Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Irreparable harm caused to children whose mothers are in prison - report


The Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes our report on the Right to family life: Children whose mothers are in prison. After hearing powerful evidence, we propose urgent reform to data collection, sentencing, support for children, and pregnancy and maternity for mothers in prison.

The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years

When a judge is considering sending a mother to prison, her child's right to respect for family life should be a central concern – but too frequently this is not the case, says the Human Rights Committee in a new report.

An estimated 17,000 children each year are separated from their mothers when those mothers are sent to prison, the vast majority for non-violent offences.

Children whose mothers are sent to prison are more likely than their peers to have future problems. These include an increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction.

They are also likely to earn less than their counterparts as adults and stop education at a younger age than is the norm. They are more likely to die before the age of 65.

The Committee makes proposal for urgent reform in four areas:

  • data collection
  • sentencing
  • support for children
  • pregnancy and maternity. 

Human Rights Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“The right of a child to family life is only given lip service when their mothers are sent to prison.

The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years, even after the mother is released.”


The court often lacks adequate information about whether a defendant has children and what the impact of a custodial sentence would be on them.

The report recommends that:

  • when sentencing an offender the judge must make reasonable inquiries to establish whether the offender is the primary carer of a child, and if the offender is a primary carer, the judge must not sentence unless a pre-sentence report is available at the sentencing hearing, unless the circumstances are exceptional
  • judges must ensure that they have sufficient information about the likely consequences of separation of the child from the primary carer, including hearing from the child if appropriate. Judges should state how they have taken this information into account in their sentencing remarks
  • the impact of sentencing on children must be a distinct consideration to which full weight must be given by the courts. This duty, which reflects existing case law, should be given statutory force.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“Judges can’t respect the human right of a child to family life if they don’t know the child exists.

At the moment there is no guarantee that they have this information; there must be proper checks before sentencing.”

Support for children

The report concludes that in order to ensure that children’s rights to family life are respected, every step must be taken to ensure that children are able to maintain positive relationships with their mothers.

The report recommends that:

  • the Department for Education, working closely with the Ministry of Justice, must revise the framework for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children so that much greater attention is paid to the needs of children and their families when mothers go to prison
  • kinship carers who step in to care for children when their mothers go to prison should be entitled to financial and practical support
  • non-means tested financial help should be made available to allow children to visit their mothers (or primary carers) in prison; and
  • contact should (other than in exceptional circumstances) be premised on the children’s right to respect for family life rather than the mother’s behaviour in prison.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“Visits of children to their mother in prison should not be part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme.

How can it possibly be right to punish children for their parents’ behaviour?”

Pregnancy and maternity

The Committee welcomes the Women’s Policy Framework and supporting guidance issued in December 2018, which ensures that pre and postnatal needs are assessed and addressed for all women in prison.

But the evidence received about women’s own experiences clearly demonstrate that their imprisonment poses a serious threat to their human rights – and those of their babies and very young children.

The report recommends that, other than in exceptional circumstances:

  • if a baby is born during the mother’s sentence, they should both be discharged from hospital directly to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU)
  • when a mother with a baby is sent to prison, the sentence should not start until a place is secured in an MBU.

Data collection

The Committee found a complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison, the number of children whose mothers are in prison and the number of women who are pregnant and give birth in prison.

The estimates of the number of children whose mothers go to prison each year range from 2,544 to 17,240.

The report calls on the Government to act urgently to remedy this, recommending that:

  • it should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison whether they have dependent children and what their ages are; this should be cross-referenced with child benefit data
  • an annual census in prisons should ask women whether they have dependent children and what their ages are
  • the data should be collated and published.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“It’s an indictment of the system that the prison service does not know how many women in the system have children, and that – in 2019 - we don’t even know how many children are separated from a mother in prison.”

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