I move, That the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill be now read a first time. At the appropriate time I intend to move that the bill be considered by the Law and Order Committee.
I have brought this Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill to Parliament for consideration because of what I believe are elements of grave inhumanity in the way we often treat mothers of babies within our prison system. The catalyst came for me when I heard stories of mothers being refused any chance to breastfeed their newborn babies, at all, and having those newborn babies forcibly removed; when I heard of the trauma of mothers losing their babies at 6 months or at other random points of time during the cycle of imprisonment; and, worst of all, when I learnt that the right to breastfeed is at times being used as a tool of prison discipline. In the 21st century, in a supposedly civilised country like Aotearoa New Zealand, I think we can do a whole lot better than that.
My bill has two overarching goals: to ensure prison authorities allow mothers to breastfeed their babies, and to extend the period during which mothers are allowed to keep their babies with them from 6 months to 2 years. There is not an implication there, as some have suggested, that the breastfeeding and the time period are intrinsically linked together. They are two separate issues, and I still want to see mothers given the chance to keep their babies with them, even if they are unable to breastfeed at all, or choose to stop breastfeeding before the 2 years are up, as most women in fact do.
In 2002 the World Health Organization adopted the World Health Assembly’s resolution to: “protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months … and to provide safe and appropriate complementary foods, with continued breastfeeding for up to two years of age and beyond”. Not only international resolutions like that but also all the research I have ever seen show that breastfeeding is best for both the physical health and mental well-being of our babies. It also assists hugely in the bonding process that is so critical for babies’ long-term chances in life. I do not think a small group of babies should be denied that very fundamental human right simply because their mothers are languishing in either the remand or the sentence parts of the prison system.
The breastfeeding issue underlies the broader question of how long babies should be allowed to be accommodated with their imprisoned mothers, and, indeed, whether they should be with their mothers at all. In 2002 New Zealand prisons took a brave new step into the future by allowing babies aged under 6 months to live with their mothers in self-care units in prison. I would like to acknowledge here the former Alliance MP and Minister of Corrections, Matt Robson, for the role he played in assisting that to happen. I am sorry he is not actually here in the House tonight to help us take the further steps that I am proposing—steps that I am sure he would have backed all the way.
Although 6 months in 2002 was at least a start, it means we are still lagging a long way behind many other parts of the world. For example, the state of Victoria in Australia allows children to stay with their mothers for up to 6 years. Malaysia and Canada allow it for 4 years, and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand allow it for 3 years each. Some of those countries are not exactly renowned for their progressive prison systems, and I think that is an indication of just how far behind international best practice we in fact are.
Some commentators have criticised my bill because they say that 2 years is far too young an age to take a child away from its mother. I agree with them, but it is a whole lot better than 6 months. I also add that I would certainly welcome support from the House to amend the provision at the select committee to at least 3 years, which I think is a much more reasonable age at which to take the risk of forced separation. More mothers would have finished their sentences by then, as well. However, if we are not yet ready in this country to be quite that advanced in our reforms in this area, I hope my fellow MPs will at least support an extension to 2 years.
Forcibly separating a mother from a baby at 6 months, or at any time before then, is nothing short of barbaric. Some MPs will have seen the letter from a prisoner that I copied to them yesterday. I do not know how any mother among us can remain unmoved by the extract from her story. I will quote a small portion of it: “Nine hours after I gave birth to my precious daughter, I was told I was coming back to prison. I said with my baby? I was told, no, just me. I broke down. I deprived myself of sleep because I was so scared that I would wake up and my baby would be gone. I lost my appetite. Giving birth is meant to be such a happy occasion. The way I feel is that my heart doesn’t beat—it bleeds. I couldn’t even breastfeed, because I didn’t know what was happening.” The process of having one’s baby taken away against one’s will is infinitely traumatic.
Some people say that those women are criminals and do not deserve the right to breastfeed or to be with their babies. My response is that actually it is better for all of us if mothers and babies can have a better start in prison, because in fact the mothers’ chances of rehabilitation will be so much higher. Women who are living in the criminal subculture often are addicted to alcohol, drugs, and gambling, and exist in the kind of parallel universe most so-called mainstream members of society know nothing or little about. One of the main hopes for their rehabilitation can come from their giving birth and raising a child or children. It does not always work, of course, but having a baby, and being given the opportunity to be a mother in a safe, secure situation in which to love and nurture the child, can make all the difference in that mother’s life.
