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6.19 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): I shall try to make my speech as short as possible. The debate has attracted some Members who want to contribute to it—[Interruption.] Then again, perhaps not.

Mobile telephones have become increasingly prevalent in today's society. I had a mobile phone in 1998, and it was about as compact, portable and attractive as a breeze block. Nowadays, however, mobiles are much more elegant and stylish, and people want them. There are people who want to steal them so that they can pass them on to others and make a profit. They know that other people will purchase them because they wish to have the most up-to-date technology. Technological developments are making telephones more and more desirable, so we

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must make things more and more difficult for thieves. I think that the Bill does that, and the Minister should be commended on it.

More than 700,000 mobile phones are stolen each year, and many of the thefts involve violent attacks. On new year's day, a 19-year-old woman was shot when her phone was stolen. Even worse, a 10-year-old boy was held at gun point, all for a mobile phone. We want to try to stop such crimes. Those under 18 make up nearly half of all victims. School surveys suggest that the number of incidents is far higher than the number reported. More and more young people own mobile phones and the progression of thefts will become worse if nothing is done.

Many people cite the use of a mobile phone as a safety measure: they want the comfort of a phone to use in case they feel threatened. However, people feel threatened when they use a mobile. We must try to stop mobile phone theft. Perhaps the Bill could have done more to achieve that.

Stolen phones can readily be turned into cash. SIM cards alone sell for between £10 and £60, and if a handset goes with a SIM card, the price is higher. I welcome the fact that the Home Office has been working with mobile phone companies. I chair the all-party group on telecommunications, and I have had many meetings with the companies. I have been trying to put them under pressure, because they could have done much more, much earlier, to help try to track down those who steal mobiles. It is a bit late for them to agree to help, but help will be welcome. Vodafone and O2 have done some good work.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that mobile phones will be taken abroad, re-programmed and then brought back into the UK, which will circumvent the Bill's objective of criminalising those who change the codes in this country. The Minister has said that he will be talking to his allies in the European Union. That is important, but we need to go further and ensure that other countries introduce similar legislation.

As things stand, changing the IMEI number makes it impossible for an operator to track and disable a stolen phone. As has been said, it is fairly easy and cheap to change that number. Using software to re-programme handsets makes the back-street selling of mobiles extremely desirable. It is important that the police be involved. I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Manchester police, and I hope that the Glasgow police have been listening.

I welcome the severity of the proposed punishment, but we should draw a clear distinction between those who seek to derive financial benefit from their crimes and those who steal phones because they seek possession of items that they do not have and cannot afford, and because peer pressure is put on them. I hope that the Crown Prosecution Service will consider the nature of crimes, and likewise the courts when it comes to sentencing. At the same time, we must have a go at the Mr. Bigs: some £4.2 million worth of Samsung phones have been stolen recently, to be re-programmed and sent out of the UK.

I appreciate that the Bill has not been introduced in isolation, but is part of a package of measures to combat crime. Young people experience particular problems with mobile phone thefts which the Bill does not address. Phone accessories, such as cases and covers, are largely targeted at the teenage market. Mobiles are made

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fashionable and desirable, especially for those aged between 11 and 15, who are targeted as victims more than any other age group. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how we might protect those young people.

How do we deal with stolen phones that are sent abroad for re-programming? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us what discussions he envisages having in Europe.

Once again, I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill, and I commend the other parties in this place for supporting it. The Bill is an important step, but I reiterate that those who are the most vulnerable and the most affected by the stealing of mobile telephones are the young. That should be considered in more detail.

6.27 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): It is always pleasant to participate in a debate where there is such conviviality and wide agreement among the parties. That is not always the case with Home Office legislation, but it is today. That makes it less of an interesting story for those outside this place. I suspect that we shall not see headlines in tomorrow's newspapers stating, "Three parties agree on mobile phone Bill." That would not be newsworthy, but I think that there are 45 million mobile phone subscribers in the country.

Michael Fabricant: Fifty million.

