Right of Reply: Lord Williams of Mostyn QC

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The Independent Culture
The Home Office minister of state responds to criticisms of the prison service

IN RESPONSE to Jack O'Sullivan's article ("Separated at birth", 29 October), I should like to clarify the Prison Service admissions procedure for mother and baby units.

Applications for a place on a mother and baby unit are considered by a board which would normally include a governor, prison staff, a probation officer, a representative of the local social services and medical staff. The board makes a recommendation to the governor, who makes the decision.

Each case is considered individually, taking account of relevant factors including the attitude and behaviour of the prisoner, the interests of the child, and the interests of other mothers and babies on the unit. The welfare of the babies is of paramount importance and the admissions criteria have been agreed with the Department of Health.

Women are not turned away from the units on the basis of them being "articulate and questioning". The safety of the children on the units is the central consideration and any woman who is likely to prove violent or disruptive will not be granted a place. In these instances social services arranges for the baby to be cared for outside the prison.

We accept that the separation of children from their mothers causes great anxiety, which is why in 1992 we asked the Department of Health to look at the age of separation and whether it should be raised from its current limit of 18 months. The Department of Health consulted a number of childcare experts on this and came to the conclusion that the upper age limit should remain at 18 months as it would not be in the interest of the child's development to remain in a unit after this.

Mother and baby units remain well-managed facilities which operate in the best interests of the mother and child.