The converse is true, too. If the baby is ripped away from the mother at 1 day, 2 days, 3 months, or 6 months, the despair and trauma that result can be absolutely devastating, and the woman can end up being plunged back even deeper into the subculture from which she came. Our corrections system should be about maximising rehabilitation. It should be about giving prisoners the utmost possibility of turning their lives round when they come out. I do not think many parties in this House still believe that all we should focus on is punishment at the expense of the chance of change and redemption.
Then, of course, there is the question of what is best for the child. Some people seem to think that I am proposing to put mothers and babies into the kind of environment we see in TV programmes such as Bad Girls, or hear about in so many movies, books, and so on. Far from it. For a baby to stay with its mother in prison, both need to be in mother and baby self-care units within the prison and well separated from the general population. I was pleased to hear tonight that the new Auckland women’s prison south of Auckland will have one of these units. These places give the children concerned the chance to live for a period in a stable and regulated environment, often with a lot more peace and security than can be offered in life outside—something that is on the minds of many of us at the moment, I think, after the double murder of the Kāhui twins last week.
My bill does not say that the needs of the mother should be paramount over those of her child, but they are intertwined. For the best possible start in life, a baby should be able to stay with its mother for at least 2 years. It should have the opportunity to be breastfed wholly, then partially, for as long as the mother desires and is able. Mothers in prison do have to abide by protocols and ensure a drug and violence free environment for their child. They also have the chance to receive the kind of parenting education and support that they might not be able to access on the outside for any number of reasons. For the child, too, I believe that it will often be better to spend the first 2 years of its life with its mother in prison than to be passed from one relative to another or through a series of foster homes, which is often the only option.
A further question that is sometimes asked about all this is the potential cost to the Department of Corrections of establishing mother and baby units in all women’s prisons sufficient to meet demand. I believe that this is a cost we cannot afford not to meet, and in any case the cost would not be particularly large given that we have some units already. According to the best current information I have, there are only 13 pregnant women within our prison system at present, and we have quite a large female prison population right now. Although this number will always be subject to fluctuation, it is hard to imagine it ever growing substantially.
At a purely instinctive level, I think anyone who has been a mother can understand the trauma a woman goes through when she has her baby removed against her will. Whatever our attitude, individually or as political parties, to crime and punishment, I believe that my bill represents a reform whose time has come. I would like to thank all those political parties in the House who have come out in support of, at least, my bill going to a select committee, and I hope that support will continue. It is a tribute to all those members that they have seen past traditional approaches to law and order issues, and have understood the potential benefits of putting the needs of babies and mothers before the urge to condemn and punish. I look forward to the debate.
Tonight I am pleased to speak to the first reading of Sue Bradford’s Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill. I would like to acknowledge the contribution that Sue has made in bringing this bill to the attention of the Parliament. It is a well written bill with good intentions, and as a result I am pleased to say that the National Party is supporting it going to the select committee. There we will hear from experts and the public about the benefits and costs of the proposal.
The areas of key interest to the National Party are protecting the safety and well-being of the child; the benefits of bonding and attachment; the promotion of breastfeeding; the role this idea can play in the rehabilitation of the mother; and the contribution this bill could make to reducing recidivism. Although the academic and practical information on the latter issue is scarce, we recognise the strong belief that encouraging bonds between an inmate and her child plays a key role in helping that mother to go straight.
I have been interested in this issue since 2001, and, not coincidentally, since I became a mother myself. My interest was sparked by a letter to the Dominion in June of that year. It was a short letter, but one that was very moving. Margaret Long of Ōtaki made the comparison between me—a new mother breastfeeding my baby, and having the freedom to do so—with the situation of another woman who had just weaned her 2-month-old baby so that she could begin her 15-month stint in prison for stealing money from a bank. Members will know that 2 months, of course, is well short of New Zealand and World Health Organization goals for breastfeeding. The correspondent made a plea for Ms Foia to continue her feeding, and made the point that a breastfed baby in prison is “a cheap guest”. She also asked the question: “Why cannot Ms Foia care for her baby in prison, as Ms Rich will do in Parliament?”. Apart from likening Parliament to a prison, I understood her point.
After that I started to ask some questions about the numbers of women and babies in the same situation. At the time my interests coincided with a lot of good initiatives being promoted by Matt Robson, the then Minister of Corrections, who was at that point establishing the mother and baby units in New Zealand women’s prisons. A few years later I worked for another inmate who had been handcuffed during labour—something that is against the rules. She and her mother were most distressed to be told that she had to dry off her milk because she would not be able to breastfeed, and she would not even have the opportunity to apply for one of the units.
