child and family?

I do. If we are to reduce the disturbing statistics on the number of prisoners’ children who themselves go on to offend, we must take their interests into account. It is important that families’ involvement in decisions regarding ROTL is also considered and included. We cannot assume that ROTL will always be good for prisoners’ families; they need to be involved in that decision.

However, where ROTL can be granted, it really should be. Colleagues may remember the terrible riots that occurred at Strangeways—I was a young lawyer practising nearby at the time. As a result of those riots more than a quarter of a century ago, Lord Woolf published a review which said that home leave—now ROTL—

“should be extended”

because it

“restores prisoners’ self-confidence, helps maintain family relationships, and is an incentive to behave well in prison.”

However, the Ministry of Justice’s own indicators suggest that use of ROTL has fallen significantly, even since 2013, partly because governors are waiting for guidance on how to apply it. They want to be confident to apply it. They can see evidence that it is effective, but they need the guidance. Will the Minister explain why it has not been issued yet and let us know when it will be forthcoming?

An expert on social mobility, with particular reference to the opportunity areas planned around the country to help improve social mobility and opportunity for children, said that while education is important, one thing which underlies everything is parental engagement in a child’s life. If that is true outside the prison borders, it surely must be equally true within them.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate and on her powerful and important speech. I also put on record my agreement with what she and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said. I very much welcome the debate. Its title is on the parental responsibilities of prisoners, but like others I want to look at this through the lens of children’s rights and their best interests. Hon. Members agree that those interests are rarely served by the incarceration of a parent where contact and the relationship with the parent is healthy. That is especially true of mothers in prison, because they are almost always the main carers of children.

My starting point is to do what we can to keep mothers out of prison. The Minister has heard me say that on a number of occasions, and I am afraid I will be repeating myself. We need stronger community alternatives to custody for women, and especially for mothers. We need a presumption against short custodial sentences, as has now been introduced in Scotland. I know the Minister has looked or is due to look at what is going on there, so perhaps he will update us on that. I repeat to him: please do not build new women’s prisons. It is the wrong use of money—we could spend that money much better. There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something good for women offenders, and building new prisons is the worst possible route.

In fact, many more women, and particularly mothers, continue to be incarcerated. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that each year about 18,000 children under the age of 18 are separated from their mothers due to incarceration. Two thirds of women in prison are mothers of children under 18, and one third are mothers of children under the age of five. The numbers in mother and baby units are decreasing, and it is not clear what happens when a child becomes too old to remain in the MBU—the mother and child will sometimes be separated at that point.

We can all agree that separation due to incarceration will often be harmful for children. As Common Weal, the Prison Reform Trust, Epstein and Baldwin, Barnardo’s and many other organisations and researchers have shown, children will experience trauma, confusion, an adverse impact on their educational performance and behavioural problems. The care arrangements made for children whose mothers are in prison are particularly worrying: only 5% remain in the family home, and 9% continue to live with their fathers. Many live with grandparents, which is often positive, and some live with older siblings, but sometimes siblings are separated and put into different homes while their mother is in prison. Most worryingly of all, some incarcerated mothers report that they do not know where their child is being looked after or by whom.

Common Weal has shown that half of children who have a parent in prison have to change school because of changes to their care arrangements. That is very disruptive for children, too, yet despite all those adverse effects, mothers continue to receive custodial sentences without sentencers properly considering the impact on their children. The sentencing guidelines make clear that, if an offender is on the cusp of receiving a custodial sentence and custody would be disproportionate in terms of its impact, alternatives should be considered, particularly with reference to the wellbeing of children. However, sentencers are not required to be proactive in making inquiries about what will happen to children when considering sentencing a parent. We need a sentencing structure that is much more focused on the best interests of the child.

I therefore say to the Minister that we need to ensure that sentencers are presented in every case with child impact statements. We need an obligation on sentencers to consider alternatives to custody. We need clearer, much more high-profile guidelines and better sentencer training, and we need the Government as a whole to have an overview of the impact on children of mothers’ imprisonment. In a recent written answer, I learned that the Government have made no such assessment. It is time they did, particularly in the case of mothers being placed in prison on remand, because that is extremely disruptive for their children, and those mothers will often not go on to serve a custodial sentence. It is particularly important that the impact on children is considered in such cases.