Norman Baker: The number has increased since half an hour ago. It is obviously a significant number of phones with which to deal. Therefore, it is an issue that affects almost everyone in the UK.

I caution the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said that he supported the Bill, and then mentioned one or two caveats. If he is not careful, he may find the Prime Minister declaring at Prime Minister's Question Time that the Conservatives are opposing the Bill and trying to wreck it, as has been the case with other legislation.

Mr. Grieve: I am used to the problem of my words going through some strange sort of misinterpretation as they percolate through the outer offices of Downing street. Anyone reading the entire text of what I had to say this afternoon might be rather hard pressed to imagine that the Opposition were opposing the Bill.

Norman Baker: I am sure that that is true. The problem is that some people might be selective and not choose to read the entire text. Time will tell.

I suppose I should declare an interest of a sort, because I cannot stand mobile phones. I try not to use one unless there is no alternative. I have a hatred of those who sit next to me on trains speaking extremely loudly into these devices. I say "devices" because the explanatory notes refer to mobile phones as "mobile wireless communications devices." I wonder whether we might not be better with "things", to which the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) drew attention, which appears in the Bill.

We are dealing with a serious issue and I think that there will be cross-party support on the wide principles. It is for the Minister to answer points that arise round the edges and

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to try to ensure—I think that this is the most important aspect—that the Government reach agreement with other EU countries, and agreement more internationally, so that the good work that is reflected in the Bill is not undermined by others circumventing national boundaries within which the legislation will operate.

I was staggered when my researchers produced for me information to suggest that there were 470,000 phone thefts in 2000, and that school surveys suggested that there had been 200,000 to 550,000 thefts from 11 to 15-year-olds in 2000–01. Estimates from the police suggest that 330,000 offences had been committed. Those are staggering numbers by any account, and there have been big increases in such theft.

Incidentally, to digress for a second, that shows the value of having more police officers. They clearly have to deal with crimes that did not take place 10 or 15 years ago, so we have to increase the number of police officers to deal with the wider range of offences that now exist.

The Minister needs to reflect gently on the fact that, sadly, such theft may continue even if the mobile phones cannot be used because of the accessories point made by his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). The hon. Gentleman made the valuable point that possessions are being stolen because of their attractiveness, not necessary for their use.

I am sure that the Minister would accept—indeed, he said so in his opening comments—that the Bill does not represent the only way to deal with the matter; there has to be a package of measures, which includes education in schools. Although I understand that parents may want their children to have mobile phones for security purposes when they go to school, I cannot help thinking that some steps could be taken to try to educate children and, indeed, parents themselves that perhaps it is not always essential to carry mobile phones in certain circumstances. If fewer people carried mobile phones, the people who wished to carry out a theft would be less certain that a mobile phone would be found on someone and therefore there would be less crime as a consequence. So the Bill is part of package that we have to develop.

I am concerned that it is apparently quite easy to reprogramme mobile phones. I understand that Home Office research shows that the reprogramming can be done with commercially available equipment that costs about £30. According to the BBC, software packages allowing people to change the IMEI number can be bought via the web. With that software and a cable that connects to a laptop or a personal computer, the IMEI number can be re-chipped within a few minutes.

I should be interested to know, when the Minister responds, whether he thinks that much of the reprogramming that occurs is done on that low-level basis by opportunist criminals—perhaps by young people who are more streetwise on computers than people such as myself—or whether it is predominantly carried out by those involved in large-scale crime. One of the motivations for those involved in large-scale crime might be that reprogramming mobile phones might make it more difficult to track what they are doing, so it may provide them with a defence to prevent the law enforcement agencies from knowing what they are doing. Is that a motivation in such reprogramming? We have to consider how such theft can be tackled and who is being tackled.

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I am very happy with the Bill, as I have said, and I do not think that much can be done to improve it. It seems that it will make such reprogramming less attractive for low-level criminals, which may well take out a range of people who are involved in what is currently a legal activity, although it is clearly inextricably linked with illegal activities. However, my great fear is that the Bill will not deter those who view such reprogramming as a big money-making operation, for whom it is perhaps an adjunct to other criminal activities. They may well feel that the necessity to go abroad to reprogramme mobile phones is, frankly, not much of an inconvenience. So the Bill will deal with one element of the activity, but not necessarily the more serious element.