It has been some years now, so I think it is timely that we check whether Matt Robson’s mother and baby units have succeeded. I have to commend his courage in putting the units in place. It was a new concept for New Zealand, but it was commonplace in prison systems around the world. Members will be interested to know that countries we have studied, except Sweden, allow mothers to keep their children till varying ages. Although regulation 55 of the Penal Institution Regulations 1961 allowed mothers who gave birth to keep their babies with them up until the age of 6 months, in reality there were few resources to support this. So although there are mother and baby units here in New Zealand, there has been feedback that they are underutilised and lacking in resources, meaning that some women who should be eligible just do not get the opportunity. One of the cases was that of the constituent I have mentioned.
It is important to know that the mother and baby units around the world are run to a certain routine and standard. They are not free and easy nurseries where inmates can do as they please. If one looks at those in the UK, one sees that there are well established systems. There is a stringent selection process. The rights, welfare, and safety of the child are paramount at all times. There are strict rules, such as no smoking, no smacking, no drugs, good care, good feeding, etc. If the rules are not followed, then those mothers are removed from those units.
There will be two big debates, I think. The first will be around whether prison is a good place for a baby, and the second will be around the age of the child—to what age is it OK to keep a baby in prison? I do not think there is a person in this Chamber who would say that prison is a great place for kids. Certainly it is not an ideal place, and as a country we would like to see no women in prisons, let alone mothers. Likewise, I do not think there is a mother on the planet who dreams of experiencing those first few months behind bars. The reality is that we have this situation and we have to accept that fact.
Some adults might not think that babies should be in prison at all. That is Sweden’s view, and I think it is funny, given its progressive attitudes in other areas of child welfare. To those who think babies should be banned from prison, I say that babies do not care. The baby does not have a clue where it is; what it does know is that it is warm, it is fed, and it is in the arms of someone who cares. Yes, there is a financial cost, but there is a financial cost to the State in any case, be it via Work and Income, Child, Youth and Family Services, or foster care.
I cannot help but think that some of those babies will be a hell of a lot safer in the mother and baby units than in homes such as the one that has dominated debate in the last 3 weeks. Opponents need to remember that 33 percent of woman inmates have dependent children when they enter prison, and many will have more children when they get out. We need to accept that they are there for a wide range of reasons. The mother I mentioned before had been stealing, and the other was up for armed robbery. We need to accept that some of those crimes are not crimes that mean the women cannot be mothers. Our system is designed to remove the liberty of the mothers, but we overlook the fact that we are removing the rights of those babies to be breastfed and to be cared for by the most important person in their lives.
There will be some women who will not be eligible. Some crimes against children are unforgivable. A woman who has been a child abuser or has committed some kind of crime that puts children at risk will never be eligible to care for her child in prison. The Tracey Lee Sutherlands and the Tania Witikas of this world will never be eligible for these units.
Mothers need to buy in to strict agreements if they are going to take part. One of those agreements is that they take part in extensive parenting education. Such programmes capitalise on the fact that there is literally a captive audience for good parenting advice, and there is an opportunity to assist them to become better mothers. These programmes offer good parenting advice on things like nutrition, constructive play, and the importance of early childhood education. All of us who talk tough on crime must always be able to speak credibly about rehabilitation. Some of the rehabilitation courses in our corrections system have had pathetic results, but I do believe that appealing to a mother’s instinct to look after her baby cannot help but make the difference in getting that mother back on track.
I hope the select committee will hear from the child development experts on what the best age is. I hope officials have up-to-date information on the results from Australia and the costs of that initiative.
I have a message for those who think National’s support of this bill is a bleeding heart, liberal lurch to the left. It is not. The mother and baby unit model is a practical and common-sense approach. This bill requires reasonable reciprocal obligations and responsibilities, and that is in keeping with our principles as a party and our interests in rehabilitation and responsibilities. All the research shows that bonding and attachment as a baby contribute hugely to long-term development. Although any intervention for the mother might be seen as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, for a baby it could be the fence at the top. That is why National supports this bill going to the select committee.
I am pleased to speak to the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill on behalf of the Labour Party and the Government. This sort of bill, which comes into Parliament from time to time, brings out the best in the debates we have in the House, and I commend the member who has just resumed her seat, Katherine Rich. I do not think anyone in the House could disagree with the underlying principles espoused by Katherine Rich and Sue Bradford, the member whose bill we are debating.
