HC Deb 18 January 1996 vol 269 cc893-902

4.1 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the use of restraints on prisoners attending hospital, particularly women who are pregnant.

The acting Director General of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt, met Caroline Flint, the president of the Royal College of Midwives, on Monday to discuss the use of physical restraints on women prisoners admitted to hospital to give birth.

The discussions were constructive and I am very grateful to the royal college for its help. I should like to make it clear that it has never been the intention of the Prison Service to apply handcuffs or chains to women who are confirmed as being in labour, and never been the intention to apply restraints contrary to medical advice. That will continue to be the case. But the royal college has asked for certain modifications to be made to the use of restraints on pregnant women and the Prison Service has accepted its recommendations.

In future, women taken from prison to hospital to give birth will normally be escorted by two female members of prison staff. In exceptional circumstances, where this is operationally not practicable, at least one will be female. No restraints will be applied to the prisoner from the time at which she arrives at the hospital. No prison staff will be present in the delivery room, unless the prisoner requests it.

Governors will continue to be encouraged to liaise with hospital managers and midwives on these and all other security measures for women admitted to hospital to give birth.

The Royal College of Midwives has also expressed concern about the application of physical restraints to pregnant women waiting in public areas in hospitals for antenatal checks. In future, all physical restraints will be removed from a prisoner on her arrival in a hospital waiting room, unless she is judged to present a particularly high risk of escape and, of course, there is no medical objection to restraints being applied.

The Prison Service has a responsibility to balance the need to hold prisoners securely with the duty to treat them with humanity and to maintain their dignity and privacy. The modifications I have announced will, I believe, allow the Prison Service to strike a reasonable balance on behalf of the public. We are confident that this revised policy provides the correct balance without reducing security to unacceptable levels.

The Prison Service has also taken this opportunity to review its policy of applying physical restraints to other prisoners. Following a thorough risk assessment, some prisoners already attend hospital appointments without an escort under the temporary licence scheme. This will continue to apply. When a prisoner is escorted to hospital, physical restraints will continue to be used in most cases unless there is a medical objection. But where, following a rigorous risk assessment, the governor comes to the conclusion that restraints are unnecessary, they will no longer be used. In such cases, the prisoner will still be accompanied and supervised by Prison Service staff. This builds on the experience of the Prison Service in using rigorous risk assessments under the temporary licence arrangements introduced with great success last year.

Let me summarise the new arrangements. First, no woman who goes into hospital to give birth will be restrained from the time she arrives at the hospital until she leaves. Secondly, a pregnant woman who goes to hospital for antenatal checks will have her restraints removed on arrival in the waiting room, unless there is a particularly high risk of escape. Thirdly, in most other cases, physical restraints will continue to be applied, but governors retain the discretion to release prisoners on temporary licence or to send them to hospital under the supervision of staff without restraints being applied.

I am confident that those revised arrangements will strike a better balance between the various considerations that the Prison Service has to take into account. The acting Director General of the Prison Service is writing to governors with details of the new arrangements. He will keep those arrangements under review and monitor their operation.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

May I begin by welcoming the contents of the Secretary of State's announcement, but is not the truth that he has been driven to this humiliating retreat, not by decency or compassion, but by panic at the avalanche of bad publicity that has engulfed both him and his Minister of State? Is it not the case that Ministers initially believed that they could brazen their way out of this appalling situation and that, had it not been for the Channel 4 film, public outrage and ministerial bungling, that is exactly what they would have done?

As the Royal College of Midwives last July publicly condemned the obscene practice of routinely manacling pregnant women, will the Secretary of State explain why it has taken him so long to acknowledge its concerns? The Minister of State gave one limited apology on Monday, but is not a wider apology now required from the Secretary of State for the brutal and unnecessary humiliation that his policy has forced on a number of pregnant prisoners?

