HL Deb 20 March 1997 vol 579 cc1045-7

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the current management policies within the Prison Service relating to women prisoners.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Prison Service fully recognises the special needs of women prisoners and keeps the relevant policies under review. That is why in November 1996 the director general announced his intention to set up a new unit to ensure appropriate oversight and co-ordination of the care and treatment of women prisoners. That unit is now operational.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. But does she not accept that there are still concerns about the overview with regard to women prisoners? Will she undertake to give serious consideration to the advice of the Chief Inspector of Prisons that there should be a director of women's prisons at board level within the Prison Service? Given the rising number of women prisoners and the very special and sensitive issues that relate both to them and their children, would it not be sensible to revert to the practice of the past and have one person with an overview in this area?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is not without its difficulties. At present, Prison Service establishments are for good reasons largely managed on a geographical basis. The chief inspector's proposals would cut across that structure. But the director general recognises the particular needs of women and young offenders and has set up this new unit in the Prison Service headquarters to focus on the management of these prisons and on improving current levels of care and treatment. He is confident that this change will bring significant benefits. But whether a radical change would be appropriate is one of the issues which will be considered by the current review which the director general is undertaking.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that women prisoners who are pregnant are taken outside the prison walls to have their babies?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can give my noble friend an absolute assurance that no baby is born inside a prison, barring accidents, of course, where it cannot be avoided. All babies are born in hospitals outside of prisons.

Lord Winston

My Lords, that assurance from the Minister is received with gratitude but it does not go far enough. Can she tell us what provision is made for ante-natal care for women prisoners? These are women whose pregnancies are of a high risk nature. We now know that ante-natal influences can affect paediatric development. Can she tell us what ante-natal paediatric expert help there is in their care and what qualified obstetric care?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. All the needs of the pregnant mother are properly met. There are also facilities post-pregnancy. Some will be met within the prison through prison staff. Some will be met by visiting medical staff; for example, doctors come in each day to give check-ups. Some is external to the prison where the prisoner goes to an external hospital. No medical needs are neglected.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the 1950s and 1960s there was an assistant prison commissioner with responsibility for women prisoners and borstal girls? Is it the intention of the Government at least to consider restoring that position? I am not clear.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have said that a review is looking at the structure. Given that we have a unit and that there is a head of that unit with specific responsibility for women prisoners, who represent 4.3 per cent. of the prison population, I hope the House will agree with me that what really matters is the service delivery on the ground at a local level. That is where our efforts must be, and not on some bureaucratic head of a service.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the noble Baroness's review look into the question in particular of Category A prisoners held in Holloway where the conditions are totally unsuitable for them? Is it possible for conditions in Holloway to be modified so that those who need to be kept there because they are on remand can enjoy civilised facilities?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I should like the noble Lord to tell me what particular provision is not being made for Category A prisoners at Holloway or any other prison.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister has given answers which reflect administrative arrangements rather than real care. I am sorry to say that but it seems to be the case. Is it not a fact that the scandals which have been made public in recent years, in particular of the shackling of women prisoners going to hospital and going into and enduring childbirth, have made it clear to the public that something other than the present administrative arrangements is necessary? Would it not be wise to look again at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Acton, who reminded us that between 1943 and 1959 there was indeed a deputy commissioner of prisons responsible for all women prisoners and for policy in that area? Would it not be desirable to consider returning to that position?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what I am addressing is almost entirely the opposite. I am not talking about administrative arrangements. I am talking about having sound strategic and policy oversight. But the real executive management ought to be found at a local level. A particular instance was cited by the noble Lord. He will know that that practice was not approved of at a local level. It was very quickly remedied. A policy statement was put out by the Home Secretary on 18th January. No pregnant woman is shackled in hospital either during birth or from the time of her arrival at the hospital.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, as the interests of the child are obviously affected by this, can my noble friend say whether, if a birth occurs by misadventure inside the prison, it can be registered as having occurred outside the prison, following the precedent which is adopted in the case of death in the Palace of Westminster?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I need to check out a technical answer to my noble friend's question. It is the policy that no baby should be born in prison. For the particular reason my noble friend has given, we do not wish the address to be prison. I believe it is administratively possible in the case of any pregnant mother who may have started having the baby in prison for the address to be the hospital at which she would complete the medical treatment for that birth.