Interference with wireless telegraphy in prisons etc

Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 29th March 2017.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:45 pm, 29th March 2017

I beg to move amendment 29, in clause 21, page 19, line 34, at end insert—

‘(8) Before this section comes into force the Secretary of State shall—

(a) carry out a review of arrangements for prisoners to make telephone calls, the cost of such arrangements, the benefits of such arrangements, the level of charges to prisoners and options for providing an improved and more affordable service, and

(b) lay a report before Parliament containing the Secretary of State’s conclusions as a result of the review.”

This amendment requires a review of prison phone arrangements.

The reason for the amendment is that everybody accepts that when somebody is in prison they need to be able to communicate with their families. We recognise that mobile phones have also caused problems. In 2015, nearly 17,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were found in prisons in England and Wales. That was an increase from around 10,000 in 2014 and 7,500 in 2013. Since October 2015, data have been collated differently, so that direct comparisons cannot be made.

In 2016, there was a total of 8,813 reported incidents of mobile phone finds and 4,067 reported incidents of SIM card finds. Section 1 of the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012 already allows the Secretary of State to authorise governors to interfere with wireless telegraphy to disrupt unlawful mobile phone use. Clause 21 would allow the Secretary of State to authorise PCPs—for example, telecoms and internet service providers—to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 makes provision for prison staff or the police to apply to the courts for a telecommunications restriction order, to require a mobile phone network to stop the use of a phone remotely. Regulations under the Act came into force on 3 August 2016.

Fundamentally, the clause seeks to provide PCPs with greater independence to conduct interference. Limiting access to mobile phones is necessary. However, a central plank of rehabilitation is ensuring prisoners have sufficient controlled contact with the outside world. In discussion with former prisoner officers, we were told that a lack of access to telephones was a major cause of disturbances in prisons.

The Prison Reform Trust has stated that access to telephones is limited and relatively expensive, hindering rehabilitation. It has suggested establishing a mandatory minimum level of access to telephones. The health charity, Change Grow Live, said:

“We recognise that the use of mobile phones within the prison estate can have negative security implications, but we do believe this could be better managed by ensuring there is wider access to telephones within prisons, to enable prisoners to maintain contact with friends and families.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists states:

“The Joint Commissioning Panel guidance for forensic mental health services in the NHS…recommends that family support and maintenance and re-establishment of family relationships should occur where possible.”

The Howard League states:

“Steps to increase access to legal methods of communication in prisons would have a much greater impact. Ensuring that prisoners can frequently access affordable payphones with a reasonable amount of privacy to make calls to their families would reduce the demand for mobile phones in prison.”

The Public and Commercial Services Union states:

“It is worth noting that these reforms are long overdue and unions have been arguing for this issue to be addressed for many years.”

We are asking for improved, controlled access to telephones, which will have the benefit of helping the prisoners and, we hope, lead to fewer mobile phones being found illegally in prisons.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

As hon. Members will know, technology—particularly mobile technology—is constantly evolving. The Government are determined that legislation should keep pace with developments to combat the serious problem posed by the use of illegal mobile phones in prison.

Illicit mobile phone use is linked to the supply of drugs and other contraband, serious organised crime and the evasion of public protection monitoring, bringing further harm to the victims of crime. The scale of the issue is stark. In 2016, nearly 20,000 mobile phones and SIM cards—that is 54 a day—were found in prisons in England and Wales.

Although this is not a new problem, the scale has increased steadily. In 2013, only about 7,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were found. To help combat that challenge, clause 21 and the associated schedule 2, will make a number of changes to the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012. In its briefing on the Bill, the Prison Reform Trust stated:

“We welcome the introduction of sensible and proportionate measures to prevent the damaging and illicit trade in mobile phones in prisons.”

The Government welcome the trust’s support for measures to tackle the many serious problems caused by illicit mobiles in prison. They are used, as I have said, as a link to the supply of drugs and contraband and serious and organised crime. The trust noted that, as well as targeting the supply side, attention should also focus on limiting demand by improving the availability of, and prisoners’ access to, lawful telephones in prison. Once again, we agree with the trust.

As part of our digital prison programme, we have made changes to make it easier for prisoners to use telephones in HMP Wayland. Secure telephone handsets are now available in cells. The deployment started in September 2016 and was completed in December 2016. This has been repeated at HMP Berwyn, and we are in the process of extending it across the estate as part of the programme. We are then able to reduce the phone tariff in these institutions to make calls more affordable and accessible, and the result has been excellent. Notably, call minutes used in Wayland are up 114% from our baseline week in September. Anecdotal evidence also indicates noticeable improvement in behaviour.

As a result of these encouraging developments, we are now looking at further ways to accelerate the improved accessibility and affordability of telephony across the whole estate. We are steadily building a body of evidence that shows the benefits which arise from a nudge that simultaneously discourages the illegal use of mobile phones, while encouraging legitimate calls to families, friends and supporters, by making handsets more accessible and affordable. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of these measures over the coming months. We intend to retender the national telephony contract this calendar year to reduce call charges to prisoners, while introducing technologies that block and disrupt illicit mobile phones.

We have given detailed consideration to the need to assist prisoners in maintaining relationships with family members while they are in prison, as we develop policy on prisoner access to telephone services. I do not believe that it would be right to accept the amendment, because the work to be covered by the review is already under way and will continue.

Further, placing a requirement to conduct a review in primary legislation would delay commencement of provisions in the Bill designed to improve our ability to combat the use of illicit mobile phones in prisons until such time as a review is carried out. Our work to improve prisoner access to telephone services will continue, irrespective of a review. I hope therefore that the hon. Lady is persuaded to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 22