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Prisons: Mothers and Infants

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken to reduce the number of mothers imprisoned with their infants in England and Wales.

My Lords, sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the independent judiciary. Where a judge or a magistrate sentences a mother to custody, mother and baby units are made available to ensure that the best interests of the child are met, enabling the mother and child relationship to develop and to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. The number of women imprisoned with babies has remained broadly stable at around 50 over the past two years.

I thank my noble friend for that answer. Essential, emotional attachments are made between mother and baby during the first 18 months of a child’s life, but imprisoned mothers with babies are often denied these necessary bonding opportunities because of the restricted environments they are placed in—even within the mother and baby units, which are often far away from the women’s homes. Will the Government encourage the courts to consider the welfare of the baby before sentencing the mothers to custody and can we please have more smaller, baby-friendly secure community units as an alternative?

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to reducing the number of women in custody, and that is already happening. Recent sentencing changes should help that further. If a woman or a man is a sole or primary carer, that should be considered as a mitigating factor in sentencing. Recent guidelines from the Sentencing Guidelines Council have reiterated this. There are seven small mother and baby units, the largest having 13 spaces, which support the development of mother and baby relationships. In deciding whether a mother and baby should be referred to one of these units, the interest of the child is paramount.

My Lords, bishops see the inside of prisons rather more than most Members of your Lordships’ House do. There is no more depressing aspect of a visit than to go to one of these mother and baby units. Can the Minister tell the House what proportion of these mothers are there for drug-related offences, when they are often not the prime movers in the trafficking?

The right reverend Prelate is right that prisons of any description can be very depressing places, as is seeing the situation of people within them. However, I have visited the mother and baby unit within Holloway prison. If mothers are sentenced to prison, they need to be extremely well supported, and I thought that the support being given in that mother and baby unit was very good. Within the prison, too, the support in terms of mental health, tackling drug addiction and other problems was being approached. It is extremely important that we do what we can to try to keep women out of custody. The legal changes made in the last Bill help to move us in that direction and that is one of our aims, because the right reverend Prelate is right that many people in this situation are themselves very vulnerable.

My Lords, given that most of these women are imprisoned for offences for which no male would be locked up, and given that, as the Minister said, there are seven mother and baby units in this country, would she acknowledge that that small number indicates that, for many of these women, if they have other children, they have to make the stark choice between applying for a place at a unit and keeping their baby but losing contact with their other children, or giving the baby up at a time when they are probably breastfeeding so that they can remain in contact with their other children? Finally, will she acknowledge that there is overwhelming public support in this country for the proposition that women who commit non-violent offences and who are mothers of small children should not be locked up at all?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for all her work in this area, which shifted the last Labour Government enormously in terms of what they did. We are building on that work. As I mentioned, one of the changes in the last justice Bill, LASPO, says, for example, that if it is unlikely that somebody is going to have a custodial sentence, they are not remanded in prison. That should help women who find themselves in that situation. Similarly, there has been a turning around of what happens if somebody breaches their community order. It was mandatory before that that should be escalated, which often meant that women in that circumstance ended up in prison. What is suggested now is that there should be a fine—and that, too, should divert women away from prison. There are a number of ways in which it is extremely important to approach this to try to ensure that women are kept out of prison when that is appropriate, but to ensure that they are well supported if they are in prison.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us at what age babies or very young children leave the mother and baby unit, and what arrangements are made to lessen the emotional trauma of a very young child being taken out of its mother’s care on a daily basis? What arrangements are put into place to lessen the anxiety for the mother and the child?

Babies stay in the mother and baby unit until about the age of 18 months, so that can vary. It is therefore part of the way that the best needs of the baby are assessed to look at the length of the mother’s sentence and whether in due course it is necessary to remove a baby because the mother’s sentence is longer than the baby unit would enable them to stay together. Looking at the best interests of the baby is what underpins whether a mother and baby are referred to a mother and baby unit.

My Lords, could my noble friend the Minister look at the international dimension of good practice, and could she invite the Children’s Commissioner to look at this particular issue, with the sole objective that the welfare of the child is of paramount importance?

The Ministry of Justice is always interested in international practice. Recently the Howard League sent through some interesting information about the situation in South Africa. Noting that, I would point out that the current policy in relation to mother and baby units is absolutely based on the needs of the child being paramount. It is surely right that that is the case.