The Government’s REsponse to Covid-19: Human Rights implications

The Joint Committee on Human Rights today published the report of their enquiry into the human rights implications of the government’s response to Covid-19. The 96 pages cover the legal and regulatory frameworks that have been imposed, health and care, lockdown, contact tracing, children’s right to education, access to justice, the right to life, accountability and detention.

The Committee propose that ‘the Government must urgently address a number of issues to ensure that its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic is human rights compliant.’ They make 55 recommendations to the government and three of them (18,19,20) have implications for children who have a parent in prison.

Rights of people in detention

There is no doubt that the rights and wellbeing of children whose parents are in prison are of concern to the Committee. In the press release which accompanied the report it said ‘The Committee is deeply concerned about the human rights of people in various types of detention. The measures taken during lockdown and beyond have breached the right to family life of both those detained and of their loved ones. Resuming visits across all settings, including prisons, hospitals and care homes must be a priority as soon as it is safe to do so.’

Several times now we have expressed our dismay over the Government’s treatment of people in detention, and once again we must impress on the Government the urgency of resuming visits as soon as possible. We cannot know how long coronavirus will impact us, but we heard how devastating being separated from one’s family can be for those in care homes, in prison and detained in mental health facilities and this cannot continue for much longer. Blanket bans on visits are not justifiable.

Harriet Harman MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights


The section of the report which deals with visits to people in prison is set out in full below.


113. The suspension of all prison visiting is a serious interference with the right of prisoners and their families to respect for private and family life (Article 8 ECHR) and should not be imposed in a blanket fashion. (Khoroshenko v Russia [2015] ECHR 637 at paragraph 126, citing Trosin v Ukraine). The impact of the lack of visits on prisoners and their families has been significant. Dr. Shona Minson, University of Oxford, carried out interviews during lockdown with parents and carers looking after children who have a parent is prison:

“Almost all of the children included in the research have had increased anxiety about their parents …The new behaviours among children since the cessation of contact include but are not limited to: disrupted sleep; self-harm; co-sleeping; panic attacks; weight loss; development of an eating disorder; withdrawal from the family; nightmares; anger; clinginess; physical aggression towards others in their household. Almost all of the children have been reported as experiencing sadness, anxiety and crying.” Dr Shona Minson

114. Evidence compiled by the Prison Reform Trust reveals a gap between what was promised by the Government in terms of measures to make up for the loss of social visits and what has so far been delivered on the ground. For example, despite a commitment that video calls would begin to be introduced in prisons, so far, they have been rolled out to just 40 of the 120 establishments on the prison estate in England and Wales. (Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, Secure video calls with prisoners, updated 23 July 2020)

115. Blanket visiting bans in prisons are incompatible with the right to family life (Article 8 ECHR). Any restriction on visiting rights must be shown to be necessary and proportionate in each individual case. As soon as it is safe to do so, prison visiting must resume as a matter of priority in all prisons.

116. In accordance with the Government’s commitments, in-cell telephones and facilities to make video calls must be installed in all prisons and young offenders institutions without delay, so that in the event that it is necessary to restrict prison visits again in the future, the technology is available to allow prisoners to maintain contact with their families and loved ones.

Mothers in prison

117. Last year we reported on the harmful effect a mother being sent to prison has on her dependent children ( Joint Committee on Human Rights, Twenty-Second Report of Session 2017–19, The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison, HC 1610 / HL Paper 411). In July this year we published a further report on the issue in the context of the Covid-19 outbreak ( Joint Committee on Human Rights, Sixth Report of Session 2019–21, Human Rights and the Government’s response to Covid-19: children whose mothers are in prison). Restrictions on visits, and the seeming inability of the Government’s early release programme to reunite a large number of mothers with their children, have put at risk the right to family life of up to an estimated 17,000 children of mothers in prison.

118. We recommended that children must be allowed to visit their mothers in prison on a socially distanced basis, where it is safe for them to do so. Restrictions on visiting rights, where they do exist, must be both necessary and proportionate in each individual case. The Government’s early release schemes have not gone far or fast enough in reuniting children with their mothers; just 16 women from Mother and Baby Units and seven pregnant women had been released at that point. We called on the Government to immediately temporarily release from prison all remaining pregnant women and those in mother and baby units and to consider an extension of their current policy to all mothers of dependent children where those mothers have been individually risk-assessed as posing no, or low, risk to public safety. The report also made recommendations to improve the availability of data, and for arrangements to be made for prisoners to be able to attend funerals remotely.

