|Fri 1st December 2017||
Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill
2nd reading: House of Commons
|19 interactions (993 words)|
Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Mims DaviesMain Page: Mims Davies (Conservative) - Mid Sussex)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am sure that many Members have already noticed that the Bill is in not my name, but that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey). It is a huge honour to take over the Bill from my right hon. Friend following her recent and richly deserved promotion to the Government. I am very grateful to her for having brought this important Bill before the House and for entrusting its further safe passage to me.
The purpose of the Bill is to make our prisons safer and more secure. It would amend the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012, which was guided through Parliament and brought to the statute book by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I am very happy to have an opportunity to build on his previous work.
Let me start with the problem that the Bill is intended to tackle: the presence of mobile phones in our prisons. These illicit phones cause significant harm both inside and outside our prisons, where they are used to co-ordinate the smuggling of drugs and other contraband. Mobile phones are key enablers of the illicit economy in our prisons, which drives a significant amount of violence and self-harm. They also have an impact outside the prison walls. They can often be used to harass victims and witnesses, or to run organised crime gangs outside prison. The high price that mobile phones command in our prisons funds the organised criminals who supply them to carry out other illegal activities.
The 2012 Act recognised the significance of the threat and provided the Secretary of State with the power to authorise governors to interfere with wireless telegraphy in their prisons. Using this authority, governors are currently empowered to carry out interference to prevent, detect or investigate the use of devices capable of transmitting or receiving images, sounds or information by electronic communication such as mobile phones.
Despite the authority provided in the 2012 Act and the considerable use that has been made of its powers, mobile phones continue to cause real and severe problems in prisons throughout the country. In particular, prisons continue to face the challenges posed by the increasing availability of mobile devices. Although governors have been authorised under the Act to interfere with wireless phone signals to combat the use of illicit mobile phones, and although seizure figures show how effective they have been in using the detection equipment available to them, the sheer number of seizures demonstrates that the Act needs to be expanded.
Hard-working prison staff make every effort to detect and confiscate illicit mobile phones and SIM cards, but the figures illustrate the scale of the problem. Only last year, 20,000 phones and SIM cards were found in prisons in England and Wales—approximately 54 each day. That is a significant increase on previous years, with just under 17,000 found in 2015, 10,000 in 2014, and just over 7,000 in 2013. Having met prison officers in my local prison in Lewes and heard at first hand about the problems that mobile phones cause them, I believe that the Bill will significantly improve safety and make their jobs easier.
It is clear that the current ban on mobile phones in prisons is not working, and that the 2012 Act needs to be expanded to combat the increasing problem. The Bill will build on the Act by allowing the Secretary of State to directly authorise public communication providers and mobile phone operators to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons, as is set out in clause 1. As a result of the 2012 Act, mobile network operators are already involved in work to combat illicit phones, but because the authority to carry out interference lies with individual governors, the role of the mobile phone operators has so far been limited. Clause 1 provides both the authority and a clear line of accountability in primary legislation for mobile phone network operators to become more actively involved in combating the problem. It is of course important to ensure that such activity is subject to safeguards that are needed to prevent inappropriate use. To that end, further consequential changes are made in the schedule to the Bill, which amends sections 2, 3 and 4 of the 2012 Act.
The schedule amends section 2 of the 2012 Act so that safeguards that already apply to authorised governors will also apply to authorised public communications providers. Like an authorised governor, any authorised public communications provider will have to comply with directions from the Secretary of State which must specify descriptions of the information with which governors are to be provided, the intervals at which it is to be provided, and the circumstances in which the use of equipment authorised for the purposes of interference with a wireless signal must be modified or discontinued. There will also be directions aimed at ensuring that authorised interference does not result in disproportionate interference with wireless technology outside prisons.
Section 3 of the Act governs retention and disclosure of information obtained by means of interference. It provides that information must be destroyed after three months unless the governor of a prison authorises its retention on specific grounds. When the information is retained, the governor must review its retention every three months, and must destroy it if its retention is no longer justified. Under the Bill, responsibility for deciding about retention and disclosure will still rest with the governor of the relevant institution, but because relevant information may now be obtained by a mobile phone operator or public communications provider, who may have been authorised in respect of multiple institutions, the Bill amends section 3 to clarify which governor is responsible for decisions about retention and disclosure in such cases.
The House had an opportunity to consider similar provisions to those in the Bill during its scrutiny of the Prisons and Courts Bill in the last Parliament. I am pleased to say there was genuine cross-party support for the measures, but two concerns were raised. The first was about prisoners accessing legitimate telephone services to retain contact with family members, friends and their communities outside prison. Multiple pieces of research, including the Farmer review, show that maintaining contact between prisoners and family members is crucial. Ministry of Justice research shows that prisoners who maintain contact with a family member are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who cannot. It is therefore crucial that we enable that to happen, and some Members have stressed that mobile phones are a tool to maintain that contact.