As the hon. Member for Congleton said, when mothers are in prison, maintaining good-quality contact will be both important and positive in the majority of cases. It is therefore pretty concerning that the Government do not know how many visits to mothers in prison have taken place and how many mothers have been visited, as a written answer to Baroness Fall on 29 November shows. Visits are difficult, and the hon. Lady rightly referred to a number of problems that need to be resolved, such as the distance from home many women are serving their sentences; the fact that women cannot hold or touch their children during visits; the lack of activities for children to participate in during visits; the lack of support for visits; and the lack of privacy. I understand that, in the case of women in approved premises, visits from children are not permitted at all, which is very concerning. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that and take action.

We need more creative and focused solutions to maintain and facilitate that contact. The hon. Lady rightly spoke about some of those, such as the use of technology—Skype and videos. We need more opportunity for overnight visits such as those trialled at Askham Grange. We need special additional family visits, not as a privilege for the offender but in the best interests of the child. We also need good pre and post-visit preparation for both mother and children. What learning have the Government taken from the excellent programme “Visiting Mum”, which is run by the Prison Advice and Care Trust at Eastwood Park Prison? Do they intend to roll out that learning and provide such support in all women’s prisons?

Women and mothers also need better preparation for release. Once children have experienced the trauma of losing their mother to incarceration, they will often find it quite traumatic when mum returns home—they may be aloof, angry or clingy, and we have a problem in ensuring that those mothers are able to resume their parenting role. Housing is still a problem for women on release from custody. They cannot get priority for housing if their children are not living with them, but their children cannot live with them if they do not have a home. That that conundrum is still happening—I saw it for myself during a recent visit to Styal Prison—is shocking. Surely we can resolve that difficulty. In Greater Manchester we are trying to do that by bringing together housing and justice leads, but the through-the-gate services that ought to be sorting that out are failing. I hope the Minister will take a careful look at that.

My hon. Friend may be aware that in a past life, before serving in this House, I led children’s social services in a local authority. One concern about family breakdown when a woman leaves prison is that sometimes the children have become looked-after, and it is extremely complex for the mother to gain access to their children through the looked-after children’s system. That adds another dynamic, because the mother may never have had to deal with those services before she was sent to prison, which can cause even further family breakdown on her release.

That is an important point. As we know, outcomes for looked-after children are often poor, and we should be doing everything we can to return that child to the family unit, and to support the family in parenting and raising that child.

In conclusion, my message to the Minister is this: do not send mothers to prison. If that happens, can we ensure that the sentencer has fully assessed the impact of that sentence on the woman’s children? For those who are sentenced, can we facilitate good-quality contact between mother and child during the period of incarceration, as that is in the child’s best interests, and put in place structured, high-quality preparation for the reunion of the family on release? I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I know other colleagues wish to make further contributions, so I will end there.

I commend the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. I found her contribution and the other speeches interesting and profound, and I have learned a great deal.

I could have left the role of prisons and what goes on there for other colleagues to debate. I represent St Ives and the Isles of Scilly, and there are no prisons nearby and crime is relatively low. I can count on one hand the people I have met who have had contact with prisons, and only two of them, as far as I could see, should ever have ended up there. There are therefore plenty far more pressing concerns that could legitimately occupy my time. However, within each person is a heartbeat, and I believe that we have a responsibility to work to create an environment and opportunity that allows everyone to play their full part in society. On that basis, how we treat and manage prisoners is important and can lead either to full lives and safer communities, or to broken lives and chaos.

For me this is about the purpose of prisons. Prison is a method of keeping communities safe for the time that the prisoner is inside, but it is also a place where lives can be reset and people can be rehabilitated. It is right to take someone who is judged to be a risk to society out of that community, but I believe that from the day a prisoner arrives in prison, work must be done to prepare for their release.

Other than keeping an individual away from a life of crime, prison achieves little if nothing is done to address their behaviour when he or she is released. Families play an important part in that process and I want to spend a few moments considering the need to enable prisoners to fulfil their parental responsibilities, which I believe could, and should, be a focus for reform. Bringing men in particular face to face with their enduring responsibilities to the family is indispensable to the rehabilitation culture that we urgently need to develop in our penal system, and that must be integral to the changes sought. Consistently good family work can help to equip a father to play his role in the home, and that will pay dividends once the sentence is served.

The inspirational prison reformer Elizabeth Fry—she has also been mentioned by the Justice Secretary—called for arrangements by which prisons

“may be rendered schools of industry and virtue.”