119. On 20 July we wrote to the Prisons’ Minister. We asked her to provide information about the lack of appropriate accommodation for women leaving prison under the temporary release scheme and explain what further efforts have been made to secure such accommodation. In her response the Minister told us that exceptional funding to provide accommodation had been extended to 31 August 2020. We welcome this, along with the news that progress is being made to improve the available data on the number of mothers who have been sent to prison during the lockdown period. We were pleased to hear that video calling technology has now been rolled out across the entire Women’s Estate.

120. At the time of writing the Government had not yet responded to our July 2020 report “Human Rights and the Government’s response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison”. We urge them to commit to implementing our recommendations from this report in full at the earliest opportunity.

Joint Committee on Human Rights

How has the interference with rights impacted children?

The Committee heard evidence and invited written submissions, including oral evidence from families directly affected by parental imprisonment, and a submission from the charity Children Heard and Seen who provide support to children who have an imprisoned parent. Both are harrowing reading.

My submission to the Committee was based on research I conducted between the 24th April and 13th June 2020, with parents and carers looking after children who had a parent is prison. I collected information about the experiences of 63 children in England and Wales aged between 3 months and 18 years. For eight children it was their mother who was in prison; for 46 children their father was in prison and for five children both parents were in prison. On a very rough intitial analysis of the data the government’s handling of the pandemic in prison impacted on children in four distinct ways:

  1. Direct impact on children
  2. Impact on the child’s relationship with the parent in prison
  3. Impact of the restricted regime on the parent in prison and the impact of that on the child
  4. Impact on parents, grandparents or others who are caring for children

1.Direct impact on children

Almost all of the children included in the research had increased anxiety about their parent – most commonly about their parents’ health and whether they would die in prison without their child seeing them again.  When stockpiling was an issue at the start of lockdown some children worried that their parent wouldn’t get enough to eat in prison.

The new behaviours among children since the cessation of contact included but were not limited to: disrupted sleep; self-harm; co-sleeping; panic attacks; weight loss; development of an eating disorder; withdrawal from the family; nightmares; anger; clinginess; physical aggression towards others in their household. Almost all of the children had been reported as experiencing sadness, anxiety and crying.

2. Impact on the child’s relationship with the parent in prison

Since 23rd March the only way most children have been able to have contact with their parent in prison has been by telephone. Children who are pre-verbal, and many who are very young or disabled are unable to engage with this form of communication. The consequence of this is that children who fall into those groups have had what has amounted to a complete cessation of contact with their family.

22 of the children whose experiences were reported to me were aged five and under, with four being less than 12 months old, and the issues for those children related to losing interest in the parent, and no longer seeming to understand the connection they have with them.  The JCHR report of 3rd July 2020 provided a harrowing account of a baby crawling from room to room ‘calling’ for his mother. It’s well established that attachments in the first few years of life are critical to children’s long-term wellbeing and the blanket ban on visits with no efforts to reduce the loss by providing virtual visits is likely to have long term consequences for these children.

3. Impacts of the restricted regime on the parent in prison and the impact of that on the child

Two different issues were reported in the research with regard to the way the restricted regime was affecting the imprisoned parents and the consequences of that for the children.

Firstly, carers referred to the parent in prison become depressed and down because of the lack of family contact. This made it difficult for them to stay positive when speaking to their children on the telephone.

Secondly, in one instance the parent in prison had cut off all contact with his ten year old child, as he found it too painful to not be able to tell her when she would see him again. The child had therefore entirely lost the parental relationship and had begun to self-harm.

4.Impact on parents, grandparents or others who are caring for children

Parents and grandparents were finding it very difficult to look after children to whom they could give no answers about when they will see their parents again. Carers described themselves, as anxious, down, depressed, reaching breaking point. This in turn impacts the children. The stability of the carer/ child bond during parental imprisonment can be a protective factor if the carer is well supported, but if the carer is struggling then it becomes a negative factor for the child.

What now ?

6 months from the start of the lockdown in prisons I am concerned that with a rising number of cases, the small steps that have been taken to open up avenues for family contact will be closed down again, and today’s report may prove to be nothing but (another) marker in the sand.

But it doesn’t need to end here and the current trajectory of harm doesn’t need to be continued. Going forward the government should put additional funding and support into services supporting these children, more reliable video visits, and supporting family reunification after parental release. Lockdowns both inside and outside prisons look like they will be part of our national life for some time, and it is not too late for changes to be made which prioritise children’s wellbeing in conjunction with public health in prisons.

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