Minister backs down on prisoners in chains

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Home Affairs Correspondent

Ann Widdecombe, the Home Office minister, yesterday made a humiliating apology for misleading the Commons over the shackling of pregnant prisoners.

Her "unreserved apology"came as the Government prepared to soften its controversial chaining policy.

Faced with strong criticism and the threat of court action over "inhumane and degrading" treatment, ministers look set to meet medical concerns that no mother-to-be should be held in chains in a maternity unit and that prison staff should remain outside the labour room. Ministers are considering demanding a risk assessment for women before any are put in chains to attend court, child custody hearings or hospital appointments.

Richard Tilt, the acting head of the Prison Service, admitted he was "not happy with the outcome of the present policy."

He promised to look at a case, which was highlighted in the Independent on Sunday, of an unconvicted woman prisoner seriously ill in a hospital Aids ward who was held in chains 24 hours a day. Yesterday lawyers for the woman, a drug addict with no previous convictions, accused of conspiracy to supply heroin worth about pounds 300, failed in an emergency bail application.

Suspicions that Downing Street put pressure on ministers to back down came as Ms Widdecombe took to the Commons floor. She then retracted a claim she made last week that Whittington hospital, in London, which deals with shackled inmates from Holloway, the country's largest women's prison, had not raised concerns about the practice.

The minister blamed bad advice from Prison Service officials. "I deeply regret that the advice which I had been given about this correspondence, and which I in turn gave to the House in good faith, was wrong. I offer my unreserved apologies to the House," she said.

Labour's Home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, said he was now writing to Mr Howard, to demand that the whole policy be reviewed.

'Minister for trouble', page 2