Clause 1 — Power to destroy or otherwise dispose of property

Part of Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:45 am on 30th November 2012.

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Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey 10:45 am, 30th November 2012

We are talking about unauthorised items here. Illegal items would be referred to the police, and there would then need to be a criminal investigation. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s points, and I feel sure that the Minister has taken note of them and will answer them in due course.

On amendment 3, I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said. The people at the front line are often those who know the circumstances best. It is not true to say that we do not trust them. Prison officers currently have the ability and the right to confiscate items under powers given to them by the prison governor.

They have the delegated authority of the governor to confiscate the item in the first place, and it is then up to the governor to decide what to do with it.

As for amendment 4, I understand my hon. Friend’s wish to strengthen the existing provision, but in my view probably the most significant point is already covered in subsection 3(c), which refers to

“prejudicing the security or operation of the prison”.

That will apply to any criminal activity, including, for instance, intimidation.

Amendment 5 relates to the question of what should be done with items that have been confiscated, which has been the subject of considerable discussion. I think we all want to ensure that, when it is possible to obtain money for them that could be given to, say, victims’ charities, we should do so, but we do not want to be too prescriptive. That is why the clause uses the words

“destroy or otherwise dispose of”.

It gives the governor the option to make the decision.

The Prison Service instructions, which will advise governors and directors about the implementation of the Act, will need to provide clear guidance on the disposal of property, which should include recycling or donating the items to charities, whether registered or otherwise. EBay has been mentioned. There is, of course, a risk that devices may contain information that we would not want others to get hold of—we all know how difficult it can be to erase everything from them—but I believe that the words “otherwise dispose of” covers the points raised by my hon. Friend.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to discuss amendments 6, 7 and 8 in a little more detail, but retrospective legislation is always liable to present obstacles to some, and I am keen to ensure that it does not impede the Bill’s progress. The six-month period provides an opportunity for someone from whom a legitimate and authorised item has been taken by another prisoner at least to appeal, and to have the appeal heard, in order to establish whether the item can be returned. My hon. Friend wonders why all the items should be got rid of on day one. The six months is a one-off, in a sense, allowing people to appeal on the basis that they have a legitimate right to be in possession of an item. Of course, if it is found that they have no such right, all the items will be destroyed. The main problem in the Prison Service at present is storing 40,000 mobile phones. If a phone has not been claimed after six months and an appeal has not been granted, it can be destroyed, and the problem—which is costing the Prison Service more than £20,000 a year—will be solved once and for all.

I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall that there is a danger that amendment 9 could perpetuate the mischief that we already face. It could mean that many mobile phones could not be destroyed because people might claim that they contained evidence. The last thing we want is to find ourselves in exactly the same position as before. The prospect of all those phones still having to be stored at such great cost is certainly not welcomed by the Prison Officers Association, or indeed by many of the victims’ families to whom I have spoken.

I am, however, grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley for his keen interest in the Bill. As he says, we have a shared goal. It is unacceptable that, at present, prison officers and governors are powerless to destroy items that prisoners are not supposed to have anyway.