The Lord Bishop of Gloucester:
Moved by The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
85: After Clause 132, insert the following new Clause—“Pre-sentence report requirements (1) Section 30 of the Sentencing Act 2020 is amended as follows.(2) After subsection (3) insert—“(3A) A court must make inquiries to establish whether the offender is a primary carer for a child.(3B) If the court establishes that the offender is a primary carer for a child, unless there are exceptional circumstances before sentencing the offender the court must obtain a pre-sentence report containing information to enable the court to make an assessment of the impact of a custodial sentence on the child.”(3) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) In this section—(a) “child” means a person under the age of 18; and(b) “primary carer” means a person who has primary or substantial care responsibilities for a child.””Member’s explanatory statementThis Clause amends section 30 of the Sentencing Act 2020 to make clear the requirement for a sentencing judge to have a copy of a pre-sentence report, considering the impact of a custodial sentence on the dependent child, when sentencing a primary carer of a child.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 85 I will speak also to the other amendments in my name in the group. I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord German. I am very grateful for the briefing and expertise provided to me by the organisation Women in Prison and I declare my interest as Anglican Bishop for Her Majesty’s Prisons.
In Committee I highlighted the injustice of punishing a child for their parent’s mistakes and I will not go over that ground again. But I want to frame this discussion by reminding us that when a parent goes to prison it can affect every area of a child’s life, from losing their familiar home and school through to reduced educational achievement and mental and physical well-being. The consequences can last a lifetime.
It is also important to highlight again that the imprisonment of a household member is one of 10 adverse childhood experiences known to have a significant negative impact on a child’s long-term well-being, including life expectancy. It raises the possibility of children being imprisoned themselves at some point in their lives. However, I want to be very clear on that point that there is nothing genetic about offending. If a child is failed by the system, left disenfranchised and excluded, we have failed them. We must do all we can to ensure that children can reach their potential.
In response to the Government’s counter-arguments in Committee I wish to make three points, knowing that other noble Lords will provide more detail. First, on pre-sentence reports, the Minister said in Committee that
“a request to the court for an adjournment in order to prepare a pre-sentence report is considered mandatory in cases involving primary carers”.—[
However, as I understand it, the sentencer does not have to accede to that request and a PSR will be obtained only if the sentencer requests it. Making it mandatory for probation to request a PSR still does not create an obligation on a sentencer to request one.
Over the past decade there has been a decline in PSR volumes and a shift from written to oral PSRs. There are three delivery methods of pre-sentence reports: oral reports and fast delivery reports are both usually delivered on the same day as the court hearing by the court duty probation officer, while standard delivery reports require more detail and are delivered after an adjournment of up to 15 days to obtain additional information.
A research and analysis bulletin from HM Inspectorate of Probation in 2020 found that the recent shift towards oral PSRs, with a focus on speed and timeliness, has impacted on the quality of information provided to courts. In 2018-2019 58% of reports were orally delivered rather than written, twice as many as in 2012-2013, while 39% were fast delivery reports and only 3% were standard delivery reports. I am encouraged that between March and May 2021 a pilot commenced between the Ministry of Justice, HMCTS and the probation service of an alternative delivery model to increase the number of cases receiving pre-sentence reports from 53% to 75%. I note that women are identified as one of three primary cohorts for higher-quality reports on the day.
However, I believe the pilot focuses on delivering written fast delivery reports for women produced on the same day rather than full standard pre-sentence reports, which would enable more time for information to be sought in relation to children and the impact of a sentence on them. It is true that some sentencers request pre-sentence reports when sentencing a primary carer, but not all do. The point of this amendment is to ensure that judges and magistrates have the full picture when sentencing.
I come to sentencing guidelines. Provided by the Sentencing Council to judges and magistrates, they already acknowledge the devastating impact of parental imprisonment. In Committee, the Minister said:
“Courts are required by law to follow those guidelines, and the guidelines specify that being a ‘Sole or primary carer for dependent relatives’ is a mitigating factor when sentencing an offender.”—[Official Report, 1/11/21; col. 1039.]
It is my understanding that being a sole or primary carer can be a mitigating factor, but it is up to the judge to decide whether they consider it as such, so it is left to the sentencer’s discretion whether they consider it a factor which should change the sentence. It therefore cannot be said that the guidelines create an obligation on sentencers to consider dependent children.
On the ground, there is evidence that these guidelines are not always being consistently and robustly applied. Dr Shona Minson has carried out research into the application of the guidelines being applied in sentencing. She spoke with 20 Crown Court judges and asked:
“What kind of personal mitigation most often influences you in sentencing decisions?”
