HC Deb 09 January 1996 vol 269 cc19-25 3.30 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Home Department if he will make a statement on the policy pursued by the authorities in Holloway prison in manacling pregnant prisoners in labour.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to clarify both Prison Service policy in general and the practice in Holloway. It is our policy to secure all prisoners under escort for whatever reason, but where medical treatment is concerned we remove restraints for both male and female prisoners as and when requested by medical staff. However, it is the policy of the Prison Service not to keep women handcuffed while in labour and childbirth. It has never been Prison Service policy to keep women handcuffed during labour and childbirth. Although I am explaining this now for the benefit of hon. Members, the policy was also explained by the Director General of the Prison Service on a number of occasions over the weekend. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. We must have order in the House. The Minister is making an important statement. Those who are not interested are perfectly free to leave, but the rest of us would like to hear what she has to say.

Miss Widdecombe

The practice at Holloway prison is to follow the national policy to which I have just referred. The case that has probably prompted the hon. Gentleman's concerns stems from Channel 4's use of secret cameras outside the labour ward at Whittington hospital. I must say that their use on this occasion meant that the full story was not told.

The cameras filmed the prisoner every time she left the maternity ward and entered the public areas either to use the lavatory or to smoke a cigarette. During that time, which was prior to the confirmation of labour, she was secured. While she was in the labour ward, she was not handcuffed or manacled, even before labour was confirmed. Once labour was established, the prisoner was allowed out of the ward unsecured, as has been confirmed by hospital staff.

There are standing arrangements agreed between Whittington hospital and Holloway prison to deal with prisoners who attend for medical treatment. No concerns have been registered by the hospital about Holloway practice. Hospitals are not secure places in which to keep prisoners. Since 1990, 20 women have escaped from hospitals. Of all the escapes by women from escort since 1990, 28.5 per cent. have been from hospitals. In absolute terms, that is 20 escapes out of a total of 70 escapes from escort. The Prison Service is obliged to take precautions, and it would rightly be criticised if it did not.

Some hon. Members may like to think that a pregnant woman would not or could not escape, but unfortunately that is not true. In a recent case, a prisoner who was four and a half months pregnant jumped from a first-floor window during—

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Labour happens after nine months.

Madam Speaker

Order. The Minister is making a statement. If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has a question, I shall try to call him at the appropriate time. Until then, he must listen to the statement.

Miss Widdecombe

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I can understand why the hon. Gentleman does not want to listen—he does not want to know the truth. The lady to whom I was referring jumped from a first floor window during an antenatal appointment. In another incident, a woman prisoner who was in hospital to give birth was allowed privacy with a visitor and obtained drugs. In a further incident, a male prisoner who was diagnosed as completely paralysed jumped up and ran away as soon as his bed watch was withdrawn.

The Prison Service has a duty of care to the mother, but that must be balanced against the needs of the service to keep all prisoners—including pregnant women prisoners—in secure custody. I am satisfied that the policy is right and is consistent with the views of the House.

Mr. Straw

Is the Minister aware that the statement that she has just made is completely unacceptable, and that in a civilised society it is inhuman, degrading and unnecessary for a prisoner to be shackled at any stage of labour? Will the Minister confirm—as she finally had to admit on television last Friday—that no woman prisoner in labour has ever escaped? Does she appreciate that labour may go on for many hours, during which many women find it necessary to walk around?

With regard to the case of the prisoner shown on Channel 4 last Friday, does the Minister accept that the woman was in labour when she was in hospital? How is the fact that the woman was manacled on a number of occasions while going to the lavatory and into the corridors consistent with the categorical undertaking given to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) by Mr. Richard Tilt—the acting Director General of the Prison Service—that cuffs have…to be removed from women in labour"? Was not the action taken to manacle this prisoner in the clearest breach of that undertaking?

The Minister stated that there had been no complaints from Whittington hospital. Is she aware—as I am, following conversations this morning with the chairman of the Whittington hospital trust—that that hospital is profoundly concerned about the practice of manacling prisoners who are in labour and, indeed, prisoners who are pregnant? Why has the Prison Service been so dilatory in responding to the offer made by the Whittington to take its community midwifery service into Holloway prison itself, thus ending the need for pregnant prisoners to travel to hospital except once labour has been established?

Is the Minister aware that staff at all levels in the Prison Service now feel so intimidated by the climate created by Ministers that they are being forced to make decisions that defy both common sense and common decency? Does not the Minister understand that that climate of intimidation led to the grotesque situation shown on Channel 4 last Friday, when the security measures taken were wholly disproportionate to the risk? Was not the president of the Royal College of Midwives entirely right when she said that the distress of handcuffing a woman in labour inevitably puts the health of the mother and the baby at risk, and is barbaric and a fundamental violation of a woman's dignity?

