Letters reveal hospital's concern

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Whittington Hospital had written to both the Prison Service and to ministers about their concerns over the shackling of pregnant prisoners, before Anne Widdecombe claimed in the Commons that there had been no complaint.

Five months ago Ian Kidson, the hospital's chief executive, first raised the issue of handcuffs and chains in a letter to Janet King, governor of Holloway jail. He enclosed a letter from the director of midwifery expressing "great concern amongst the staff within the maternity unit regarding the new policy by the Home Office that all patients are handcuffed and chained to wardens".

Hospital staff secured a meeting last November with the Prison Service to discuss the issue. It was suggested a group midwifery, obstetric and gynaecology service be provided in the jail to avoid the practice.

As there was no change in policy, Baroness Hayman, chairman of the Whittington Hospital Trust, wrote to Baroness Cumberledge, the Health Minister. She wrote: "As you may be aware, there are grave professional concerns over the effects of the tightening of custody policies towards pregnant women prisoners. As the main hospital providing care for women from Holloway Prison, we are much concerned with the dilemmas current policies are posing for both clinical and custodial staff."

It was against this background, that Miss Widdecombe, ill-prepared by a short briefing with Prison Officials, wrongly told the Commons the Whittington had not registered any complaint.

A spokeswoman for the Whittington said staff were pleased Ms Widdecombe had clarified the position, but added: "The hospital has been voicing its concerns about this to the Home Office ruling since August last year and is still seeking discussions at national level."

Ms Widdecombe's mistake had come in response to a question from Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, over the chaining of one pregnant woman in early stages of her labour. She had then sought to defend the shackling policy, which was introduced last April in response to the two mass break- outs from Parkhurst and Whitemoor top-security jails.