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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, to the House. I found his contribution amusing, interesting and informative and echo the hope of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws that he will become a critical scrutiniser of the legislation that the Government put before your Lordships’ House.
When a person is remanded in custody or sent to prison, there is no requirement for courts to identify children or dependent adults who an individual in those circumstances may leave behind. Nor is there an obligation to consider what arrangements, if any, have been made for their care—a point made by my noble friend Lord Judd.
Through the Bill, we have the opportunity to rectify that failure and help to protect those who are often put in extremely vulnerable positions when their parent or carer is sent to prison. The Families Left Behind campaign, which is supported by Action for Prisoners’ Families, the Prisoner Advice and Care Trust and the NSPCC, wants that changed, and I believe that it is right. There should be a duty on courts to ask about dependants and caring arrangements at the point that a custodial sentence is passed or bail refused. The courts can then make a referral to the relevant local authority if a child or vulnerable adult appears to be left at risk. That is a sensible measure that will identify and assist those without immediate care before they reach crisis point, and I hope that it will receive support from all sides of the House.
The scale of this issue is far from negligible. An estimated 200,000 children in England and Wales experience the imprisonment of a parent every year. Although many will have appropriate arrangements in place, the consequences for those who do not may be disastrous. The charities supporting this campaign are only too familiar with the plight of children left in the care of people who are unprepared, unwilling or unable to provide the support that they need.
One example is that of Yvonne. When she was sent to prison, her seven year-old son was left with her friends. It gradually transpired that he was not being properly cared for and was regularly left alone in their house at night while they went out to parties. They also prevented him visiting or phoning his mother. The immense anxiety experienced by both mother and child is an outrageously unjust punishment caused simply by a small and easily remedied oversight in existing legislation. Ultimately, after more than nine months, Yvonne’s son was taken into care, but throughout that nine-month period he was consistently neglected and isolated from his mother.
That is just one distressing example of an entirely needless situation that currently exists. In some cases, children have been left alone or passed to other adults without the parent’s knowledge, and it has taken hours or even days to establish their whereabouts. On Brenda’s first night in custody she was not even aware of her child's whereabouts. Her support worker had to contact four different local authorities before eventually discovering that her daughter had been hospitalised. That is a horrific situation for any parent to be in, compounded by the trauma of imprisonment. Similarly, older or disabled people are put at risk under the current system.
There is no official estimate of how many offenders provide care to a friend or family member prior to their imprisonment, but the figure could realistically run into the thousands, considering that the current prison population stands at about 84,000 and approximately one in eight of Britain’s adult population has caring responsibilities.
When a carer does not return from court, even a short interruption to the support that they normally provide can have a significant impact. That is especially so when it involves help with medication or preparing meals. Identifying caring responsibilities at the point when bail is refused or a custodial sentence is passed should therefore be of the utmost importance.
Beyond the very clear moral case, there is also a strong economic argument for early intervention if people are left in a precarious situation when their parent or carer is sent to prison. If a child’s safety is put at risk, necessitating police involvement, or if a vulnerable adult is left without care and their health deteriorates as a result, the cost invariably falls upon the public purse. Yet many such situations could realistically be averted by requiring courts to make a straightforward inquiry about dependants and an appropriate referral if necessary. Early intervention is always best for those concerned and invariably the most cost-efficient measure. It would not require any new or extra services; it would simply help to ensure that those needing support are recognised at the earliest opportunity and signposted towards the assistance that they are entitled to.
It is a key principle of our criminal justice system that innocent people are not punished for the actions of others. In another case brought to my attention, that of a woman named Hope, I discovered just how the current gap in legislation sees entirely innocent people punished for others’ misdemeanours. On Hope’s imprisonment the burden of care for her six children fell on the shoulders of her 19 year-old son. The burdens unfairly placed on this young man meant that he struggled to access services to which the family were entitled, and eventually an acquaintance started demanding money from him. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an offender’s imprisonment, we should take every step possible to mitigate the impact on their dependants and never leave anyone without a decent standard of care.
Of course, I do not expect an immediate response from the Minister today but I invite the Government to examine the merits of this argument and perhaps bring forward amendments in Committee to guarantee that in these situations children, older people and those with disabilities receive the support they need and deserve.