The best family work taking place in prisons has brought men face to face with their enduring responsibilities to the family left in the community, particularly their wives, partners and children, but also their parents, siblings and grandparents. It helps them to forge a new identity for themselves—an important precursor to desistance from crime—based on being a good role model for their children, a caring husband, partner and friend, and a reliable provider through legal employment. Some men are already alive to those responsibilities when they go to prison, but they mistakenly think that using the proceeds of crime is the best way to fulfil them. If prison is to have any role in rehabilitation, work must be done to harness the virtue but adjust the means.

Responsibilities are not discharged in a vacuum. Families need to be willing and able to engage with the rehabilitation process, and harnessing the resource of good family relationships must be a golden thread that runs through processes in all prisons—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also made that point. Prisoners’ responsibilities to their families should be seen as an important lever for change, and families are often significant assets for offender management during and at the end of sentences. Prison staff find that their responsibilities and efforts are aided when good family contact and engagement is nurtured and maintained. Unfortunately, however, experience has shown that sentence planning by the offender management team rarely takes into account the understanding and knowledge that family members have about a prisoner. There are exceptions such as HMP Forest Bank and those Scottish prisons that involve a prisoner’s family in release planning, but it is uncommon.

In Scotland, the integrated case management case conference provides a mechanism for involving a prisoner’s family in release planning. An ICM case conference is a meeting held at set intervals during a prisoner’s sentence, between the ICM case co-ordinator, prison and community-based social work, and the prisoner. The prisoner may invite his family to those meetings if he wishes. The ICM case conference provides an important opportunity to prepare and advise families about the issues arising on a prisoner’s release, thereby supporting them in their own right as well as preventing reoffending.

At one men’s prison in Louisiana USA, families are involved as soon as the individual arrives in prison. The director of re-entry invites a family member or someone close to the prisoner to the prison for an informal meeting, allowing the director to learn about the prisoner’s background and how he can be best supported. There are further examples of where families are integral to the penal system. For example, in HMP Winchester, staff from the charity Spurgeons carry out first-night screening, which includes detailed questions about a father’s responsibilities. That also gives them an opportunity to hand out dad packs, where appropriate, which include top tips on how to be a father inside prison. That is an early way of grounding someone in their family responsibilities at the start of their sentence, when it is easy for them to turn in on themselves.

A new personal officer model is being trialled in 10 pathfinder establishments. That could be used to carry out a more ongoing form of assessment. Those officers will have daily contact with the prisoners, and be aware of how their family relationships are faring. I researched the role of the personal officer. The article I read stated:

“During your first few days in prison you will be allocated a Personal Officer. This is a prison officer who has been assigned to act as your point of contact while within prison, and is the officer who is expected to provide a ‘reference’ for you whenever you apply for jobs, change of status from Basic to Enhanced etc. The duties of this officer are not very much, but a good officer will come and speak to you and ask if you have any issues they can help with, a poor officer will introduce themselves once and then may favour you with a grunt as you pass on the landing.”

It seems to me that a personal officer model could and should be extended to include a family liaison aspect, which could make the role much more rewarding and productive.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, particularly given the examples of best practice that we have heard today, there is a need for that to be drawn together, from across the country, so that it can be shared more effectively among different prisons?

That is right, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention because it helps to support the point I want to make in concluding. As I said earlier, everyone has a heartbeat and we need to do what we can to support prisoners, their families and the wider community. The gold standard would be to ensure that, whatever their sentence and wherever they were sent, they will receive equal support and access.

There is a further matter to consider if we are serious about parental rights and parental responsibility. My constituency covers west Cornwall and Scilly, and a prisoner from Cornwall can be sent a very long way from home. If someone is sentenced to prison, the prison should be as close to their home as possible, wherever they live in the UK. Addressing the parental responsibilities of a prisoner is a significant part of the journey to a reformed life and a safer society. Therefore, where the prisoner is held in relation to their family home is an important consideration.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate. We have had some excellent speeches, and Westminster Hall comes into its own in debates on such topics with cross-party consensus.

