On 23rd April 2020 the House of Lords held a debate in its virtual proceedings, on a question from Lord German, “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the prison population and offender rehabilitation programmes.” The Bishop of Gloucester, Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, took part in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I echo what has been said already. I draw attention to my interests in the register, particularly the fact that I am president of the Nelson Trust. I will make just a few points.
The Secretary of State has argued that the public would not accept the early release of certain categories of prisoners. The Government need to be clearer with the public about the risks in a pandemic to prisoners, key workers and their families. The potential risk of low-level, non-violent offenders being released on licence is far outweighed by the risk of inaction and delay. Will the Government commit to put into the public domain as soon as possible substantial and transparent information about how the release programme is working and publish daily statistics about coronavirus in prison, including the impact on staff and those in custody?
My second point concerns the slow release of pregnant women and those with infants. What is the Government’s plan to maximise use of the voluntary sector’s capacity and experience? I urge the Government to fully involve the community. Women’s centres specialise in this sort of work. Charities such as Children Heard and Seen and Birthrights are doing remarkable work, as are faith groups. In this pandemic, good things are happening in the community and the justice system should be no exception.
Finally, one burden of this situation weighs heavily on prisoners’ children, who may be too young to understand why they cannot visit or have contact as usual. When mothers in particular are given a short sentence for a non-violent offence, surely we do society far more harm than good by keeping them in custody rather than allowing them out on licence during the pandemic. At the very least, can the Minister ensure that all children with a parent in prison will be able to have regular, free telephone contact with their parent? These are difficult times and urgent action is required.
Lord Farmer (Con): ..As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester has just mentioned, maintaining family and other relational ties is indispensable to prevent reoffending. Having people to go straight for provides the all-important motivation to engage in other rehabilitation activities.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Green)Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that we should see daily reports on the numbers in prison, the numbers released and the numbers of infections, so that we can monitor what is happening.Many of the questions I had have already been asked, but I want to focus on the excellent suggestion from the right reverend
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con):…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester raised the question of pregnant women. They are featured in the release scheme announced on 31 March, but we have to keep public safety at the forefront of our minds. We therefore cannot simply have an unlimited release of women because they are pregnant and in custody. As regards the ability of children to contact those in custody, I have already indicated that we have taken steps to improve telephone contact.