While being able to contact family members using legitimate telephone services while in prison is key, the Ministry of Justice already has a programme of work under way to ensure that prisoners have access to legitimate phone services and do not need to turn to mobile phones. The Department is trialling in-cell handsets and call tariff reductions in the prison estate, starting at HMP Wayland, and the ongoing trials aim to test the impact of this technology further. Conservative Members have already lobbied the Minister about this important issue through “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, and if I was not confident about this work, I would not be recommending the Bill.
Absolutely. Existing legislation bans mobile phones, so prisoners should not be accessing them to contact their family. That is not to say that contacting and keeping in touch with family members is not important; it is crucial both for inmates’ welfare and to reduce reoffending.
The second concern raised previously was about the possibility of interference activity in prisons having a detrimental effect on properties close to prisons, perhaps by blocking legitimate signals completely. My constituents in Lewes are worried about this. Under the powers of the 2012 Act, there was a small risk that genuine customers could be disconnected if their phones were incorrectly identified as being used in a prison without authorisation. To counter that, under this Bill, before any system is deployed, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will calibrate and test its approach, including any technology and infrastructure measures, with mobile network operators and Ofcom to ensure that only those handsets that are being used in a prison without authorisation will be identified and stopped from working.
The increased active involvement of mobile network operators under this Bill should be welcomed as reassurance that genuine mobile phone use near prisons will not be blocked. Mobile operators will be the first to know about any leakage from prisons through spikes in complaints, and I am pretty sure that Members of this House will be contacted by their constituents if mobile phone signals outside prisons are affected.
The Bill is not intended to facilitate any one technical solution. Instead, it gives mobile network operators the authority to become more directly involved. By doing so, it provides the freedom, and perhaps the stimulus, to develop a range of solutions. Authorising operators will also add an element of future-proofing to the process, which has been missing so far. As the experts, they will be aware of new technical developments and will be able to adapt their solutions in response to them.
I hope that Members will support this important Bill and the contribution it can make to improving the safety and security of our prisons. I commend it to the House.
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My hon. Friend makes a valid and pertinent point. People who go to prison should not have the connections and privileges that those of us in the outside world enjoy. I know that a lot of my constituents would take that point on board as well.
The main aim of the Bill is to authorise public communications providers to disrupt the use of unlawful mobile phones in prisons. When I was reading the background papers for the Bill, I was interested to note that in 2016, approximately 13,000 mobile phones and 7,000 SIM cards were found in our prisons. The number of phones represented an increase from 7,000 in 2013. Those shockingly high numbers are a further indication of why the Bill is so important. I hope that it will make it easier for the governors of our prisons to tackle this problem. It is a way for us to show that we are on their side.
The illicit use of mobile phones undermines the safety and security of our prisons and enables criminals to access the internet. It is unacceptable that criminals should be able to continue to direct illegal activity from behind bars. The Bill will create a new power for the Secretary of State to authorise public communications providers to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons in England and Wales, in addition to the existing authority that can be given to governors.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. What we are trying to do here is tackle the problem while keeping a focus on what prison is all about. It is about trying to reduce reoffending, and about rehabilitation.
A number of years ago, I visited an organisation in the north of England and met one of its pastoral workers. He explained to me how some individuals seemed to go through a revolving door, in that they would go into prison, come out, reoffend and go back in. It is not right for those individuals to be caught up that sort of lifestyle, nor is it good for others in prison. Importantly, it is also not good for our communities, so my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) makes an important point. It is worth remembering that almost half of all prisoners are reconvicted within a year of release, and the cost to society of reoffending by former prisoners is estimated to be up to a staggering £15 billion a year, so this Bill is vital.
I had intended to ask the following question of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, but I failed to intervene, so perhaps she or the Minister will clarify this later. Will the Bill create an extra burden on prison governors? My understanding is that it will not and that it will actually make their job a lot easier, but it is important to get clarity on that for those listening to the debate.
If we can take this Bill through Parliament and if we can transfer powers to public communications providers, that will enable us, the Prison Service and prison governors to stay a little more ahead of the curve or at least keep close to it. We all know how quickly mobile technology, and technology in general, can change, and we so often hear how quickly new powers that we have legislated for can become out of date because those who seek to do us harm are one step ahead of us. I therefore hope that the Bill will go some way towards addressing that.
