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Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill (Money)

Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

Queen’s recommendation signified.

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State.

We are moving the motion because the Government are keen that the Bill should go forward and be scrutinised in depth in Committee. Passing a money resolution is the next step in that process. The Ministry of Justice does not currently intend to seek additional funding from the Treasury, nor does the Scottish Prison Service intend to seek additional funding from the Scottish Government, to purchase equipment. Should private prisons in England and Wales seek to deploy signal denial equipment in light of the legislation, all equipment would be purchased by the contractor without an increase in the contract price paid from the public purse. We consider that any costs that might arise from the legislation will be proportionate when set against the harm caused by illegal mobile phones in prisons. I commend the money resolution to the House.

We are pleased to welcome the Bill and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for introducing it. I also welcome the Minister to his post. It is most pleasing to see a Policing Minister with, shall we say, some in-depth experience of the police taking on the role.

It is right that the Prison Service should adopt helpful technological advances as they become available and that appropriate resources should be made available. The technology has been piloted since 2008, and the Opposition support the expansion of its use across the prison estate and its introduction to private prisons.

The Opposition remind the Government of the need to project-manage the programme robustly so that all equipment purchased is put to good use, staff are properly trained and the information obtained from intercepting signals is used to prevent crime without disrupting the communications of those living nearby.

This is a small private Member’s Bill, but before referring to it I must welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his new job.

I thank Members on both sides of the House for their support for the Bill, which we hope will progress to consideration in Committee fairly promptly as it is clearly important. During 2011, 7,422 illicit phones and SIM cards were found in England and Wales, and the figure for Scotland—1,335 phones and SIM cards—is proportionate to that. The Bill is sufficiently broad to enable us to hope that, as technology changes and moves forward, it can be adapted to meet whatever the technology comes up with. It is supported not only by the prisons hierarchy, but by the prison officers. We might have that support explained to us in a moment.

I visited a prison last week and there had just been an incident where, due to special timing, warders managed to pick up seven phones with cocaine attached. SIM cards and so on were lobbed over the wall, but they were collected and therefore cannot be used. The key point is not just the phones, but the SIM cards. One small phone does not cost much money, and its adapter and charger can be used for goodness knows how many SIM cards.

These measures will be implemented in such a way that anyone phoning illegally will suddenly find that their phone is engaged constantly, whether they are phoning in or out, and it will be possible to track the phones and pick up the various numbers, which will be useful for anti-crime activities. That is important, because there is ample evidence of the range of activities involved in the commissioning of serious crime and violence, and many of the heavy boys and girls in our prisons have been organising crime outside while they are inside. If one believes only half of what one reads in the Daily Mail, one will agree that things such as the harassment of victims and gang activity happen, and that there is also the existence of extremist networks.

It will be possible to set these measures up in such a way that certain numbers will go straight through. By that I mean important numbers. I understand that the Coke machine in the prison can dial outside and tell the supplier that it is about to run out, so the supplier can rush more supplies in. I consider such a provision to be vital.

This is a little Bill with support from both sides of the House, and I hope that it makes progress. I also anticipate the money resolution receiving the support of the House tonight.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his new post and hope that it is not out of the frying pan into the fire. I am sure it will not be.

There is general, all-round support for the measure, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on introducing it as a private Member’s Bill. There are real concerns for some of the staff about ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to providing proper training and sufficient staff. Members of the Prison Officers Association have welcomed the legislation, and have indeed been calling for such legislation for some time, but I would welcome any information that the Minister can give on cost estimates for implementing the Bill, the number of staff who will be involved, the cost of the training and where those resources will be found. So far, he has said that that will be contained within existing budgets, which is somewhat worrying as there is already a resource stretch in the Department, particularly on staffing issues and in the light of the escalation of the number of prisoners in our prisons.

With that information, we could reassure the prison officers that there will be sufficient investment to implement this welcome legislation effectively and with their co-operation.

I hope that, on second thoughts, the hon. Gentleman will realise that introducing such a facility will reduce the time spent on, for example, searches. There will be savings on one side, which will compensate for the costs on the other.

I hope that that is the case and I see the rationale behind the hon. Gentleman’s case, but start-up costs will need to be met, particularly with regard to resourcing the training. If existing staff are to implement the legislation, they will have to be taken off other jobs, which will put stress on other Prison Service staff, unless some additional resource is made available. Assurances need to be given to the professionals who will implement the legislation that that will not be at a cost to their role elsewhere in the Prison Service.

With the leave of the House, I thank Members on both sides of the House who said kind words about my new job, especially the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who used a phrase to do with frying pans and fires that I have been using all day.

A substantive point about money was raised. Money is already spent managing the threat posed by mobile phones in prisons. Both centrally and locally, we must balance the benefits of using equipment that interferes with wireless telegraphy against the cost of that equipment, but we must also consider whether that money could be better spent dealing with competing threats to prison security. The legislation will allow budgets to be spent in more diverse ways, but because it does not require that any particular equipment be deployed, it will not in itself impose any additional costs on the national authority. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Establishing the New Schengen Evaluation Mechanism

That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 5754/6/12, relating to an amended proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the establishment of an evaluation and monitoring mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis, and No. 11846/11, relating to a draft Council Regulation on the establishment of an evaluation mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis; and supports the Government’s intention not to opt out of the draft Council Regulation under Protocol (No. 19) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

External Dimension of EU Social Security Co-ordination

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 8552/12, relating to a Commission Communication on the External Dimension of European Union Social Security Co-ordination; supports the Government’s view that the organisation and financing of national social security systems is exclusively the competence of Member States; and shares the Government’s concerns that the extension of European Union competence in the area of social security co-ordination, through developing case law and regulations, will further undermine Member States’ ability to protect their social security systems.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Question agreed to.