I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am humbled to follow the debate on the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). It was fantastic to listen to such a great debate. Politics is always at its best when people talk about things that are often difficult and personal. For far too long, mental health has been stigmatised in this country. One of the most terrifying yet exhilarating experiences of my life was coming out to my parents as a gay man. That was quite difficult. That debate was had in politics long ago, and now we are just beginning to get to grips with the issue of mental health. That shows how difficult it is for so many people in the country. I commend all who spoke today so honestly. It was an honour to have been here in the Chamber.
Over the two and a half years since my election, I have had a raft of new experiences in this place. Getting to know and understand how Parliament works presents Members with many challenges. There are so many nuances—for instance, the processes of law making, the Committee structures and procedures, and even the very language we have to use in Parliament. And today is part of another process that I am trying to understand.
Perhaps naively, I never quite realised what I was letting myself in for when I entered my name in the book in the No Lobby for the ballot. I realise, however, that it is a great privilege to have found my name in the top 20, because it has given me the opportunity to present this Bill. I realise, of course, that this is only the second step in a rather long process, and I know that I will have many more things to master along the way. I hope that I will do so without letting the House down. I am grateful for the opportunity. I also wish to put on the record my thanks for the tremendous help and advice I have received from the Clerks of the House and all the civil servants who have given me as much information as I have asked for, whenever I have needed it.
If supported, the Bill would create a new power for prison governors and directors to destroy or otherwise dispose of any unauthorised property found within a prison or escort vehicle. That could include items that it is generally unlawful to possess, such as controlled drugs or an offensive weapon, or items that are illegal to have in prison, such as mobile phones and sound-recording devices. They could also be items that could threaten prison security and safety, such as property altered to conceal drugs for smuggling. Finally, they could be items that are inappropriate for prisoners to have in their possession, such as items smuggled in or coerced from another prisoner.
I want to talk about why the Bill is needed and what the problem is. It will probably stagger the House to discover that there is a need for such a Bill. I am afraid to say that there is. Currently, there is nothing in law giving any power to governors to destroy property that prisoners should not have. As a result, astonishingly, any item seized has to be stored by governors and kept in safe keeping for the duration of the prisoner’s term.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early on. How will the Bill work in relation to illegal items, which it would be unlawful for an ordinary member of the public to own? We are not saying, are we, that we give guns back to prisoners at the end of their sentences and then arrest them for possessing a gun? Perhaps my hon. Friend could explain.
No, my hon. Friend is quite right. We would not be giving guns back; they would, of course, be given to the police to deal with. However, there will be anomalies along the way, and I am sure that many hon. Members will help me to ensure that the Bill is as tight as possible on such issues.
As my hon. Friend has made such a generous offer, let me congratulate him on introducing the Bill and ask whether during its progress, perhaps in Committee, he might consider the question of illegal drugs. The last time I looked, which was some time back, prisoners were being found with illegal drugs more than 20,000 times a year. Are those recorded as crimes, or does it depend on whether the drugs are discovered by the Prison Service or the police? What happens afterwards? Presumably drugs will not be given back if they have not been consumed already.
This debate is already demonstrating that there will be a lot to talk about in Committee. Indeed, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider joining me on that Committee. He is absolutely right: items that are illegal would never be returned. They would be sent to the police to deal with.
To return to the point I was making, it is frankly astonishing that items seized by the governor are held in safe keeping simply to enable prisoners to claim them back on their release. That is not only a perverse part of the law; it is frankly wrong. It is also astonishing to discover that the system is having a huge impact on the public purse in what are very difficult times.
The possession of unlawful articles such as drugs and firearms are separate criminal offences that are capable of prosecution. There are provisions in the relevant pieces of legislation—for example, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Firearms Act 1968—that would allow for the forfeiture and destruction of those items. My hon. Friend is rightly seeking to deal with an anomaly. Items such as mobile telephones need to be confiscated because they are becoming a menace.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His background in law and his experience are showing far more than mine, as I have not been in the law. He is right. Indeed, I am sure the House would be amazed to learn that the real problem is mobile phones. Some 41,000 mobile phones alone are currently being held in storage by the Prison Service. They are all waiting to be claimed by people who frankly should not have had them in the first place. All those mobile phones are being stored and administered by staff who are already busy in their day-to-day jobs. Furthermore, there is a genuine concern that the legal position might not enable prisons to deal with unauthorised property, such as that which has been adapted for unauthorised use—for example, radios with the mechanics removed to enable drugs to be smuggled into the prison.