Miss Widdecombe

All the hon. Gentleman's questions were answered by my statement, but I shall spell out my reply so that even he will understand. The lady was not in labour when she was secured.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Does my hon. Friend realise that my constituents expect criminals who are sent to gaol to stay there and that we expect everything to be done to ensure that escapes do not happen or that there are fewer and fewer of them? What progress is being made to reduce the number of escapes from Her Majesty's prisons?

Miss Widdecombe

Considerable progress has already been made, as my hon. Friend will be aware. Since the Prison Service became an agency in 1993, escapes have been cut by 77 per cent. There was, however, still a disproportionately high level, in percentage terms, of escapes among female prisoners vis-à-vis male prisoners. When we looked into that, we found that the only difference was that, whereas restraints were routinely used on male prisoners under escort, they were not used on female prisoners. We therefore changed our policy in April, with the result that escapes among female prisoners have dramatically fallen. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend as to the progress that we are making.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Why does not the Minister show some understanding of the anger and revulsion felt by many responsible people as a result of the revelations? Can she confirm that the use of chains in these circumstances has increased, that it has increased as a direct result of Ministers' insistence on certain security measures and that there are alternatives, such as the creation of greater security in the places used and having more staff attending escort duties?

Miss Widdecombe

I can only state again that we remove restraints when treatment has commenced or, in the case of pregnant women, when labour is confirmed. We regard that as striking the right balance between the need to maintain security and the need to recognise the mother's situation. The film on Channel 4 showed clearly the lady concerned moving freely around the side ward, even after childbirth, when she was unsecured and looking after her baby. She was secured only when she entered the public areas of the hospital when she was not in labour.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Although the issue of handcuffing prisoners is undoubtedly controversial, does my hon. Friend agree that it somewhat masks the real progress that has been made in prison conditions? The vast majority of inmates now live on their own in cells with internal sanitation.

Miss Widdecombe

My hon. Friend is right. Now, 96 per cent. of prisoners have access to sanitation 24 hours a day. We have completely eliminated trebling in cells, we have reduced the number of prisoners sharing two to cells designed for one and we have completely eliminated the use of police cells. That is a major achievement by the Prison Service, and I am sorry that Opposition Members will not join in praising the management and staff concerned.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Despite the fact that the Minister seems to show a frightening inability to understand the difference between a woman who is four and a half months pregnant and a woman who is in labour, would she like to tell us how many cases there are of women prisoners being taken to an outside hospital without being in labour? Starting contractions does not inhibit the ability to walk around. If the Minister cannot get accurate information, would she like to astonish the House by saying that she is sorry?

Miss Widdecombe

For accurate information, we rely on the experts, who are the medical staff. There is a clear procedure for establishing when a woman is in labour. That is established not by the prison staff, but by the medical staff. A form is filled in, which establishes that fact—[Interruption.] Yes. That means that we have a written record, much to the discomfort of Opposition Members, of when labour started in this case. There is a clear procedure and a clear record is kept. With the exception of one incident for which we apologised fully at the time—the case of Ms Edwards—there has been no record of any woman being secured while in labour, according to medical staff and medical definition.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in October last year, an additional £326,000 was allocated to Holloway, which enabled the prison to employ an additional 25 members of staff? Can she give the House an assurance that when a female prisoner attends for medical care, especially for maternity care, she will be escorted by female prison warders?

Miss Widdecombe

I share the concerns that have been expressed about decency and delicacy and the use of male officers in these circumstances, and about females being secured to male officers while undergoing intimate treatment. I understand that. The Prison Service has also taken those concerns on board. We hope to be able to move to a position in which, as far as possible, women in this situation are attended by female prison officers.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

If the Minister listens to expert medical opinion, why has she ignored what the Royal College of Midwives has said: that the sort of treatment that we saw on our television screens, and about which we have heard in the past, being given to women prisoners while giving birth is totally unacceptable? It can cause grave trauma in the mother and there is sufficient evidence to give concern that it can traumatise the baby. Surely it is time that a direct order was given that no such barbaric practice will ever occur again.

Miss Widdecombe

We have made it clear that women in labour will not be secured and that it has never been our policy for them to be so secured. The opinion of the medical staff who were involved in the actual incident in the hospital is that our policy was not violated. I can quite believe that anybody merely watching the film and the discussions surrounding it may well have come to a different view, but on the facts as presented, and as logged by Holloway staff and by hospital staff, there was no violation of our policy, there was no barbaric treatment and the usual procedures were fully carried out.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Minister aware that there are a number of prison officers in my constituency who work at Whitemoor, Wayland and Norwich? They completely refute any suggestion that there is a climate of intimidation. They have never heard anything quite so ridiculous, because they support the strong leadership given by the Government.

