Clause 1 - Power to destroy or otherwise dispose of property

Prisons (Property) bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 7 November 2012.

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

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 2 stand part.

I welcome right hon. and hon. Members to this Committee. I trust that we will have a profitable exchange.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. I do not plan to speak for long, although given that this is probably the only chance I will ever get to sit in the Minister’s place, I might drag it out for some time. I am grateful for the detailed debate that we had on Second Reading, and particularly for the support of both the Government and Opposition Front Benchers. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) complimented the Bill on its simplicity, and complimented me on it. I must pass that on to the officials, because if I had drafted it, it would have been far too simple.

The support highlights the importance of the Bill, which creates a power for governors and directors of prisons to destroy or dispose of unauthorised property found in prisons or prison transport vehicles. As I said on Second Reading, it is odd that there is a need for the Bill, but there it is. There are restrictions, as we know, on the property that prisoners may possess in prison. Although the current rules allow for confiscation, there is nothing that provides for the destruction of the property, which means that the Prison Service has a great number of items to store at great cost. Bizarrely, it has to hand the confiscated property back to the prisoner once they are released, although many of them have never reclaimed anything, so the cost of storage alone is quite ludicrous. Of course, prisoners know about the situation, and that affects the morale of prison officers who work in our Prison Service. That is why the Prison Officers Association has expressed support for the Bill.

On Second Reading, we heard testimony from victims’ groups that were also supportive of the Bill. I gave several examples of cases in which people were being intimidated, particularly through mobile phones, so anything we can do to crack down on that is important. There are now some 40,000 mobile phones in storage at great cost. Most of them are never reclaimed. That, and the support of the Prison Officers Association, Victim  Support, the Government and the Opposition, demonstrate that there is a clear need for the Bill. I hope it will be supported today.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey on the Bill. It is incredibly sensible and straightforward, and I do not intend to delay colleagues any longer than is absolutely necessary. I have no intention of dividing the Committee.

The Bill creates an express power for a prison governor to destroy property. It has long been an offence under prison rules to possess unauthorised articles. Labour clarified the law and made it a criminal offence to possess an unauthorised mobile phone in prison. Governors already have the power to sell or otherwise dispose of unclaimed items of prisoner property. The rules say that any article belonging to a prisoner that remains unclaimed for a period of more than a year after he leaves prison or dies may be sold or otherwise disposed of. Amusingly, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggested that the items might be appearing on eBay, but I do not anticipate that being the case.

At the moment, the rules say that the net proceeds of any sale should be paid to Nacro for its general purposes, which seems sensible. The governor may confiscate any unauthorised article found in the possession of a prisoner after his reception into prison, or concealed or deposited anywhere within a prison. Governors cannot currently destroy property, even unauthorised property, if the prisoner says that they want it back. The Bill addresses that, although property has been destroyed in the past on occasion, even though governors did not have the express power to do so, because that was often the only practical option. That was challenged, however, in the High Court in 2009 by a prisoner, and the judge found that governors do not have the formal legal power to destroy property. Many of the items are mobile phones, and it seems entirely sensible to allow governors to destroy—or indeed sell or recycle—them.

Will the hon. Gentleman advise on whether he intends to determine, in the Prison Service instructions, who the beneficiaries of any such sale would be, or whether he intends there to be a deal with a recycling company? At the moment, the beneficiary is Nacro, and I can see the logic for that, but will any consideration be given to Victim Support and others?

There is a need to address the growing problem of unauthorised items in prisons. Prison officers and other staff work incredibly hard to make prisons safe places, where inmates can be held for the protection of the public, and where efforts are made to rehabilitate. I cannot let this occasion pass without observing that that is becoming a greater challenge as the number of prisoners increases and the number of prison officers declines. The chief inspector of prisons said that he can find no evidence on the ground of any rehabilitation revolution.

The Bill is an important measure and tidies up an anomaly. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I will not detain the Committee long. I just want to add to the bouquets that my hon. Friend the Member for  Pudsey is drowning under, having brought forward this long overdue and very welcome piece of legislation, which will be of importance. One assumes that as well as destruction of the property, “disposal” could include giving away property to charities. He may wish to put that on the record when he closes the debate.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I start by apologising to you, to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, and to all hon. Members for my lateness. I am afraid that I thought the Committee began at 2 o’clock.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey on bringing forward the Bill, which addresses a definite issue in the prison system. As a criminal lawyer, I had many opportunities to speak to prison staff and prison officers about this issue with prisoners’ property. Although I accept that I overlooked it, I absolutely agree that it needs to be dealt with. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the Bill forward.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. As you are the Chief Whip of my party, I bow to all your rulings. I apologise for my lateness as well.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Pudsey to the final clause, which is on the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill. As justice powers are devolved, the Bill extends only to England and Wales, not Northern Ireland or Scotland. Given that he is tidying up an important anomaly—I congratulate him on his foresight, and on having seen this gap—will he forward the Bill through whatever channels to the authorities in Northern Ireland, so that they too can recognise any gaps and anomalies that could be tidied up?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and to listen to the helpful debate on the Bill.

The Government wholly welcome the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey on bringing it forward. As hon. Members have said, it will plug a very important gap in the powers of prison governors and others who work in prisons—a gap that they need to have plugged if they are to do what their difficult and dangerous job entails. We welcome that.

Let me pick up on one or two things that have been said, and give the Government’s perspective. My hon. Friend started by saying that it was strange that the Bill was needed at all. Of course, he is right about that, but as the hon. Member for Darlington pointed out, that  is as a result of a 2009 administrative court decision. That led to the need for the Bill, and that is why we welcome it.

I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government do not want to see items taken from prisons appearing on eBay. She and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay asked what would happen to the property. Of course, there are difficulties, particularly with mobile phones, because of the data that may be stored on them. Those data may include personal details, and also rather unpleasant information, so we have to be cautious about what might be done, particularly with mobile phones. So far as the beneficiaries of the sale of any items are concerned, further determination will be required as to which charities may benefit, but the clear intention is that charities will benefit from any sale of the items.

So far as the rehabilitation revolution is concerned, I simply urge the hon. Member for Darlington to watch this space. She will see a great deal more about the rehabilitation revolution very shortly. I look forward to her full-throated support for it when she does.

The hon. Member for North Antrim is right to want good practice to be translated across the Irish sea. He will perhaps already know that measures are in place in the Northern Ireland Assembly Government to deal with this issue, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey will be keen to ensure that any lessons that can be learned there are learned as a result of the Bill. I again congratulate him on introducing it. The Government wish it well.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Member for Pudsey should be very pleased with the views that have been expressed. I call on him to wind up the debate.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey

I am very grateful to you, Dr McCrea, and very grateful for all the comments from hon. Members. The Minister has clearly answered the questions about the appropriate charities, disposal and so on. I will certainly ensure that I inform people over in Northern Ireland of our Bill, and hopefully its provisions will be replicated. I should just say that it is the birthday of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay; I congratulate him. Rather than me giving him a present, I hope that he will give me a present and support the Bill. I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.