As I said earlier, the current position is considered perverse. It is remarkable that although a prisoner can be prosecuted for smuggling a mobile phone into prison, under the Offender Management Act 2007, or for possessing a mobile phone in prison, under the Crime and Security Act 2010, that item is retained at the taxpayer’s expense and then returned to the prisoner when they leave. What sort of message does that send out, particularly to the victims of crime? That is why there is a genuine need for this Bill.
My hon. Friend’s Bill says that such property can be either destroyed or otherwise disposed of. I just wonder what he has in mind by “otherwise disposed of”. Does he envisage prisons setting up a sideline selling things on eBay, for example?
No, I am most certainly not suggesting that. However, I hope that the Bill will finally allow prison governors to sell such property, and then donate the money to charities such as Victim Support, perhaps. In that way, the proceeds of those criminal activities could go back to the victims who have suffered at the hands of those prisoners.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on securing this slot. Further to the proposals to sell those items and give the proceeds to charity, he might like to know that certain charities can use old mobile phone handsets, in this country and in developing countries. Might that be an appropriate way of disposing of them?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a wise contribution. That suggestion is also of great merit. It would be good that those items could be used in that way, and we will certainly consider his suggestion as the Bill continues through the House.
The situation is not only ludicrous from a legal point of view; it sends out entirely the wrong message. Unauthorised items can prejudice safety and security in prisons, and there have been instances of their being linked to serious crimes. Mobile phones, for example, have been used to organise crimes including murder, drug dealing and witness intimidation, and to access social networking sites.
When I was researching these matters, I was astonished to see the amount of mobile phone communication that had taken place from prisons. I have some examples here. Murders have been carried out from prison. In April 2006, Andrew Wanogho was shot dead in a London street in the early hours. The culprit had a cast-iron alibi; he was in jail at the time. The fact that he was on remand in Belmarsh prison had not prevented him from co-ordinating the murder using a smuggled mobile phone, however. Even more shocking is the fact that he rang the victim’s mobile phone after the shooting to check that his rival was dead. It is astonishing that such activities are going on in our prison system. In September 2007, Ryan Lloyd was jailed for life for the murder of Liam Smith, who was shot dead outside a prison in Liverpool in 2006. Lloyd had used a contraband mobile to call an accomplice. In 2009, another gang leader was jailed for organising the murder of a 17-year-old man from his cell in a prison in Humberside.
Drugs have been sold from prison. One drug dealer was behind bars in a prison in Lewes when he realised that he had a captive market, using the fact that there are drug addicts in the prison system. Before his imprisonment, he had been part of a small heroin and cocaine distribution ring based around Worthing. Once inside, he not only continued to run the business, issuing instructions to his team by mobile phone, but expanded his operation to include the prison itself. Packages of drugs were hidden in socks and thrown over the prison walls, to be collected by inmates at pre-arranged times. That was all made possible by the fact that he had access to a mobile phone.
We then come to intimidation from prison. I have a constituent whose 16-year-old son was murdered by a gang of 30 youths. Four of them were prosecuted, but one escaped to Pakistan. He has taunted my constituent from there on Facebook, telling her how much he was enjoying his freedom. That has been terribly difficult for her, because it means that she can never really let go of that horrible day. Let us imagine, therefore, what it must be like to get that kind of intimidation from someone in prison. I think that it would add insult to injury. That happened two years ago, when it emerged that one of Britain’s most dangerous gangsters was using Facebook to threaten his enemies from his high-security prison. The gang boss, who had been locked up for 35 years, was able to correspond with up to 565 “friends” on Facebook for more than two months, until the page was shut down. Some of the things he wrote were, frankly, astonishing. He wrote:
“I will be home one day and can’t wait to look into certain people’s eyes and see the fear of me being there. It’s good to have an outlet to let you know how I am, some of you will be in for a good slagging and some have let me down badly and will be named and shamed”.
The fact that this has come from within the person’s cell is horrendous.
The taunting of victims’ families from prisons is another problem. One of the killers of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella used his Facebook page to taunt his victims’ families from behind bars. He boasted that he was “down but not out”, and for his profile picture he mocked up a T-shirt emblazoned with his face and the slogan “Free Jade Braithwaite”. From his cell, he wrote how he wanted “remote control” so that he could
“mute or delete people when I need to”.
