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House of Commons Hansard
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Care of Prisoners’ Children
12 June 2018
Volume 642

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered care of prisoners’ children.

I will be considering the care of prisoners’ children following the sentencing of their parent. Are we doing all we can to support the wellbeing of children with a parent in prison, bearing in mind the traumatic impact that the detention of a parent can have on a child? It is estimated that more than 200,000 children a year are separated from a parent by parental imprisonment. About 17,000 of those children experience their mother’s imprisonment. Because women are more likely than men to be the primary carer, often children are suddenly separated from the closest relationship they have known in their lives. In up to 95% of cases, the children are suddenly without a parent or a home. I understand that there is no systematic recording or monitoring to support those children, so in many ways they are a hidden population.

The arrangements for the care of such children are often very informal, with the children being suddenly left with a relation, for example, whose life circumstances mean that they are ill prepared for the additional responsibility, with all the consequences that ensue for them and, importantly, for the children. One of the worst examples I heard was of a woman who was arrested in the middle of the night, but who was still nursing a baby. On the way to the police station, the police asked her, “Where shall we drop the baby off?”. She had to tell them a house where the baby was to be dropped off. That mother did not have the care of that child again for well over a year. That is a startling situation.

Before going into further detail about the impact on children and their carers, I thank Justice Ministers for their very positive response to Lord Farmer’s review, which was published last August, “The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime”. The acceptance of the importance of maintaining family ties to the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, which was implicit in the Government’s response to the review, was most welcome.

At the same time, it is important that we recognise that prisoners’ families, particularly their children, can experience severe difficulties following the imprisonment of a parent. Greater consideration of their circumstances and wellbeing would help to improve the likelihood of their parents’ better reintegration and rehabilitation. Importantly, it would reduce the risk of those children being imprisoned in later life. The statistics are devastating: some 60% of boys with a father in prison will end up in prison themselves. Staggeringly, I am informed that if they also have a brother in prison, that figure can rise to 90%.

We should take care of prisoners’ children not just to keep them out of prison, but to give them the best chance to make something of their lives when they have been placed in an extremely vulnerable situation at a young age. Research shows that prisoners’ children face significantly reduced life chances. They are less likely to be in education, training or employment in later life. They have an increased risk of mental health problems and substance abuse. The imprisonment of a parent can compound any pre-existing family problems that the child may have experienced or witnessed, such as domestic abuse, mental health issues or substance abuse.

Children who witness their mother’s arrest often experience nightmares and flashbacks. Separation from parents, particularly mothers, can be deeply traumatic for children and can result in the development of attachment disorders in young children. Children with a parent in prison may experience stigmatisation, isolation and discrimination, as well as confounding grief that is expressed in angry and aggressive behaviours. They may have no one at school with whom they can share their situation.

The emotional and physical stress after separation often requires intensive parenting, for which professional help and support ideally would be available, but often it is not. Family members who step in as carers at short notice are often unprepared for what their role involves. Often, they have to give up work to provide care. One grandmother explained:

“emotionally, it’s terrible. It’s like they’ve changed so much, they’ve got behavioural problems. They weren’t like that before. Especially the little one who cries for his mum all the time.”

Understandably, those who take on such caring roles do not always do so willingly. The subsequent breakdowns of family placements cause further harm to children. Families who do so willingly still often have to adjust their living arrangements, creating further difficulty for both the carer and the child. I thank Dr Shona Minson at Oxford University for drawing my attention to the gravity and scale of the situation. In her research, one grandmother’s experience exemplifies that perfectly:

“It’s cramped. What was my bedroom, I’ve now got two lots of bunk beds and four boys in there. The middle room is my daughter’s room and the baby sleeps in there and I sleep on the settee in the front room.”

Another grandmother explained the serious financial problems she encountered, having to go back to work to support her enlarged family and getting into debt at the same time.

Because of the difficult living arrangements and frequent relationship breakdowns in what can be very temporary homes, often there is accompanying schooling disruption. Children have four different carers on average during a mother’s sentence. Many encounter other significant changes, such as separation from siblings.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on powerfully speaking out for some of the most vulnerable in our society. She has raised some powerful examples. She mentioned Justice Ministers earlier, it is excellent to see the Education Minister in his place and she also mentioned housing. Does she agree that this is a cross-departmental issue? It is important that the Minister works together with Ministers from other Departments to help some of the most vulnerable in our society.

