Amendment 172

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 25 March 2024.

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The Lord Bishop of Gloucester:

Moved by The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

172: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—“Data collection in relation to children of prisonersThe Secretary of State must collect and publish annual data identifying—(a) how many prisoners are the primary carers of a child,(b) how many children have a primary carer who is a prisoner, and(c) the ages of those children.”

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, tabled this amendment, to which I am very pleased to add my name in support and to move it today in this final stage of Committee on the Bill. In his absence, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord for his commitment to the families of prisoners. This is also an issue which I know my right reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury cares deeply about, as well.

This amendment was selected for Report stage in the other place but not discussed. Introduced by Harriet Harman, it is an important progress chaser to the Government’s response to the 2019 report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which she then chaired. This proposed new clause would require the Secretary of State to collect and publish annual data, identifying how many prisoners are primary carers of a child or children, how many children have a primary carer in prison, and the ages of those children. Its inclusion would be highly appropriate for this Bill, which focuses on both victims and prisoners.

When a parent is committed to custody, their child should not also receive a sentence; they should not be punished or overlooked as a result of their parent’s crime. When a primary carer, or indeed any parent, is removed from the home, children and other family members are deprived of a provider of care and income. Often a shadow world of shame and stigma begins, which can haunt them throughout life and put them at risk of getting caught up in the criminal justice system themselves. If we are to prevent offending and anti-social behaviour then we need to be serious about looking upstream to support those at risk. This includes children with a parent in prison.

Charities working with prisoners’ families, such as Children Heard and Seen and the Prison Advice and Care Trust, have repeatedly highlighted the gap in our understanding of the scale of parental imprisonment. I commend to noble Lords two short films released by both those charities that show the heartbreaking realities of this issue and the impact on a child when their parent is sent to prison. It also shows the remarkable work done by both charities alongside families.

The 2019 Joint Committee report highlighted the

“complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison” and

“the number of children whose mothers are in prison”.

It argued that

“without improved data collection, collation and publication” it is both

“impossible to fully understand the scale and nature of this issue and to properly address it”.

It continued:

“Mandatory data collection and publication must be urgently prioritised by the Ministry of Justice”.

A few months before that was published, Crest Advisory’s report on the children of prisoners found that

“during a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system there are numerous points which children of prisoners could be identified—on arrest, at sentencing, on entry to prison, and under probation supervision. But at the moment, at no point does the system ask: ‘If this is a parent in custody, where is their child?’”

The point of doing this would be to ensure the welfare of the children and to establish whether help is needed for the family or friends now caring for them. As that report said:

“Instead it is left up to the offender or the parent left behind to seek help—something which we know is problematic because of stigma and fear about children being taken into care”.

That is echoed again and again by the charity Children Heard and Seen, which does such fantastic work with children with a parent in prison, including a ground-breaking initiative across the Thames Valley region.

Rightly, the Government broadened their response to the Joint Committee to all primary carers, not just mothers. Many men are also in this position—albeit with a very different proportion of the male prison population compared with the female estate. Again, we are hampered by the lack of reliable data. However, the Farmer review on women in the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and many others highlight that relatively more women than men report being parents and, likely, primary carers.

The Government’s position in 2019 was that their aim was to establish more accurate metrics to measure the number of prisoners with primary carer responsibilities. However, they also acknowledged that gathering information about dependent children is a sensitive matter and committed to exploring the most accurate way to collect and then collate and publish that data,

“provided an accurate method can be found to estimate it, and provided it can be done in a way that protects the rights of vulnerable individuals”.

Given the significant body of evidence showing that the children of prisoners are at risk of markedly worse outcomes in areas such as mental health, underachievement at school and becoming offenders themselves, we should, at the very least, know how many children there are and their age and stage of childhood. The amendment is limited to quantitative data collection, given the inherent problems of collecting identifiers in such a delicate and sensitive area and given that a key aim at this stage is to progress-chase the Government on behalf of these particularly neglected children. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her introduction and Harriet Harman for her amendment in another place; even though it did not progress, it was very important. I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, cannot be in his place today, because his report, which pre-dates the Select Committee report in the Commons—it was published in 2017 and was called The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime—sparked a lot of this work.

That report emphasised throughout that data was needed on prisoners, their families and their children, particularly the age of the children, because that then enables the right sorts of services to be available inside a prison to support those family links that are so important. The noble Lord is so right that data is critical for ensuring that we—that is, the court system, prison, probation and other services, including Parliament and civil society—understand the impact on both prisoners and their children.