The Secretary of State said in his statement: The Prison Service has a responsibility to balance the need to hold prisoners securely with the duty to treat them with humanity and to maintain their dignity and privacy. But is not the truth that, until today, it had been the Secretary of State's policy that had prevented prison staff from achieving that balance? Does he accept that his Minister of State was wrong to deny, not only that Whittington hospital had expressed concerns about the practice disclosed on the Channel 4 programme, but that the prisoner concerned was chained during her labour? Is the Secretary of State aware that the woman's consultant obstetrician has derided as "factually inaccurate" the Minister's ridiculous assertion last week that labour had been established only once a form had been filled in?

Is it not the case that, under the Secretary of State's stewardship of the Prison Service, short-term political imperatives have time and again taken precedence over what is necessary to run a secure and effective service? Is not this sorry episode deeply symbolic of the Government's arrogance and inhumanity, and of the way in which they have so comprehensively lost touch with the common decency of the British people?

Mr. Howard

I entirely reject the pathetic ranting of the hon. Gentleman and the construction that he has put on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office in the House last week. My hon. Friend said then that a meeting was to take place between the acting Director General and the Royal College of Midwives. That meeting has taken place, and I am pleased that the Prison Service has been able to respond to the concerns of the royal college.

Far from the policy being politically motivated, the Prison Service deals with such matters. It was the Prison Service that made the original decision that led to the physical restraint of female prisoners, and it has responded positively to the concerns expressed by the Royal College of Midwives.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Some hon. Members entered the Chamber when the Home Secretary had nearly finished his statement; others came in after he had sat down. I have their names on a list. They will understand that I cannot possibly call an hon. Member who did not hear the Home Secretary's statement: that has always been my policy. I do not want to embarrass those hon. Members, but they know who they are.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. and learned Friend is often wrongly accused of intervening in the day-to-day management of the Prison Service. Will he accept the thanks and congratulations of many Conservative Members and, I dare say—if they were truthful—many Opposition Members as well? He has listened carefully to our concerns about this practice, not just in the past few days but for several weeks. I thank him for that, and congratulate him on his statement.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend again confirm, so that there is no shadow of doubt, that the practice at Holloway prison that gave rise to our concern was initiated not by him or any Minister, but by the Prison Service?

Mr. Howard

It is true that the original decision was made by the Prison Service, as was the decision to respond to the Royal College of Midwives. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will understand if I decline to accept his congratulations on a decision made by the Prison Service.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

The new policy is welcome, but will the Home Secretary now admit that restraints have been applied to women who are clinically in labour? What steps are being taken to ensure that the Prison Service does not mislead Ministers in future, as it did in this instance—as the Minister of State told us in her personal apology to the House the other day?

Will the Home Secretary now tackle the problem of the large number of young pregnant women who are in prison partly as a result of obscenities such as the imprisonment of young women who have failed to pay a fine for not having a television licence?

Mr. Howard

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked three questions. First, the Prison Service has never intended women to be restrained while in labour; as far as I am aware, that has happened on only one occasion, some two years ago, and the Prison Service fully recognised that it had been at fault. Secondly, the acting Director General of the Prison Service is taking steps to ensure that there is no repetition of what happened last week, when, as she explained to the House, wrong information was conveyed to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Thirdly, the hon. and learned Gentleman will know full well that the courts sentence women to imprisonment only after having considered alternative punishments. It is always as a result of court decisions that women are sent to prison.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that he certainly has my support, as has my hon. Friend the Minister? I congratulate her on the way in which she has handled the issue; she has had a difficult and delicate task to perform.

Many people in the country believe that women who are in prison after committing a series of crimes—who are there because they are criminals—are handled with a reasonable amount of delicacy. They believe that, when women prisoners are expecting babies—and it is not unknown for women to become pregnant between the time of their arrest and the meting out of punishment—they are given the courtesy of being allowed to go to hospital for the delivery of their babies.