The issues the bill puts before us are worthy of wide discussion and consultation, and an opportunity for us to hear from wide expert opinion and community interests. The Government certainly will be supporting the bill going to the Law and Order Committee, but Sue Bradford and Katherine Rich both raised a number of significant and important issues and questions. There can be no doubt that bonding and attachment between mother and child are fundamental to the issues that we cannot avoid discussing when we consider the bill. Certainly, the proposal we have shifts from the current arrangement, which effectively has an upper age-limit for babies who are with their mothers in prison. Again, I emphasise that the current legislation recognises not only the importance of the opportunity to establish and maintain breastfeeding in its own right but also bonding. It is important to acknowledge that both of those factors are taken into account.
As the members have said, the bill would provide for the increase in the upper age-limit for babies in prisons to 24 months, and that does raise a number of significant questions. The bill is timely, for a number of reasons. I acknowledge the Department of Corrections, which was planning to undertake a review of the woman and dependent child policy in the 2006-07 year. So this bill comes at an opportune time from that point of view. As part of that review, it was the intention that the current age-limit for babies in prisons, in light of the literature that has been previously referred to on child development and attachment to primary caregivers, would be part of the consideration during that review. So, again, the timing of that review, given the obvious consideration that it will have in the select committee, lines up well.
Of course, extending the age-limit suggests a number of important and challenging issues, some of which have already been canvassed, and I will echo them here. For instance, there is a challenge relating to the capacity to meet the child development needs of the child in prison, because, as the member who has just resumed her seat indicated, this is as much about a baby and his or her developmental needs and rights as it is about the mother in question, and the bonding between them. There is no doubt that there will be new challenges to be addressed in that regard. Potentially—for some, at least—there is the question of dealing with separation at an older age, because in some cases it may be that a mother who is serving a longer sentence may be forced to confront the same issue at age 2 rather than at 6 months. Certainly some literature would suggest that the issues are at least as serious at that point, albeit different. Practical support for mothers in that situation would be quite different if we went out to a 2-year timeline.
There are security issues. Basically, self-care units are minimum security at the moment. If we extend, virtually without control, the number of mothers who might be eligible, then we raise issues around security that currently do not necessarily need to be addressed. There are a number of other issues, not least of which is the resourcing issue. It would be good to be able to say the issue is too important to allow ourselves to be sidetracked by such mundane things as money, but, sadly, that is never the case in Government, and I think none of us in this House should pretend that we can simply make decisions in a financial vacuum—we cannot. So resourcing issues would be real and would have to be considered. But, as I said at the outset, the Government will support the bill going to the select committee. We look forward to hearing wide-ranging debate, and I thank members for their consideration of the bill.
New Zealand First supports the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill going to the Law and Order Committee. We must acknowledge Sue Bradford for bringing this issue to Parliament. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Although New Zealand First, like many other parties, has some concerns about children up to the age of 24 months being in prison with their mothers, we will be most interested to hear what the submitters to the select committee have to say about this issue.
We believe that at that age toddlers are usually pretty aware of the environment they are growing up in. However, on the positive side we believe that this is an opportunity for mothers in prison to learn some parenting skills in a very controlled environment, so that a baby or toddler can have the best possible start. We want to ensure the future development, health, and well-being of the child. When we look at it realistically, we see that it is not the baby’s fault that the mother has committed some offence.
New Zealand First believes that mothers and babies should have the opportunity to bond, as it can play a very significant role in rehabilitation, and that is basically what we want prison programmes to do. We know that the results of not bonding are absolutely disastrous for the mother, for the child, for the family, and, of course, for the State. As we have already been told, other countries have a parenting programme that allows babies to be in prisons for up to 2 years, and the results have been very positive. So we will be interested to follow this issue further.
We are very aware that strict criteria would need to be imposed, such as it being a non-smoking environment. We believe that the safety of the baby is absolutely essential, and it would be essential to have strict rules. There would need to be a ban on drug use and other detrimental behaviour that can occur in prisons.
The opportunity to attend parenting classes is far greater in prison than what it would otherwise be, because quite often these women would not have attended any community classes whatsoever. So this is a great opportunity for those mothers to learn about the health, the well-being, the hygiene, and the nutrition of their babies. We are very aware, too, as Katherine Rich has said, that mothers who have a crime associated with child abuse would definitely not be eligible to have their babies with them in prison.
This is basically a cost that the country cannot afford not to meet. We know that the well-being of the child and the right to breastfeed is absolutely paramount. We are very aware, too, that it is better for many of these babies to be with their mothers in prison in a stable and regulated environment. If they are removed from their mothers to the environment of violence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and/or substance abuse and dependency that has led to behaviour that has resulted in their mothers being imprisoned, then absolutely everyone has lost. We do not believe that the child should lose at all in this situation.