If engaging with families can reduce reoffending by 39%—the premise on which the report by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, was commissioned—that is an important lesson, but so is the quality of that engagement. I hope that that would be enabled by this amendment.

I hope there is another benefit too: that this data can strengthen specifically the support for children of prisoners. Both Spurgeons and Clink are clear that their lives are turned upside-down by their parents’ imprisonment. We know that the experience of vulnerable groups of children has improved significantly since data was properly collected and shared with multi-disciplinary teams. The examples that I am going to give are not in the Ministry of Justice system.

The first example is that of looked-after children. I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester mentioned it and families are rightly very concerned about it because they do not want their children to go into care. Prior to better collection of data and the disseminating of that data, however, the service offered to looked-after children was haphazard at best and shameful to our country at worst. Things have improved and continue to improve.

The second group is under the Armed Forces covenant, where that data is now provided to schools and local health services, not just for service men and women or veterans but for their children, because their lives, too, are often turned upside-down.

The third group is young carers. Their rights were significantly strengthened in the Children and Families Act 2014. Through those rights, data needed to be collected and shared in order for them to receive the support that they needed, whether from their council, school, doctor or any other agency. I say that because, when you work with young carers, you understand that before data collection, quite often a child’s doctor was the only person who knew anything about them being a young carer. Schools did not understand and, very sadly, that went on right through society. Again, as with the other two examples that I have cited, it is not perfect but it is much better than it used to be.

I hope that the Government will accept that this data must be collected and published, but I also hope that they will ensure that the benefits of disseminating that information will not just help to reduce reoffending, nor just improve the quality of life between prisoners and their families while they are in prison, but will actually make a substantial difference to these children in their broader lives.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:15, 25 March 2024

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, because I could not possibly better her introduction to this amendment. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and I were very pleased to put our names to it. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that you cannot create robust policy if you do not have the data. She has helpfully illustrated to the House that it can be done and that, therefore, it should be done.

When I first saw these amendments—I have said this several times in the course of this Bill—I could not quite believe that it was not already happening, but it is not happening. I ask the Minister to seriously consider that this needs to be done for those children.

Photo of Baroness Sanderson of Welton Baroness Sanderson of Welton Conservative

My Lords, I do not pretend to be an expert on prisons, as some noble Lords are who have put forward this amendment. However, I also wanted to speak briefly to it, and for the very same reason, which is that I just could not believe that we did not collect the numbers on children who have a parent or a primary carer in custody. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, put down a Written Question and that the Government said that they do use a figure, which is 200,000. But that is from a survey from 2009—a pretty long time ago—and that is very different from the 312,000 figure that Crest Advisory has claimed.

We should say that the Government recognise that this is a problem. In that same Written Answer, the Government said they had made changes to the basic custody screening tool. In other words, this means that, when people go into prison, they are asked how many children they have back home. We know that they will not always say, not least because they will be worried about children being taken into care, and again, the Government recognise this. So in that Written Answer they talked about using a linked data programme called BOLD. They said the results should be published this spring and that that should be able to give us a better estimate. So can my noble friend the Minister explain, not necessarily today but perhaps in writing, how this programme works in practice and whether it will provide a permanent solution to the problem, as this amendment would do? If it will not, I ask the Government to consider making this change. Otherwise, as others have said, we will be letting down a group of very vulnerable children.

Finally, the Government’s own statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, says that children and young people will be impacted by having a parent or relative in prison. I am a little confused as to how, on the one hand, in guidance we can state that we know this is a problem and that children will be affected, but on the other we can say that we do not know how many children are affected because we do not gather the numbers. How can we provide the support if we do not know how many children there are or where they are?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer for tabling this amendment and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for moving it. It would require the Secretary of State to collect data centrally about prisoners who are primary carers of children and the numbers of dependent children who have a primary carer in prison, and to publish the data annually, including the ages of the children. My noble friend, who is not in his place today, knows that the Government fully support the intention behind this amendment. The Government echo the right reverend Prelate in paying tribute to his work and ongoing contribution towards this issue.

