Clause 1 — Power to destroy or otherwise dispose of property

Part of Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 11:15 am on 30th November 2012.

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Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 11:15 am, 30th November 2012

Amendment 2 proposes an addition to proposed new section 42A(1) of the Prison Act 1952, as inserted by clause 1 of the Bill, which would extend the power of a governor or director to places outside a prison or prison escort vehicle, such as a hospital, court cells or a police station where a prisoner might be detained in custody. In some circumstances, the prisoner, although they are in custody, will not be in the custody of the governor. It would therefore not be appropriate to extend the powers in such a way. I think that deals with the question raised by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley about extending the power beyond the prisoner escort vehicle.

It is already possible to remove any unauthorised items found on a prisoner while they are in custody outside the prison. Such items would be returned to the prison with the prisoner and dealt with as the prisoner re-entered the prison. The prison governor or directors could authorise the prisoner to keep the item with him or her in prison or disposal could be required. If appropriate, the governor could confiscate it and use the general power of destruction already provided in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend Philip Davies will therefore withdraw his amendment.

Amendment 3 is not necessary. Prison officers will have the power to act in the way envisaged by the amendment through the delegated authority of the prison governor. It is therefore not necessary specifically to include them in that power. In addition, “prison officer” is the term used to describe officers in a public sector prison and would not cover prison custody officers, who carry out the same function in private sector prisons. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not press that amendment.

The purpose of amendment 4 would appear to be to create a catch-all power to cover all property used for any unauthorised or unlawful purpose. Although I can understand my hon. Friend’s reasons for tabling the amendment, I do not believe that it is necessary. Any unauthorised item could be confiscated and destroyed under the power created in subsection (1)(a) or (b) of proposed new section 42A. Furthermore, an item used for unlawful or unauthorised purposes that would clearly prejudice the security or operation of the prison or cause harm to prisoners or others would be dealt with by proposed new subsection 3(c) or (b). I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me that the amendment is not necessary.

On amendment 5, I applaud my hon. Friend’s desire to see that confiscated property is put to good use and to ensure that charities might benefit wherever possible. The Bill already enables that. Proposed new section 42A enables a governor or director to

“destroy or otherwise dispose of” confiscated property. My hon. Friend’s amendment is not necessary, because the phrase “otherwise dispose of” would allow the item to be recycled or donated to charity. I can assure him that the guidance given to governors and directors in the relevant Prison Service instruction will make it clear that those options are available.

The sale of property, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, would involve a financial gain for the Prison Service and has therefore been specified in the Bill. Other methods of disposal, such as recycling, do not need express provision as they are covered, as I have explained, by the expression “otherwise dispose of”.

Amendments 6,7 and 8 are the most significant and have the potential to undermine the progress of the Bill. The Bill as drafted contains a limited retrospective power and although retrospective legislation is generally not a good idea, that limited power has a specific purpose with which I am sure the House will agree. It is intended to enable the Prison Service to deal with the large number of mobile telephones held in storage. The House will be aware from previous debates on the Bill that more than 40,000 telephones are held at a cost of £20,000 a year and it is appropriate that we should take a power to deal with them. It is, after all, a criminal offence both to possess a mobile telephone in prison and to bring one into a prison. Governors and directors have options for other property that is not illegal per se. They can authorise the item, place it in central storage, require a prisoner to send it out of the prison or otherwise dispose of it. There is therefore no need for a general retrospective power to deal with such property and I hope that my hon. Friend will not press those amendments.

Amendment 9 is intended to address the ability of the Prison Service to destroy or dispose of mobile phones found in prisons. It is unlawful to possess or use a mobile phone in prison. The amendment would therefore prevent the Prison Service from disposing of them, as it is likely that every unauthorised mobile phone found in prison would contain or constitute evidence of a criminal offence. My hon. Friend asked about the checking of mobile phones and I understand that they are interrogated for evidence of criminality on confiscation. I hope that in the circumstances he will therefore agree not to move the amendment.