Clause 1 — Power to destroy or otherwise dispose of property

Part of Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:06 pm on 30th November 2012.

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Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 12:06 pm, 30th November 2012

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot in the summer and on introducing this worthwhile measure. In promoting the Bill, he has given the House the opportunity to debate the security and good order of our prisons, which is important. The Bill was fully debated on Second Reading, and Members made some helpful contributions. It also passed successfully through Committee. Clearly, there is considerable support for it in the House.

My hon. Friend explained that his Bill will enable prison governors and directors to confiscate, destroy, dispose of or sell property that prisoners should not have in their possession, including items that it would be illegal to possess in the community, such as illicit drugs; items that can threaten prison security and good order, such as mobile phones; authorised items that have been adapted to conceal illicit items; and items that have been smuggled into the prison or coerced from another prisoner. In principle, the Government believe that the objective being pursued is justified and we welcome the Bill.

Although the Bill has been debated previously, it might be helpful if I again explain the process by which prisoners’ property is managed. Prisoners’ property needs to be managed efficiently, effectively and with care. Maintaining the security and good order of the prison is paramount. Therefore, within the constraints of the prison environment, prisoners can have sufficient property in their possession as is considered necessary for their day-to-day life, and which will help them to achieve the aims of their sentence. Prisoners must also comply with the rules on what property they can have in their possession.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend said he found his visit to Leeds prison extremely interesting. Leeds is a busy local prison. Prisoners have lots of property that they want to keep with them, including property that they brought with them at reception from court and items they have received during their period in custody. Prisoners arriving at Leeds prison—this is the case for prisoners arriving at all other prison establishments—are provided with detailed information on the items of property they can retain in their possession. That information is also displayed throughout the prison, including in residential units and the library. Prisoners should therefore be in no doubt about what they can and cannot possess while in prison. All property accompanying prisoners on entering any prison, whether they are new to custody or being transferred from another prison or other criminal justice agency, will be searched and recorded on a property record card, which is an inventory of a prisoner’s property. Depending on the item of property, prisoners will be able to keep it with them in their cell, or it will be confiscated or stored and given to them on their release.

Stored property will be kept in local storage or at the prison, or it will be sent to the Prison Service’s central storage facility. The prisoner’s property card will record where the property is held, and will be updated during the course of their imprisonment to reflect changes in its location. The property will be returned to them on their release from custody. As the House will by now appreciate, some prisoners’ property will be stored for many years. Alternatively, prisoners may send their property to a relative or a friend instead of keeping it in storage. At present, property that is left behind by a prisoner after release can be disposed of only after a year has elapsed.

Property that a prisoner can keep in their cell is known as in-possession property—property they have been authorised to have in their cell by the governor or director. What they can keep in their cell will be depend on many variables, such as whether the prisoner is on remand or has been convicted and sentenced, what level of privileges they have, and, sometimes, the nature of their offence. Most prisoners will be allowed to have in their possession such items as photographs of relatives, basic toiletries and some books.

That said, the amount and type of property a prisoner can have in their possession is restricted. This is important as it aids effective searching and assists governors and directors in applying a prison’s privilege regime. Prisoners should be clear about the type of property they are allowed to retain in their possession, as lists of types of items that can be held in their cells are normally displayed in a prison’s reception areas and on wings. Prisoners are not allowed to transfer in-possession property to the ownership of other prisoners unless the governor or director is satisfied that such transfers are voluntary and for acceptable reasons. Property must not be transferred as a result of bullying or in exchange for illicit items, and transfers must not undermine good order or discipline, or, indeed, the system of granting privileges to prisoners for good behaviour. For example, prisoners who have earned the privilege of having a radio in their cell should not be allowed to transfer the radio to a prisoner who has not earned that right. If a transfer of property is authorised by the governor, it must be recorded on the appropriate property card of the prisoners concerned.

Unauthorised property is property that a prisoner has in their possession that is not recorded on their property card. It will include: items that are unlawful to possess in the community generally, such as controlled drugs and offensive weapons; items that are illegal to possess inside a prison, such as mobile phones; items that may threaten good order and discipline, such as alcohol; items that may threaten the security of the prison, such as property that has been adapted to hide illicit items; and items that may have been smuggled in to the prison by visitors, or even by throwing them over a wall.

As I have explained, prisoners may also have obtained property from another prisoner by bullying or coercion. However, there will also be situations where prisoners have transferred what I might refer to as innocuous property between themselves, but for which they have not sought prior approval of the governor or director. Such property is unauthorised, and so will not have been included on the prisoner’s property card. The current arrangement for dealing with unauthorised property is that, when discovered, the item will be confiscated unless it is noxious, in which case it will be destroyed, or unless it is, for example, an offensive weapon or controlled drug, which will be passed to the police.

Other items may be confiscated only temporarily. The consequence of this limitation is that the property has to be stored either locally or at the Prison Service’s central facility until the prisoner is released from custody. If the prisoner asks for the item to be returned to them on release, the prison must do so. This cannot be right. The historical context to the existing position is that in 2009 the administrative court decided that there was no lawful basis for prisons permanently to confiscate and destroy unauthorised property. The case before the court related to a mobile telephone. As a result, prisons are currently storing unauthorised property, as I outlined earlier. That is perverse, particularly in relation to mobile phones seized from prisoners or found within a prison and which are not items that can be lawfully possessed in prison.

I will give hon. Members an example of the lengths to which prisoners will go to smuggle in illicit items, including mobile phones, and often conceal them in authorised items of property. In January 2012, the National Offender Management Service north-west team reported a seizure by team members of three weapons at HMP Wymott. During the course of a search of prisoner accommodation, staff found three adapted slashing weapons, wrapped together in a strip of bed sheeting, wedged behind copper piping in a wing toilet. The weapons had been adapted from authorised items, namely disposable razors and toothbrush handles, a strip of bed sheeting and disposable razor blades. I hope that gives a sense of the task that prison staff face daily.

The intention behind the Bill is to provide a lawful basis for the disposal of all unauthorised property found in prisons. For the power to be effective, it needs to be retrospective in respect of certain categories of property seized prior to the Bill becoming law. The Bill is a common-sense measure. It strikes a fair balance between prisoners’ property interests and the public interest, in removing from prison and destroying property that might prejudice good order and discipline or prison security. I am sure that many ordinary people will be startled to learn that, as the law stands, jails can find items that should not be on the premises but have no power to destroy them. The Bill is an important step forward and rectifies an unacceptable anomaly. It should help build trust in the system and allow governors to run safe and secure regimes, with rules that are meaningful and enforceable. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey for taking up this issue, and I commend the Bill to the House and support its continuing good passage through the other place.

Question put and agreed to .

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.