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Courts: Sentencing Guidance

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will issue guidance to courts sentencing parents with direct responsibility for the care of children, so as to delay the commencement of custodial sentences until proper arrangements have been made for continuity of care.

My Lords, when deciding on sentence, a court may legitimately take into account the impact of a sentence on other people, including dependent children, as part of the overall picture. We have, however, no plans to issue specific guidance to courts recommending delay to the start of a custodial sentence in cases where an offender may need to make childcare arrangements.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Does she agree that more than 17,000 children per year are put at risk by the imprisonment of their mother, albeit sometimes only for short periods? Will the Government study the best practice of European courts, including even Russian courts, on the matter? Finally, will they seek to maximise the discretion of our courts and, whenever possible, avoid the imprisonment of mothers with young children?

My Lords, I am certainly aware of the tragedy that befalls many children whose parents become involve in criminal activity. The noble Lord is right to highlight that as a danger. We are energetically looking at all best practice on the issue. I reassure the noble Lordthat the Judicial Studies Board’s Bench Book, whichis used by judges, states, in relation to family responsibilities:

“Where the convicted defendant is female, a decision to sentence without a pre-sentence report should be made only after careful consideration of the possible impact on others, in particular dependent children”.

So this issue is very much in the forefront of our courts’ minds, and we will make sure that appropriate reports are before the courts to enable them to make an informed choice of sentence.

My Lords, does theMinister recognise the effectiveness of family group conferencing in keeping children out of public care and placing them with a member of their extended kin? In her review, will she look carefully at how courts might be encouraged to use that important means?

My Lords, I can certainly assure the noble Earl that we have looked for some time at restorative justice models and case conferencing to deal better with childcare issues. That is very much at the forefront of our minds, and we are energetically looking at more successful ways to intervene with offenders in order to reduce recidivism much more than is the case at present.

My Lords, will the department’s examination of the issue include consideration of the role of grandparents?

My Lords, noble Lords will know that grandparental influence can be profound and beneficial. I am sure that Membersof the House would say “amen” to that. There isan opportunity for grandparents to intervene in appropriate cases where there are no other carers and to supplement the care given by parents in appropriate cases.

My Lords, given that there is tremendous disruption to a child’s life when their parent and main carer is sent to prison, can the Minister say what steps are taken to ensure that dependent children get proper and regular contact with their parent in custody in all appropriate cases?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that that is very important. She will know that we have improved the facilities made available to offenders, allowing them to keep children under 18 months with them and improving the amount of time that lone parents are allowed to go out. We now have a policy whereby a lone parent is allowed to have contact with their children at least four times every two months. That has greatly improved the situation. We are also looking at what we can do further to ensure that the contact and connection between parent and child is maintained in an appropriate way to assist the children and to enable the offenders to serve their time more efficiently and effectively, because such situations are incredibly distressing, particularly for mothers who are separated from their children.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, where continuing care of children is an issue, the prisoner often receives no information and requires urgent reassurance? Will she therefore assure the House that a family member or trusted friend of the prisoner would be allowed a reception visit within 24 hours to communicate about care arrangements?

My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that all steps are taken to facilitate appropriate contact. I absolutely understand the anxiety expressed, but I say to the House that the issues are often encompassed in proceedings before sentence, when there is an opportunity for a court to adjourn a hearing to get reports and so on before determining the most appropriate sentence. The Criminal Justice Act now allows us comprehensive and tough community sentences, which are often more appropriate for those who are not dangerous.

My Lords, following on from the Minister’s earlier Answer, will she tell the House what plans the Government have to develop and significantly expand the alternatives to custody for women? It is government policy, after all, that all but the most prolific and serious offenders should be dealt with in the community and not by custodial sentence. Those community-based penalties are essential if women and their families are not to suffer the extremely damaging effect of a mother’s incarceration. What concrete plans are there to expand that provision and to convey that to the sentencers so that they have confidence in them and will use them more extensively?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that we have launched the women’s offending reduction programme, in which we have invested £9.15 million to test out different models that will be available to sentencers to deal more effectively with women. We will also have the benefit of the work undertaken by my noble friend Lady Corston, who hopes to report to me in December on what we can do better to help the most vulnerable women in our prison estate.

My Lords, further to the right reverend Prelate’s question, is my noble friend aware that, when the Joint Committee on Human Rights was visiting Holloway, members, including myself, were deeply disturbed to hear from staff of occasions when it was discovered only during the process of receiving prisoners from court—sometimes late in the evening—that there were unattended children at home? Will she assure the House that all steps will be taken to make sure that such situations never arise in future?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that steps are already taken to that effect. He should be aware that sometimes the people involved do not disclose that they have children or they positively conceal it for various reasons. I assure the House that we will take all reasonable steps to make sure that, if children are involved, they are identified early and dealt with appropriately.