Half of the judges interviewed thought of family dependants. Half of them did not. So it seems that judges do not take a consistent view on the relevance of dependants as a factor in mitigation. According to Dr Minson’s research, judicial understanding of the guidelines in case law, which set out the duties of the court in relation to considering dependants in sentencing, is limited and, at times, incorrect.
In Committee, the Minister said that the judiciary “get it” when it comes to sentencing mothers. I think that this assertion needs testing. In fact, we simply do not know the number of women in prison who are primary carers, so it is no more than speculation to say that judges “get it” on this issue. If the Minister is basing his assertion on the decline in the number of women in prison, the latest annual prison population projections explain that this recent decline
“is likely driven by a drop in prosecutions and sentencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic … lockdowns have affected the mix of cases brought to criminal courts and restricted the courts’ ability to process cases”.
Between 2013 and 2019, the women’s prison population remained relatively consistent. Indeed, the fact that 500 new women’s places are being built is not a sign that women’s prison places are projected to fall.
Finally, I come to the importance of data. I was really encouraged to read in the recently published White Paper on the prisons strategy that the Government intend to
“begin recording data on prisoners’ family circumstances and caring responsibilities, and conduct analysis to better understand the circumstances and needs of offenders.”
I applaud and welcome this as a step in the right direction. Without data, we are making policy in the dark. I should welcome confirmation from the Minister on the timeline for this. Amendment 88 in this group asks that this data be collected at sentencing, disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, sentence and offender type, and made publicly available. I should welcome further discussions with the Minister to ensure that we are collecting the right type of information.
In conclusion, as a Christian, I believe that each precious and unique child is made in the image of God and must be treated with dignity and respect. I know from the work of charities such as Children Heard and Seen the devastating impact that losing a parent to prison can have on a child of any age. Research from the Prison Reform Trust found that children with a parent in prison felt invisible. We must consider the rights of children to a family life. At the heart of these amendments is not a plea never to send a mother—or, indeed, a father—to prison. Instead, I hope that we might work towards preventing long-term harm for children whose parents have done wrong but for whom a community penalty is more appropriate for both the offender and the children. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I will be listening carefully but, at this point, I flag that I am minded to test the opinion of the House on the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak—briefly at this hour—to this group of amendments and declare my interest in the register, particularly as a trustee and vice-chair of the Prison Reform Trust.
I strongly support these amendments, which have been so effectively moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. I support everything she said. It is essential that the courts fully take into account primary caring responsibilities, especially for a child, in their sentencing decisions and recognise the consequences of not doing so on the impact on the child and the family.
I will not repeat all the arguments that I made in Committee, but, as we have heard, the key document before the courts at sentencing is the pre-sentence report. However, as the charity Women in Prison has pointed out in its supplementary evidence to the Justice Select Committee, the information from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service shows a real decline in proper pre-sentence reports over the past decade. In 2010, for example, pre-sentence reports were available for 62% of all court disposals, reducing to only 53% in 2018. Almost half of the sentences that result in a custodial or community order have no new pre-sentence report prepared to inform the sentence. We have heard—and I support—the improvements that are being looked at in this area but that is the current situation and it must be urgently addressed.
Further, there is a lack of data to disaggregate those figures according to gender. In answer to a Parliamentary Question in 2019, the Government could not say how many women who are likely to be the primary carer had been imprisoned without a pre-sentence report. This remains totally unacceptable. Even where a pre-sentence report is available, it does not routinely provide information to the court about caring responsibilities. As I said in Committee, and it is worth repeating, in January 2021 I asked a Parliamentary Written Question about how many children in each of the past five years were taken into care because their mother was given a custodial sentence. Extraordinarily, the Answer was that the data requested was not something that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service recorded. I am pleased to hear that it is now addressing that issue, but I again ask the Minister with what action and over what timescale will this matter be addressed.
Or course, prisons collect information on caring responsibility, but at the point of prison reception. That is simply too late. The damage to the child and the family has been done, especially for those sentenced to a short prison sentence. We can and must do better. The pre-sentence report must include information about primary care responsibility. Data from various sources must be brought together. They include: the local authority, which currently has responsibility for safeguarding children; the health service, because of the impact on the family and individual; and particularly liaison and diversion services. There must be agreed information-sharing protocols.
