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Support for Offenders’ Families

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Double.)

Adjournment debates are great opportunities to raise issues brought up by constituents, and it gives me much pleasure this evening to do precisely that. I am grateful to the Minister for being here, particularly after his extremely busy day. I am sorry to have kept him in his place a little longer, but I am nevertheless delighted that he is responding to the debate. He will be aware of my correspondence on a constituency case with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing. The debate draws on that, and on the experience relayed to me by my constituent and others caught up in similar nightmares not of their making. I hope that this debate is timely, given the imminent very welcome consultation on upgrading the victims strategy through a victims Bill.

Many, particularly on the Conservative side of the House, take a very stern view of crime and criminality, and many of us have called for stiffer sentencing, particularly for crimes of a sexual nature. Because of the internet and the opportunities for indecent imaging that it presents, the number of those crimes is, sadly, rising exponentially. I will focus largely on the consequences of those crimes this evening. Specifically, I am buttonholing my good friend the Minister on the collateral—the families left behind to cope with the devastation that follows the arrest and conviction of a loved one for those crimes that attract the greatest public opprobrium.

On that front, Deuteronomy chapter 24, verse 16 offers some chilly reassurance:

“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”

Less dramatically, the sins of the father should not be pinned on the sons, daughters, or spouse—or on anyone other than the perpetrator.

I am always attracted to scripture, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for quoting it. Families have come to me, having had their windows broken, and mess spray-painted on their homes; that often happens in Northern Ireland due to a family member’s actions. Does he agree that that is not appropriate, and that support should be offered, so that the family does not end up having to pay for the sins of the father, as he says, though that is often what happens?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he speaks from a great deal of experience. Deuteronomy is bang on the money. These are innocents. They need to be dealt with as innocents by the statutory agencies. That is the burden of what I have to say this evening.

During the course of my research, I have been told about the five o’clock knock that hits someone like a train; the stunning effect of the unheralded appearance of police on the doorstep; the trauma of seeing a loved one taken away; and the all-too-often brusque way in which family members are managed by the police, as they sack the family home searching for evidence, and carry off not just the suspect’s possessions, but those of his or her partner as well—the knock after which nothing is ever the same again.

Over 850 individuals are arrested each month for online offences involving indecency. That is a 25-fold increase in a decade. Each one of those carries in its wake a devastated family, a wall of misery, and the destruction of settled, ordinary lives. For most of these people, the worst brush with the authorities they have had up to that point will have been the issuing of a speeding ticket. That makes them particularly susceptible to vicarious shaming and social isolation.

It is therefore hardly surprising that nearly 70% of family members experiencing the knock in such circumstances have severe post-traumatic stress disorder. That is unsurprising, given that they are often told to speak to no one for fear of bullying and vigilante activity; given that, as part of the process, their mobile phones and computers are removed; and given that the go-to resource of many traumatised people in the modern age—the internet—is for them now no longer a trusted entry point to help and support, but a dark, deeply hostile place. The ascent of social media has meant that there is nowhere to hide. Vigilantes—those self-appointed guardians of public safety—use a confected moral high ground to prey on innocents who they deem guilty by association with those convicted of stigmatising offences.

About the time I was first elected, I remember a group of so-called vigilantes confusing the terms “paediatrician” and “paedophile”, and seeing one of their neighbours described as the former, took it upon themselves to attack the home of the hapless specialist in child health. Those bovinely stupid people are the antithesis of the upstanding public guardians they purport to be, and they are encouraged in their misconception, I am sorry to say, by elements of the tabloid press. They are despicable; they are the mob. And it is the mob, or fear of the mob, that drives innocent bystanders of stigmatising crimes from their homes. When those innocents are at their most vulnerable, and most in need of the agencies of the state, there comes no help, no comfort, and no support. Commenting on “the knock”, one of our more thoughtful police officers said:

“We are acutely aware of the devastation we are leaving behind.”

Where is the attempt to mitigate that devastation? Indeed, some within our statutory agencies and authorities behave as if the families of suspects are guilty too, and that is not good enough.

What is to be done? The 2018 victims strategy and its victims code are a good start. In the code there is a decent stab at a definition of “victim”, which it defines as

“a person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence;”

In common usage, that definition probably does not include family members of people whose crimes have destroyed their lives. Indeed, the then Prime Minister appeared to confirm that when she said, in the foreword to the victims strategy:

“We must make it easier for people who have suffered a crime to cope, recover and move on with rebuilding their lives.”

