Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Mike Weir 

Barwell, Gavin (Croydon Central) (Con) 

Beresford, Sir Paul (Mole Valley) (Con) 

Blackman-Woods, Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab) 

Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD) 

Coffey, Dr Thérèse (Suffolk Coastal) (Con) 

Cryer, John (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab) 

Donohoe, Mr Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab) 

Goggins, Paul (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) 

Harris, Rebecca (Castle Point) (Con) 

Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab) 

Kirby, Simon (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con) 

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) 

Ottaway, Richard (Croydon South) (Con) 

Rutley, David (Macclesfield) (Con) 

Slaughter, Mr Andy (Hammersmith) (Lab) 

Wright, Jeremy (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)  

Kate Emms, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Public Bill Committee 

Wednesday 17 October 2012  

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair] 

Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill

2 pm 

The Chair:  With the consent of the Committee we may debate all five clauses and the amendment together, and vote for them individually at the end. 

Clause 1 

Interference with wireless telegraphy in prisons etc. 

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill. 

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con):  I am delighted that we are all in agreement with your guidance, Mr Weir, and I look forward to your continuing to ensure that even Members with English problems, such as myself, can follow your approach. 

There is cross-party support for this small, but important, change. I assume that the collective IQ of the Committee is high—looking around I can confirm that—therefore as we have all had a copy, and possibly more than one, of the Bill and the explanatory notes, it is unnecessary, and indeed a waste of the Committee’s time, to go through the Bill line by line, or even clause by clause. With all round co-operation in limiting the number and length of contributions, including mine, we should complete this in a short time. The Bill has one short Government amendment, with which I agree, and which I will obviously leave to the Minister. 

In essence, the Bill, when passed, will enable the Prison Service to prevent, detect and investigate the use of electronic communication devices, including mobile phones, within prisons and similar institutions. It is worded in broad terms, rather than being focused on mobile phones, in anticipation of its covering unforeseen wireless communications that are invented or produced in the future. The Bill does not allow for the interception of the content of communications. 

Any reader of the national press will be aware that mobile phones in prisons are used for a range of criminal purposes, including commissioning serious and organised crime, harassing victims and even involvement in extremist networks. Access to mobile phones is also associated with drug supply, violence and bullying. It is already a criminal offence to take a mobile phone into a prison, to transmit a signal from inside a prison or to possess a mobile phone inside prison, and similar offences apply in Scotland. The problem is widespread. During 2011, 7,422 illicit phone and SIM card finds were reported, and 1,335 phones and SIM cards were found in Scotland. Many others will, of course, have escaped detection. 

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The systems that are available are becoming more sophisticated and are regularly improved. They have been trialled on a combination closely resembling prison conditions and accommodation. They can be accurately boundary limited, meaning that there will be no effect on mobile phones external to the prison boundaries. As you will be aware, Mr Weir—not from personal experience—some of our prisons are located close to residential properties. The technology is selective, in that certain numbers can be allowed through. As I said in the House just before the recess, that means that such vital and important phone calls, such as those telling the supplier that the prison coke vending machine needs to be restocked, will be able to be allowed through. I look forward to the Committee’s full support. 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley on introducing the Bill, and I want to follow his example by keeping my remarks brief. 

My hon. Friend has outlined very well the reasons for the Bill, and the Government are entirely supportive of it. He has explained why we want to restrict the use of mobile telephones in prison. It is already a criminal offence, as he said, to use them in a custodial setting. Prisons will, of course, do all they can in the first instance to restrict prisoners’ access to mobile telephones, but where that is not achievable the Bill assists us in restricting the use of such phones that get through. 

My hon. Friend has also said that it is important to set the provisions on the correct legal basis. The Bill clarifies the legal basis for the activities he has described, and the Government welcome that. He has also mentioned safeguards. We obviously do not intend, and I know that my hon. Friend does not intend, to restrict the use of mobile telephones outside the secure perimeter of a prison. There will be a memorandum of understanding in place with network operators, and all prison governors or directors who are authorised to make use of the Bill’s provisions will be expected to comply with that memorandum, which will assist us in ensuring that mobile telephone signals outside the prison estate are not affected. 