We must invest further in technology to ensure that information can flow seamlessly across the criminal justice pathway so that there are no barriers to the information being available to the judiciary in a timely way, ideally at first court appearance. Delaying getting that information can mean that the woman in the example I am giving is put on remand while that information is collected. Again, damage to the child and the family flows from that decision. We must try to reduce the number of people put on remand who have primary carer responsibilities. These amendments would underpin this ambition, and will be a significant step forward in limiting the damage, both social and economic, of imposing a custodial sentence—often a short one—which has the impact on the family, instead of administering a robust community sentence.
Ensuring a clear understanding of primary carer responsibilities will mitigate against the often-irreversible consequences for children of being taken into care, and the primary carer losing their home and employment. I am sure that the Government can see the overriding benefits of this, and will, like me, support these amendments tonight.
My Lords, I rise briefly to offer Green support to the right reverend Prelate, who so powerfully introduced these amendments. Indeed, the stress on the need for information is absolutely crucial.
I want to make a very specific point on how the damage of a prison sentence can be magnified where a prisoner who has primary carer responsibilities—most likely a woman—is then subject to recall to prison for a further time. I am drawing here on a report from the Centre for Women’s Justice, which notes:
“The Transforming Rehabilitation Act 2014 provided that all offenders who had served prison sentences of more than one day should be compelled to attend probation supervision for one year. They can be recalled to prison if probation staff find they have failed to comply satisfactorily. Women on licence recall now make up 8% of women in custody.”
That is a truly shocking and surprising figure. This reports notes that the main reason for recall is
“failure to keep in touch with the supervising officer”,
rather than some more serious offence.
A report by the Prison Reform Trust noted that, of 24 women recalled, three had been pregnant at the time of recall. One said that the reason why she failed to attend an appointment was due to a hospital visit for a pregnancy scan. She was then separated from her other children and put back into prison, with further massive disruption obviously resulting. Will the Minister look into this situation? This is part of the sentencing guidelines, but there is a particular issue here in respect of probation and the way in which women—or anyone with caring responsibilities—are treated in this situation.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate for her dedicated work in this matter. We could see her laser-like approach to looking at each of the issues facing this group of people, which are clearly addressed in these amendments. These amendments cover a range of issues, but I would like to take up the points already made by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about data.
It is interesting that on
“We do not hold current figures on how many women in prison aged (1) 18 to 24 or (2) 25 years or older have dependent children.”
I appreciate that there is attention being given to this for the future, but I can only echo the words that, if you do not know, then you are going to be making policy in the dark, as the right reverend Prelate said right at the beginning.
However, figures have been produced by the Howard League. I think it gained these figures by doing an analysis of what it could glean from talking to prison governors and staff. We know that women make up 5% of the prison population but are more likely than male prisoners to be serving short sentences for non-violent offences. The majority of those women experienced childhood abuse, and many are victims of domestic abuse, so they are more likely than male prisoners to report poor mental health and problems with alcohol and drugs.
Here is the crucial figure: the Howard League says that two-thirds of female prisoners are mothers of dependent children, and that at least a third of these are single parents. That means around 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year, and the vast majority of them are moved out of their homes as a result. I am sure that every noble Lord here can understand the strong detrimental effect that has on their development and well-being. The harsh impact on the welfare of their mothers goes far beyond the impact of the imprisonment itself.
There was a review of women in prison in 2006-07 by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. One of the outcomes of that was women’s centres, which have so far proved very effective at keeping women out of prison. However, there are insufficient numbers of them, and they are insufficiently well resourced. We need to enlarge that figure considerably.
The important feature here is the future. We understand that the Government now intend to collect the right data, so that we can inform our policy-making. The issue of recall, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about just now, is a specific issue and one that has a double effect, of course, because sometimes the reason for being recalled is very slender. The children’s lives are then doubly affected.
Finally, I go back to the number of children. A substantial number of children in this country are moved out of their homes and lack the family basis on which they are being brought up. We must recognise that this specific factor—all the other factors range with it—affects the future of those children. If nothing else, this series of amendments must put right, full and square, that the welfare of the child is fundamental in everything we do. There is an awful lot that we need to do, and these amendments reflect that.
My Lords, one of the children to whom my noble friend refers gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when I was a member and we were looking at the impacts on children of imprisonment of mothers in particular—and fathers too. That child had been 15, I think, and found herself going from literally dancing around the living room to music when her mother was in court to finding herself responsible, as she saw it, for herself and her younger brother. The impact is devastating. I do not want to spend any longer on this at this time of night, but I thank the people who give evidence to committees such as the JCHR and the all-party groups about this sort of situation. It is very vivid and helps us to understand better than we can from words on paper just how devastating this situation can be.