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I thank my hon. Friend for, as ever, making a highly pertinent point.

What I am speaking about forms part of a much larger piece of work that is encompassed in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. It was launched last September and has the support of 60 Conservative Back-Bench colleagues. It contains a range of policies that aim to strengthen family relationships. As my hon. Friend says, they straddle many Departments, from Health to Education, Defence, Justice, Work and Pensions, and Housing, Communities and Local Government. As part of the work on strengthening families, it is important that Departments across Government pull together and that the machinery of government works holistically.

Many Departments are doing good work to strengthen family life, such as through the recent announcement of £6 million for the children of alcoholics, and a much larger sum provided for children with mental health problems, many of which stem from their family backgrounds. However, a key ask in the manifesto is for a Cabinet-level Minister for the family. I am delighted to see the Minister with responsibility for children here. I would be even more delighted if he were promoted to the Cabinet and had the role of drawing together all the various strands for supporting family life, many of which could appropriately be channelled into family hubs in local communities.

I am delighted that there will be a roundtable this afternoon at No. 10, at which people from across the country will give examples of best practice for creating family hubs in local communities. Those are places people can go for support to strengthen their families—not just people with children from nought to five, but those with children aged up to 19, sandwich generation people who are struggling to support an elderly parent, and people whose marriage is at an early stage of breakdown and want light-touch early intervention to ensure that it does not fall apart completely and end up in the divorce courts. Family hubs may also be places for prisoners’ children and their wider families to get help.

There is often no official recognition of the plight of prisoners’ children, and they often have inadequate support, if any. Care givers are often not assessed, and they receive little, if any, financial assistance or other support. In the light of that, there appears to be a big difference in treatment between those children and children who are separated from their parents and go through care proceedings. The impact on prisoners’ children can be lifelong. They encounter multiple disadvantages, which often match those of children who are put before the court in care proceedings.

Children who are separated from their parents due to parental abuse or neglect are represented by lawyers and may be appointed a guardian ad litem, and a real focus is placed on their interests. If such a child is left without a parent, they are found a new home. Support is provided to those who care for them. Foster carers are assessed and receive training and financial support. The child is also likely to be classed as a looked-after child or a child in need, both of which open doors to additional funding in health and education, such as the pupil premium. That can ensure that the child is given more support and a more understanding environment at school. If the child moves to a new area, a school place is arranged for them.

However, in criminal proceedings involving parents of dependent children, the court may be completely unaware that the person it is sentencing has children. Even when the court is made aware, the impacts on those children often are not appropriately considered. For example, in a recent piece of research, the Prison Reform Trust reported that one mother explained that the jury

“didn’t ask me anything, didn’t even ask me if I had a child. I had to stand up and say ‘I’ve got a daughter at home who needs looking after.’ Thankfully, I’ve got a very supportive mother and she took the role of carer. I was not asked if she had a carer, it was just me they were focused on, just getting me to where I need to be.”

I called this short debate, in the light of that, to draw attention to the impact of parental imprisonment on those most vulnerable children. I ask the Minister what can be done more systematically and empathetically to identify and support the needs of prisoners’ children and their care givers, so that we avoid giving them a hidden sentence, which may be lifelong, when their parents are sentenced by the courts.

As time permits, let me touch on one or two other points before the Minister responds. The relationship between a parent and a child is often damaged by the child’s inability to visit their parent. Many families would welcome more being done to facilitate visits, perhaps through the provision of travel funding that is not means-tested. Shona Minson of Oxford University found in a recent study that a number of factors influence the possibility of a child being unable to attend visits, including restricted visiting hours; unaffordable travel, which I mentioned; the frightening environment for children; traumatic endings; and indirect contact by telephone or letter, which children do not particularly favour. The Farmer review confirmed that face-to-face contact was the best way to develop family ties, and that family members found security checks frightening and stigmatising.

It would be helpful if prisons identified that family visits improve outcomes for prisoners and should be viewed as an intervention, not just to help reduce offending but to improve the quality of life of prisoners’ children. Family ties may also be strengthened through one-to-one mentoring support for prisoners’ children, parenting classes and courses to strengthen prisoners’ relationships with their families. There is plenty of evidence of good practice by faith-based and non-voluntary organisations, which are working together to strengthen prisoners’ family ties.

