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Prison: Support for Dependent Children

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration and support they give to dependent children when their mothers are given a custodial prison sentence.

My Lords, sentencing is entirely a matter for the courts. However, my noble friend Lord Farmer’s review made it clear that pre-sentence reports should identify dependent children. Working Together to Safeguard Children sets out local area responsibilities to provide support and services. It highlights dependent children of incarcerated parents as a cohort of which practitioners should be particularly aware and to which they should provide appropriate, needs-based advice and support where needed.

I thank the Minister for that reply; I am sorry that she has a bit of a sore throat. As we know, maternal imprisonment affects every aspect of a child’s life, including their housing, education, health and well-being. An estimated 17,000 children experience their mum being sent to prison; we do not know the exact figures, so perhaps the Minister can fill us in on them. Only one in 20 of the children whose mothers are sent to prison each year can stay in the family home. What are the Government doing to improve criminal justice outcomes for women with dependent children, working with the Minister’s department for a reduction in women’s imprisonment? What efforts are being made to protect children’s rights to family life by ensuring in the sentencing framework that, where the defendant is the primary carer of a child, the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration?

The noble Baroness is right, of course, that the welfare of the child should be paramount. There has been a significant reduction in the number of women receiving custodial sentences, but the figures that she cites on the number of children who are then unable to stay in the family home are striking. We are working very hard, with our review of Working Together to Safeguard Children and our review of children’s social care, building on the important work of my noble friend Lord Farmer and the review of women in prison.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will recognise that innocent dependent children should not also experience something like a prison sentence. That being so, will she use her good offices to ensure a statement of assessment about the arrangements that will be made to ensure that young dependent children are suitably cared for while their mother is in prison?

Obviously, part of the pre-sentence report focuses on whether there are dependent children in the family, as the noble Lord knows very well. In all too many cases, when women end up in prison their children are already known to children’s services. That also presents an opportunity for earlier intervention and continuity of support and care. This also ties in with our strategy around kinship care and the support that a woman offender’s wider family can offer to her children.

My Lords, some women in prison are there on remand, and a high percentage of them do not go on to receive custodial sentences. Can we ensure that, wherever possible, if these women on remand have children they are looked after by other family members and that, if the children are taken into care, they are returned immediately if their mother does not receive a prison sentence?

We are working very hard at every stage of the process, at the point of bail decisions versus remand and at every stage beyond, to make sure that the rights and interests of the child are held paramount. Obviously, the ability to reunite a child with her mother will need to be decided on the basis of a number of issues, most importantly her capacity to safeguard her child as well as practical issues such as accommodation.

My Lords, following the response given to my right reverend friend the Bishop of Gloucester on 15 December 2021 about pre-sentence reports, can the Minister say what impact the pilot in 15 magistrates’ courts has had on the take-up, taking into account the devastating impact of parental imprisonment, when sentencing a primary carer?

The work with the pre-sentence reports is being rolled out more widely. Your Lordships will agree that the fact that a woman before them is a mother feels like quite a basic thing that the courts should take into consideration, but that is not where we have stopped. We are looking at working more with women’s centres that can offer support, including residential women’s centres, and at the conditions in which women and babies can benefit from mother and baby units.

My Lords, we already heard that around 17,000 children’s mothers are sent to prison every year. How do we know the impact of separating mothers and children when the Government collect no clear data on pregnant women and mothers in the criminal justice system?

As the noble Baroness understands very well, on one level we know the impact of separation, which is a very traumatic event, particularly for the child. We also know that separation is likely to be associated with a number of other very serious traumas for a child, including maternal mental health issues and substance misuse. We look at addressing those in the round, which is why we are working on a fundamental reform of children’s social care, to make sure that these children get the support they deserve.

Can we also look at the fact that 68% of children whose parents go to prison end up in prison themselves later on? Where is the prevention? We really need to prevent it happening again in 10 or 20 years.

Of course, we need to focus on supporting those children and trying to mitigate some of the terrible scarring effects of the trauma that they will have suffered. That is why there is an increasing focus on early help and making sure that we get consistency in that help. That is what we will be testing in the pathfinder projects, which we will launch shortly, following our review of children’s social care.

My Lords, support for carers of children whose parents are in prison can make all the difference between stable and unstable home arrangements. Hence, Spurgeons has opened a family hub in Winchester prison visitor centre, linking families to all the support available to them in their local area. How is the Department for Education’s terrific family hubs team working with the Prison Service to encourage this innovation in other prisons?

I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend for all his extraordinary work in this area, and for his generosity in acknowledging the work of my colleagues in the department. This is a great example of local innovation, and one that we will share with the National Centre for Family Hubs, which seeks to share examples of best practice. I will make sure that it is also taken back to our work with the Prison Service, and more broadly the Ministry of Justice.

My Lords, I am sure we all wish to congratulate the Minister on her sympathy for such children in this situation and the long-term effects that can occur. Does she not feel that what we voted for last night somehow has a kind of parallel in this House, when we see that children who have been affected terribly by various tragedies in their families may be separated from their parents? Do the Government not need to consider every care for those children, particularly when they may be effectively incarcerated in a kind of prison on a boat?

The Government have sought to explain just how seriously they take the safety and well-being of those children. Being complicit in some way with people traffickers is not the way we plan to do it.

Will the Minister accept that in some places in the United Kingdom where there have been a lot of problems, drugs are an element that needs to be dealt with thoroughly?

A lot of women in prison have substance use issues. That is why we are doing work in those settings to make sure that they get the therapeutic and, if necessary, addiction services they need.