My Lords, I have also put my name to these amendments, so ably moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, and I support them. I have to confess that, as she was speaking to each amendment, I was mentally going through the processes I go through as a sentencer. She introduced her comments by talking about probation reports. As I have mentioned, I became a magistrate about 14 years ago, when there were no oral reports, and fast-delivery reports were only just being introduced. Most of the time, we saw standard reports. There has been an evolution over the last 14 years. There are oral reports, fast-delivery reports and standard reports. In the youth court we have far more enhanced reports, which are 10 to 20 pages long, and in the domestic abuse courts we will be more informed of the family situation when sentencing somebody convicted of a domestic abuse-related offence.
I do support these amendments. The reports put in front of magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts need to be appropriate, and, of course, they need to include the family circumstances of the person being sentenced. The great dilemma, in any system, is to get enough information in a timely manner but not so much that it delays things. I remember that when oral reports were first introduced in magistrates’ courts, we very much appreciated that, because we had experienced probation officers who would interview the offender on the day and come to the court and tell us the various pros and cons of the sentencing options. We knew those probation officers and trusted them to give us a balanced view and guidance on the appropriateness of certain sentences.
That is a good example I have just given. There are, of course, less good examples where we may not have been made aware of the family responsibilities of the person we were sentencing, and there is an absolutely consistent dilemma, whenever one is sentencing, over whether one has a whole picture.
As I say, I support these amendments. This is all based on the data. It is about having appropriate data at the time and about recognising the domestic situation and whether there are responsibilities. Everyone here today has mentioned the position of children, but a lot of people I sentenced also had responsibilities for older parents or other caring responsibilities, and that needs to be taken account of as well.
While I support these amendments, I think more can be done. Reports need to be focused in the right way, and the probation service needs to build on its links with appropriate local social services, as it does when I sentence domestic abuse-related incidents. Much more needs to be done, and I will support the right reverend Prelate if she decides to press her amendments to a vote.
My Lords, this group of amendments relates to primary carers in the criminal justice system. We debated it at some length during previous stages, and, as I noted in Committee, the proposed new clauses have their origins in previous work by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Let me just take a moment to echo the tribute paid by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to those who give evidence to that committee and the other committees of this House. While the Government support the principle behind these amendments and have listened carefully to the arguments in support of them, we are still not persuaded that they are necessary.
I will explain the Government’s reasoning regarding each of these proposed new clauses. Amendment 88 would require the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to collect data centrally and publish it annually on how many people sentenced have parental responsibility for a child or children under the age of 18 or are pregnant. We have publicly acknowledged the gaps in our current data collection on primary carers in prison and believe that understanding the position in prison is where we should focus our improvement efforts regarding data. This will provide an evidence base to develop policy solutions to offer proper support to primary carers who are imprisoned, and their children.
I am sorry that progress has been so slow, but I am pleased to say that the necessary changes to the basic custody screening tool will be made during the first quarter of the coming year. From that point we will be able to collect data on primary carers in prison and the numbers of their children. An important caveat is that our data collection is necessarily dependent on prisoners declaring the information. Although we do our best to encourage people to provide information, there will always be some people who, for various reasons, do not disclose what the underlying position is. We continue to look at this issue to ensure that our data collection is as good as it can be. I heard the right reverend Prelate say that she would be keen to continue discussions on that point. She knows from previous issues that I am very happy to discuss this with her. I will keep her informed of our progress.
Amendment 88 also refers to collecting data on women who are pregnant when they are sentenced. The Government’s view is that the primary focus should be on those who are pregnant and sentenced to custody. We have already taken steps to acknowledge previous weaknesses in our data collection. We are now collecting and publishing data on the number of pregnant women in prison in the HMPPS annual digest, which contains a weekly average for self-declared pregnancies, and the total number of births to women held in custody over the year, in location categories.
On the closely linked topic of maternity services in prisons, this week I met the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, to discuss the breadth of work already completed and under way to address learning from the appalling “Baby A” case, as per the existing statutory obligations. I am grateful to her for the time that she spent discussing the matter with me. HMPPS has accepted and completed all the PPO recommendations. The PPO’s recommendations for health have either been completed or are in the process of being completed.
This work includes investment by NHS England and NHS Improvement of recurrent funding for an improved maternity service at HMP Bronzefield that will be delivered by Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. All the work that we have completed or are in the process of implementing is set out in a joint action plan that we have submitted to the PPO, and which is available publicly on its website. Nationally, as part of the jointly commissioned women’s estate health and social care review, a perinatal steering group has overseen the development of a pregnancy and post-pregnancy service specification for health and justice commissioners. Publication is anticipated for early next year.