The honesty and openness displayed by the Minister are much appreciated by the public, who insist that the Government should ensure that people who are in prison for committing crimes, but must be let out to receive medical treatment, are properly restrained.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend has characteristically made a number of cogent points. I am sure that she speaks for a great many people. I will certainly ensure that her remarks are conveyed to the Prison Service.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is it not now obvious that, over a number of months, the Home Secretary received clear advice from medical and nursing staff in the hospitals concerned that the practice was putting at risk not only mothers but the children involved? Is it not also clear that the inept, incompetent and arrogant attempt by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) to brazen out this absolutely despicable behaviour is certainly not worthy of a responsible Minister?

Mr. Howard

Neither of those allegations is true. It has always been the case, and will of course continue to be the case, that if doctors, nurses or midwives suggest that the application of restraints will damage the health of the patient, those restraints will be removed. The hon. Lady is therefore entirely mistaken in her first allegation and in her second.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm for victims of crime in Lichfield and other parts of the United Kingdom that we are discussing not innocent young gals but convicted criminals? Will he also confirm that there was never a question of the use of balls and chains—as one might believe if one read the press reports—but that we were talking about light manacles? Will he reiterate, for victims of crime in Lichfield and elsewhere, that other forms of restraints will be used to ensure that people who escaped in the past will not escape in the future?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right in that there has undoubtedly been—perhaps inevitably—an enormous amount of distortion in the coverage of this issue. I can certainly assure him that the interests of victims remain my first priority and that prisoners will continue to be restrained.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

In response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Home Secretary stated that, if any member of the medical profession in a hospital had requested the removal of restraints, it would have been carried out immediately. May I point out that he was entirely incorrect in that reply? On more than one occasion, the medical staff of the Whittington hospital in my constituency asked that the restraints be removed, yet the escorting officer refused so to do until Holloway gaol was telephoned and permission from the governor of the prison was obtained. I expect that the Home Secretary will take this opportunity to apologise to my hon. Friend and the House. Will the change in the regime apply to all women, whether pregnant or not, who have to go into hospital for treatment?

Mr. Howard

The point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich was that requests had repeatedly been made and not complied with. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) said that, when requests were made, the prison officers concerned telephoned the prison before complying with the requests. If I may say so, that is an entirely different matter. Even the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate must be capable of appreciating the distinction between those two points. On her second question, I made the extent of the changes absolutely clear in my statement.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his speedy action in coming to the House this afternoon? It shows that he has responded with compassion to expressed concerns. Does he agree that it is the prime responsibility of the Prison Service to prevent prisoners—often dangerous—from escaping, thus protecting ordinary, innocent members of the public?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That of course remains the primary duty of the prison service, which will continue to do its utmost to discharge it.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the Home Secretary take the opportunity to apologise to women who have been subjected to barbaric treatment during labour and while giving birth? Despite what his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) said, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that, although the women may have been convicted of crimes, the babies are innocent?

Mr. Howard

I have already said that, so far as I am aware, there has only ever been one incident, some two years ago, of one woman being wrongly restrained while she was in labour. Most people will be much more concerned about the future policy that I have outlined to the House this afternoon.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend find it significant that the shadow Home Secretary did not once mention during his intervention that every one of those women is either a convicted criminal or has been remanded in custody by a court which considers them to be dangerous or likely to abscond, and that my constituents expect that everyone sent to prison by the courts should remain there securely? Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed a further oddity in this afternoon's question period, which is that the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson)—our former colleague who resigned from the Conservative party because she said that she was concerned about the shackling of women—has not even bothered to turn up for his statement? Does he find that significant?

Mr. Howard

I agree with the first of my hon. Friend's points. Conservative Members attempt to take a balanced approach to these issues. That balance is absent from the approach of Opposition Members. I agree with my hon. Friend about the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. I find it even more remarkable that last week she sat through the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), and did not get to her feet and utter one comment or ask one question.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

The Home Secretary will be aware that the Government have already lost two of their members who have expressly referred to the cruel and inhumane treatment of women prisoners as one of the reasons why they realised that today's Conservative party is not the party they joined. Can he tell us what he thinks the effect of this practice has been on would-be Conservative voters? Will he also direct his mind back to 19 October 1995 when, in an answer to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), he told the House that such women were not kept in chains? Will he now apologise for that?