I want to turn the debate around slightly and focus on the 200,000 or so children a year who will have a parent in prison, in England and Wales. That is a rough figure—a Government estimate—and it is difficult to be more precise. We have heard various figures about women in prison. It is estimated that 66% of women in prison have a child under the age of 18, and that a third of them have a child under five, although I have also seen the figure of 51%. Far more children have a father than a mother in prison and there are likely to be a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic children with a parent in prison, because of the make-up of the prison population. The statistics on young offenders institutions show that there are also many young parents in prison. I have visited young offenders institutions as an MP and before that as a lawyer working in the criminal field, and those who do so will have seen young mums turning up with their babies, to visit fathers who are themselves children. A freedom of information request from Barnardo’s in connection with its report of December 2015, “Locked out: Children’s experiences of visiting a parent in prison”, found that children make almost 10,000 visits to public prisons each week.

Those are the things that we know about the number of children affected, and the make-up of that group, but we do not know anywhere near as much as we should. There is limited published practice knowledge about working with children of prisoners, and a lack of systematic recording and information-sharing. Prisoners will not always reveal that they have children. In many cases it is a child’s step-parent or the partner of their parent rather than their own father who is in prison, but the child will still clearly be greatly affected. As we have heard, courts, Governments and local services do not routinely ask about the children involved; that information is not reported or recorded. Pressures on the probation service and the lack of sentencing reports also mean that the issue is less likely to be picked up. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out that people facing custody are not routinely asked about the situation with respect to their children.

When there were riots and looting in London boroughs after the death of Mark Duggan, in quite a few cases women were immediately thrown into custody and no one asked any questions. Single parents were put into custody and no one asked what would happen to their children left at home.

Does my hon. Friend support the suggestion that when a parent goes into custody—and particularly if they are the sole parent—there should be a period of perhaps five or seven days after the sentence is imposed and before custody commences to allow them to make arrangements for the care of the child?

That is absolutely the case, although there will always be exceptions, such as when the parent is seen to be a danger to the public. I used to work at a magistrates court, where women would be sentenced to jail because they had not paid television licence fines. It could be said that they knew they were coming to court and might face custody, but sometimes those people had chaotic lives and were not facing up to the seriousness of their situation, and it would be sensible to give them a chance to make arrangements. In America there is a tendency to use a system that gives people time to prepare for a prison sentence; I do not see why we cannot do that here.

Quite often parents going to jail, and their families, keep quiet about the fact that children are involved. That might be because of stigma and shame, or the fear of having their children taken into care. Informal kinship care is often arranged, with friends or family stepping in if the parent with caring responsibilities is sent away. There has been some progress in recognising the role of kinship carers in recent years. Edward Timpson, the former Children and Families Minister, took the issue seriously and did some good work on it, which we need to continue.

I recently wrote to the Children’s Commissioner about the matter. She had launched a very good report that identified about 15 categories of vulnerable children, and I wrote to her flagging up the fact that the categories of children of prisoners and children in informal kinship care should have been listed but were not. There would have been some overlap as, for example, one category was children in local authority care, which could include the children of prisoners; but there was not a specific focus on them. I received a good reply this week, in which the commissioner said:

“I am very keen to include children of prisoners in the next iteration of the work, but identifying the number of such children is a significant challenge. We are currently working with the ONS to link census data with Dept for Education records of children, this should then enable us to estimate the number of children in families where a parent is in prison. Doing this poses some serious challenges, but if we can do it, then we will be able to use this to get lots of additional information.”

Things are not ideal. The information should be available without the need to do various calculations to put together a picture; but it is excellent that the commissioner realises the importance of the work.

It is important to know how many children are affected by parental imprisonment. Such children can face multiple disadvantages, as has been said. Family life is disrupted and it may be necessary to move home. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned that half of such children have to change schools. In many cases family income will be lost. For children with a parent in prison there is twice the likelihood of poor conduct and mental health problems, according to a 2008 study. Those children are less likely to do well at school and three times as likely to offend: 65% of boys with a convicted father will go on to be convicted. When Hazel Blears was a Home Office Minister we had conversations about work she was doing to try to identify boys, in particular, who were at risk of offending because of their parents’ situation. There is a need to be careful about that, because we do not want to stigmatise or label children—“Because your father was a bad lot and ended up in jail you are going to go the same way.” A sensitive approach is needed, but we must recognise the particular risk for those children.

