Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill — Second Reading
Lord Laming (Crossbench)
My Lords, the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill is a small Bill, but I hope the House will agree that its importance far outweighs its size. First, I congratulate Sir Paul Beresford MP, on introducing the Bill in the other place and for so skilfully piloting it to this House. I am most grateful to have this opportunity to take forward his hard work.
In short, the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill seeks to take a crucial step towards tackling an issue that is blighting prisons in England and Wales, Scotland and the Crown dependencies. I refer, of course, to mobile phones. I will not delay the House in repeating the detailed Explanatory Notes, which are easily available, but I hope it will help if I briefly touch on the operations of prisons and why mobile phones are now such a problem.
Prisoners have always needed, and will always need, to communicate with people in the outside world. They may do so for very good, honest and healthy reasons such as maintaining relationships with family and loved ones, and in preparation for their release. So they should, because such communication plays a vital role in their rehabilitation and in ensuring that they do not reoffend. It is to their credit that prisons facilitate that healthy communication. Prisoners can send and receive mail; they have access to landline telephones; they are entitled to visitors; and communication that is legally privileged is protected.
However prisons, quite rightly, impose controls on prisoner communications. For example, telephone calls can be made only to approved numbers and can be recorded and listened to; mail can be opened and read; and visits have to be supervised. These controls are needed because it is inevitable that some prisoners will seek to communicate with those outside prisons for nefarious purposes. These can include seeking to maintain involvement in, or even the running of, criminal enterprises in the community such as organised crime or extremist networks. It may also be to intimidate witnesses or to arrange the supply of drugs into prisons.
Clearly, prisoners communicating for nefarious purposes will seek to circumvent the controls imposed by prison staff. Where the activities are illegal, prisoners can be very inventive in their determination to secure a mobile phone. This is because mobile telephones offer an immediate form of communication to anywhere in the world, which prison staff cannot monitor. They can send text messages and modern day smartphones enable them to access the internet, social networking sites, and send and receive e-mails. Therefore, once a prisoner has an undetected mobile phone, the prison has effectively lost control of the nature, content, destination or frequency of the communication. That poses significant risks to the safety of our prisons and their ability to protect the public and the prisoners they are holding.
I feel sure that we are all concerned about how so many mobile phones get into prisons. Sadly, it is a common misconception that the high walls, razor wire, locks, bars, doors and keys must mean that a prison is impenetrable. While these factors are successful in preventing prisoners escaping, prisons are not the hermetically sealed institutions that their physical appearance may suggest. To give a sense of the scale of the operation, I am advised that in a single day a prison holding 1,000 prisoners might receive 50 new prisoners, 300 visitors, 3,000 items of post, more than 40 vehicles and its prisoners can make 5,000 minutes of telephone calls. Each one of these movements and communications is an opportunity to engage in the smuggling of contraband, including mobile phones and, because they are so much smaller and easy to smuggle, an even larger number of SIM cards.
Given the scale of the operation, prison staff cannot fully search absolutely everything that enters or leaves a prison, nor can they listen to or read every communication, not least because this would divert them from their other important functions. Of course, prisons are doing their very best to prevent prisoners having access to mobile phones. It is important to emphasise that it is an offence under the Prison Act 1952 to possess and convey into use an unauthorised mobile phone in prison. Yet in 2011 there were 7,422 seizures of illicit phones and SIM cards in prisons in England and Wales, and 1,335 in Scotland. This is an indication of the scale of the problem and of the increasing number of prisoners who seek to get access to these items.
Therefore, the current activities are not a complete solution. In an age when mobile phones are becoming ever smaller and more versatile, which means they are easier to smuggle into prisons and more useful to the criminal, the number of phones which escape detection will inevitably increase. Further action is, therefore, needed, and that is what the Bill is about. It will authorise prisons to interfere with wireless telegraphy to render useless any mobile phones that cannot be found. The Bill will also authorise prisons to interfere with wireless telegraphy and to gather information about the use of mobile phones in prisons, such as details about where a particular phone is located in the prison, and the person who has attempted to use it, and where the message has been directed. However, it is important to note that this does not include the content of the communication but simply the direction of the communication.
In England trials of the technologies which prevent mobile phones working have been remarkably successful. The trials have proceeded with excellent, but-this is a key point-non-statutory co-operation between prisons, Ofcom and the mobile phone network operators. The Bill puts the current voluntary arrangement on to a clear and transparent legal footing and creates a framework for future co-operation with all the key stakeholders. The trials have shown that other wireless equipment within the prison is not disrupted. Officers can still use their radios and prisoners can still use the landline telephone service which is available to them. The equipment covered in the Bill has been configured so that it focuses only on mobile phones that are within the prison while ensuring that outside the prison members of the public can continue to enjoy their mobile phones, television, wi-fi and so on-technology that the vast majority of us rely on in our daily lives. The technology covered in the Bill is also safe for prisoners, prison staff and members of the public alike. The only difference is that mobile phones in prisons will be inoperable. Building on the success of the trials, the Bill reassuringly writes into the statute book explicit safeguards to ensure that prisons continue to operate the equipment in this way so that they can deal with the blight of mobile phones in a manner that is both effective and proportionate.