Mr. Howard

Conservative voters expect the Government to take a balanced approach to these matters. Indeed, that is what the people of this country expect the Government to do, and that is precisely what we are doing.

During the debate in October, I dealt with the practice of prisoners under escort, and what I said was entirely accurate.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given that the Home Secretary has finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, to reverse the odious practice of shackling prisoners, is it not time now to utter one little word to the women who have been so degraded and to their absolutely innocent babies? Is it not time to say sorry?

Mr. Howard

I have come to the House as soon as I could following the response of the Prison Service to the discussions that have taken place between it and the royal college. As I said earlier, most people will he concerned about future policy, and that is what I have addressed this afternoon.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

This is a squalid and shameful episode in our penal history, and I do not think that the Secretary of State should be anything other than ashamed of his Department and himself in his conduct of the matter. I ask him directly: who was responsible for the policy of putting pregnant women in shackles when they were in hospital? If it is the responsibility of the Prison Service, it ought not to be; important issues such as this ought to be decided by Ministers. If it is his responsibility—it should be his responsibility—he should own up and apologise to the House and the country.

Mr. Howard

These detailed matters of security—[Interruption.] These matters of security—although I accept that they are important—are dealt with entirely by the Prison Service as operational matters. That is how the decision came to be made in the first place and that is how the Prison Service responded to the concerns expressed by the Royal College of Midwives.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Does the Home Secretary recall that, on 19 October at column 518 of Hansard, he gave the House to understand not only that women prisoners were not put in chains, but that in his opinion the shackling of women prisoners was an operational matter and not a policy matter for him? Is he still contending that it is a matter of detail and only an operational matter? Does he still not appreciate how far he and the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), have failed to understand the conscience of a nation, which not only will not tolerate such degrading barbarities, but insists that Ministers themselves take responsibility for the ways in which prisoners are treated?

Mr. Howard

I have made it plain throughout the afternoon that these are operational matters for the Prison Service.

Ms Corston

So why are you here?

Mr. Howard

In answer to the sedentary intervention from the hon. Lady, I am here because I am accountable to Parliament for the decisions of the Prison Service, as has been explained on countless occasions. I accept that many operational decisions are extremely important and that this is one of them, but, as I pointed out to the hon. Gentleman when he intervened in my speech in October asking whether he should have received an answer to a letter that he had written from me rather than from the director of security of the Prison Service, given what I have said this afternoon, it was entirely appropriate that the director replied.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Home Secretary not realise that his use of the word "detailed" in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) must be wholly unacceptable to most electors? Does he know whether the relevant professional organisations were consulted when the original Prison Service regulations were made? Has an inquiry been mounted into the administrative error for which the hon. Lady the Minister of State apologised earlier this week? Will he tell the House what was found and who was responsible?

Mr. Howard

The acting director general is pursuing with those directly responsible exactly what happened on that occasion, and his inquiries are not yet completed. As to the nature of the decisions that were made, I entirely accept that they are important matters, but, as I said a moment ago, many operational matters are important.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

There is profound disagreement over whether the events under dispute are matters of operational detail or of public policy that should be held to account in the House. Will the Minister return to his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)? Although I have only limited experience of childbirth, having being involved in the birth of my own children, I do not understand how a governor at the other end of a telephone line can be expected to determine whether labour has started. Surely the point at issue is that, when medical staff say that people should not be manacled, they should not be manacled?