The simple addition of the word “from” or the phrase “as a result of” before “a crime” would have been helpful in embracing the desperate people who are the subject of this evening’s debate. On the other hand, some would say that the definition of victim should indeed be ambiguous, since surely we can all tell a victim when we see one—can’t we?—a bit like an elephant. Well, I do not think we can. Unless the families of offenders are included explicitly within the definition of “victim”, nothing will change, there will be no recognition or help for them, and the agencies will continue too often to give them the cold shoulder.

Other jurisdictions seem to have been more thoughtful, and they offer a potential way forward that our victims Bill consultation might gainfully reflect on. The United States has a category of secondary victim with access, for example, to the Department of Justice crime victims fund. I am not suggesting that to the Minister for one moment, but it gives an indication of how those victims are regarded by the US. Canada has four categories of victim: direct, indirect, secondary, and tertiary, and all have the dignity of being recognised by the Canadian system as victims, as with the definition used by the US system.

Why is this so important? First, the victims code sets the mood music. Inclusion of the people I am talking about will establish them as victims of crime, and unpick the notion that they have by some curious osmosis contributed to that crime. More tangibly, the victims code offers things to those identified as victims, such as needs assessments, appropriate signposting, and being treated respectfully, sympathetically, and in a dignified and sensitive way.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has secured this debate, and I hope he got my email earlier.

Over the summer I visited the excellent project Children Heard and Seen, which is campaigning for prisoners’ families. I met a woman who, along with her children, had basically been driven from their home, because the husband had been arrested and imprisoned for an offence similar to the one the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. They were driven from their home and had to change their names. She had to stop her postgraduate studies because her computer had been taken away. The repercussions went on and on and on. One thing I have been calling for is a statutory mechanism so that children caught up in such a situation are recognised, identified by the system, and get the help they need straightaway. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me?

Yes, I do agree. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised her constituency case, because her constituents are not alone, with 850 such arrests made every month. That is just staggering; it is one and a bit for each of our constituencies every single month. We all have constituents in this awful situation, and the situation that she described is exactly the same as has been described to me. These people are under the radar, and I hope that this debate will, in some small way, make their plight clearer. At this critical juncture when we are considering the victims Bill and the consultation leading up to it, perhaps they might be included, and that will be my principal ask of the Minister this evening.

In September, the Prime Minister brought some good news on this front. He said:

“We are committed to legislation for victims in the Queen’s Speech and will be consulting on a Victims Bill later this year.”

Given that we are fast running out of year, will the Minister outline the timetable for the consultation? Will he include in it an improved, more embracing definition of victim—perhaps one that is more nuanced—as other countries have introduced? Will he task officials with drafting improved guidance to statutory agencies, including but not confined to the police, on the handling of families of those arrested on suspicion of serious, particularly stigmatising, crime?

Will the Minister look at improving support to the few lifeline charities that operate in this space, including the Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s “Stop It Now!” and Acts Fast? Will he ensure that the consultation includes wording that explicitly recognises the pain and suffering experienced by the massive number of wholly innocent family members of those accused and convicted of stigmatising crime? At a time when their lives are falling apart and they are facing—often alone—financial, domestic, occupational and social ruin, they deserve to be treated as victims, with respect, kindness and dignity. We can do so much better. The victims Bill gives us an opportunity to do so.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for securing this important debate and doing the cause that he seeks to advance real justice in the way that he presented his case and the arguments that he marshalled.

The case that my right hon. Friend has highlighted demonstrates the sometimes overlooked impact that one person’s criminal behaviour can have on their family and friends. It is difficult not to be troubled by the circumstances that he described and the impact that that has on families, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) set out in the case of her constituents. Many families, not just those my right hon. Friend alluded to, feel that they are being unfairly punished in the eyes of others for someone else’s actions. The circumstances he described are horrendous and unthinkable. He called it a “wall of misery”, and I think that is rather an apt description.

As my right hon. Friend set out, the consequences of these crimes can be devasting and are felt long after the knock on the door that he described. The empathy that I feel—I am sure all Members feel it—for all those who have been affected in this way in our country is very difficult to put into words. I think the circumstances of that knock on the door are also very difficult to comprehend, not least because of the betrayal of trust that those family members must feel about what has happened. The magnitude of the trauma and the circumstances that they are presented with is unthinkable.

In April this year we updated the victims code, providing victims with a clear set of entitlements and setting out the levels of service that a victim of crime can expect from the criminal justice system. For the purposes of the code a victim is someone who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm, directly caused by a criminal offence. A person who has suffered harm as a direct result of witnessing a crime is also a victim for the purposes of the code and is able to access services that support victims.