In summary, the presence of mobile phones in prisons today poses a serious and significant risk to the public, prisons, prisoners and their future rehabilitation. Fortunately, we now have at hand technology that can deal with this problem. However, it is right that the use of this technology should be conducted on a firm legal basis. The Bill achieves all of that. It is considered by the Prison Service and others to be a win-win situation because it protects the public and prisoners and ensures that mobile phones will not be used for nefarious reasons in our prisons. I beg to move.
Lord Dholakia (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I have every sympathy with what the noble Lord has proposed but what are the costs involved in introducing this arrangement in prison establishments in this country?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative)
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Laming, replies, this is a most unusual matter. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, introduced his Bill in a courteous manner and had sat down. A question has now been posed. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, may, of course, answer that when he sums up at the end of the Second Reading. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will wish to remain until the end of the debate to listen to that.
Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am not going to ask the question of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for him. I speak briefly to support very warmly my noble friend Lord Laming and congratulate him on the comprehensive way in which he has covered all the issues. I have just two points to add.
First, I admit that I support the Bill most particularly because of the impact that the removal of mobile phones can have on a very pernicious aspect of prison life: that is, the impact of drug dealers and the misery they can create not just for prisoners but for their families. Anything that can be done to stop this must improve the way in which our prisons are conducted.
Secondly, my noble friend mentioned how these things get into prisons in the first place. In introducing this equipment which will prevent the use and enable the detection of the location of these instruments, it is important that more is done to prevent them getting in in the first place by improving the search equipment which is used when people come in. Serious consideration must be given to announcing to all visitors to the prison that they risk being searched in order to find any mobile phones. This may seem a draconian measure but unless everything is done to back up this equipment there will still be loopholes which will cause problems.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his excellent introduction to this small but important Bill. The Opposition warmly support the Bill, so I can keep my intervention to a minimum.
As technology advances so does criminal innovation, but so, too, should our ability to deal with crime. Mobile phones are of huge benefit to citizens throughout the world but we have been told this morning about the widespread use of mobile phones in prisons for a wide range of criminal purposes. Of course, prisoners must be able to communicate with friends and family but the Bill would not prevent them doing so legally, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said.
The purpose of the Bill is to enable the Prison Service to prevent, detect and investigate the use of electronic communication devices, including mobile phones, within prisons and similar institutions. This must be right. In the past there were concerns that actions to interfere with wireless telegraphy in order to achieve this purpose would interfere with the mobile phones of ordinary citizens. This would not be acceptable but, as we have been told this morning and as the Bill makes clear, new technology-which I would not pretend to understand-means that the interference will have no effect on mobile phones outside the prison boundaries. I would be grateful if the Minister, or the noble Lord, Lord Laming, could confirm that this is the case and, likewise, that the Bill does not cover the content of telephone conversations either inside or outside the prison boundaries. I would also be grateful for an assurance that vital and important phone calls within prisons will not be blocked because the new technology is selective so that certain numbers can be allowed through.
My honourable friend in another place spoke of concerns expressed by the Prison Officers' Association in relation to the cost of implementing the Bill but these concerns were not addressed by the Minister, Mr Jeremy Wright. I noticed this morning that the Explanatory Notes say that the provisions of the Bill are not expected to have an impact on public sector manpower. However, as the Government support the Bill, I would be grateful if the Minister could give an assurance that money is being made available so that prisons and other relevant institutions are able to buy the necessary kit and implement what should be an effective means of restricting the current use of mobile phones and, perhaps, the future use of wireless communications that are yet to be invented or produced. I wonder whether further legislation will be needed as new technology advances or if this Bill will suffice.
I am very happy to support the Bill.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for introducing the Bill for your Lordships' consideration and for his very important contribution. I notice that the Bill has been referred to as "short but important". I can personally relate to that, but we will park that thought for a moment. I thank my honourable friend in another place, Sir Paul Beresford, for bringing forward this valuable Bill which has the wholehearted support of the Government. When we talk of the Prison Service we have to realise the challenges that are posed. Many prison officers put themselves in harm's way in doing their jobs and, although this is not directly related to the Bill, I wish to relay that our thoughts are with the four prison officers who were injured in the incident in Birmingham prison only yesterday.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his welcome contribution. He brings, through his own personal experience, great expertise to this House, not least on this particular subject.
