Malcolm highlights the work of the Circle project based in Pilton
Debate on "Perspectives of children with parents in prison" Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I congratulate Aileen Campbell on securing such an important debate, and I welcome the report "Perspectives of Children and Young People With a Parent in Prison", which found that the impact on children of a parent's imprisonment is severe.

For example, it states that the effects on a child are the same as the child's experience of bereavement, that children are more likely to be moved between different homes, schools and care givers at a time when stability in their lives is essential, and that they often experience

"deterioration in behaviour, in physical and mental health, and in social and financial circumstances."

Those effects can often be long term and impact on family and future relationships, can reduce coping mechanisms and can induce mental health problems. No child should be left to experience that without proper support, but 16,500 children are affected by parental imprisonment every year in Scotland. As the former children's commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, said, children are the invisible victims of crime and we must do more to ensure that their rights and best interests are protected.

In her report, "Not Seen. Not Heard. Not Guilty.", Marshall called for the use of child or family impact assessments to be provided during sentencing. Evidence that was presented to the Equal Opportunities Committee during its work on female offenders was clear that the impact of family imprisonment is not addressed by the criminal justice system as it currently stands. As Anne McLaughlin said, social inquiry reports focus on the offender, information about the offender's caring responsibilities is not always included, and social inquiry reports are not always requested by the judge.

Although an offender should never escape punishment just because they are a parent, taking account of the needs of the child on a case-by-case basis would, in some cases, be more beneficial to society by preventing some of the knock-on effects of parental imprisonment. For example, during the Equal Opportunities Committee inquiry we were presented with evidence that women are often given custodial sentences for relatively trivial crimes because community sentences are not designed for them. Because women are often the primary carer, children are far more likely to be taken from their homes and put into alternative care arrangements, with all the problems and turmoil that that causes for the child.

A key recommendation of the Equal Opportunities Committee's report on female offenders concerned children's visiting rights. Cornton Vale has lots to be proud of in its efforts to support relationships between offenders and their children, with family contact officers assisting extended visiting for children in the informal and more comfortable setting of the little cherubs facility outside normal visiting hours, but a key criterion for a prisoner to be eligible for that service is proof that they are managing their addiction programme. That means that they need to show three negative blood tests before they can enjoy extended and informal visits with their children. Although that might seem like a good incentive to reduce drug use in prison, it punishes children again for their parent's behaviour, and it is directly in contravention of their rights under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

Although the Scottish Government was supportive of the majority of the committee's recommendations, its response omitted any mention of children's visiting rights. We will never stop some parents going to prison, so it is vital that we do all that we can to ensure that children have as normal a family life as we can possibly give them.

Superb work is being done in West Pilton in my constituency by the Circle project, which Margaret Mitchell mentioned. Circle is a charity that provides intensive community-based support to marginalised children and their families. Since August 2008, Circle has been working with female offenders in prison and when they return home to enable them to maintain and rebuild their family lives. Many women who enter Cornton Vale have no idea what happens to their children from the point at which they enter custody. There is a real breakdown in communication at that point, and Circle provides an important bridge in passing on information about care arrangements, facilitating parent-child visits and ensuring that the offending parent is aware of and can participate in their children's hearings sessions.

After release, Circle helps to rebuild family trust, re-establishes relations between parent and child and, when it is in the child's best interests, helps parents to get their children back. It also helps families with a range of issues such as housing, finances, and support for mental health and substance abuse problems. It is vital, therefore, that we keep up funding support for that organisation's excellent work.

I end by congratulating Circle as well as, once again, congratulating Aileen Campbell.
June 30th 2010, (Column 28029-31)