MOTHERS in prison should be allowed to speak to their children regularly through the internet to prevent the breakdown of their relationships with them, according to the new head of the Scottish Government's mental health watchdog.

In his first interview since taking up his post, Colin McKay, the chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission For Scotland, urged the Scottish Prison Service to investigate the use of Skype technology as a way of maintaining the bonds between women in custody and their offspring.

He said health boards should also allow women in forensic wards in psychiatric hospitals to be given access to the image-based internet communication system for the same purpose.

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Mr McKay spoke out as the Commission publishes a report today on female offenders with mental health problems - amid increasing concerns about an increase in the number of women behind bars.

"I think the use of Skype and video-conferencing is a good idea for the women and the children," he said. "The women have already lost an awful lot by the time they are in prison. Their lives are in a pretty bad way, and having regular contact with their children helps keep ties that are difficult to maintain in prison. It also gives them hope of resuming a normal life in society once they leave prison.

"I think it is also important the children know how their mothers are doing. Getting the connection back with their mothers once it is severed is very difficult."

The Mental Welfare Commission (MWC) report was based on interviews with 51 women in prison and psychiatric hospitals.

A total of 28 had children, although only five had youngsters living with them at the time the women were taken into custody. The other children were being looked after by extended family or with foster parents. Some of the children had been adopted.

Of those women still in contact with their children, visits were infrequent, with contact usually by phone or letter.

Matt Forde, head of services for NSPCC Scotland, welcomed the idea of offenders using Skype to talk to their children, so long as it was in the child's interest.

He said: "Supportive arrangements for positive contact should be made if a mother is to maintain a continuing role in a child's life whilst she is in prison. First and foremost, this should be based on the needs and interests of the child."

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said consideration was being given to the use of video conferencing as a way of maintaining contact between inmates and their families.

He said: "As part of the recent closure of HMP Peterhead and HMP Aberdeen, and as a short-term measure, family visits for some prisoners were partly achieved through the use of video conferencing facilities.

"A full evaluation is being conducted with a view to considering the wider use of technology to encourage and develop family contact with prisoners."

A Government spokeswoman said it was making significant progress to address issues highlighted in the MWC report that had been raised by the Commission On Women Offenders in 2012.