Children (Parental Imprisonment)

– in the House of Commons am 2:51 pm ar 21 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 2:53, 21 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to establish national policy guidelines in respect of children with a parent in prison, including for the identification of the children of prisoners at the point of sentence and for accountability for providing support to the children of prisoners;
and for connected purposes.

I want to start by saying what this Bill is not about. It is not about prisoners, although there is some good and important work being done with prisoners and their families. We know there is often a value in maintaining family ties: it helps prisoners to cope with their sentences and makes it less likely that they will reoffend when they are released. However, this Bill is not about them. It is about their children, some of whom will have contact with their parent in prison and many of whom will not. If the parent is inside for domestic violence or for sexual offences involving children, or, indeed, if the child was the victim of the parent’s crime, there might not be contact. If there has been a long history of criminal behaviour, of addiction or violence, or if there was never much of a family unit in the first place, there might not be contact.

Therefore, we do not start with the prisoner’s wellbeing; we start with what is in the child’s best interest—and we start from a difficult place, because we simply do not know how many children have a parent in prison. We do not know who they are, where they are or who is looking after them, or at least not in any systemic way. They are the invisible children. Sarah Burrows, who is here today, is the chief executive of Children Heard and Seen, a charity that does excellent work to identify, mentor and support children with parents in prison. She is fond of saying that we know exactly how many Labradors there are in this country, yet we do not know how many children have a parent in prison. That is why this Bill is needed.

I am not going to prejudge now what a statutory mechanism for identifying and supporting children with a parent in prison would look like, although I pay tribute to Sergeant Russ Massie of Thames Valley police, and the work he has led on Operation Paramount, and I think that the unique child identifier number that is being proposed by Labour’s education team might play a role. In 2019, Crest Advisory estimated that around 312,000 children a year were affected by parental imprisonment, and for 17,000 of them it was their mother. The Ministry of Justice has now commissioned a BOLD—better outcomes through linked data—report, which will use Government data to measure the scale of parental imprisonment and estimate how many children have a parent in prison. Those statistics will be released on 13 June. There has been a lot of work behind the scenes to get to this point, and I particularly thank Edward Timpson for his help, the Children’s Commissioner, who has backed this Bill, and the various Ministers who have met us over the years.

However, we need more than just a snapshot of how many children are affected. We need a statutory mechanism so that, at the point when an adult is sentenced to imprisonment, someone finds out whether there are any children involved and someone is then responsible for making sure that those children are okay. We know that at the moment that is not always picked up. Sometimes the question is not asked. Sometimes a prisoner does not want the authorities to know because they are worried the kids will be taken into care. Often schools have no idea. Children Heard and Seen has seen cases where children have simply been left to fend for themselves, and I want to mention a few.

A man went to prison for sexual offences, and it was only after the house was targeted by vigilantes that a Victim Support caseworker found his 15-year-old daughter living there on her own. A criminologist conducting research in a women’s prison was told by a prisoner that her two daughters were living on their own, without any money for food or sanitary protection. A 16-year-old boy was arrested at the same time as his parents. He was released shortly afterwards and left to be the sole carer of his eight-year-old brother. An employer requested a welfare check after a woman had not shown up to work for two months. When the police went to the address, they discovered her 15-year-old son living on his own. There was no gas or electricity, and he had been getting up and going to school every day without anyone knowing that his mum was in prison.

Kinship carers—grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings—often play an important role in stepping up when a parent goes to prison, and they need support to do so. However, there is also a real risk that children will end up living somewhere entirely unsuitable, with people who will abuse them, neglect them and exploit them. More often than not there is a parent, usually the mother, at home, but children can still be badly affected.

One of the bloggers on the Children Heard and Seen website says:

“We’re not victims, we are collateral damage.”

There is an emotional loss and a sense of abandonment. There is perhaps a sense of injustice if they feel their mum or dad has been wrongfully jailed, or anger that their mum or dad has chosen to commit a crime, not caring what happens to them as a result. On a practical level, it could mean a big change in the family’s financial situation, having to move house, move schools, or go on to free school meals, or having to change their names and leave town altogether because it has been all over the papers that their dad is a sex offender. I have met a family that happened to.

Perhaps most damaging of all is the stigma and the shame of being associated with a parent’s crime—being bullied at school or seen as trouble by the teachers. As one mother said:

“I’ve moved areas because I felt like I was being watched all the time—people were talking and we were being discriminated against, when it was not something that we’ve done.

Kids are innocent and I’ve had to move schools, which has just been more upheaval. It’s just a nightmare.”

Children Heard and Seen use the hashtag #itwasntme. The child has done nothing wrong, but in many ways the child is punished too.

The 2019 research from Crest Advisory that I mentioned earlier found that children of prisoners are at risk of significantly worse outcomes than children not affected by parental imprisonment, including lifelong mental health problems and being involved in the criminal justice system themselves later in life. It has been suggested that 65% of boys with a parent in prison go on to offend. Others say that a child with a parent in prison is three or four times more likely to get into trouble, although it is difficult to separate out other factors in a child’s upbringing—the same factors that might have led the parent to become involved in crime, such as poverty or family instability. It is clear that by supporting and mentoring children, it is possible to break that cycle. I have met many adults, from all walks of life, who are still deeply affected by the trauma of their childhood experience. We have met in this building; we have shared stories. It is striking just how difficult it is for them to talk about it, many years down the line. It is clear that by supporting and mentoring children, it is possible to break that cycle. I have met many adults, from all walks of life, who are still deeply affected by the trauma of their childhood experience. We have met in this building; we have shared stories. It is striking just how difficult it is for them to talk about it, many years down the line.

A few months ago, I watched “The Edge of Everything”, a brilliant documentary about Ronnie O’Sullivan, whose father was jailed for murder when he was 17. It was heartbreaking to hear him talk about that, and to see the pain writ large on his face some 30 years later. He has been world No. 1 and has won world championships, yet that experience still very much lives with him.

Other celebrities have also spoken out about their experiences. John Bishop was six when his father went to jail. He has said that visiting him

“was a dehumanising experience. We were treated like cattle… The injustice my dad suffered had a massive impact on the person I am.”

Romesh Ranganathan has also spoken about visiting his dad, who was serving a two-year sentence for fraud. He said:

“It was horrific. You just become numb to it. Those experiences definitely had a profound effect on me.”

Every child’s story will be different. Some children who have a parent in prison might be doing just fine, but the chances are that they are not, so we need to know who they are, where they are, how they are coping and who is looking after them. They are not to blame; it wasn’t them.

Question put and agreed to.


That Kerry McCarthy, Mr Clive Betts, Sir Robert Buckland, Andrew Gwynne, Ms Harriet Harman, Dame Diana Johnson, Tim Loughton, John McDonnell, Jess Phillips, Edward Timpson, Nadia Whittome and Munira Wilson present the Bill.

Kerry McCarthy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time Friday 14 June, and to be printed (Bill 222).