It is good that the Minister has said that he recognises the need to take such proposals to the European Union and beyond. He needs to do that, and we need to reach some sort of international agreement—not simply European Union agreement—on those matters. I wonder what the Government are doing internationally.

I wish to refer to what is perhaps a side issue. Can the Minister say what the situation is in the Republic of Ireland? The legislation will apply to Northern Ireland, but if there is no agreement or co-working with the Republic of Ireland, frankly, it does not take much imagination to realise what will happen. In fact, I suggest that the legislation will become inoperable in many ways in Northern Ireland. So I hope that he has considered that point and has reached an agreement with the Republic of Ireland to take matters forward.

My other concern is to differentiate those who may be caught by the legislation. It is very important that there is strong message and a proportionate and, in some cases, severe penalty for the big boys—those in the organised networks and those who deliberately reprogramme mobile phones professionally—such as those who were subject to one or two criminal actions recently. Multi-million pound profits can be made, so it is absolutely right that those involved should be dealt with very hard. However, it is also important that the sledgehammer that rightly exists for the big boys is not applied to the odd youth who happens to be involved in what will now be more easy to prove as handling stolen goods. That is a low-level crime, and it should be deal with appropriately.

The Government have rightly said that, as part of their youth justice programme, they want to be careful about how youth crime is approached to try to ensure that young people are not unduly criminalised and sent on a road from which there is no return. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that the penalties that may be appropriate for the big boys cannot be used inappropriately for the relatively low-level crime of handling stolen goods. The 14-year maximum for a 16 or 18-year-old who happens to have bought a mobile phone—perhaps in a pub or a boot sale—would be disproportionate, and I hope that the Minister can assure me that that is not the intention or the effect of the Bill.

I want to ask the Minister what steps he is taking to deal with insurance fraud. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned this in passing, but I understand that a significant percentage of the 700,000 mobile handsets reported stolen last year were never really stolen at all, according to the industry. The recent surge in mobile phone thefts is at least partly caused by fraudulent insurance claims, rather than by actual thefts. I wish to make two points about that.

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First, we obviously want to stop fraudulent insurance claims, so I assume that the Minister is in discussion about that with the insurance industry, as well as with the mobile phone industry. Secondly, for the accuracy of Government statistics, we need to separate out the fraudulent insurance claims so that we can have as accurate a picture as possible of what is actually happening with thefts. If the Government want to demonstrate—I hope that they will—that the Bill will have a positive effect on reducing mobile phone theft, they need to be able to separate out the false insurance claims to assess accurately how effective the Bill has been.

The industry representatives that the Liberal Democrats saw recently claimed that at least 20 per cent. of reported mobile thefts were faked. That is a serious matter in itself, although it is not as serious as the multi-million frauds that have been going on and, no doubt, are the reason for introducing the Bill.

Finally, I refer the Minister to the amendment—no doubt, he will be familiar with it—tabled in the other place by his colleague, Lord Campbell-Savours, in seeking to ensure that the Bill was not too widely drawn. I ask the Minister not to interpret what I say. Before he or anyone else suggests that I am seeking to create loopholes, may I say that that is not the case? I simply ask—this is a proper question to pose—that he ensure that the terms used in the legislation are such that innocent people cannot be swept up inadvertently. The amendment tabled by his hon. Friend, Lord Campbell-Savours had some merit—I put it no more strongly than that—in clarifying the word "anything".

I wonder whether the Minister has reflected on that issue and whether he has concluded that it might be possible to amend the wording slightly to ensure that no innocent party can be swept up in the legislation, without in any way weakening the Bill, which is supported on both sides of the House. Having said all that, the Bill has our almost unqualified support. Certainly, the principles have our unqualified support, and I look forward to its becoming legislation as soon as possible.

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