While I have great sympathy for families in the circumstances that my right hon. Friend described, I recognise that that provision will not automatically apply to families of offenders. However, support is available for those who have been directly harmed. There are of course certain circumstances in which a family member is a direct victim or a witness to a crime perpetrated by their loved ones, and it is right that we offer them support to cope and, as far as possible, to recover from those crimes. For example, our national homicide service works tirelessly to support those bereaved by domestic homicide. We know that being impacted by crime can have a lasting impact, especially for children and young people. That is why in July this year we worked with the homicide service to launch dedicated casework support for children and young people impacted by these crimes.

The crimes my right hon. Friend spoke of are some of the most abhorrent and are often perpetrated in the home and by those we should feel safe in the company of. Where families, following an arrest or a conviction, face the sort of damaging attention on social media that he described, that should be treated with the utmost seriousness. Therefore we are taking steps in the Online Safety Bill to place new duties on companies to keep their users safe online. I expect, this Government expect and I think this House expects—we have seen this reflected in the debates we have witnessed in recent weeks—that the tech companies must take responsibility for these matters and must take robust action when inappropriate content is hosted on their sites. That is a reasonable expectation and one that, time and time again, this House has echoed. Therefore I for one certainly echo the importance of the Online Safety Bill being introduced in due course.

We are determined to improve support for victims of crime so that they can recover and confidently seek justice through the criminal justice system. We continue to invest significant funding in victim and witness support services, given the increasing demand and the impact of the pandemic. This year we will spend £300 million across Government, with the Ministry of Justice providing just over £150 million. That funding will go towards a range of support services, including the national witness service, rape support centres and local organisations commissioned by police and crime commissioners. I can also confirm that we will consult imminently on a victims law so that we can make tangible improvements for victims across the criminal justice system. I look forward to meeting my right hon. Friend to discuss the contents of the consultation as soon as possible after publication.

As I said earlier, I have huge empathy with innocent families who, through no fault of their own, end up in these circumstances. As Members of this House, we can all think of families in our constituencies who have been caught in the sort of trauma we are discussing this evening. I am truly shocked to hear about the levels of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to these cases, but it is not surprising that there are those levels of PTSD.

While the families we are talking about may not fall within the definition in the victims code, that does not exclude them from accessing the support they need to recover from the harm caused. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service funds the national prisoners’ families helpline, which provides free and confidential support for those with a family member at any stage of their contact with the criminal justice system. The service’s highly trained and skilled staff provide practical information and emotional support for those who simply need reassurance or guidance. They are also able to point families, including children, to sources of additional support should they need it. Several charities also provide support for families affected by the actions of a family member, including PACT, Nepacs, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Children Heard and Seen.

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone who requires mental health support, including offenders’ family members, has access to timely mental health treatment based on clinical need.

As part of the Government’s commitment to build back better, we published our mental health recovery action plan in March 2021, backed by an additional £500 million for this financial year, to ensure we have the right support in place. The plan aims to respond to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of the public, specifically targeting groups that have been most affected, including those with severe mental illness, young people and frontline staff.

While in some cases further contact between a family and prisoner might not be appropriate, it is right that we reflect that, in the majority of instances, there are significant benefits to both the offender and their family of maintaining the family relationship to help to tackle reoffending when the prisoner is released. The impact of imprisonment on a family member can be significant. For example, for a child of an incarcerated parent there can be social stigma, loneliness and isolation, along with feelings of resentment about being abandoned.

While offenders are in custody, we have an opportunity to support them to appreciate the impact that their offending behaviour has on not only themselves but their family and especially their children. We believe that regular, quality engagement between a prisoner and their children is essential to mitigate the potential harms that a child of an incarcerated parent might experience.

While the focus of the Ministry of Justice’s work is ostensibly on supporting the offender and helping their rehabilitation, there are other initiatives across Government that can support those family members who have to simply carry on. The supporting families programme continues to drive early help and better co-ordination of services for families with multiple and complex needs, including those involved with, or at risk of, crime and anti-social behaviour.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the supporting families programme delivers. That is why the Chancellor recently announced an expansion of the programme, taking total planned investment across the next three years to £695 million, which will enable local authorities and their partners to provide help earlier and secure better outcomes for up to 300,000 families across all aspects of their lives. As well as supporting the recovery of those who have been affected by crime, the programme encourages early intervention to prevent families from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

To conclude, I hope I have demonstrated the importance we place on supporting children and families of offenders and that, in the time available, I have been able to provide clear examples of how we are working to properly support those leaving prison and their families. I recognise that my right hon. Friend has raised a number of valid points, and there are areas that Government as a whole should reflect on. We should obviously reflect on whether the package of measures and the help that is in place remain appropriate—we must always keep these matters under constant review. I am grateful for the way he introduced this Adjournment debate and for the important matters he raised. I look forward to meeting him to discuss them, and I am very grateful for his contribution tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.