New Zealand First supports this bill. We will follow it through the select committee process with interest and we welcome the opportunity to have it discussed. Thank you, Sue.
Tēnā koe, Madam Assistant Speaker. Kia ora anō tātou katoa. The Māori Party has a vision for the nation that is about uplifting and strengthening whānau and restoring thriving, positive whānau environments. Whānau can be the site of generosity and respect in which our future success is shaped, and that can be whether one’s tupuna is Turei, Horomia, te Heuheu, or Kāhui. I was reminded about the importance of whānua in the last 2 weeks. Unfortunately, I have been to five tangi. In one case a young woman from our kura was killed in a car crash, and I was with the police when I had to tell her father on Saturday that she had died. Last Saturday a relation of mine had to bury his wife of 24 years. On Sunday a friend buried her 21-year-old son, who died as the result of an asthma attack. When we have to experience burying our own, we realise the importance of whānau, no matter what ups and downs we ever have to go through.
For those reasons we will support this important legislation, which extends the opportunity for children aged from 6 months to 2 years to enjoy their fundamental right to be with their māmā. Those children have committed no crime, but the price they pay for their mothers’ offending is steep. Currently, babies aged up to 6 months can stay with their mothers who are imprisoned. But we have to ask whether prison facilities are the best place to support the mental, emotional, and physical development of a child. Prisons as they are at present are not a safe and positive environment for women, babies, or young children. We are in a catch-22 situation. It is not a question of choosing between a good option and a bad option; it is a question of alternatives, each of which is problematic: separating a 6-month-old baby from his or her mother, or isolating an infant from his or her wider whānau. Whatever arrangements are made for babies and children on the outside, the impact of their mothers’ imprisonment affects every aspect of their lives. The rest of their lives will bear the stigma of imprisonment, the trauma of isolation, and the separation experienced at a critical stage of their development.
The introduction of this bill is influenced by similar developments overseas. The Māori Party has been especially interested in developments for Aboriginal women in Australia. Tauto Sansbury, chair of the National Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, has identified the need for programmes to assist indigenous mothers and children—and I quote: “In a population where incarceration rates have been so high for so long, we need to consider what the effect of this is upon the next generation—the impact does not end with the generation that is in prison now … the impact will continue to be felt by every child who has been deprived of a parent, who has seen their parent locked up, who has known what it is to fear the justice system.” When mothers are given a jail sentence, their children are given a life sentence. They are sentenced to the effects of family separation, and the strength of whanaungatanga is restricted by the barriers of cell walls.
In the last fortnight there has been a call for collective courage in addressing the issues of how best to care for children, for our tamariki. Those thoughts are fundamental to Te Ao Māori. Our well-being is intrinsically linked to the width and depth of our whānau network. As a part of that, we absolutely believe that women need support to maintain contact with their children while they are incarcerated. The well-being of our children depends on appropriate support and education being readily at hand to ensure their needs are met. The Māori Party is therefore supportive of the concept of a parenting agreement, and particularly of the provision that states parenting education will be provided and the mother must participate in it. We believe that is the key. If we want our children to be loved, to be nurtured, and to be treasured, we need to assist our whānau to know how to do that.
I was thinking today, as I do most days, about my own five children. When my wife and I had our first child, we lapped up the advice and stories that whānau shared with us, eager to do everything just right. We took part in antenatal classes, read the books, and talked to other young mums and dads. One thing that helped me at that time was the belief that this new-born baby was a taonga. She was our legacy, our contribution back to our people, and she needed to be treasured as the precious hope of our future. That way of thinking was strengthened as her brothers and sisters duly arrived, and it is a way of thinking that reminds me of the honoured place they hold in our lives. I hope this Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill will nurture and develop that way of thinking. Kia ora tātou.
Every now and then a speech is delivered in this House that should be written up by a good calligrapher and framed, and I commend Katherine Rich for delivering one of those tonight. I also commend Sue Bradford, because I think this is a very well-thought-through bill and United Future is very pleased to support its first reading. We will follow with interest what happens to it at the select committee and the issues raised there.
I think the bill is well-thought-through because after pondering its possibilities and thinking through all the pros and cons, I found that those were pretty well all covered. In fact the only issue I could not find and that I thought could be of interest is in the area of prison protocols relating to access to the child by other family members, and the issues of supervised and non-supervised access that may need to be considered and factored in. I do not think it is a major problem, and it may be that it is well covered by a regulation within the prison service. Certainly, it was the only thing I could think of that the member has not covered.