The Government amendment is straightforward, and would extend the Bill’s provisions to the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. I reassure the Committee that the amendment is at the request of the authorities in those places, who wish to avail themselves of this most excellent Bill. 

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab):  I will try to keep the pace going by limiting my remarks. The Opposition support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) would usually speak for the Opposition on such matters, but she was unavailable both on Second Reading, when we nodded it through, and for the previous cancelled Committee, so I am here again and I have had a chance to look at the Bill. It is taken as read that mobile phones are a problem in prisons, whether because they should not be used per se or because they are used not only for organising additional criminal activity, but sometimes for harassing victims and witnesses, and other such matters. 

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) took several steps on this when he was a Minister with responsibility for prisons. He introduced body orifice security scanners, which have done something of a good job. As the hon. Member for Mole Valley said, there were a considerable number of finds last year. Indeed, there have been previous attempts using technology. The fact is that technology moves on, which enables us to get better and better. 

No one wants to do anything other than completely control the use of mobile phones in prisons. I am grateful to the Minister for the briefing provided by his officials. If the opportunity ever arises, I could get used to being surrounded by armies of civil servants telling me what to think. They were able to assuage any doubts that we had, particularly on leakage. 

I should declare an interest because Wormwood Scrubs is in my constituency, and houses abut its walls. From the point of view of both security and convenience, any interference with ordinary citizens’ mobile phones is a concern that I know is shared by the operators. Obviously I do not understand all the technicalities, but I am told that the problems are much more easily addressed because of advances in technology. Basically, the system will work as it may not have been able to work previously. 

To those caveats, which I think have been addressed as far as possible, I add a further caveat expressed to me by the Prison Officers Association. There will be a cost because the equipment is not cheap. There have been trials using Crown immunity, which I know is not satisfactory but it gave prison authorities an idea of the effectiveness and cost of the systems. I hope the Minister will confirm that money is being made available, because the last thing we want is a system that does not work. With those mild caveats, we are very happy to support the Bill. 

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD):  I rise because I may be the only member of this august company to have worked in a prison. That was so long ago that mobile phones had not been invented. One of my many jobs was censoring dangerous content in the letters written and received by prisoners. The only dangerous content that I ever discovered was “SWALK” written on the back of an envelope. As I am sure you do not know what that means, Mr Weir, it means “sealed with a loving kiss”. 

I am not looking at the Bill from a technical perspective, but I know just how difficult it can be these days with increased amounts of drugs and communications going into prisons. I welcome the Bill, which is an important step, 

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I have a couple of questions. The Bill refers to wireless interference, but clause 1(4) allows for 

“the collection of traffic data in relation to an electronic communication and…such an authorisation permits the retention, use and disclosure of that data.” 

That suggests that interference will be used as both a listening device and a blocking device. Is that so? What safeguards will there be? 

Jeremy Wright:  It may be convenient for me to address that question now so that I do not need to speak again. 

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley has said, the Bill covers more than just interference with the signal. But, as he said in his introduction, the Bill does not cover the content of conversations held on mobile phones. Being able to trace where phone calls are going to and where they may be coming from would be useful. The Bill will allow us to do that. 

Lorely Burt:  That is very helpful. 

I want to check whether there are safeguards, and what those safeguards might be, to ensure that, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned, houses abutting a prison are not disrupted. How can that be done? We understand now that the Bill does not cover the actual conversations, but can we reassure people living near prisons that none of their private communications will be monitored in any way whatsoever? 

Sir Paul Beresford:  I assure my hon. Friend that the operator’s boast is that it could set a perimeter to within 10 inches. With the new software, and with the forthcoming software, interference will be limited to the boundary or within the boundary. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 5 

Final provisions 

Amendment made: 1, in clause 5, page 4, line 47, at end insert— 

‘( ) Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide for this Act to extend with modifications to any of the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.’.—( Jeremy Wright .)

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Bill, as amended, to be reported.  

2.13 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 18th October 2012