Ben’s sister Brooke, who is 28, said at the time:
“My family and I are appalled that Jade Braithwaite is able to operate a Facebook page from inside prison—and to use the site to protest his innocence is really upsetting. We are disgusted by the comments on the site and feel it is a real insult to Ben’s memory.”
We are letting down these families if we do not deal with this problem. I have more quotes, which I may come back to later, but that gives a flavour of the real problem and its effect on the families of victims and on the victims themselves.
Phones today are not just instruments of communication; they often have cameras and recording devices. Pictures can be taken from inside prison and communicated outside, which could facilitate the opportunity to escape or help with smuggling drugs and other contraband into prison. What message does that send to victims, particularly when we have to store these items if they are found?
There is a real effect on prison discipline. Some items of property may not be illicit in themselves but have not been authorised for possession by a prisoner, including items that might have been smuggled in by visitors or obtained from another prisoner. Currently, too many prisoners use the lack of legislation to their own advantage. Prison officers discover items, but prisoners know that no legislation is in place to allow their destruction and demand that the items are put in storage. That is bad not only for good order, but for the morale of staff who work in the prison.
Glyn Travis of the Prison Officers Association states:
“The POA welcome this Bill and believe it is long overdue. Staff do get frustrated when they work hard to confiscate contraband and are then taunted by prisoners who use the loophole and force staff to store the property for them when they are released. This has a knock on effect and cost to the tax payer as property has to be transferred if the offender is. If property is classed as illegal/contraband, it should be destroyed and not stored. If the loophole is not closed compensation claims may arise if property is lost.”
If we do not pass the Bill today, we will let down the people who work so hard for us in those prisons.
The impact on resources within the prison system is another issue. When I was doing research for this Bill, I visited HMP Leeds—I hope it will prove to be the only time I go there—which is an extremely large and imposing Victorian building in which space is at a premium. I am extremely grateful to all the prison staff who gave up a considerable amount of their time to talk me through the process of prisoners entering the prison and to explain the many issues they face daily. They also told me what the problems were in the prison system.
As many Members will know, when prisoners arrive from court they must declare the items they have on them, and those that are permitted in the prison are listed on a card for the records. Prisoners are allowed to keep some of the items on them, and some will be stored. That is legitimate, and the Bill does not deal with those items. Others, such as mobile phones, are not allowed, but as long as prisoners have declared them in the court, they will be listed on a second card and stored until the prisoners are released. Storing the legitimate items is demanding enough given the number of people who are involved in the prison system, but the pressure is increased by the fact that prison staff are forced to store all the unauthorised items as well. It is estimated that storing the tens of thousands of mobile phones alone costs about £20,000 a year.
In some cases restrictions are imposed, but one wonders how many people are smuggling things into prisons and hiding them without being detected. Why would they fear being caught if they know that the items that they have smuggled in may be stored? We want to send the clear message that it is not even worth trying, and I hope that that is what the Bill will do.
I understand that many thousands of items are currently being held in storage that have not been claimed. I do not know whether there is a time limit—perhaps I ought to find out and write to my hon. Friend with some clarification—but I gather that at least six months’ worth of items are in the prison system.
When I visited the prison in Leeds, I saw that every bit of space was being used. The prison gates have towers a bit like those at Windsor castle but, of course, nowhere near as glamorous, and even the turrets are being used for storage. The staff are having to find every corner that they can, which is frustrating for them, and, as I said earlier, it is having a knock-on effect on morale.
That raises an interesting point. Given that all these things are being stored in any space that can be found, and given that they are being stored in prisons, what happens if they are stolen? That must be quite a risk with all those criminals about. Are the Government liable for the replacement of stolen items, and does the cost fall on the Government?
I believe that the items are destroyed after 12 months. As for their being stolen, my hon. Friend tests my knowledge. I did not ask prison officers that question, but perhaps I will go back to Leeds prison and ask for an answer. Again, I shall be happy to give my hon. Friend some clarification.
I hope all this demonstrates that although the Bill is not particularly extensive it is long overdue. It is intended to reverse an outrageous and perverse position by creating a statutory power for governors to destroy or dispose of unauthorised property. It is also retrospective in nature in that it enables the destruction, or other disposal, of certain items of property that were seized prior to the commencement of its powers and which remain unclaimed six months after commencement. This measure applies to cameras, sound-recording devices and electronic communication devices, including mobile phones, and their component parts. It is illegal to take all those items into prison, and they are items that cause particular concerns with prison security.