To me the issue is a lot more important than just a child’s right to be breast fed. I acknowledge the importance of that, but I think the bonding and connection with the mother is also hugely important. I have a gut feeling about this issue. I feel that allowing mothers this opportunity will result in us seeing much lower recidivism rates. Children do something magical to our lives. No matter who we are as parents and what skills we have, children change us for the better, and I think that if these mothers are given the opportunity to have a fresh vision for their lives based on the opportunity that parenthood offers them, then we will see some very, very good results.
I am keen to hear from submitters on what will happen when the mother has a sentence longer than 2 years and the child is separated from her when he or she turns 2. That does worry me a little bit, because that would be more traumatic for a 2-year-old than for a newborn baby. We need to think that issue through fairly carefully.
I am really pleased to see the sensible provisions around the unsuitability of some women who have a history of violence, or who have risk behaviours that would jeopardise the child. The area of the cost of mothers’ units is a really interesting one. We need to have a whole-of-Government look at the issue of cost and ask what it will cost if we do not allow this, in terms of benefits and potential recidivism. The whole cost factor needs to be looked at thoroughly—beyond just the bricks and mortar that would be required to build some special units.
The thought of having these units in a women’s prison has huge appeal to me in terms of creating a positive environment where people are highly motivated by parenting opportunities to make a change in their lives and are given a positive environment in which to do that. I do not think the prison environment will be at all detrimentally affected by the fact that there might be some nice parenting units attached to it; in fact, it could be very, very good.
I think we need to remember that victims of crime often see prison very much as being punitive—justice is being portioned out to people who have done them harm or deprived them in some way. I have read some articles by people who are concerned that this is some sort of soft option. But I guess what I am concerned about is that when we think like that, at that point we have stopped thinking about the baby’s interests and the child’s interests and their need to be bonded, to have contact with their mother. I think also we have forgotten that eventually people, regardless of their crime, will be released back into society to take up their parenting roles again, and we need to be very mindful of that. I am particularly pleased that this bill includes provisions for parent education. I think that is an extremely good use of a mother’s time in prison, and I commend the member for considering that option. We are very happy to support the first reading of this bill.
I rise to speak to the first reading of the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill. ACT New Zealand will be supporting this bill going to select committee. There are certainly provisions in it that we think are very positive. There are a lot of unanswered questions, too. One of the reasons that we want to see this bill go to select committee is so that we can have proper, thorough discussion, and proper submissions, about the pros and cons of the measures suggested in the bill.
When doing research for this bill, it was interesting to look at what is happening in other countries. In European countries many children are allowed to stay with their mothers up to the age of 2 or 3. That seems to be pretty much the norm. In Australia I think it is 12 months—[Interruption] It varies from state to state; right. But in some states it is up to 12 months.
The point that must be considered paramount, of course, is what is best for the baby in this situation. We must not forget, along the way, that mothers are in prison and usually for a very good reason, so there needs to be a clear balance between what is best for the child involved and ensuring the mother’s obligation to society—the reason for her being in prison in the first place—is met.
It depends a little on whom one talks to, as to the benefits, the pros and cons, involved with a baby staying with its mother until the age of 2. Many people say that the recidivism rate is significantly lessened when mothers have a very good reason to behave well in prison, and to follow codes of conduct that are expected of them while they are in prison. But some of the written evidence I looked at said that the measures were inconclusive. That does not necessarily mean that they are not there; it just means that they have not perhaps been proven, or the research might not have been done. I think sending this bill to select committee will allow for expert advice to be sought, so we can see the benefits to the children when they are balanced with the reasons that the mother is in prison in the first place.
The other important aspect of this bill—and it has been mentioned by other speakers—is the right of mothers to breastfeed. The bond that develops between a mother and her child when breastfeeding is allowed to happen is absolutely well-established, and there would be very little argument about that. It is certainly something that I, too, feel quite strongly about.
One of the things that I think happens at the moment in prison—and this is very much anecdotal—is that mothers know they will be able to keep their children for only 6 months. Very often the child is used as a tool in behaviour patterns and in the decision making that goes on in prisons. This is very sad, because it would seem at that point that the child’s interests are not paramount. If we know that a child is able to stay with its mother until the age of 2, there is less scope for that behaviour to occur in the prison system.
ACT will be supporting this bill to select committee. We do have a lot of questions. We want to know that the evidence is there to show that this is absolutely best for the child. Bringing up a child in prison, of course, is not an ideal situation, so we need to know what detrimental effects, if any, there might be on children up to the age of 2. Some people say there are absolutely none. Probably none of us have memories of before we were 2 years old, so there may be none. But there are other people who feel quite strongly that there will be detrimental effects for children. We need to explore that side of things, as well as the recidivism rate, the benefit it has to the mother, whether she will go on to form strong bonds with her children once she is released from prison, whether she is likely to reoffend—or much less likely to reoffend—as a result of having that bond that will ultimately develop because she has been able to keep her child with her. That, too, needs to be explored and we look forward to those questions being answered and the submissions being given.