Trauma can also arise directly from the experience. Children may have seen a parent arrested, sometimes in violent circumstances. They may not have known anything was going on, only for the parent to go off to court one day and disappear. Some children may not even be told that the parent is in jail, and may find out because word has spread around the neighbourhood. Also, visiting a parent in prison is not a pleasant experience. In today’s debate there has been a focus on the importance to prisoners of maintaining contact with their children; and the reoffending figures suggest that that is important. It is estimated that 45% of prisoners lose touch with their families and that prisoners are 39% less likely to reoffend if they receive visitors. We also need to look at the impact on the children, as Barnardo’s has tried to do, because what is good for the prisoners is not necessarily good for the children.

I will briefly mention fathers’ rights. We have spoken about women receiving visits in prison, but male prisoners are treated differently from female prisoners in the system. I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East that in some cases the father clearly should not retain any influence over the children’s lives.

At the moment, in male prisons, children’s visits are classed as a privilege under the incentives and earned privileges scheme. The scheme allocates the duration, frequency and quality of visits according to the behaviour of the offender. That can have quite a severe impact on the frequency and length of visits. Basic status prisoners would be entitled to see their children for a two-hour visit every four weeks, but family visit days are restricted to enhanced prisoners who have displayed exemplary behaviour, for example by studying for qualifications. Therefore, quite a lot of prisoners do not get to have family visit days at all. We could say, “Well, they haven’t earned them,” but we are talking about their families losing that right through no fault of their own.

Children in this situation will often have ambivalent feelings toward their parent, because their parent has perhaps done something deliberately that means they have, in effect, abandoned their child. Children will see that their parent has chosen to do something that means they will be locked up and absent from the home, leaving the children to fend for themselves or endure bullying and stigma at school. They should not be doubly punished for the fact that their father is perhaps not displaying exemplary behaviour in prison; they should be allowed that quality time to try to rebuild the relationship with him.

Under the IEP scheme, fathers’ visits with their children can be withheld at the discretion of the authorities, whereas in female prisons the right is protected, on the basis that children should not be restricted from visiting or contacting the mother because of the mother’s behaviour. The number of visits should not be restricted in order to serve the needs of the incentive schemes, and incentive schemes should not be linked to any access to family visits. That is the rule for mothers, and I do not see why it should not be the case for fathers as well. It is important, and Barnardo’s has called for the IEP scheme in male prisons to be brought into line with that in female prisons.

I will say a little bit about the work of Barnardo’s, an organisation that is proactive in this area and doing some excellent work. In England there is a scheme called i-HOP—the information hub on offenders’ families with children for professionals—which was commissioned by the Department for Education and is run by Barnardo’s. It provides a one-stop information and advice service to support all professionals working with children and families of offenders, including frontline staff, strategic managers and commissioners. It is important that this is placed on professionals’ radar and that they are given advice on how to deal with it.

In 2013, Barnardo’s published a report called “Working with children with a parent in prison”, which referred to two pilot schemes called Empowering the Children of Offenders. The pilots were held in Devon and Bristol. They found that parents often struggled to talk to their children about imprisonment and needed support to do so. They also found that liaising with wider family networks, including grandparents, and with schools was vital to provide full support to a child affected by parental imprisonment. The report highlighted particular issues: problems in identifying the children affected, as I have already said, identifying the children’s rights and working out which children need support. The children of prisoners often do not meet the thresholds for children’s social care services to become involved. That means no work takes place with them, and perhaps the thresholds should be reassessed to ensure they are brought into account.

As part of the i-HOP scheme in Bristol, Barnardo’s worked with Bristol City Council to create Bristol’s “Charter for Children of Prisoners”, which recommended that children should be helped to write letters, make phone calls or visit if they want to; that children with a parent in prison should be better welcomed and respected by prison staff; that children should be told where their parent is and how long they will be there; that they should have an adult they can talk to in confidence; and that when police arrest someone they should take into account the impact on the child and ensure the situation is explained to them. Probably most importantly, it recommended that professionals such as teachers and nurses should know how many children in Bristol have a parent in prison and how to support them.

I will conclude by coming back to my earlier point. This discussion should not just be about the prisoners and their rights; it should be about the children. When we look at the children of prisoners, we should not just look at their relationship with the parent in prison. It should not just be about how often they see them and whether they maintain connection. They will face a lot of issues, whether at school, through poverty in the family home, or through informal arrangements where they may be passed from one friend of their parent to another. We need to look at those children in the community, not just in relation to the prisoners.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. I know she has a keen interest in it through her work. Sometimes the importance of this subject is lost because it does not get as much coverage as it should, so I am pleased that we are debating it today.

