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Offenders: Pregnant Women

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s Independent investigation into the death of Baby A at HMP Bronzefield on 27 September 2019, published on 22 September, what assessment they have made of (1) their policies, and (2) the sentencing guidelines, for pregnant women offenders.

My Lords, this was an appalling event. In consultation with health partners and contracted providers, we have taken a range of immediate and long-term actions locally and nationally to prevent it happening again, including a new policy on pregnancy in women’s prisons. Remand and sentencing decisions are matters for the independent judiciary. We are taking steps to ensure that courts have relevant information, including on pregnancy where known, and we are investing in alternatives to custody.

I thank the Minister for the positive response the Government have given to the ombudsman’s report on this shocking case, in which a troubled teenager who was on a local authority at-risk register and on remand was left to give birth on her own in a prison cell, where the baby tragically died. Sadly, we learn that this was not an isolated incident, but we do not know the extent. So why does the Prison Service not release comprehensive data on miscarriages, stillbirths and baby deaths?

The ombudsman’s report said:

“We consider that all pregnancies in prison should be treated as high risk by virtue of the fact that the woman is locked behind a door for a significant amount of time.”

In light of this, can the Minister tell me whether the Government will use persuasion and statutory force to ensure that the welfare of unborn babies and children must be a primary consideration for the courts when making bail and sentencing decisions?

I will pick up on that last point first. We are seeking to ensure that courts have all relevant information when making bail and sentencing decisions. The default is that, if there is no reason to keep somebody on remand, they must be given bail unless there is a good reason why they should not have bail. When it comes to sentencing, custody is always the last alternative, and pregnancy is a mitigating factor.

As far as prisons are concerned, we have accepted all the recommendations in the ombudsman’s report. We have put a new policy in place; prisons have six months to implement it.

My Lords, Committee on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was grateful to hear the Minister say on 1 November that

“there has been a revolution, a real sea change, in the judiciary. They really ‘get it’ when it comes to female offenders and primary carers.”—[Official Report, 1/11/21; col. 1042.]

Following on from what we have already heard, can the Government provide evidence on the extent to which sentencing guidelines on the mitigating factors associated with pregnancy and primary caring are being followed by sentencers? Also, can the Minister provide information on how many sentencers have completed training on safeguarding children when sentencing primary carers?

The obligation to have regard to whether somebody is a primary carer is part of the sentencing guidelines, which are mandatory and must be followed by all sentencers in all parts of the courts system. On whether this is being carried through, I point out to the right reverend Prelate that the number of women in custody has been falling consistently; we think this indicates that courts are following the guidelines properly.

My Lords, one of the most important recommendations of HM Inspectorate in looking at this tragic case was directed at the National Health Service, because the NHS has clear responsibilities in relation to not just maternity services but other services. Is the Minister satisfied that the NHS is rising to that challenge? What levers does he have if he finds problems with that?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to identify that this is an area where we need my department and the NHS to work together. The important thing is that women in prison must have access to the same standard of service that they would have in the community. We have put together a board, which goes across the MoJ and the Department of Health and Social Care, to do exactly what the noble Lord identifies: namely, make sure that our health partners are as focused on this as we are.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester—my bishop—for her valuable work with prisoners. Should we not have for offenders more modern facilities that work to educate and rehabilitate? Will the Minister look again at the study Rehabilitation by Design, which shows best practice in other countries and which I have mentioned in this House before?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that the design of prisons is important in this context. We are providing more, newer and better-designed places in the women’s estate. That has been informed by design to include things such as windows without bars, smaller units and bigger association spaces. We are also trying to remove dark, narrow corridors and blind corners, which can trigger responses. We must remember that most women in the prison estate have had very difficult pasts. We are thinking about the way we design prisons to minimise additional trauma for women when they are in prison.

My Lords, inhuman treatment and neglect are not part of any sentence handed down by British courts to anyone, let alone to pregnant women offenders. In view of the Baby A case, the circumstances of which are truly shameful, will the Government establish an independent monitoring service for pregnant prisoners to provide confidence that the standards of care are appropriate? Until that monitoring service is established, can the Minister tell us whether the Government will undertake to implement the ombudsman’s recommendations in full, and that the provision of care for such vulnerable women in our care will be pondered sufficiently?

My Lords, there is rather a lot in that. As far as the ombudsman is concerned, we and the Prison and Probation Service have accepted and completed the implementation of the recommendations. We have set up the board, which I mentioned in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. We have put a lot of money into this area. I am not convinced that setting up another inspection body is needed; we already have a very robust inspection regime for prisons, with a specific focus on prisoners with additional vulnerabilities, including pregnancy.

This is, as everybody who has read the report knows, a horrific case. I want to raise two issues. First, the Minister rightly said that the statutory position at the moment is that the same standard of care should be available in prison as is available in the community. The ombudsman’s report said that the midwife-led community approach is wholly inappropriate for a prison, where everybody should be treated as high-risk. Does the Minister not agree that the time is now right for a statutory duty to be placed on the prison authorities to ensure that the care provided is

“appropriate to a custodial setting”?

Secondly, and separately, eight prison officers came near to Ms A during the course of that horrific night and none of them spotted what was going on. Can the Minister tell us how many prison officers on duty that night had more than two years’ experience, and how many had more than five years’ experience? Our concern is that there is a lack of experience in the Prison Service. I gave the Minister some notice of this question, but not enough, probably.

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not convinced that a new statutory duty is the way to resolve this. I think the statutory framework is sufficient. What we need to ensure is that the duties are actually implemented on the ground in prisons.

So far as the staff on duty are concerned, the noble and learned Lord did give me a little bit of notice for this, as he said, but not very much. I do not have the information to hand, but the ombudsman looked at this incident in great detail and did not raise as an issue either the sufficiency of the staffing levels or the experience of the staff on duty.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, I have a further one on the training of staff in prisons. If there are six months to implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, will this include some training for all staff in women’s prisons on what to do if they suspect that early labour has started?

My Lords, all new prison officers working within the women’s estate will complete a new module on pregnancy, which is starting in January. We are also developing a two-day course for all staff working directly with pregnant women and mothers separated from young children, and that is part of our implementation strategy for our new policy for pregnant women in prison.

I was going to ask about training, but I was glad to hear that answer. On a different topic—and forgive my ignorance here—within the sentencing guidelines, how much weight is given to the cost to society when a woman who is kept on remand for a short sentence then loses her home and her children, and the children have to go into care? She would have no home when she comes out, so she could not take them back. That is a cost to society. How much weight is given within the sentencing guidelines to that sort of issue?

It is very important that the implementation of sentencing guidelines is a matter for independent judges and not government Ministers. What I can say is that judges and sentencers of all sorts have to consider the effect of the sentence not only on the person being sentenced but on people for whom they care. That will particularly apply to young children, and in the case of pregnant women it will also apply to the unborn child.