The Bill will be crucial in putting on a clear, legal footing the ability of the National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service to interfere, where necessary, with wireless telegraphy in order to tackle illicit communications by prisoners and so address the very real and substantial threat posed by the presence of mobile phones in prison. Following an amendment in the other place, the Bill's measures will also be extended to the Crown dependencies by way of an Order in Council.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to the importance of searches prior to people entering prisons. The Government agree with that. Prevention is better than cure and I am sure that the Prison Service will take particular note of that very valid point. However, on the more substantive issue of illicit mobile phones which do reach prisons, these are used for a wide range of criminal purposes by prisoners, often for the very activities they were in prison for. As has been noted, phone technology has increased. The use of Twitter and Facebook, about which there have been recent instances of boasts by inmates, must be curbed. Mobile phones are used to commission serious violence, to harass victims and retain links with extremist networks. Organised crimes and gangs are also communicated with. They can facilitate drug supplies, violence and bullying from within the prison. The National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service are committed to addressing the risks which these phones pose to security and the safety of the public, and the Bill supports that work.
The Prison Act 1952, as amended, provides that it is already an offence in England and Wales to convey a mobile phone or a component part in or out of a prison or to transmit sounds or images from within a prison for simultaneous reception outside a prison. The Act also provides that it is an offence to possess a mobile telephone or component part in a prison in England and Wales. These offences carry a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment and/or unlimited fines. Section 34 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, which amended the Prisons (Scotland) Act 1989, also makes it an offence to introduce, or be in possession of, a mobile phone or any component part in a Scottish prison. As in England and Wales, the maximum penalty is two years' imprisonment and a significant fine.
The Bill will support the enforcement of these statutory provisions by creating clear legal powers for prisons to use technology to suppress the use, by prisoners, of wireless telegraphy such as mobile phones. It will also enable the National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service to collect data about the communications that the prisoner is attempting to make and, importantly, will not allow for the interception of the actual content of the communication.
The powers created by the Bill will contribute to maintaining order and control in prisons, which we all welcome, by ensuring that mobile phones used by prisoners can be detected and, most importantly, investigated. The Bill contains safeguards to ensure that any traffic data collected are appropriately protected and that the regulator, Ofcom, is informed before the equipment is deployed. The Bill also provides for the Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers to issue directions to minimise interference with mobile phones outside the prison perimeter.
Lord West of Spithead (Labour)
My Lords, I am hugely supportive of this-when I was a Minister I pushed very hard to achieve something. I hope that technology can stop interfering outside the prison walls. Three years ago it absolutely could not. It is definitely very new technology and we need to be very careful. When we ran a little trial it caused quite a lot of annoyance, so we need to be absolutely certain.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
The noble Lord makes a valid point which I will address shortly. Concerns about trials of equipment have been raised and I have expressed such concerns in my discussions with officials. Trials of equipment have proved the technology to be a valuable resource which does interfere with wireless telegraphy. During the trials, officials have worked closely with the mobile phone operators and Ofcom, under a memorandum of understanding. To address the question of the impact on legitimate mobiles outside prisons, trials have demonstrated that the equipment is capable of denying signals to illicit mobile phones just within the prison perimeter and without adversely affecting members of the public outside prisons. I know that this is of real concern to members of the public who live within the vicinity. I accept that this is not a simple or quick solution and the effective use of technology is highly technically challenging and expensive, due to the different fabric and layout of prisons. As we move forward with this I am sure that we shall, through pilot schemes, determine that we are able to conduct and operate such technology within the vicinity of prisons. We are not aware, so far, of any unsuccessful trials in this respect.
There are safeguards in the Bill to prevent any unintended interference with communications outside prisons. The important point here is that the use of illicit mobile phones has to be stopped. Their use within prisons must be addressed. It is a means used by criminals to increase crime within prisons. Money for training and technology is always a valid concern. I am assured through my own discussions that some technologies that will be deployed will be at minimal cost, and an appropriate cost-benefit analysis will be carried out at each prison.
The central issue behind the Bill is that we address the primary concern about illicit mobile phones. The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition asked about further legislation. We do not envisage or expect that it will be required, because the Bill allows for interference with wireless telegraphy, subject to all appropriate safeguards, and addresses the purpose of preventing the use of, and detecting and investigating, mobile phones and other such devices. Technology moves on and the challenges increase but, importantly, the Bill addresses a vital need for the here and now. The Government are delighted to support it.
Lord Laming (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister and the Government for their great support for the Bill-as I am to the noble Baroness for the support of Her Majesty's Opposition. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham who has been a source of great encouragement throughout, as the House will understand.
The Minister referred to the issue of costs, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Perhaps I may add one point, although I should say that the House will know that I am singularly unqualified to talk about technology. All those who know me understand that it is a great struggle for me to live in this modern world. However, what I have learnt through this process is that this technology is remarkably versatile. It can simply be placed in one wing of a prison, or even in front of one cell, or it can take in the whole building. Although the Minister dealt with the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, let me reassure him that all the trials have indicated that it is possible to have this equipment facing into the prison, not outside it, and it therefore does not affect members of the public.
I hope that I have picked up correctly the feeling of the House when I say that I am grateful to it for its support.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.