We have pleasure in supporting this bill going to select committee.
I am absolutely delighted to support Sue Bradford’s bill. I note that in a letter she sent to all MPs she said: “I believe how we treat mothers who have babies while they are in prison is an issue of such common humanity that it transcends traditional party lines.” Indeed, this debate has proven exactly that. We have had an outbreak of cross-party unity, the likes of which we have not seen for many months in this Parliament, and is it not fantastic? Should we not celebrate when an issue comes out that so unites us?
It is just as well that it has united us, because all of us last year, before the election, signed up to the “children first” accord. All of us promised that we would put the interests of children first. The whole thing was about giving children the best start in life. If this bill is measured by that, then there is no question: this bill puts the needs of the child first, and focuses on giving children the best start in life. That overriding objective must be given priority over other desires, such as the desire to punish or the desire to seek revenge. The wonder is that it has taken so long to make this simple but extremely significant policy change. It was interesting that the Minister of Justice said the Ministry of Justice was looking at this issue.
One part of me asks whether we really need a whole, lengthy legislative process. Do we need submissions and a lengthy debate? Why cannot we have a simple regulatory change? The arguments are so overwhelming and so compelling; why cannot we just make the change, and make it tomorrow? But from listening to the debate I see that there are some very important issues that we can explore and would be worth exploring in the select committee. These are issues around parenting education, having a parental contract, and so forth. Those are really important issues, and I welcome the fact that they will be debated in the select committee in the same cross-party, constructive spirit we have seen here tonight.
If we put the interests of the child first, we just have to support this bill. As others have said, there is overwhelming international consensus that breastfeeding is best for every baby, that it is the basic right of every baby. We know that it is the ideal nutrition. We know that every child who has been breastfed for as long as possible will have a better start in life. It will have reduced risks of all sorts of diseases, and therefore will be healthier and will require less support from the State later on.
Of course, the issue of bonding is absolutely crucial, and others have talked about it. It was interesting to learn how disastrous and how traumatising it is for a mother to have her baby forcibly taken away from her. In a former life I wrote a book about the history of motherhood. From the 1930s right through until the 1970s, babies were automatically taken away from mothers for up to about 3 days, then were wheeled out on trolleys from a central nursery, but they were kept away from the mother for 14 or more days. I interviewed many mothers for my book. All of them had found the experience devastating and traumatising. All of them felt that it had undermined their bonding and, in many cases, had undermined their efforts to breastfeed.
So if it is traumatic for mothers to have their babies taken away in a hospital situation for 14 days, how much more traumatic it must be for mothers to have their babies taken away at 6 months for 18 months or so. Obviously, a mother who is devastated and traumatised by having her baby taken away from her will have much greater difficulty in being rehabilitated. So as well as benefiting the baby—which I really believe is what this measure is all about—it will help mothers, help with their rehabilitation, and make them, as others have said, much less likely to be recidivists.
I really do not think we should be worrying about the financial dimensions of this bill. We are, after all, talking about only 13 mothers with babies. As a previous speaker—I think it was Judy Turner—said, the long-term costs of denying a child breastfeeding and bonding with the mother will be infinitely more expensive than the costs of implementing this measure.
As the Opposition spokesperson on law and order, it falls to me to make some comments about this Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill before we all get too carried away with how well we are all getting on. I personally congratulate Sue Bradford on bringing this bill to the House. I think it is a very helpful initiative to debate. Initially, I had to request the bill from Sue’s office to read it, because it was not tabled at the time I wanted to have an initial look at it. I have to say that it did not take much to convince me that this bill needed to be supported—at the very least to a first reading.
As the law and order spokesperson, one of the things I will be watching carefully when the bill makes it to the Law and Order Committee is, as one would expect, the nature of the reciprocal arrangements between the mother and, presumably, the Department of Corrections. It seems to me that the point has been made well by contributors tonight, but that it needs to be made once more for those who might be listening and who consider that Parliament has had a bizarre flight of multiparty fancy, whereby everybody has decided that the traditional arguments around law and order should shift to one side.