It is considered that this retrospective application is fair and in the public interest. It is a limited power, and will finally enable the Prison Service to deal with the 41,000 mobile phones that are currently held in storage. During the six-month period I have just mentioned, prisoners will be able to make representations against an item’s destruction. All such representations will be considered, but it is right that the power is given so we can deal with this problem.
Under clause 1, the governor or director of a prison may dispose of property where the ownership “cannot be ascertained.” Is there a defined process and time limit for that? I ask that because I am concerned that my hon. Friend’s otherwise excellent Bill may be undermined by there being a loophole that prisoners could exploit. He may not have the answer to my question at his fingertips now, but I ask him to reflect on this point as the Bill progresses.
We intend to consult as widely as possible on what that time period should be. It is up to the person who wishes to claim an unattributable piece of property to prove that it belongs to them. If they cannot do so, the governor will be allowed to destroy it.
I support my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I raise the following point only to ensure we have a rigorous debate. While I accept that the state has the right to confiscate and destroy articles that are in themselves illegal, such as drugs, we should be wary of giving powers to the state to confiscate and destroy, for its own purposes and profit, goods that are not illegal, such as mobile phones. I raise this point so my hon. Friend can give a satisfactory answer, and assure us that prisoners are a particular category in this respect, and that this is in no way the thin end of the wedge in conferring on the state powers that we would not normally want it to be given.
My hon. Friend is right: we need to ensure that this Bill does not give powers that can be taken too far. That is why prisoners will have an opportunity to claim property and appeal for it not to be destroyed. We want to consult on this issue, in order to address the concerns my hon. Friend raises and to make sure we get the Bill absolutely right.
I hope I have succeeded in convincing colleagues of the need for this Bill.
There are two penal establishments in my constituency; one of them is an open prison, and the other is for young offenders. People who have been barred from attending matches at the local football club have to go to the open prison when games are being played, and they take their mobile phones with them and put them in a locker. Can my hon. Friend assure me that this measure will have no unintended consequences, so that, although mobile phones may be deemed unauthorised items, people will still be able to take them when they leave?
No, there should be no unintended consequences, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point and will ensure that we double check all the points that have been raised on Second Reading.
I wish to conclude by quoting Jean Taylor, the founder and chair of Families Fighting for Justice. She wrote to me, stating:
“My opinion regarding the matter of a prisoner being given back any illegal item on release from prison is that it is absurd. We may as well give a criminal any items he steals from a property once he has served his time… If something is smuggled into prison, it is therefore illegal, but it also can be used to further taunt a victim’s family, who are already suffering, by means of phone calling them, if it is a phone, or leaving instructions to one of their friends on the outside to fix a job for them.”
I believe that the Bill is long overdue. We should deal with this once and for all. We owe it to people in the Prison Service, to the governors, who frankly should have overall jurisdiction within the prisons, and, more importantly, to the victims of crimes. I commend the Bill to the House.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for bringing forward the Bill. He is my parliamentary neighbour and does a fantastic job in his constituency, as I know all too well. That has been emphasised today not only by the quality of his speech, but by his introducing such an important measure, which many of my constituents will consider long overdue, as will many of his. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of my constituents probably think that the measure is already in place and would not imagine that there is still a need to legislate for something that most people think common sense dictates should happen anyway. It is therefore my great pleasure to support my hon. Friend today. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a renowned parliamentarian, will know that for that reason I do not intend to speak for too long in supporting the Bill.
I do not want to cover the ground my hon. Friend has already covered, because I think he set out perfectly clearly not only the problem and its impact on victims of crime, but how wrong it is that people can be given property that they should not have had in the first place. I will move on to some of the other points that I am not entirely sure he has considered in the Bill, but which might be considered in Committee. I want to raise some of these issues because, before we talk about destroying property that gets into prison in a way that it should not, we really need to look at how it gets into prisons in the first place. If we want to tackle the problem of people having mobile phones, drugs, weapons—whatever it may be— in prison, it is important that, rather than focusing on what we do when they are caught with them, we look at what we might do to stop them having them in the first place. Surely that would be better all round.
Obviously, as I am sure we are all aware, there are a number of ways that contraband stuff can end up in the hands of a prisoner. It can often be brought in by people visiting the prisoners. It is sometimes secreted in deliveries sent to prisoners, for example in books and other kinds of merchandise. Unfortunately, it is sometimes brought in through the collusion of prison officers themselves, something we always need to be mindful of.