My hon. Friend made a powerful and passionate case that the paramount issue must always be the safeguarding of children. She is absolutely right, and the horrendous case she referred to shows that those considerations must come first, along with where children are abused and the element of domestic violence. She is right that some of those safeguards are not in place as they should be in the system. Without repeating what she said, I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of the important questions she asked, particularly on the safeguarding of children.

I am grateful to other hon. Members who made speeches about the broader debate, which I would like to concentrate on. In particular, references were made to the Farmer review. These issues date back to the early 1990s, when we had the Woolf report after the disturbances in Strangeways. Both those reports, and many other recommendations, have proved not only that parents have a right to see their children and that prisoners have a right to see their families, but that there are massive benefits. I will concentrate my remarks on some of the obstacles that children face during visitation, and the impact on both parents and children.

My first point was alluded to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—parents are not recorded in the current system. In 2009, the Ministry of Justice estimated that 200,000 children had a parent in prison. That is an estimate—there is no accurate figure, because the Government do not record which prisoners are parents. What we know is that female prisoners are more affected because they are more likely to be sole parents. Without records, there is no capability to give children better visitation access to parents, no capability to treat children better and no capability to improve parental rights. Indeed, there is no capability to deal with some of the safeguarding issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East referred.

Hon. Members have mentioned the cost and distance involved in visiting. Across England and Wales, many prisoners are imprisoned far from home, which means expensive journeys and long travelling distances. The Government’s new prison building plan and the super-sized prisons that they seem set on will make that challenge worse not better, because reducing the number of prison locations will force many families to journey even further. Children face even greater difficulty visiting their mothers. They are often located much further away owing to the lower number of female prisons. Children living in Wales whose mothers are in prison have to leave the country to visit them. It is disappointing that the Ministry of Justice has brushed over that in its building plans by not addressing the lack of female prisons in Wales.

Cost and distance are not the only challenges. Once families have overcome them, children and carers have to deal with prison rules and the prison environment. As has been pointed out, visiting times mean that, even if a prison is close to a child’s home, it is necessary to take them out of school, which many parents may be reluctant to do on a frequent basis, thereby limiting the child’s time with the parent in prison. While inside prison, children are subject to searches and an unwelcoming environment that can put them off. It does not get any better when a child is with their parent because the rules prevent meaningful social interactions between them.

The biggest impact for parents is on reoffending rates—the odds of reoffending are 39% lower for prisoners who receive family visits than for those who do not. The recent Farmer review was very clear that better interaction between offenders and their families improves reoffending rates and rehabilitation. If an offender does not see their family, they will often lose them. Once they have lost their family, there is often little left for them to lose by reoffending—they will have missed out on their child’s key development and defining moments, and on memories. A parent who has a stake in their child’s life can endeavour to serve as a positive role model and can turn their own life around.

A lack of access to children has been shown to have an impact on prison disturbances. As I stated earlier, that was found as far back as the Woolf report in the 1990s.

The impact is particularly strong for female offenders, the majority of whom commit non-violent offences and crimes of poverty that often warrant better support rather than imprisonment. One in three female prisoners are mothers of children under 18, and one in five are lone parents who face their children being taken away from them following their imprisonment.

Some 70% of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than six months, but that is all that is needed for them to lose their job, their home and their children, not just for those six months but forever. Without a secure job or home after release, they face an uphill struggle to get their children back from care, so it makes sense for parents in prison to have better parental rights and better contact with their children. Surely our desire to rehabilitate an offender and to help them turn their life around for the better, and to give a child a parent they can look up to, is greater than our desire to punish them and therefore to punish an innocent child in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East is absolutely right that this has to be looked at in a broader context, with the rights of children having absolutely equal value. Having a parent in prison means that a child is three times more likely to turn to crime themselves—65% of boys with a convicted father go on to offend themselves. Having a parent in prison means that a child is much more likely to be uprooted from their home, with just one in 20 staying in their own home while one in 10 go into care, or are fostered or adopted. Having a parent in prison means that a child’s development is much more likely to be hampered, with additional pressure piled upon them such as disorientation from moving and stigmas that result in bullying.