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is ironic that that would happen in this of all debates—we have a debate on where it is inappropriate for a mobile phone to be used being interrupted by a mobile phone left on the Benches. I suspect the Member whose phone it is will find the Deputy Chief Whip of our party wanting to talk to them about her views on where mobile phones are not appropriate. It is not just in jails, but in the Chamber.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on that. Modern phones can monitor someone’s heartbeat and health, and do a range of other things. We have just touched on how they can even be used to determine location, which becomes a real issue as this technology gets more accurate. One of the great train robbers was helicoptered out of a prison, so knowing exactly where someone is in a large complex can be a very useful piece of information for someone looking to carry out a violent break-out. Making it clear that someone cannot just be pinned down via mobile phone or a piece of wearable tech is one of the things—
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It will send out a strong signal by helping to cut off a signal; ultimately, that is what the Bill will do.
I am conscious that we are on Second Reading. There will clearly be opportunities in Committee and on Report to explore the Bill in greater depth, and any commensurate orders that the Government introduce to implement it will offer the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.
I totally welcome the Bill, which is part of our catching up with modern technology and ensuring that people are kept safe. That is why it is vital that it is given its Second Reading and that it has Government support. I am certainly looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments. I welcome the debate so far and hope all hon. Members will give this Bill the Second Reading it deserves.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does she not agree that prison officers work under very stressful conditions and that the Bill would enable them to get rid of the curse of mobile phones in prisons, take the pressure off them and make prisons a safer working environment?
I am honoured to follow my hon. Friends, who have made some passionate contributions to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on continuing the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) on promoting this much-needed and important Bill. If it is passed—I am very glad the Government are supporting it—it will be a crucial component in our armoury in the fight against crime, as we seek to ensure the safety of all our citizens.
I am pleased to follow my colleagues and to talk in support of the Bill. I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is my neighbour in Hampshire. She made extensive reference to Her Majesty’s prison in Winchester, which is a large secure establishment serving both of our areas. I have met constituents in my surgery in Fareham who have been released from Winchester. On the whole, they have had very positive experiences, and I congratulate the staff at Winchester on their pioneering work and the efforts they put into providing inmates with a safe and appropriate climate for their terms in custody.
I am proud that in Fareham we have Swanwick Lodge, which is a secure unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned rehabilitation, and Swanwick Lodge provides accommodation for children and young people between the ages of 10 and 17 who have been caught up in crime. I have been to visit Swanwick Lodge, and I have been taken aback and impressed by the commitment, dedication and expertise of all the staff, who are really trying to transform the lives of young people who have, unfortunately, founds themselves caught up in crime but who want to come out, to reform themselves and to make their future better than their past.
The Bill contains new powers for the Secretary of State. It would authorise public communication providers, including mobile phone network operators, to interfere with wireless telegraphy so that they can disrupt unlawful mobile phone use in prison. For me, as I said, that is critical in the fight against crime.
That raises many issues about the balance of privacy and security, and about the pace and character of technological change in the 21st century. That is why the Bill has my support, in that it will equip our law enforcement officers and security agents—those at the forefront who are tasked with the difficult challenge of keeping us all safe—to stay three, four or five steps ahead of the criminals. That is important if they are to be effective in disrupting plots, to identify threats, to intercept communications and to properly take action before attacks are carried out.
I am grateful for the reference that my hon. Friend makes. Yes, I was a barrister for 10 years and worked in and out of the courts. Part of my work was serving on the Treasury counsel panel defending Government Departments, including the Ministry of Justice, and decisions by the Parole Board on sentences. On occasion, I visited prisons in that capacity.
The use of mobile technology has transformed not only the way that people in prisons communicate but, in relation to my hon. Friend’s point, the way in which we use our courts system. I am very glad that this Government are at the forefront of leading technological change in our courts so that we can speed up the filing of papers and the exchange of documents. We can even use technology so that witnesses can be cross-examined or examined-in-chief via satellite television links. Inmates in prison can be questioned by counsel in a court on the other side of the country if it is not convenient or feasible for them to travel. This technology has been integral in speeding up justice. Obviously that should not be done at the cost of good justice and proper decisions, but it cuts costs and enables swifter decision making, and that cannot be a bad thing.
I have a particular interest in this Bill because, along with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who I see in the Chamber, had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that became the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. It was an extensive Bill that dealt with the very issue we are talking about—powers to enable our law enforcement agents, intelligence officers and policemen to be ahead of the curve when tracking down crime. During its passage, we met many experts at the forefront of this challenge, and also many opponents of greater security powers such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch—organisations that advocate for privacy rights. I applaud their work in many respects.
In the course of my work on the Bill, I was struck by the pace and the character of technological change. Methods that we all use innocently to book holidays, to buy our shopping and to communicate with friends and family across the world are also, sadly, abused by people who are trying to harm society and take advantage of vulnerable people. Terrorists use WhatsApp. Serious fraudsters use telecommunications. Paedophiles use secret Facebook groups to pursue their insidious aims. I am glad that this Bill is the next step in this fight. It will continue the Government’s work in cracking down on crime, and it has my full support.