Mr. Howard

As I understood the question from the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, she was taking up my point that it has always been the intention of the prison service that when a request was made by a doctor and nurse or a midwife for restraints to be removed because they were detrimental to the medical condition of the patient, they should be removed. That was the hon. Lady's question and that was the context in which I pointed out the distinction between what she described and what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) had described earlier.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the Home Secretary accept that most ordinary people understand that there will be occasions when women prisoners have to be handcuffed, but what ordinary people outside this House found both preposterous and repellent was the Minister of State's proposition that, in the last few hours before labour or when a woman is walking around in the middle of labour, she is likely to make a bid for escape? We also accept that, although those women are criminals—as his hon. Friends have said over and over again—they are also human beings, and there is no reason why they should be degraded in that way at a time which most women would agree is one of the most vulnerable in their lives.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend the Minister said last week that discussions were going to take place between the acting Director General of the Prison Service and the Royal College of Midwives. I am pleased that those discussions have turned out to be so constructive and that the Prison Service has been able to respond so positively to the concerns expressed by the royal college. That was the basis of my statement to the House this afternoon.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

Although I welcome the changes that the Home Secretary has announced, does he accept that his statement amounts to a clear admission that the claims made by his hon. Friend the Minister of State on 9 January that existing policies were civilised and secure were clearly not the case? Will he also tell the House what arrangements will apply to remand prisoners? Will it be a different set of criteria from those announced today? After all, remand prisoners remain innocent until proven guilty.

Mr. Howard

I have dealt on a number of occasions with what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said last week. She said that discussions would take place. They have taken place and they have led to the decision of the Prison Service which I announced this afternoon. The only respect in which procedures will be different for remand prisoners is that they are not eligible for temporary release. Save for that distinction, remand prisoners, who are remanded in custody by the courts for particular reasons, will be treated in the same way as convicted prisoners.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that there have been concerns for some considerable time about the handcuffing and manacling of prisoners from Holloway who are being taken to the Whittington hospital? Staff on the labour ward at that hospital have registered their concerns about that practice, through the hospital's general manager, to the Prison Service. It is only because of the publicity generated in the past few weeks that the Home Secretary has got round to showing any interest in the subject and making this statement.

Will he now publish all the details of all the complaints made by medical staff to his Department about the manacling of women prisoners and open discussions urgently with the Whittington hospital to take up its offer of allowing the community midwifery service access to the prison, to avoid the necessity of transferring women to the hospital when they could be seen there?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend the Minister of State referred in some detail in her personal statement on Monday to the correspondence that had taken place. On the Whittington's suggestion that discussions should take place with a view to providing more antenatal services in the prison, making it unnecessary for prisoners to visit hospital for those purposes, as the hon. Gentleman said, I can confirm that Holloway prison intends to enter into discussions with the hospital with a view to finding out whether such an arrangement can be put into effect.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Given that prisoners are on occasion transferred, often for compassionate reasons, from English prisons to gaols in Northern Ireland and Scotland, what discussions has the Home Secretary had on the changes in procedures with the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Scotland? Things are a little better in Scotland, but not so very long ago a prisoner had to undergo an operation for haemorrhoids while handcuffed to a prison officer. I ought to add that the prison officer was both masked and gowned and the prisoner was a male, but nevertheless there are problems here.

Mr. Howard

I am not responsible for prison conditions in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and nothing in my statement is at all relevant to the transfer of prisoners between England and Wales and Scotland or Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, my statement dealt with the restraints necessary in certain circumstances for prisoners in hospital.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

The Home Secretary is tying himself in knots. He has been maintaining for the past few minutes that the practice itself was a matter of operational policy and that the changes he has announced this afternoon are matters of detail in operational policy. Yet he said in his statement: We are confident that this revised policy provides the correct balance without reducing security to unacceptable levels. If he is not responsible for the policy, who is?

Mr. Howard

It is absolutely clear that considerations of security are matters for the Prison Service. It was right for the Prison Service to take the decision originally, and it is right for the service to have responded positively to the discussions that it had with the Royal College of Midwives.