All of that means that those children do less well at school than their peers. However, the impact is much deeper, because lack of parental rights mean that a child’s mum or dad has been ripped out of their life for what seems to the child like an eternity. Proper parental rights and visitation mean that the whole experience will not be as daunting for a child, and that the adverse impacts are not as great.

The Government must address a number of issues. First, they must address safeguarding measures and the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. Secondly, they have to record whether offenders have children, to better understand the impact of imprisonment and cater for their children. With that information, the Government have to look seriously at the merits of Barnardo’s recommendation of allowing children better access to their parents.

Thirdly, the Government must look seriously at the sentencing of mothers, who are disproportionately affected. There is a debate to be had on whether some women would be better served by smaller, more local women’s centres. Finally, they need to take another look at their prison building programme, because there is a question over whether super-sized prisons are the answer to everything.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate, which addresses an area of concern in relation to the parental rights of prisoners.

Unfortunately, through a breakdown in communications, I have not been called to speak this morning. However, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). The case she discussed is my constituent’s, who I am here to support. Since first meeting my constituent and hearing her story of herself and her two children, I have wanted to ask how the law can allow the father of her children to continue to exert control over their lives from behind bars, when his offence was of a sexual nature.

If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will develop my argument with regards to the current powers of courts in such cases. As I was saying, the hon. Member for Swansea East is fast developing a strong reputation for campaigning on sensitive, difficult and often family-related issues. I commend her for her work in lots of different areas.

I am here on behalf of the Minister of State for Justice, who is detained on legislative business. While policy responsibility for family law sits with him, I have listened carefully to the points that have been made and will ensure that they are relayed to him in full. It is clear that significant distress and emotional harm can result when a parent in prison exercises their parental responsibility with the clear intention of frustrating day-to-day care decisions made by the other parent or to inflict further harm. Such behaviour is unacceptable.

While the maintenance of family ties forms a key foundation stone to support an offender’s rehabilitation, it is clear that not all children can or should maintain contact with a parent who is in prison. Maintaining family ties must always be balanced against the risk of harm posed to the child or the parent with care. While a number of protections are in place under the current law, particular issues arise in cases where children are the victims of an offence by the convicted parent. I have listened closely to the points that have been made about the practical impacts of parental responsibility being exercised in that way and to the arguments for changing the law so that a parent prisoner convicted of a sexual or violent offence loses their parental responsibility on conviction.

In considering the arguments for change, I will set out the current law. There are various aspects to the law on parental responsibility: how parental responsibility is acquired by a parent; whether and how parental responsibility can be removed from a parent in appropriate cases to protect a child or the other parent from the risk of further abuse or harm; and the exercise of parental responsibility by a parent and the means by which a court may restrict the exercise of parental responsibility in specific ways.

Mothers automatically acquire parental responsibility. A father who is married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth also acquires that responsibility. There are no provisions in law by which parental responsibility may be removed from a mother or married father, except through adoption of the child. Unmarried fathers may acquire parental responsibility through various means: birth registration, an agreement with the mother that is registered with the court or by court order. A court may remove parental responsibility from an unmarried father if the child’s welfare so requires.

Where a parent seeks to abuse their parental responsibility, their actions may be overridden by the family court. That power applies regardless of how the parent acquired parental responsibility. The child’s welfare is always the paramount consideration, and there is no absolute right for a parent or any other person to exercise parental responsibility in a way that is detrimental to the child’s best interests. That is clearly the right position in principle.

The ability of a parent prisoner to exercise parental responsibility in many aspects of a child’s day-to-day life is limited by having no direct contact with the child or the parent with care, and powers are available to the family court to restrict the exercise of parental responsibility, which I will talk about in a moment. However, where those protections have not been sought or have not worked for whatever reason, a parent who is determined to abuse their parental responsibility may still be able to do so.

Where there is disagreement between parents who both have parental responsibility, either of them may make an application to the family court for a prohibited steps or specific issue order. A prohibited steps order has the effect of preventing a parent from exercising his or her parental responsibility for their child in a specified way without first obtaining the consent of the court—for example, changing a child’s surname or causing a child to be known by a different surname. A specific issue order allows the court to determine how a specific aspect of parental responsibility for a child should be decided—for example, whether a child should change school.

In addition, where the court is making any order and the person who has applied for it has made multiple previous applications in relation to the child that the court considers to be vexatious, it may make an order restricting that person’s ability to make any further applications of a specified kind in respect of that child without the permission of the court.