Miss Widdecombe

I can indeed confirm that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it clear that those who work at the sharp end in the Prison Service, and who do such magnificent work, have confidence in the Government's policies.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

As someone who has joined the Minister on many occasions in the life lobby, where she has taken a position of principle, I find it quite astonishing that she could spend the last week going on television, and come to the House today, to defend this practice. This is the practice of the last century. The great body of British public opinion believes that it is wrong that pregnant women should be manacled in prison. I call on the Minister once again to think of her principles of the past and to stand up and demand a review of this utterly inhumane policy.

Miss Widdecombe

I can see no connection between the principles connected with the campaign to which the hon. Gentleman referred, from which I have never resiled, as well he knows, and the issue before us at the moment. Concern is taken for the mother and therefore also for her baby in all the medical attention that we manage to secure. If a woman is taken to hospital before she is in labour, that is because we have taken seriously any possibility that that situation may have been arrived at. I do not think that it would be anything other than harsh to have women delivered in prison, which could well be the result of midwives going into prison, rather than patients going into hospital. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on it, he will find that what I have said is a civilised and secure policy.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this woman was in prison for theft, and that, unless she were pregnant at the time that she committed the offence, the chances are that it was not a first offence, and that it is essential that even women who are pregnant must be treated from the point of view of punishment, as everybody else in our society is? Is she aware that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has on a previous occasion sought to exploit an aspect of the Prison Service and had to be bailed out by his own leader because he got into such a state? Is not the Labour party doing exactly the same as it did on that occasion: trying to exploit some aspect of prison arrangements for its own political advantage?

Miss Widdecombe

It is very clear to me that the Opposition pay scant regard to facts and rather more regard to political advantage. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) met me to discuss the policy, and we had an entirely sensible discussion about it. He did not express shock, horror and outrage about the policy that has been implemented throughout.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Will the Minister ask the Royal College of Midwives to conduct a private seminar for her about some of the basic facts of childbirth? She will learn that there is no single second when someone can say that a woman has gone into labour. The possession of forms to be filled in does not alter the biological facts. The onset of contractions usually leads to the development of labour, and it is a scientific fact that, if trauma is interposed, labour can be arrested—which is not a very good idea for anyone concerned.

Will the Minister tell us exactly when the form was filled in and how much later that occurred? Does she think it likely that a woman who was about to go into labour would run away, and where would she run to?

Miss Widdecombe

With regard to telling the hon. Lady the exact moment at which labour commenced, that is a matter for medical advice. That is why we always take medical advice and that is why we act upon it as soon as it is received and remove restraints.

The Director General of the Prison Service will shortly meet the president of the Royal College of Midwives to have what I hope will be a slightly more constructive discussion than we have had today. They will discuss respective concerns and examine what can be done to reassure the public, who may have been deceived by the wild and rash claims of the Labour party. I say once again: no woman in labour, as defined on medical advice, is secured.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the Minister accept that any woman who has had a child will find her statements utterly repellent? They will find the grins on the faces of Tory Members of Parliament even more repellent.

Will the Minister allow me to spell it out? Whatever forms she may have seen, once a woman's waters have broken, her cervix is dilated and she is sitting or standing awaiting the onset of labour contractions, she will not be running anywhere. There is a world of difference between being four and a half, six or even seven months pregnant and the final hours of pregnancy. Does the Minister accept that it is degrading and inappropriate for women to be shackled to men in the final hours of pregnancy?

Miss Widdecombe

On the last point, I have said already that I fully share the concern expressed about male officers being involved at that stage and, if possible, we shall move to a position where female officers are used on such occasions. I share the hon. Lady's concerns in that regard, and I do not seek to diminish them in any way.

The hon. Lady gave a graphic description of the onset of labour, but I am sure that she does not need to tell the medical profession about it. Medical professionals know all the facts, and we take their advice.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Will the Minister confirm that the board of visitors at Holloway prison warned her that the practice was continuing? Why did she choose to do nothing about it then?

Miss Widdecombe

Because our policy has been fully implemented.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I visited Holloway early in December, and if I were not concerned about the practice, I would not have sought a meeting with the Minister. The Minister said that I put my arguments in a very reasonable way. Therefore, does she accept that I sought a meeting with her because I was concerned about the practice? If she did not believe that we were protesting about the manacling of women during pregnancy, why—on the very day that I visited her at the Home Office—did the acting Director General of the Prison Service, Mr. Richard Tilt, issue a letter on the subject? In that letter, he said: Cuffs are also to be removed from women who are in labour". In other words, he reiterated the policy that was supposed to operate. However, the events took place after those assurances were given to me and after that letter was sent out by Mr. Tilt. Is it not the case that the Minister simply did not do anything when she knew full well what was going on?

Miss Widdecombe

I am happy to confirm that, when the hon. Gentleman came to see me, he put his points very reasonably. He was seeking clarification of the policy. We had decided, because there had been so much discussion and misinformation, to reiterate the exact terms of the policy. They were not fresh instructions; they were a reiteration of existing instructions.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We shall now move on.