Let me give the example of a young girl and her family. During a family day visit at HMP Wandsworth, a charity worker from Spurgeons noticed that 14-year-old Jade, who was visiting her father, was sitting with him in floods of tears. When staff asked Jade’s mother why she was distressed, her mother confided that the family was having a difficult time. Jade was upset and struggling to cope with being separated from her father. Her school work was suffering as a result. Her mother had asked the school for help, but it seemed unable to offer any. Spurgeons staff sent a link worker to visit Jade’s school and put in an appropriate plan. Her mother thanked Spurgeons for that intervention and explained that, although she had been asking for help since the moment her husband was taken to prison, that was the first time anyone had actually offered the family any support.

Charities such as Spurgeons certainly have an impact on families such as Jade’s, but their reach and resources are limited. Diane Curry, chief executive of Partners of Prisoners, argues that that

“is one reason why provision is so patchy and a lot better developed in some geographical areas…than others.”

In the light of that, I ask the Government to look at improving services to support children such as Jade and their families. As I said, the strengthening families manifesto outlines that the Government need to focus on supporting families to ensure that policies for children are prioritised and co-ordinated across Departments. Ideally, they should also ensure that every local authority has a family hub, which can act as an important site for prisoners’ families to receive support services, and that prisons put families at the heart of efforts to reduce reoffending and improve the lives of prisoners’ children.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate.

As Minister for Children and Families, I have listened and spoken to many people about the issues concerning some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I have been inspired by the commitment of our frontline practitioners, such as social workers, teachers and others in the sector—including charities, which my hon. Friend spoke about so convincingly. I commend her on bringing concerns to life through the voices of children and their families. Those practitioners work tirelessly to achieve better outcomes for children in challenging circumstances.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the support that children who are affected by having a parent in prison receive, both to maintain a relationship with that parent and to deal with the long-term challenges they might face in relation to their own outcomes. I share those concerns, and I reassure her that I will continue to do all I can, in my capacity as Minister for Children and Families, to ensure that all children get the help and support they need from across Government to live fulfilled and happy lives.

A parent going to prison can be hugely traumatic for the child—it can make them vulnerable or even put them at risk of harm. Effective multi-agency working is vital to ensuring that vulnerable children are identified and known to all relevant authorities from justice, which my hon. Friend mentioned, to social care and schools. Reforms introduced by the Children and Social Work Act 2017 underpin a stronger but more flexible statutory framework for local multi-agency arrangements that will support local partners to work together more effectively to protect and safeguard children and young people, and ensure the effectiveness of those processes.

We are also taking significant steps to improve information sharing on safeguarding children, which is vital to ensuring that an offender’s caring responsibilities are disclosed and services are alerted to changes in a family’s circumstances. Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have overarching responsibly for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area, which applies regardless of what care arrangements are in place for a child. Where concerns have been raised about a child in need, the “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance sets out the principles of what good assessment looks like. Assessments should be child centred, involving children and families, and building on strengths as well as identifying weaknesses, and addressing the child’s needs within their family and, of course, the wider community.

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I am listening with interest to the Minister, who will have heard my intervention about working across Departments. Will he be able in due course to explain to the House what work he can do across Departments—perhaps with the Prisons Minister, my hon. friend Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—in addition to the multi-agency work he is rightly highlighting?

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I did hear my hon. Friend clearly. We already work across Departments, and I hope that in the rest of my speech I will be able to convince him that we are doing some really good work in this area.

There should be a clear focus on actions and outcomes for children, with plans for how assessment and support provided will be reviewed. All decisions regarding formal care placements will also be child focused to ensure that arrangements meet the needs of that child and promote their safety and welfare. That process is the same for each child, including in cases where a child’s primary carer goes to prison.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton rightly said that in many cases care arrangements might be with wider family or friends, often recognised as kinship care. We recognise the vital importance of those placements, which are likely to provide more continuity than a placement with previously unknown carers and can help to preserve a child’s sense of belonging to a wider family network. For most children, there is huge benefit from being brought up by a family member whom they trust and already have an established relationship with, rather than by a stranger.

The law requires local authorities to support the upbringing of looked-after children and those on the edge of care by their families whenever possible. That option should always be fully explored by the local authority before making an application for a care order, provided that it does not jeopardise the child’s safety or welfare.

