Crime and Security Bill

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Tom Brake: I rise to speak in support of what I think may be a probing amendment to flush out the Government's thinking. If the Government seek to ensure that it is an offence to use telephones in prison because they are used to pursue criminal activities, thereby discouraging that use, they need to bear in mind that there are many other things that prisoners can and do use in prison for that purpose that can be just as harmful, as the hon. Member for Romford set out. A considered response is therefore required.
This may be another opportunity to briefly raise the fact that the most effective way of tackling the problem of telephone calls in prisons is a technical blocking device that can stop calls coming through, which is being investigated. I will listen with interest to why the Minister of State does not feel it necessary to extend the legislation to things such as Facebook, which are clearly used by criminals to pursue their criminal activities.
Mr. Hogg: I rise to support the amendment in its terms, but I am bound to say that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford. I hope he will forgive me if I explain why.
So far as the terms of the amendment are concerned, my hon. Friend is right. If the definition of the mobile telephone in some other piece of legislation is not sufficiently wide to encompass BlackBerrys, for example-one of which I hold in my hand and on which I have been busily communicating with various people during the Committee sittings-it should be wide enough in the Bill. We all use BlackBerrys and know that they can be used to communicate with the outside world. They are not, on the face of it, mobile telephones, unless there is a definition of which I am unaware. My hon. Friend is right to try to extend the definition to include BlackBerrys, laptops and other equipment that is capable of communication with the outside world.
Where I differ with my hon. Friend is as follows. I have a certain amount of experience here, as many years ago I was Prisons Minister for two years and I represent clients in prison, so I see a lot of prisoners. Over the past five years I have seen 50 or so prisoners, usually in prison, and I am familiar with prisons. One has to ask oneself an important question: what is the purpose of prison? The purpose is to punish, but the punishment lies in the deprivation of liberty. I do not believe that that extends to all the ordinary facilities of life. We are certainly not in the business of humiliating prisoners or depriving them of education and work more than need be, and it is terribly important that they retain contact with their families.
I absolutely agree with the proposition that prisoners must be prevented from running criminal activity from inside-that is clearly essential, and often requires the confiscation of all mobile telephones, so that prisoners cannot communicate with people outside. It is at least arguable that they should be prevented from using mobile communications to insult or humiliate people who have been affected by their crimes. That is an interesting proposition, which my hon. Friend made, in part, and I understand that some things that go on Facebook are abusive and might upset victims. However, we need to keep in mind that prisoners must be able to communicate with their families, and there are lots of activities on the internet-accessing information and learning-that I would want to encourage.
The secret lies in the phrase "without authorisation". New section 40D(3A) of the Prison Act 1952, inserted by the clause, refers to
"A person who, without authorisation, is in possession"
of such a device. It is a matter for the prison governor. He or she should have the ability to see what the prisoner is using the communication device for. If the prisoner is using it for any of the purposes that we have identified as being profoundly wrong, such as organising crime outside, he should be stopped. If he is using it for the sorts of purpose that the prison governor deems to be offensive to the victim or whoever, he should be stopped. However, I do not accept the proposition that we should stop all possession, because that will lead to a greater punishment than I favour.
Andrew Rosindell: I respect entirely my right hon. and learned Friend's views. My concern is how such a situation could be monitored. When we have hundreds of prisoners in a jail, how is the prison governor expected to monitor the use of electronic devices? That question has to be answered. Although I agree wholeheartedly that prison should not be used to humiliate people and take away their dignity-they are entitled to a certain standard, as is every human being-I am not convinced about the use of Facebook and free access to the internet for non-educational purposes. Many people cannot use modern electronic devices because they cannot afford to do so. I think that many members of the public would be rather concerned if free access were to be allowed in prison.
My hon. Friend made a perfectly fair point about monitoring. I accept that, and it is not easy, but we have to decide where the balance lies. My judgment is that it lies with the prison authorities. The prison governors and officers in charge of the prisoners have to form a view of the sort of characters they are dealing with, and generally speaking, they do. When a prisoner has been in prison a long time and has been reported on by officers over a period of time, they form a fairly clear view of what they are dealing with. It is less easy when people are being moved from prison to prison. I would leave it to the good sense of the governor, without adopting-I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me-the widespread objection that he has raised. I would try to confine my prohibition pretty narrowly.
The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): I thank colleagues for their contributions to the debate. I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Romford and I will certainly consider the amendment. Essentially, we need to provide sufficient scope to ensure that mobile phones and other electronic devices are not used by prisoners in prison. That is why, when I was the Minister responsible for prisons, like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham was, I took through the Offender Management Act 2007, which banned mobile phones being imported into prison. We do not want a situation wherein prisoners, as well as maintaining contact with their families, which is a noble cause, can undertake communication with the outside world that is intimidatory and threatening, and where murders have been commissioned from prison by prisoners using mobile phones. That is not acceptable, so we need to close that loophole.
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That is why this is not only a question of mobile phones being imported into prison and the Offender Management Act 2007; it is about closing the loophole so that individuals caught in possession of a mobile phone in prison face an additional sentence, which is very severe, whether it involves custody and/or other potential measures.
There is great sympathy on that issue. If the hon. Gentleman withdraws the amendment, I shall consider the issue so that we can draft an amendment on Report that will catch up with a growing technology. When I was first elected to this place 18 years ago, my mobile phone was this big, and now it is that big-probably far too large; for the purposes of Hansard, I should say that it is 6 or 8 cm wide.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Not inches?
Mr. Hanson: I was going to talk in inches, but I thought that I would show myself as very old if I did that, so I resisted the temptation.
