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End COVID-19 visiting ban on children whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing low-risk mothers from prison, says Joint Committee on Human Rights

3 July 2020

Today the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published its Report, “the Government's response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison”, which finds that the right to family life of children whose mothers are in prison risks being breached, and proposes that the Government ends the ban on children visiting and consider the temporary release from prison of every low risk mother of dependent children, alongside pregnant women and women in Mother and Baby Units.

Impact of sentences on children and the right to family life

Last year the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a Report on ‘The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison', which found that urgent reforms were needed to ensure that children, whose mothers were in prison, had their right to a family life, upheld and protected. The Committee insisted that when sentencing a mother who has dependent children, judges must make every effort to understand the potential impact of a custodial sentence on those children, and the child's right to respect for family life should be upheld and every possible and practicable step taken to ensure that they are able to maintain positive relationships with their mothers. The Committee recommended that when sentencing, the judge must make reasonable enquiries to establish whether the mother has a dependent child and take this into account appropriately.

The impact of COVID-19

Following the launch of the Committee's inquiry into the Government response to Covid-19, the Committee has considered the effect of lockdown measures on the right to a family life of children whose mothers are in prison. On Monday 8 June, the Committee heard heartfelt evidence from children separated from their mothers in prison and the Minister for Prisons and Probation, the Legal Director for the Ministry of Justice, and the CEO of HM Prison and Probation Service.

The Committee heard that the outbreak of Covid-19 has exacerbated problems of the separation of children from mothers in prison. Prohibition of visits and the seeming inability for 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.  The Government is largely working on these issues in the dark as they do not know even the most basic information about the numbers of women in prison who are separated from dependent children. This could be easily remedied and the Committee propose it should be. You cannot protect the human rights of children who are invisible.

Recommendations

The Committee recommends

  • The Government should consider the temporary release from prison of every low risk mother of dependent children, alongside pregnant women and women in Mother and Baby Units.

  • Children must be allowed to visit their mothers in prison on a socially distanced basis, where it is safe for them to do so. Any prohibition of visiting must be both necessary and proportionate in each individual case;

  • It should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison whether they have dependent children and what their ages are.

  • Prisons should undertake an annual census asking women whether they have children and what their ages are. This information must be collated and published; and

  • Where a prisoner would previously have been able to attend a funeral of a close family member in person, arrangements must be made for them to attend remotely.

Chair's comments

“One of the fundamental human rights is the right to family life. It is children for whom this right is most important. Yet when the government banned children from visiting their mother in prison they trampled over that right. 

They can put that right now by early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children and re-instating visits for the rest. COVID-19 causes lasting injury. But so does separating a child from its mother. The way to protect public health is not to damage children but to release low risk mothers and reinstate socially distanced visits.”

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