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Prisons: Prisoners with Children

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 20 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to record whether or not an individual remanded in custody, or sentenced to prison, has any children.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and I declare an interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s.

My Lords, our reforms to transform rehabilitation to bring down reoffending rates will see the introduction of an unprecedented through-the-gate service. Under these plans, we are developing a basic custody screening tool that will be completed by prison staff for all sentenced offenders and remand prisoners. As part of that process, we will record whether an offender has any children.

My Lords, Barnardo’s and other leading children’s charities have found that children of prisoners are a very vulnerable group. They are twice as likely to experience depression, mental health problems and drug and alcohol abuse, and to live in poor accommodation. Many go on to offend and yet these children are unlikely to be offered any targeted support. Barnardo’s found that the courts keep no record of them and that there are no requirements to identify them to children’s services. Will the Government create a statutory duty for courts to identify defendants who have dependent children and agree that, by collecting those data, they will be better placed to detect vulnerable children with a parent in prison and ensure that they get the support they need from children’s services?

My Lords, I am not sure that I can give the guarantee of a statutory function for the courts but our reforms for probation will mean that the important function of advising the court prior to sentencing —which will outline the offender’s personal circumstances, including dependants—will remain with public sector probation services. Our reforms to transform rehabilitation will also introduce through-the-gate services for those given custodial sentences.

I appreciate the point that my noble friend makes; it is a worrying factor that many of the young people who come into the criminal justice system are themselves children of offenders. We should certainly be looking at ways to break that circle and trying to make sure that these children are helped away from a life of crime.

My Lords, in replying to a debate on this matter on 12 November, the Minister offered a meeting and I certainly look forward to that. I have since read his remarks from that day. When an elderly or disabled person’s carer is sent to prison, the cared-for person often suffers the most as, in many cases, the courts do not even know that they exist. Although I accept that there is the safety net of pre-sentence reports in certain circumstances, when bail is denied there is no pre-sentence report and the court may not know that there is a cared-for person around at all. The consequence is that the cared-for person becomes an unintended victim. How are we going to stop that?

My Lords, I appreciate very much the point that the noble Lord is making, and I look forward to meeting him and the Prison Advice and Care Trust. In some ways, it is amazing that we are in the 13th or 14th year of the 21st century and that we find these gaps in our care provisions. I often think that it is not that the state does not care but that we are not yet good enough at connecting bits of the state so that people do not fall through the net. As part of the exercise of bringing forward this basic custody screening tool, I hope that by bringing in the expertise of organisations such as PACT we will be able to make sure that people do not slip through the net in the way that the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further. When a court is aware of a child whose parent is imprisoned and that child is in a vulnerable state, will he ensure that the court refers the child to the proper care of the local authority or a charity in the region where that child is living?

I go back to what I would expect to be common sense in these areas. Courts already have a duty, in every case, to take account of any mitigating factors, including that the offender has primary care responsibilities for children or other dependants. However, it is important that the presence of such dependants is brought to the attention of the court. Again, I can only emphasise that the direction of travel we are going in is to try to make sure that the prison and court authorities are aware of their responsibilities and that they link up with the supporting organisations needed in these cases.

Are the Government formally evaluating novel schemes, such as that at Doncaster prison, which aim to maintain the bonding between a parent and a child—particularly a new-born baby? The parent’s reoffending rate is lower, bonding takes place and the parental duty is learnt while the person is in prison, rather than it being destroyed during their incarceration.

Yes, my Lords, we are following the Doncaster experiment. Last month, I announced a new approach to managing female offenders. We are developing the custodial estate so that women can stay closer to home and maintain links with their families, which is important not only for new-born babies but throughout childhood.

My Lords, 17,000 children a year are affected by their mothers’ imprisonment. Given that the Government plan to close two women’s prisons, which means that there will be only 12 women’s prisons in England and Wales and which will lead to much longer journeys for those visiting their mothers and, often, to catastrophic breaks in the relationship between mother and child, will the Minister confirm that the mother and baby unit at Holloway prison is not subject to closure?

I am not aware that there is any plan to do that but, if there is, I will write to the noble Baroness. However, such decisions are taken for operational reasons in the region. I have visited the Holloway unit and I know that it is valued because while it is not the most modern prison, it is close to people’s homes. The noble Baroness says that we are closing two women’s prisons, but the major complaint about those prisons which we plan to close is that they are a long way from anywhere, never mind not being close to home. We are developing the custodial estate so that women will be in the prison closest to their home. We have found from all the research that that is the factor which women in prison want. With that, coupled with the rehabilitation reforms and through-the-gate care for women, we hope to be able to address a number of the problems that the noble Baroness is concerned about.