The key here is the question of where else these children would get the care and attention they deserve. That is the key thing that leapt out at me when I looked at the bill. The reciprocal arrangements around issues of bonding, care, well child checks, and other such programmes—and, in particular, parenting courses for mothers and children where needed—highlighted to me the fact that the alternatives to that type of monitored progress and care did not really get a mention in the bill. The needs of the child must be paramount. I understand that, as Sue Bradford put it, those needs are intertwined with the needs of the mother, but I will be looking at the matter primarily from the viewpoint of the needs of the child. I will encourage my colleagues in the caucus and on the Law and Order Committee to take that view also.
One or two contributors tonight have commented about the need for more resources in order to allow the 13 women who are currently pregnant in our prisons to enter into these types of arrangement. I take this opportunity to remind the House that financial constraints have never really seemed to be a concern for the Department of Corrections, and I am sure this particular initiative will have no impact on the broader scale of spending we have seen in recent months.
I listened to Te Ururoa Flavell make his contribution about antenatal classes, reading the right books, and trying to make sure that parenthood would be simply an exercise in carrying out what the academic literature recommended was the appropriate course of action. As the father of a 2½-year-old, I concur with him that once one has read the first book one might as well biff the rest out. One will find a way to raise a child only by trial and error, and those who find themselves in circumstances where error is more likely than not deserve the opportunity to find a path whereby the child will have an opportunity that would otherwise be denied him or her.
So National will support this bill in its first reading. I congratulate Sue Bradford on the initiative, and I will watch closely the progress of the bill.
I thank all the speakers who have addressed my bill tonight. I can hardly remember an occasion in this House when there has been such universal support for a piece of legislation, especially for a member’s bill from the Green Party. I am sorry the National Party is not taking a lurch to the left. Nevertheless, it is great to have its support, and great to have ACT’s, as well.
Members have raised lots of interesting points, but I do not sense a lot of controversy, and I continue to wonder whether there is a possibility that the Law and Order Committee could look at the option of, first of all—as my colleague Sue Kedgley said—speeding it up a little, and, secondly, considering whether in fact 3 years would be a better age than 2 years. As paediatricians and others say, 2 years is actually a critical age for a child in terms of its bonding, attachment, and psychological changes. I think it would be a lot better for the child to be left there for 3 years if everything is going well. Also, there is a much greater chance that by that time the mother will have completed her sentence anyway.
I was very interested that the Minister Mark Burton said that the Department of Corrections would undertake a review of policy in this area anyway. That seems very timely, and I am sure it will help us in the process we are about to go through. On the resourcing issue, I certainly also take the Minister’s point that financing does matter. I am well aware that Governments have to count the dollars, but, as Simon Power pointed out, the Department of Corrections has gone many millions of dollars over budget in many of its building projects, and the comparatively small number of dollars that would be required to enable us to have adequate and good facilities for mother and baby units in our three major women’s prisons would be a drop in the bucket compared with where other spending goes.
Some people, both in the House tonight and externally, have raised the issue that, perhaps, a mother keeping her baby in prison up to the age of 2, or being allowed to breastfeed, might be a soft option. I have even heard it said that some women will deliberately get pregnant in order to have that option. My response to that is that, for a start, very few women would do that. Secondly, even if they did, the fact remains—as colleagues have said—that the outcome for the baby should be paramount, rather than the mother. I totally concur with Simon Power and others who made that point. I agree completely that in looking at this legislation we must always remember that the baby comes first, but, of course, it is a situation where the relationship with the mother plays an integral part. So, whatever the mother has done and whatever her motivation for getting pregnant—or how deliberately or not she got pregnant—in the end, that needs to be put to the side. We need to look at what is best in terms of the health and future well-being of the child.
I finish with a personal confession. I have had direct experience of some of the implications of this issue. Quite a long time ago, when one of my babies was only 2 weeks old, I was in court for several weeks and my baby was taken away from me. I was totally breastfeeding during a big court case after the Springbok tour. I was with a group of seven other people and we faced going to prison for potentially quite a long time as a result of the court case. This was under the cells of the High Court in Auckland. The first trial was aborted; the second trial went through. We were convicted, and, at the point of sentencing, I knew that my few-weeks-old baby might be taken from me.
I guess that left an indelible impression on my mind as to what it would mean for a mother to have a baby taken away from her while she was in prison. That was my third baby, and the thought of losing her while I went to prison for perhaps 6 months or a year had a tremendous impact on me, and has helped to motivate me in putting this legislation forward. There is nothing like the realisation, as a mother of a very new baby, of what losing that baby would actually mean.
I put this bill forward, and thank members for their support, in the name of all the mothers who have gone through—and continue to go through—that experience in a very real way.