The key thing is the need to future-proof the situation to cover all the electronic technology that will undoubtedly develop in the next few years, which will affect mobile phone use. I shall happily look into the issue if the hon. Member for Romford withdraws the amendment.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington rehearsed an argument that we have wrestled with for years in the prison system: how do we block mobile phones as a whole? We have considered blockers, and have introduced body orifice security scanner, or BOSS, chairs. If we can, we shall, through the Ministry of Justice, consider the idea of telephone blockers, but the difficulty is that prisons are often in urban areas where, just over the wall, live people who have every right to use their phones, which could be blocked. We have been looking at the issue for some time. If the technology is appropriate, my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice will certainly consider it. We have even considered, through a range of activities, increased security and checks, and a range of measures in relation to imports, through the Offender Management Act 2007 and the Bill. We take the issue extremely seriously.
There are occasions when electronic equipment can be used for rehabilitation purposes. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is right: we want people to be able to use computers, think about rehabilitation and look at job opportunities. In prisons, that is undertaken in a controlled environment, under the auspices of the governor. There are controlled circumstances in which such access can happen. The provisions are essentially about stopping individuals from making contact from their cells, through mobile phones, to commission drugs, murder and intimidation.
Mr. Hogg: I agree with what the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford say about the undesirable use of mobiles or BlackBerrys, but can I pose a question on a matter of principle? The Minister said that he did not want such devices used in a cell. I understand that. However, if the mobile phone were being used exclusively to speak to the family-and this raises many difficult questions-would that be objectionable?
The answer may be that we cannot so confine it, or that we could not be so sure of the bona fides of the prisoner that we could permit that activity. However, what if those practical arguments-which are real and substantial-were stripped aside, to enable us to ask a narrow question? If we could confine the use just to calling the family, would that be wrong?
Mr. Hanson: That poses enormous difficulties for security and the prison, and for the contact. Even if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were to suggest a list of five phone numbers for the family, there is no way in which we could assume that the person at the other end would be the one who should be contacted by the prisoner. It is very difficult to control the use of mobile phones in prison, and for security purposes it would in my view be pernicious to allow their use.
There are methods for contact with families, through personal visits, and there are regular numbers that can be put through normal phones that are available on wings in prisons. It would be very difficult to give sensible consideration to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal given the security issues in a place that is, as the hon. Member for Romford said, ultimately about punishment as well as reform and rehabilitation. It would be very difficult to undertake.
Tom Brake: To return briefly to the issue of blocking, will the Minister confirm whether there are time scales during which the blocking technology is being reviewed, and whether there is an implementation programme? He might need to write to members of the Committee about that.
I had a conversation with someone who, until recently, was a prison governor at one of the large London prisons. His view was that the technology worked and that it was more a question of cost than of whether the technology was effective.
Mr. Hanson: I left the Ministry of Justice about nine months ago when it was trialling the position on potential mobile phone blockers. It is an expensive business, but the principle is that if we can do it, we should. For me and for the Ministry of Justice, the question was whether we could make the blockers effective so that they worked in prisons. We need that element of security to know, first, that the technology works in prisons, and secondly whether it would have an impact outside prison. Both points are genuine issues that were being looked at in the trial.
Mr. Hogg: I have a lot of sympathy with the context of the blocker. However, let me say to the Minister of State that when I go into prisons, which I frequently do, I surrender my mobile, which is put into a secure box before I go into the secure area. However, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington might wish to bear in mind that outside the secure area, but within the prison, we do use our mobiles to contact solicitors or families, or to call a taxi and those sorts of things. That might be an obstacle to the use of the blockers. Once someone is inside the secure area, that is one thing, but they could be just outside it, where hitherto we have all used our mobiles.
Mr. Hanson: The key point is ensuring that the technology works. If it works, it will be looked at. The trialling has been ongoing. We are looking, and have been looking, for a solution, and if we can block signals in a defined area we should do so. However, I do not need to remind hon. Members that Wandsworth prison, Wormwood Scrubs, Liverpool prison in my neck of the woods, and Manchester prison are all next door to residential areas. So is Wakefield prison.
Mr. Burns: Chelmsford.
Mr. Hanson: Indeed-so is Chelmsford prison in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I had the pleasure of visiting about 50 prisons during my time as Minister, and I rarely went to a rural location. Most prisons are in neighbourhoods and sometimes have people living close by them in flats. The issue is difficult; we need to find a technological solution that works.
The solutions that we have brought forward have introduced scanners for when people enter prison and increased security measures, training for staff and severe penalties for when, occasionally, mobile phones are brought into prison. Two years ago, a provision was introduced under the Offender Management Act 2007. It means that if someone does manage to smuggle a phone into the prison, through whatever means, or if they are caught with a mobile phone in prison-and I could widen that to include the amendment that looks at electronic communication devices-they will face an additional custodial sentence. That has to be a deterrent.
If I am honest, even with that measure there will be occasions when people will try to get mobile phones. Once this legislation is passed, there will still be those who think that doing so is worth the risk in order to run their businesses from prison or to continue intimidation from prison. We must be continually vigilant.
I cannot guarantee that this clause will stop every mobile phone from getting into prison. However, I can say that we are stopping mobile phones from getting into prisons and that if individuals are found in prison with such a device, they will face a custodial sentence. They will go before the courts; ultimately, people will find themselves facing penalties if they are caught.
We must do what we can to reduce the use of mobile phones in prison, not because we want to deny people family contact, but because mobile phones in prison are by and large used for purposes that are not supported by the state and the Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
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