Local authorities are under a statutory duty to publish a policy that sets out the authority’s approach to promoting and supporting the needs of all children living with carers who are family and friends, regardless of their legal status. The policy should be clear, regularly updated, and made freely and widely available. Approved family and friends foster carers receive the same support as other foster carers, including financial support. Family and friends carers in informal arrangements are treated equally with birth parents in the benefits system in relation to child benefit, child tax credits and other means-tested benefits.

Local authorities also have a statutory role where children are being cared for by friends, neighbours or certain other relatives under a private fostering arrangement. The local authority must visit such an arrangement within seven days of being notified of it and should speak to the parents and provide support and advice where necessary. Local authorities must also carry out follow-up visits to ensure that the arrangements remain in the best interests of the child.

I turn briefly to education. It is not only children’s social care that has an important role to play; school and college staff are particularly important as they are in a position to identify concerns early, provide help for children and prevent concerns from escalating. We recently published revised “Keeping children safe in education” guidance, which will commence on 3 September. Having worked closely with the Ministry of Justice, we have reflected on the importance of school staff considering the additional needs of children with parents in prison, so the guidance now highlights the fact that such children are at risk of achieving poor outcomes—including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health—and signposts staff to the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders website, which provides specialist advice and resources for professionals who work with offenders’ children and their families.

All school staff should be aware of the systems within their school or college that support safeguarding, as well as being able to identify children who might be in need of extra help and protection, such as children of offenders. That is vital to avoiding children’s needs going unidentified and so that any trauma a child has experienced can be taken into account in responding to any behavioural issues.

The Department’s advice on behaviour says that schools should consider whether disruptive behaviour might be the result of a child’s needs, such as any arising from the trauma of a family member or parent going to prison. School staff should also be prepared to identify children who might benefit from early help. To be clear, if a child is in danger, has been harmed or is at risk of harm, a referral should be made to local authority children’s social care and, where appropriate, the police.

It is important that all children get the support they need. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is working in partnership with Barnardo’s to deliver the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders, which is an online resource to provide support for children affected by having a parent in prison. We are also supporting cross-Government programmes for prevention and diversion work, including the troubled families programme and those focusing on school inclusion.

Good mental health is another particular priority. We recognise the emotional upheaval that a parent going to prison can cause a child, and when children are struggling with poor mental health, that can have a profound impact on the whole of a child’s life. That is why the Government are investing an additional £1.4 billion nationally to transform children and young people’s mental health services. On top of that, the measures proposed in the Government’s Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health will provide £300 million of additional funding to introduce a new mental health workforce to work with mental health leads in schools and colleges and reduce waiting times for those with the most serious conditions.

The Ministry of Justice is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a series of trailblazers that will test such teams outside of mainstream schools, including with youth offending teams.

Where a parent is involved in the justice system, it is vital that families receive support from the outset and that courts are aware that a defendant has children before they are sentenced. That is critical to avoiding those children being unseen or unaccounted for, so we are ensuring that the National Probation Service’s pre-sentence reports, which assist the court in making sentencing decisions, highlight whether an offender has dependent children and the potential impact on those children of a sentence so that that can be considered. We are also working to encourage defendants to tell the court about children, overcoming reluctance or fear if there are concerns that their children will be immediately taken into care. That includes supporting the roll-out of training material developed by the academic expert, Dr Shona Minson, which raises awareness of the diverse implications of maternal imprisonment for children.

Families can play a significant role in supporting an offender. Positive family relationships have been identified as a protective factor in desistance, or ceasing to commit crime. For that reason, the Government are promoting strong family and significant other ties as an important plank of our prison reforms, alongside education and employment.

Lord Farmer’s report on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties, which my hon. Friend referred to, was published last year. It made several recommendations to strengthen family or significant other ties to help offenders to turn their lives around and protect public safety. Across Government, and through the Ministry of Justice in particular, we have taken forward key recommendations, including giving prison governors the budget and the flexibility to spend their resources appropriately—such as on family-friendly visiting areas—to help prisoners to keep important family or significant other ties.

The Ministry of Justice is developing new performance measures that we will pilot this year for future full implementation. That will provide crucial guidance to deliver more consistent services to improve relationships between prisoners and their families or significant others, such as flexible visitations and family days across the entire prison estate.

A new family and significant other policy framework will be published this year, which will set out requirements for governors in that area. To support that new approach, from April this year all prison governors have been required to produce local strategies that set out how they will support prisoners to improve their engagement with friends and family. We know that maintaining relationships with loved ones is crucial for prisoners and for their families. In England and Wales last year, we spent—

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Order.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.