My hon. Friend might well be right. That is the point I want to get to, because although I absolutely support what the Bill would do, I contend— I hope that the Minister will pay some attention to this—that we absolutely need to do more to stop such material getting into prisons in the first place, and perhaps the Bill can be amended in Committee to reflect that. Some of the checks are not what they should be. For example, there are what are known as BOSS chairs in prisons—body orifice scanners—that are used to try to stop prisoners bringing stuff into prison with them at the time they are sentenced by secreting it in ever more ingenious and, it seems to me, painful ways. The prisons have these body orifice scanners to try and detect that, but occasionally they will not be working properly or have not been working for a few months and no one has bothered to have them repaired. Alternatively, the prison officers may not have confidence that the scanners can pick up everything that they should. We should do much more to stop the stuff getting through in the first place.
Things also get into prison by being thrown over the wall for prisoners to collect on exercise. Lots of prisons have nets to stop that happening, but the nets should be more extensive.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Would he extend his comments to drugs, which are a serious issue in prisons? If someone who is not on drugs becomes a prisoner, they have a good chance of getting on them while they are in prison. We have to tackle that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey made clear, drugs getting into prison is a massive issue. They damage the people there, and the fact that so many people take drugs for the first time while they are in prison should appal us. There is also the intimidation among prisoners as they trade this contraband stuff.
I made a point about nets, which should perhaps be mandatory around prisons to make sure that things cannot be thrown over walls. All that is quite easy.
We know that prison staff are sometimes responsible for stuff getting into prisons. That happens for a number of reasons. There is the normal reason of financial corruption: some prison officers are tempted by the money they can make from allowing things into prison, which is always very sad. Lots of prisoners, particularly long-term ones, can be very manipulative and find ever more ingenious ways of manipulating prison officers into doing things and ensnaring them into traps. If a prison officer goes out of their way to do a prisoner a favour, which may seem small and innocuous in the scheme of things, they have broken with procedure. The prisoner then feels that the officer is trapped and asks them to do ever more unacceptable things knowing that if the officer says anything they will be reported to the authorities and may lose their job. Manipulative prisoners sometimes lead prison officers astray in that way.
The Minister will know that, in an untypically timely manner, I have already been bombarding him with parliamentary questions. On one of his first days, I bombarded him with one that asked how many mobile phones and drugs were seized from prisoners in every prison in each of the past two years. I have the list here. Although the Ministry of Justice and I have gone our separate ways on many issues in the past two years, it is without doubt one of the most helpful Departments in giving proper answers to questions; I say that in all seriousness.
Typically, the Ministry gave a very full and thorough answer to my question. I can bore everybody rigid anyway without any props, but I shall resist the temptation to bore the Chamber by reading through how many things are confiscated from each prison. However, if anybody has a particular question about their local prison, I shall be able to help them.
A more lengthy intervention would have helped, so that I could get to the right page. My hon. Friend is imagining that I am far more proficient in these matters. Having now killed a bit of time, I have managed to find that at Hollesley Bay the figure for mobile phones was 40. She might want to make a longer intervention so that I can try to ascertain the figure for drugs.
I commend my hon. Friend on the important and assiduous work that he has done on prisons. I know that he has visited many to observe the differing situations. It might also be useful to know the total figure for mobile phones in proportion to the prison population and the percentage of prisons affected. I am not suggesting that he provides that information now, but the Minister may wish to comment. It is shocking how many of these effects are getting into prisons in the first place.
If my hon. Friend is going to be so kind in all her interventions, I will encourage her to make even lengthier ones in future. It seems from the figures—I am only glancing at them—that at Hollesley Bay just one seizure of drugs was made.
We need to bear in mind two separate things. In the case of prisons with very high levels of seizure, one might argue that it is because they have a bigger problem than other prisons, but it is possibly because the authorities are much better at finding these things and more assiduous in dealing with the problem. The fact that my hon. Friend’s prison had only one seizure may indicate that they have got a grip of the problem there and it is not as big as elsewhere; equally, it could be because they are not as assiduous in finding these things. From my experience, which she was kind enough to mention, I would be surprised if that prison had only one example of drugs being in somebody’s cell that should not be there, but that is just a hunch and I am probably completely wrong.
