Nadhim Zahawi responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the care of prisoners’ children following the sentencing of their parent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate.
As Minister for Children and Families, I have listened and spoken to many people about the issues concerning some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I have been inspired by the commitment of our frontline practitioners, such as social workers, teachers and others in the sector—including charities, which my hon. Friend spoke about so convincingly. I commend her on bringing concerns to life through the voices of children and their families. Those practitioners work tirelessly to achieve better outcomes for children in challenging circumstances.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the support that children who are affected by having a parent in prison receive, both to maintain a relationship with that parent and to deal with the long-term challenges they might face in relation to their own outcomes. I share those concerns, and I reassure her that I will continue to do all I can, in my capacity as Minister for Children and Families, to ensure that all children get the help and support they need from across Government to live fulfilled and happy lives.
A parent going to prison can be hugely traumatic for the child—it can make them vulnerable or even put them at risk of harm. Effective multi-agency working is vital to ensuring that vulnerable children are identified and known to all relevant authorities from justice, which my hon. Friend mentioned, to social care and schools. Reforms introduced by the Children and Social Work Act 2017 underpin a stronger but more flexible statutory framework for local multi-agency arrangements that will support local partners to work together more effectively to protect and safeguard children and young people, and ensure the effectiveness of those processes.
We are also taking significant steps to improve information sharing on safeguarding children, which is vital to ensuring that an offender’s caring responsibilities are disclosed and services are alerted to changes in a family’s circumstances. Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have overarching responsibly for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area, which applies regardless of what care arrangements are in place for a child. Where concerns have been raised about a child in need, the “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance sets out the principles of what good assessment looks like. Assessments should be child centred, involving children and families, and building on strengths as well as identifying weaknesses, and addressing the child’s needs within their family and, of course, the wider community.
I am listening with interest to the Minister, who will have heard my intervention about working across Departments. Will he be able in due course to explain to the House what work he can do across Departments—perhaps with the Prisons Minister, my hon. friend Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—in addition to the multi-agency work he is rightly highlighting?
I did hear my hon. Friend clearly. We already work across Departments, and I hope that in the rest of my speech I will be able to convince him that we are doing some really good work in this area.
There should be a clear focus on actions and outcomes for children, with plans for how assessment and support provided will be reviewed. All decisions regarding formal care placements will also be child focused to ensure that arrangements meet the needs of that child and promote their safety and welfare. That process is the same for each child, including in cases where a child’s primary carer goes to prison.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton rightly said that in many cases care arrangements might be with wider family or friends, often recognised as kinship care. We recognise the vital importance of those placements, which are likely to provide more continuity than a placement with previously unknown carers and can help to preserve a child’s sense of belonging to a wider family network. For most children, there is huge benefit from being brought up by a family member whom they trust and already have an established relationship with, rather than by a stranger.
The law requires local authorities to support the upbringing of looked-after children and those on the edge of care by their families whenever possible. That option should always be fully explored by the local authority before making an application for a care order, provided that it does not jeopardise the child’s safety or welfare.
Local authorities are under a statutory duty to publish a policy that sets out the authority’s approach to promoting and supporting the needs of all children living with carers who are family and friends, regardless of their legal status. The policy should be clear, regularly updated, and made freely and widely available. Approved family and friends foster carers receive the same support as other foster carers, including financial support. Family and friends carers in informal arrangements are treated equally with birth parents in the benefits system in relation to child benefit, child tax credits and other means-tested benefits.
Local authorities also have a statutory role where children are being cared for by friends, neighbours or certain other relatives under a private fostering arrangement. The local authority must visit such an arrangement within seven days of being notified of it and should speak to the parents and provide support and advice where necessary. Local authorities must also carry out follow-up visits to ensure that the arrangements remain in the best interests of the child.
I turn briefly to education. It is not only children’s social care that has an important role to play; school and college staff are particularly important as they are in a position to identify concerns early, provide help for children and prevent concerns from escalating. We recently published revised “Keeping children safe in education” guidance, which will commence on 3 September. Having worked closely with the Ministry of Justice, we have reflected on the importance of school staff considering the additional needs of children with parents in prison, so the guidance now highlights the fact that such children are at risk of achieving poor outcomes—including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health—and signposts staff to the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders website, which provides specialist advice and resources for professionals who work with offenders’ children and their families.
All school staff should be aware of the systems within their school or college that support safeguarding, as well as being able to identify children who might be in need of extra help and protection, such as children of offenders. That is vital to avoiding children’s needs going unidentified and so that any trauma a child has experienced can be taken into account in responding to any behavioural issues.
The Department’s advice on behaviour says that schools should consider whether disruptive behaviour might be the result of a child’s needs, such as any arising from the trauma of a family member or parent going to prison. School staff should also be prepared to identify children who might benefit from early help. To be clear, if a child is in danger, has been harmed or is at risk of harm, a referral should be made to local authority children’s social care and, where appropriate, the police.
It is important that all children get the support they need. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is working in partnership with Barnardo’s to deliver the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders, which is an online resource to provide support for children affected by having a parent in prison. We are also supporting cross-Government programmes for prevention and diversion work, including the troubled families programme and those focusing on school inclusion.
Good mental health is another particular priority. We recognise the emotional upheaval that a parent going to prison can cause a child, and when children are struggling with poor mental health, that can have a profound impact on the whole of a child’s life. That is why the Government are investing an additional £1.4 billion nationally to transform children and young people’s mental health services. On top of that, the measures proposed in the Government’s Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health will provide £300 million of additional funding to introduce a new mental health workforce to work with mental health leads in schools and colleges and reduce waiting times for those with the most serious conditions.
The Ministry of Justice is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a series of trailblazers that will test such teams outside of mainstream schools, including with youth offending teams.
Where a parent is involved in the justice system, it is vital that families receive support from the outset and that courts are aware that a defendant has children before they are sentenced. That is critical to avoiding those children being unseen or unaccounted for, so we are ensuring that the National Probation Service’s pre-sentence reports, which assist the court in making sentencing decisions, highlight whether an offender has dependent children and the potential impact on those children of a sentence so that that can be considered. We are also working to encourage defendants to tell the court about children, overcoming reluctance or fear if there are concerns that their children will be immediately taken into care. That includes supporting the roll-out of training material developed by the academic expert, Dr Shona Minson, which raises awareness of the diverse implications of maternal imprisonment for children.
Families can play a significant role in supporting an offender. Positive family relationships have been identified as a protective factor in desistance, or ceasing to commit crime. For that reason, the Government are promoting strong family and significant other ties as an important plank of our prison reforms, alongside education and employment.
Lord Farmer’s report on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties, which my hon. Friend referred to, was published last year. It made several recommendations to strengthen family or significant other ties to help offenders to turn their lives around and protect public safety. Across Government, and through the Ministry of Justice in particular, we have taken forward key recommendations, including giving prison governors the budget and the flexibility to spend their resources appropriately—such as on family-friendly visiting areas—to help prisoners to keep important family or significant other ties.
The Ministry of Justice is developing new performance measures that we will pilot this year for future full implementation. That will provide crucial guidance to deliver more consistent services to improve relationships between prisoners and their families or significant others, such as flexible visitations and family days across the entire prison estate.
A new family and significant other policy framework will be published this year, which will set out requirements for governors in that area. To support that new approach, from April this year all prison governors have been required to produce local strategies that set out how they will support prisoners to improve their engagement with friends and family. We know that maintaining relationships with loved ones is crucial for prisoners and for their families. In England and Wales last year, we spent—