I recognise that the current protections place the onus on the parent with care to apply to the family court to restrict the other parent’s exercise of parental responsibility, which is why there are calls to legislate for an automatic removal of parental responsibility in certain circumstances. Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the orders and how they can best be used to protect a child or parent with care from the abusive exercise of parental responsibility by a parent in prison.

Any change to remove parental responsibility automatically on conviction of certain criminal offences would involve some important considerations for my Department. We would need to be clear that such a change in the law would be in the best interests of all children, for whom the current law provides maximum flexibility. The family court currently balances the legal rights, responsibilities and duties of each parent with the paramount need to further the welfare of the child and to safeguard them from risk of harm or further harm.

I am listening with real interest to what the Minister is saying. Would it be possible to consider a change in the law that created a rebuttable presumption of the loss of parental responsibility in certain circumstances? That would put the onus not on the parent with care, but on the parent who has perpetrated the damage.

That certainly warrants consideration, so I will take it away and pass it on to my ministerial colleague.

Legislation to remove parental responsibility upon conviction of specified offences would need to be carefully considered, given the potential impact on a wide range of children in different family circumstances. There would be many points of detail to work through, some of them potentially quite difficult, to ensure that any changes to the law were workable in practice and likely to achieve the desired outcome, while maintaining the right balance between rights, duties and responsibilities and protecting vulnerable children and adults.

I will turn to some of the questions raised in this interesting debate. The hon. Member for Swansea East referred to judicial awareness of practice direction 12J and mandatory training of judges. The Judicial College plays a vital role in providing the appropriate training for all family judges. The president of the family division has publicly urged the judiciary to familiarise themselves with the new rules and to do everything possible to ensure that those rules are properly complied with on every occasion.

The hon. Members for Swansea East and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) asked about fathers exercising parental responsibility and why they should have the right to control a child’s life from behind bars. The Children Act 1989 makes it clear that parental responsibility can be exercised alone unless the law requires the consent of all those who share parental responsibility. The courts have held that there are exceptional categories of decision that need such consent—for example, changing names or taking the child abroad. Day-to-day decisions should not be affected or blocked by the father.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made a characteristically informed speech. She mentioned the importance of children having contact with their mothers in prison. Prisoners have a statutory right to have contact with their children where it is safe to do so. There is a presumption that a parent’s involvement will further the child’s welfare, and that is not revoked or rebutted when a mother is imprisoned, provided that contact remains safe and in the child’s best interests.

The hon. Lady asked about the sentencing of mothers without a consideration of the impact on dependent children. The courts are required under article 8 of the European convention on human rights to obtain information on dependent children and conduct a balancing exercise, weighing the rights of potentially affected children against the seriousness of the parent’s offence. Case law shows that that is often done in practice. The Government cannot interfere with the exercise of the judiciary.

The hon. Lady also raised the “Visiting Mum” programme run at Eastwood Park, which I gather is funded by the Big Lottery Fund. It has supported 150 children and 89 mothers to have visits from Wales to Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire. I assure her that its work is being considered as part of the broader women’s justice strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke of the improving situation for women offenders and family access. We are developing a women’s strategy, which will be published in the new year, to improve outcomes for women. The legacy of where prisons are makes it practically difficult to hold women closer to home. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), referred to the women’s custodial estate being absent in Wales. I assure him that I have not met anybody who wants a prison for women to be built in Wales. I will just say that all decisions about women’s justice are currently under consideration, and I hope that all colleagues, and particularly the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, will be pleased when the strategy is published in the new year.

Of course, I cannot make any commitments today about changing the law on parental responsibility, but the Government will give careful consideration to the points that have been raised this morning. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate and for raising these important issues.

I thank all colleagues for attending the debate and for their excellent contributions. I pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). Without her support and her bringing this dreadful case to my attention, we would not be here today.

It is not comfortable for me to stand here and not rant about improving prisoners’ rights, including access and parental rights, as ranting is probably what I do best, but on this occasion, I am deeply concerned that a family is being torn apart by one person and that his controlling behaviour towards his victims is allowing him to have any control at all, not just now but in the future. I know that the Minister is a compassionate man. We have spent many hours discussing other issues, and I know that he will work with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower to try to find a way to bring some solutions to those who are affected by this dreadful situation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered parental rights of prisoners.

Sitting suspended.