Understanding the personal circumstances of those in custody, including responsibilities for dependent children, is essential if we are to provide effective support for those prisoners to help them maintain contact with those children. Strengthening family ties is an integral aspect of the work of HM Prison and Probation Service. We recognise the importance of maintaining a prisoner’s relationship with family, friends and their wider community, particularly where the best interest of the child is served through maintaining a strong relationship with their parent. Prisons across England and Wales offer a range of services to maintain family relationships, including social visits, family days, secure video calling and Storybook Mums and Dads, an award-winning, charity-led initiative that enables parents in prison to record bedtime stories for their children.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate’s comments on supporting children impacted by parental imprisonment, ministerial responsibility for supporting children who might be vulnerable due to parental incarceration sits with the Department for Education in England and the Welsh Government, and the Ministry of Justice is actively committed to joined-up working across government to better understand the nature of this issue. The Female Offender Strategy, published in 2018, encouraged a partnership-focused approach to addressing the needs of both imprisoned mothers and children affected by maternal imprisonment. We published the female offender strategy delivery plan in January 2023, with a progress report, the Farmer Review for Women, in 2019. Outstanding commitments from the Farmer review are being taken forward under the delivery plan.

Understanding how many children are impacted by parental imprisonment is just as important, because having a parent in prison is a recognised adverse childhood experience that can impact a child’s mental health and lead some to feel they are being judged for the actions of their parents. From the perspective of the criminal justice system and echoing the number that has been mentioned a couple of times in this debate, evidence has shown that over 60% of boys who had a father in prison went on to offend themselves. Therefore, identifying and supporting those individuals at an early stage has the potential to divert them away from the criminal justice system, preventing future victims of crime.

While we are fully supportive of the amendment’s intention, we do not believe that legislation as proposed here is necessary. Our prison strategy White Paper. published in 2021, outlined our intention to address this issue through engagement with other government departments, and to commission updated research to improve our collective understanding of the overall number of children affected by parental imprisonment.

As my noble friend mentioned, we are delivering this commitment through our Better Outcomes through Linked Data project, known as BOLD. It is an almost £20 million cross-government shared outcomes fund that will link data to enable better evidence and more joined-up cross-government services. Through BOLD, we will be publishing a report that will estimate the number of children with parents in prison. We expect findings from the project to be published by spring 2024. This should provide some of the critical data that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, called for. We are working to collect and improve data. We have previously made changes to the internal management—

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Why are the Government aiming to have an estimate? We need to know the actual number of these children.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention and appreciate that this debate has focused very much on the wish of many noble Lords to have very accurate data. I am very aware that BOLD will be an estimate. We expect it to be a reasonably accurate estimate, which will be very good information for forming policy. The extent to which more detailed data could be required in future we will keep under review. If it is helpful, I can offer a further meeting on that outside this Committee.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

The issue that I raised about young carers was in the legislation—not just in the Children and Families Act 2014 but the Care Act 2014 —because Edward Timpson, the Education Minister at the time, felt that it was so important that there was some mechanism to join up all the different departments. Why are the Government now saying that it is no longer necessary for this to be in legislation and absolutely clear?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. I am afraid I do not have a detailed answer and propose to write to her, if that is acceptable.

The basic custody screening tool ensures that we identify prisoners with primary care responsibilities on entry into prison. That means that we can access this information centrally. While we recognise that the self-declared nature of the information collected through the basic custody screening tool means that it is—as many noble Lords have mentioned—fraught with concerns of prisoners about how much information they are willing to give and so brings with it certain levels of inaccuracy. Our intention is that this data will be reflected in the BOLD publication. I hope that, in the circumstances, the right reverend Prelate will agree that this amendment is not necessary and will withdraw it.

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop

I thank the Minister and all other noble Lords who have spoken. I am interested in his answer, because in one way he is saying, “Yes, we need this and recognise this”, but in another is saying “But we do not actually need this amendment”. I look forward to hearing more on that. As has been pointed out, the basic custody screening tool is very basic, and many parents do not want to declare on entry to prison that they have children. I will be watching with interest the BOLD programme and what comes out of that.

It is really important that the progress the Government are making in this area is now put on public record. It is nearly five years since the Joint Committee published its report. Also, I stress that it has been important to touch on family relationships and prisoners having those family relationships, but I do not want to lose sight of the fact that this is about the child. Not all children want to have contact with the parent who is in prison. So we need to be looking through the eyes of the child here.

As has been said, when children are given support, through charities such as Children Heard and Seen, we know that the results are remarkable. If, as the noble Lord says, education and other people are going to have this data, we need the data in the first place. That is where we need to start.

Many remain very concerned about these children who are invisible and that we are not able to support them, but I will not delay the Committee any longer now. I will take the comments back to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer; we will discuss it together and look at how to proceed on Report. Given all that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 172 withdrawn.

Clauses 57 to 59 agreed.

Clause 60: Extent

Amendment 173 not moved.

Clause 60 agreed.

Clause 61: Commencement

Amendments 174 and 175 not moved.

Clause 61 agreed.

Clause 62 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with an amendment.