A ban on children visiting their mothers in jail during the coronavirus pandemic risks breaching human rights and should be lifted, according to a report.
Socially distanced visits must be allowed, where safe to do so, and any prevention of this must be “necessary and proportionate”, the findings from the Joint Committee on Human Rights said.
Otherwise the Government could open itself up to legal challenges, the committee of MPs and peers warned.
It also called on the Government to temporarily release every pregnant inmate and all mothers with dependent children who are not considered a danger to the public.
Stopping prisoners from attending funerals of a close family member also risks being a breach of human rights and should be permitted by video link if not possible in person, the report said.
Committee chairman Harriet Harman said: “One of the fundamental human rights is the right to family life. It is children for whom this right is most important.
“Yet when the Government banned children from visiting their mother in prison they trampled over that right.
“They can put that right now by early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children and re-instating visits for the rest,” the Labour MP said.
“Covid-19 causes lasting injury. But so does separating a child from its mother.
“The way to protect public health is not to damage children but to release low-risk mothers and reinstate socially distanced visits.”
Earlier this month the committee listened to testimony from young children who said they felt “sad and confused” because they had been unable to see their mother, who was in jail, since the coronavirus pandemic began.
MPs and peers were also told of a 12-month-old boy who has now been “separated from his mother for a quarter of his life” because of the lockdown.
Social visits were stopped in prisons as the outbreak took hold.
At the end of March the Government said pregnant inmates could be granted temporary release from prison “within days” to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus.
Governors were also allowed to release on temporary licence mothers with young children who were in mother and baby units.
All had to pass a risk assessment first and suitable accommodation had to be found.
Remaining inmates can use phones to contact relatives, but not all mothers have access to video calls and those who do can use it at least once a month.
Ministers said efforts are being made to make the facility available to everyone as soon as possible.
Allowing mothers to read their children bedtime stories over the phone was “still a poor substitute for the real thing”, the report adds.
Barrister Sam Granger, who is deputy counsel to the committee, told the PA news agency: “I think there’s certainly grounds for a legal claim on the basis of breach of Article 8 (of the European Convention on Human Rights ECHR, a right to family life).”
The ECHR is “not keen on blanket bans” and case law is “very clear” that interfering with prison visiting rights must be necessary, proportionate and on an individual basis.
She added: “That’s not the situation that we are seeing here and so the report hasn’t gone as far to say that this is breaching Article 8 rights but we do think there is a clear risk that if a legal challenge were to be brought that it could be deemed to be a breach of Article 8.”
It is thought there are around 35 pregnant prisoners and 34 inmates in mother and baby units in 12 women’s prisons in England.
The latest available information indicates 23 women had been released during the pandemic because they were classed as vulnerable and at risk – 16 from mother and baby units and seven pregnant women.
But the committee estimates there are 17,000 children whose mothers are in prison.
It accused the Government of “largely working in the dark” because it does not know “even the most basic information” about the numbers of women in prison who are separated from children.
This could be “easily remedied”, the report said, adding: “You cannot protect the human rights of children who are invisible.”
Ms Harman said data on female inmates was being “overlooked” and ministers had implied it was difficult to compile but she believed the information was already available and it was not complicated.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Mothers in prison need to see their children. We want the Government to restore contact between them and look at temporary or early release wherever possible, especially for pregnant women and new mothers.”
A Prison Service spokesman said: “The decision to stop visits was not taken lightly. But there is no question that the measures helped save lives and, as a result, some prisons are now able to begin easing restrictions.”