Might my hon. Friend, without reading out the whole list, give us some of the highlights? Does he have any idea of which prisons have a particularly bad problem, with the very highest number of seizures, or which ones have figures that are suspiciously low because they are known to be high-security prisons with particularly difficult prisoners inside them? Are there any lessons that we can draw from across the prison estate as a whole?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Thankfully, he made a long enough intervention for me to quickly brush through the figures to see whether I could find any particular highlights or lowlights. The figures that instantly spring to mind as regards mobile phone seizures are 265 at Altcourse prison, which I cannot say I am familiar with, and 231 at Pentonville, which I am much more familiar with. Those seem to be the two highest figures. Altcourse also had a rather high number of drugs seizures. Several prisons have single figures for mobile phones. The lowest that I can see is Blantyre House, which has just one, as do Low Newton, Morton Hall and Send, while some have two. There is a big discrepancy between 230-odd and just one or two. I can only reiterate that it is difficult to tell which prisons we should be commending and which we should not.
Prisons have always been like this. I know that my hon. Friend is a deeply humane man who does not want to return to the era of prisons in the 1930s, when prisoners were prevented from meeting people except from behind a glass screen, or the 19th century, when prisoners were kept in solitary confinement. So what are we going to do? He is right to draw the House’s attention to this. Can we hold the Under-Secretary to account? Our prisons are awash with drugs; surely he should be responsible for ensuring, in a humane and a fair way, that there are proper searches so that we can try to make some progress, which palpably, at the moment, we are not.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is the point I am trying to make. There is a lot more that the prison authorities can do to stop these items getting into prison in the first place. There should be much wider coverage of nets to stop things being thrown over the wall. There should be better, more frequent and more rigorous searches of prison officers when they get into work.
If we know that prison officers are often responsible for bringing this material into work, better checks of prison officers would seem to be an obvious step to take. I am sure that the vast majority of prison officers who carry out their job without ever indulging in such activity would welcome the prospect of any bad apples in their profession being rooted out.
Given that so many contraband items come in as a result of visitations, why do we not have better and more frequent use of closed visits, as is the case in other countries, particularly the United States of America? The only way to stop visitors bringing things into prison is by having closed visits whereby the visit takes place through a glass screen. I am well aware that, occasionally, such things are what is known in the jargon as risk-assessed, so that those prisoners who are deemed a higher risk than others will be put on the closed visit regime.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) has made clear, whatever we are doing at the moment is not working. All of this stuff is still in prisons. It is far in excess of what should be tolerated, and we need to be much more robust in dealing with the problem. We talk about human rights, the rights of prisoners and all those kinds of things, but I am not entirely sure that my hon. Friend was right when he said that I would not want us to go back to a 19th-century prison regime, because I suspect that I probably would, particularly if it was much more robust than the one we have today. We talk about people’s human rights but, given that so many prisoners are on drugs while they are in prison and that so many of them take drugs for the first time while they are there, surely we should be looking after their best interests by doing much more to stop these things getting into prison in the first place. It cannot be beyond the will or the wit of the Government or the prison authorities to stop this taking place. That deals with how these things get into prison in the first place and I hope that the Government will take note.
The number of prosecutions of staff for conveying prohibited items into prison is, depressingly, very low. In the previous Parliament, David Howarth, the former Member for Cambridge, asked the Secretary of State for Justice
“how many prison staff were charged with disciplinary or criminal offences involving (a) importation of drugs, (b) importation of mobile telephones and (c) importation of other contraband to a prison in the most recent year for which figures are available.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 797W.]
The answer given was that two members of prison staff were disciplined for conveying drugs into prison, three for conveying mobile phones and five for other contraband, which is a total of 10. I am sure that nobody present believes that the number of materials that come in through that route is as low as that. We need to do much better.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked a similar question in March this year. He asked the Secretary of State for Justice
“how many prison officers were (a) accused of, (b) charged with, (c) prosecuted for and (d) convicted of smuggling drugs or other contraband into prisons in the most recent period for which figures are available.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 533W.]
In 2008, there were six convictions for drugs and none for any other form of contraband, but in many respects that was the high water mark for this particular issue. The figures given for this year to date—admittedly, the question was asked in March, so perhaps we should not be too unkind—show that only one prison officer has been convicted for smuggling drugs and only one for smuggling other contraband. We need to do much better than that.
On how widespread the problem is, I have given a flavour of the number of seizures that have been made. The director general of the Prison Service gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2000 in the aftermath of a large search at Blantyre House prison. He said that staff and other prisoners had helped with the search, and that he was very concerned about the
“frightening amount of contraband material we found”.
