HL Deb 03 July 1989 vol 509 cc963-4

2.48 p.m.

Lord Grimond asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to deal with the cruelty involved in separating babies from their mothers charged with the smuggling of drugs at airports.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the real cruelty in these cases arises from the callousness of those who are willing to place babies and young children at risk in order to use them as camouflage for attempts at drug smuggling. Women suspected by Customs of smuggling drugs may need to be detained for observation or questioning. If so, children accompanying them are never removed without the mother's permission. If the mother agrees, child minders are made available to care for the children. This can be at the child minder's home or (if the mother prefers) at the airport.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, however the situation arises and whatever the relationship between the woman and the child, the child is frequently removed from the woman who is the putative mother and great distress results? Can the Minister say whether it would more often be possible for the child to accompany the mother if the mother is taken into custody? Can the Minister further say whether it would be possible to make better arrangements with the country from which the mothers and children come so that there is some check on this trade? It amounts really to a trade in children. Is the Minister aware that it is causing great distress to social workers and others at airports?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I should point out that at Heathrow in the past three months child minders were needed in only three cases to look after children of suspects detained at Customs. Arrangements for the exchange of prisoners to serve their sentences in their home country exist under a Council of Europe convention, but not all countries are a party to it.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, is there any possibility of having a treaty of agreement with Nigeria, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond? I wonder whether the figures are correct. The figures that I received from the Hillingdon authority, which is responsible for taking these children into care, are higher than the figures stated by my noble friend. These hapless children have to be taken away from their parents. Not only is the child separated from its parents, but all its toys, goods and clothing are taken. The child is placed in a white foster home where it remains for two or three years, according to the sentence, and then goes back with the mother to Nigeria. Would it be possible to have a completely different arrangement? Could there not be hostels for mothers with children? Mothers would receive a probation order with a condition of residence, and the hostels would be paid for by the ill-gotten gains of the mother, or alternatively by the Nigerian Government.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, Nigeria is not a party to the Council of Europe convention. I am not exactly clear why it has not become a party, but that would be necessary before we could arrange for the exchange of prisoners. The figures which I gave were for the number of child minders who were needed to be called on to look after the children of suspects detained at Customs. It may well be that the figures my noble friend is thinking of apply once the sentence has been served. As for my noble friend's suggestion of hostels, I understand that Holloway Prison, Askham Grange open prison and the young offenders' institution at Styal provide places for 39 mothers and babies. No baby has been refused admission due to lack of space this year.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, for how long is a mother convicted of this offence allowed to keep her child with her? Can the Minister help us on that point?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I understand that when a mother is charged with an offence and remanded in custody at Holloway a baby under nine months old can stay with her. In other cases the local authority takes steps to ensure that the child is cared for, preferably by a relative or friend of the mother but otherwise by receiving the child into care.