Turning to Amendments 86, 87 and 105, which concern remand and sentencing decisions in cases involving primary carers and pregnant women, I will not repeat the points that I made in Committee, but we consider these amendments unnecessary, since a series of relevant and adequate considerations for courts making such decisions are set out in relevant case law and sentencing guidelines, and, as I dealt with on earlier groups today, ensure that custody is a last resort in all cases.
The case law and the sentencing guidelines, which the courts have to follow, are clear that courts should give full and proper consideration to the fact that someone is either a pregnant woman or a primary carer. However, without wishing to diminish the importance of their consideration, we have to acknowledge that courts have to consider various and often complex circumstances relating to the offence or the offender. Regrettably, there will be cases where the risks posed by the individual or the seriousness of the offending is such that, despite the existence of dependents, custody is deemed necessary.
I listened carefully to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord German, about recall. In the time that I have had to respond specifically to that point, I can tell them that in the three years from June 2018 to June 2021 there was an 18% decrease in the number of women recalled to custody while the comparable decrease for men was 4%. So I acknowledge that there is an issue on recall and I am happy to continue that conversation, but the position has got better.
However, we are clear that delivering public protection and confidence across the system is not just about the better use of custody. As set out in our female offender strategy, we want fewer women serving short sentences in custody and more being managed in the community. As part of that strategy, we have committed to piloting residential women’s centres, which will offer an intensive residential support package in the community for women at risk of short custodial sentences.
I turn to Amendment 85. As I set out in Committee, current legislation already requires the court to obtain a pre-sentence report in all cases unless the court deems it unnecessary on the facts of the case—for example, if the offender had been before the court three weeks earlier and a pre-sentence report was obtained then. This requirement is reflected in the sentencing guidelines, which courts have to follow. When sentencers request pre-sentence reports, guidance introduced in 2019 mandates probation practitioners to request an adjournment to allow time to prepare a comprehensive pre-sentence report in all cases involving primary carers and for those at risk of custody.
I am keen to reassure the right reverend Prelate that a key objective of this Government’s reforms is to improve both the quality and the prevalence of pre-sentence reports in the justice system. We heard first-hand experience from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the quality of pre-sentence reports, which can be extremely good. We want to ensure that that quality is consistently good.
I am looking at the glass as half full. I acknowledge their variability but we want to improve their standard across the board. It is a little simplistic, if I may respectfully say so, always to assume that a written report is better than an oral report. I know the noble Lord was not making that point but I have heard it elsewhere. He was quite clear from his experience that a good oral report may be better than a written report.
If appropriate, exactly; it all depends. The sentencers have experience of the nature of the reports that are appropriate in each case.
On that point, we acknowledged in our sentencing White Paper that pre-sentence reports have decreased over the last decade. We specify in the White Paper that, although we do not propose to alter current judicial discretion, we want to build the evidence base around pre-sentence reports. We therefore commenced a pilot scheme in 15 magistrates’ courts in May this year, in collaboration with the judiciary and HMCTS. It strategically targets female offenders, and some other cohorts, for fuller written pre-sentence reports. The process evaluation will be published in autumn next year and will give us the evidence base to drive improvements in pre-sentence reports and make future decisions. We want to preserve a balance between the current legislation and sentencing guidelines and the independence of judicial decision-making. We very much hope and expect that that pilot scheme, which takes into account operational considerations in the courts as well, will enable us to improve the position significantly.
I hope that what I have said—I hope not at too great a length—will persuade the right reverend Prelate and noble Lords that the Government share the concerns underpinning these amendments and, importantly, that existing law and practice, together with the action we are already taking, make these amendments unnecessary. I invite the right reverend Prelate to withdraw the amendment.
It is good to hear what the Minister has to say. Some of those points were things that I challenged when I talked about the mandatory comments on PSRs. It was good to hear the Minister say, “We want to improve things; we want to improve the quality”. This amendment would ensure that the “I want” becomes something in legislation. I would go back as far as the Farmer review, where, even then, the issue of the potential for inconsistency in PSRs was raised.
There is still a gap between what is being said and the evidence. For that reason, although I know it is late, I would like to test the opinion of the House. This amendment would not in any way compromise the decision-making discretion of judges but, I hope, would be useful in assisting judges by ensuring that they have all the right information. Although it is late—I cannot help that—I would like to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 85.
Ayes 30, Noes 79.