On 30th October 2018 the Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek, tabled a question in the House of Lords, ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to support the children of prisoners.’
This was then followed by 5 more questions on the issue from Baronesses Bloomfield (Con), Corston (Lab), Burt (LD), Massey (Lab) and Lord Lamming (CB).
It is positive that 6 members of the House of Lords have expressed concern for the 200,000 plus children who are separated from their parents by parental imprisonment every year. I thank them for using their power and privilege to hold the Government to account.
In summary the questions asked were these:
- Can the Government commit to identify children of parents in custody as a specific group, and ensure that they and their carers receive necessary support?
- Can the Government update on the implementation of the Farmer Review recommendations?
- What progress is being made to get rid of short custodial sentences?
- Can the Government appoint a Minister to take the lead on obliging the courts to ask about the children of people being sent to prison and ensure that adequate childcare and support arrangements are in place?
- What steps can be taken to improve the use of non custodial / probation options ?
- Are the Government supporting parenthood programmes?
Baroness Vere, a conservative life peer and whip in the House of Lords, answered the questions on behalf of the Government. The answers were superficial at best and inaccurate at worst. I realise that with only 8 minutes available a limited amount can be said but I am disappointed that despite the extensive high quality research evidence available on these issues, the Government still do not have a clear vision and strategy for supporting these children.
Responding to the first question Baroness Vere was surprised to hear that children whose mother goes into prison often have to move home and are given no priority in gaining school places if they have to move area, nor do their carers receive financial support. This information is not a surprise to anyone who has read the available research (Baldwin and Epstein, 2017; What about me?, Prison Reform Trust 2018; my own work, links here) or spoken to someone who has cared for a child whose mother is in prison. Her reply that she believed carers get child benefit and working tax credit, is true, but doesn’t begin to address the additional costs a carer incurs when they find themselves caring for an additional child or children. If they already have a child, they will only receive £13.70 each week in child benefit and that will not make much impact on the costs of bedding, clothing, and feeding a child. As a point of reference foster carers are paid £254.45 per week for a child aged 11-18 and £168.28 for a child aged 0-10.
Baroness Vere’s answer to the 2nd question focused on the outward facing nature of prisons but she didn’t explain how engaging with the community outside the prison would help mothers held on average 60 miles away from their children. Again her answer betrayed a lack of understanding of the most basic issues and the need for children to have contact with their parent via FaceTime or telephone or at a visit. It is time that the Government took seriously the need to promote children’s relationships with their parents when that parent is in prison; extending the Assisted Visits finance to cover the costs of bringing children on prison visits would be an excellent starting point. I proposed this to Phillip Lee MP when he was Minister; it would cost a relatively small sum to implement and would make an enormous difference to children.
Baroness Corston asked when short sentences would become obsolete. The Justice Minister David Gauke has said publicly that he thinks this should happen. Baroness Vere said 2 things in answer to this question. Firstly she said that it’s a matter for the judiciary. What she didn’t say is that parliament could pass legislation to stop short custodial sentences or to create a presumption against custodial sentences. It is time for Parliament to act. Secondly she implied that the Government are engaging with the issue by ‘rolling out an excellent piece of work by Dr Shona Minson, Safeguarding Children when Sentencing Mothers. That is important work and we need to get that message out there’.
It is of course good to hear my work being mentioned in debate in the House of Lords but I need to add to that answer.
The work (4 films and briefing papers for professionals involved in sentencing) was wholly funded by the ESRC and the Prison Reform Trust ( and in the latter unpaid stages of dissemination by my partner’s salary, as I was not receiving any pay for the work I was doing). It has been disseminated through the efforts of the Criminal Bar Association, the Magistrates Association, the Judicial College, various NGOs, the National Probation Service, and myself.
This is the 4th time a Government minister or representative has credited the Government with ‘rolling out’ these resources. As the NPS is a government agency it is true that they have had some involvement in sharing this training resource, but it is disingenuous of the Government to give the impression that they are involved in a planned and wide scale dissemination of the resource.
However, I do appreciate their declared support for this work and I can suggest ways that we could ensure that these resources are widely viewed and used if they would like to fund continued work. I’m open to their approach on this matter. I hope that I will hear from Baroness Vere or someone in the MOJ very soon.
Baroness Vere’s response to the 4th question included an element of, perhaps unintended, victim blaming. She implied that it’s impossible to collect information at court or custody about children who may be impacted as mothers don’t want to mention their children in case they are taken into care. This is a red herring and a distraction. In my own research, and in work I have done with other organisations, I have not come across any women who have chosen not to disclose. The evidence that this happens is anecdotal only, but continues to be repeated and given as a reason for those with the power to make changes not engaging with this issue. Even if parents are reluctant to talk about their children that is not a reason to do nothing. The Government need to put in place measures to ensure that parents know that if they tell someone at court or in custody about their children there will be support provided to those children.
The next question was about probation and the final question about parenting programmes. It is important that the Government take on board the recommendations of the recent report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System on the Sentencing of Women, that sentences of less than 12 months should not be used for women. Discussion of parenting programmes or outward facing prisons is meaningless within a context where a child is in a household that can’t afford to bring them to visit their parent and even telephone calls are too costly.
If the Government would like to think more about how they can support children whose parent in in prison or at risk of imprisonment here are my suggestions based on the most up to date research evidence:
- There should be a Sentencing Guideline setting out the courts’ duty to uphold the rights of a child whose parent is before the court for sentencing,
- Upon reception into custody either on remand or when sentenced, there should be a duty to ascertain whether a person in prison is the parent of dependent children and for that information to be recorded and shared as appropriate
- Such children should be identified as children in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. This should be automatic and apply across every local authority in England and Wales
- Such children should be supported by extra financial resources being made available to those who take on their care during the period of parental imprisonment
- The adults who take on the care of such children should be recognised as carers meaning that should they have to give up work and receive state benefits, they will not be expected to be available for work and be sanctioned for their non-availability
- Such children should be supported to visit their parents through better supported visiting schemes including payment for taxis when prisons are a long way from train and bus stations
- Prison visiting times should be set with regard to the times at which children are at school and their adult carers may be at work
- Extra payments should be made to schools who have enrolled children of prisoners to make it possible to provide the children with extra resource and support (including pastoral and learning support)
- Healthcare professionals, social workers, teachers, legal professionals, prison staff should be trained so that they understand the trauma involved for children in being separated from their parents
- Families should be given support to come together again after imprisonment, where this is the desire of the children and parent and there are no risks to the children. This means that women being released from prison who have no housing should be prioritised for housing with their children. They should not be told that because their children don’t live with them they are not priority as they cannot have their children with them if they have no accommodation.
Featured art ‘ Back Together’ Pastel on paper. Samantha, HMPYOI Low Newton. Exhibited in Koestler Art exhibition 2018. ‘I moved prisons last year in September. I have not seen my children in a year now. I can’t wait for the day we are back together.’