You might have spotted, Mr Deputy Speaker, that that is one of the prisons that has the lowest number of seizures at the moment. Either there has been a revolution in that prison and none of these things take place any more because of what happened back then, or the system of identifying and confiscating such things has again become too slack.
According to a newspaper report in April this year,
“a series of lightening raids on Britain’s toughest prisons”
in the north-west of England led to search squads seizing
“140 weapons, 1,760 pints of booze, 2,746 grams of cannabis, 113 grams of heroin and 41 grams of cocaine in a year-long crackdown which also uncovered 322 mobile phones, 201 SIM cards and 308 chargers.”
If those are the figures for raids in one part of the country, the figures for the whole country must be astonishing. According to the report,
“A total of 32 people were arrested over the finds which also included 503 seizures of steroids and 173 more of equipment used to make or take drugs.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey made a good point about the storage of these things. Let me reiterate that 322 mobile phones, 201 SIM cards and 308 chargers were seized. Do we really expect the prison authorities to set up a locker room somewhere, with each item neatly identified with the person who had it, so that we can hand it back on their release from prison? In effect, that is to say, “It’s absolutely fine that you had this thing. I’m sorry you got caught, old chap. Here, have it back. We have labelled it all properly.”
That may already be happening. Something that I have learned in my short time in Parliament is that all the things that one thinks could not possibly be happening are almost certainly happening somewhere. It would not be the greatest of surprises if that were happening. Even if it is not, perhaps on the back of my hon. Friend’s suggestion, it will start happening across the country. Any prison that refuses to take such messages will probably be taken to the European Court of Human Rights.
The search teams targeted 14 prisons across the north-west of England, so only 14 prisons generated that amount of contraband, including Liverpool, Preston, Garth, Kirkham, Risley, Haverigg and Styal women’s prison. The article goes on to say:
“The haul of hooch, made from fruit, bread, sugar and water, included 371 pints found before Christmas.”
Given that we know that there is a problem of that scale, we ought be doing more to tackle it. The Bill would be a useful tool because it would ensure that people know that if something is confiscated, it will not be returned to them.
I would like to emphasise what these things are used for. People usually use mobile phones to carry on criminal activity while they are in prison. The trade in drugs and other illegal activities continue in prison. We are, in effect, saying to people, “It is absolutely fine for you to carry on your illegal, criminal activity in prison. If we find your phone, don’t worry too much, because we will hand it back to you in the end with all the phone numbers still stored on it. You can have back the details of all your contacts and all the clients that you have been supplying to over recent years. We will give all that back to you, saved on the SIM card. That’s no problem.” How on earth are we to tackle drug crime if we are handing back to drug dealers their full contact lists on their mobile phones as soon as they leave prison? It honestly could not be made up, but that is what is happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey did not touch a great deal on how contraband is found, whether prisons need to get better at searching cells or whether the current system works well. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) kindly said that I visit a lot of prisons, and indeed I have visited prisons not just in the UK, although I have visited plenty of those, but abroad. To be fair, the problem of contraband exists in prisons around the world. It is not just a UK problem. It exists even in some of the most rigorous prison regimes in the world. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister a visit to the Florida state prison to see what a prison system is really like, but even Florida, with its much more robust approach—and much cheaper, but I will not get sidetracked down that line—has the same problem.
I do not know whether this is useful, but I visited a prison in Denmark, a notoriously liberal regime that hands condoms out to people who visit prisoners, locks them in a room for an hour and lets them do what they want. I do not commend that approach to the Minister. Visitors do not go through any search mechanism at all, but the prisoner is strip-searched both before and after they meet a visitor to ensure that no material is passed from one to another. That may be a suggestion for him to explore, as Denmark thinks it helps to prevent contraband material from getting into prisons in the first place.
I absolutely support my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey in his Bill, which makes sense to me and, I believe, to most people. It cannot be right that prisoners’ ill-gotten gains are returned to them when they should not have had them in the first place. We have had far too much focus in this country on the interests and rights of prisoners, and the Bill is just one way, albeit a small way, of redressing the balance. It will probably affect a small number of people, the vast majority of whom have committed crimes so serious that they have been sent to prison. That is no mean feat in itself in this country, because it takes a pretty good effort for someone to get themselves into prison these days. They have to be either an incredibly serious offender or a very persistent one. On top of that, the people in question will be those found to be in possession of illegal items while in prison, so they are the worst of the worst in the criminal fraternity. If their spoils can be sold for the greater good to raise money for good causes or victims of crime, as my hon. Friend suggested, or can be destroyed in the interests of safety and security, I am all for it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government certainly should be cutting taxes, but I fear that if we were to get into a ramble about the rate of taxation in this country you might rule me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As you know, I certainly do not want to stray from the narrow subject of the Bill.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey for introducing the Bill, which is important and long overdue. Most of my constituents would think that these measures were already in place. I hope that it makes swift progress through this House and the other place, and I am delighted to support it.
It is a pleasure to have the chance to speak about the Bill. Good private Members’ Bills are a bit like buses—we do not see one for ages, then we see two in a row. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who achieved a Second Reading of an excellent Bill on mental health, an issue that touches many of us personally or through our families, friends or constituents.
I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). I must give him a warning, though. He said in his short speech that he had been to a prison on one occasion, to HMP Leeds, and hoped that it was the only time that he would visit a prison. He is doing such a good job with the Bill that he may well be promoted to being a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, which would mean his visiting many prisons. However, I wish the Bill a safe passage. As you will gather, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Opposition support Second Reading of the Bill.
One can always tell when a non-lawyer has drafted legislation because it is simple and concise, and this Bill has only one clause. Perhaps a precedent has been set and future Bills will be drafted by non-lawyers for the purposes of simplicity. I suspect that many people—governors, officers, parliamentarians and others—will welcome the Bill because of the clarity it provides about the powers held by a governor or director. The aim of the legislation is clear and realistic. It will allow a governor of a prison, young offenders institution or secure training centre to
“destroy or otherwise dispose of”—
including by way of sale, which I will come on to—any unauthorised property found in prisons. Unauthorised property includes items that are unlawful to possess—hon. Members have already discussed controlled drugs and offensive weapons—as well as things such as mobile phones that, although not unlawful, could be used to threaten prison safety or security.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) was right. Many of us, even those who claim to be experts, were probably not aware that the powers in the Prison Act 1952 allow the confiscation of unauthorised property, but not its destruction. The thrust of the Bill is to rectify that situation. It has been argued that items can be stored in a prison for a certain period and returned to the prisoner on release, but the cost of that storage falls on the National Offender Management Service. That does not make sense, especially in the current environment.
Mobile phones are some of the items most commonly found in prisons. In his excellent speech the hon. Member for Pudsey provided examples of how mobile phones, which are obviously lawful outside prison, were used in prison for illicit purposes, and damaged the quality of life for those outside, including victims of crime. The hon. Gentleman also touched on the fact that, for obvious reasons, many mobile phones are not attributable to a particular person—a prisoner would not admit that a phone belonged to him or her, as that could lead to disciplinary action. It is therefore often not possible to return the phone to its “rightful” owner, and the Bill clarifies what should happen in such situations.
I want to address a couple of points raised by hon. Members during the debate, but I will keep my comments brief so that we can get the Bill through Second Reading. As is often the case, much to my embarrassment I agree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Shipley. He mentioned the need to redouble efforts to stop unauthorised items getting into prisons, and although he was right to make reference to that, such things also happened under the watch of the previous Government. Unlawful items getting into prison is not a new phenomenon. However, if we want to have closed visits or full body detectors, to carry out more searches—including intimate searches—of visitors, staff and prisoners, and give prisons the technology to stop mobile phones being used, which is expensive although not particularly difficult, we need investment and to spend resources on those things. If the hon. Gentleman argues for proper investment in order to use technology and other means to prevent illicit items from entering prison, the Opposition will support him.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) was Chair of the Public Affairs Committee, of which I was also a member, and I have huge respect for him. He made a couple of interesting interventions, one of which was a word of caution about seeking to extend the power of the state and deprive prisoners of more of their rights. Instructions from the Ministry of Justice, however, are clear: prisoners are allowed to possess sufficient property to allow them
“to lead as normal and individual an existence as possible within the constraints of the prison environment.”
Therefore, the hon. Member for Pudsey was speaking about unauthorised property, rather than property that would normally be allowed as conducive to a prisoner having a life inside prison.
I have a couple of short questions. I do not need the answers today, but it might be worth the hon. Gentleman and the Minister considering them in Committee. The first question comes from the instructions given to prison governors—I have been sent a copy—which are quite clear that
“the Governor is authorised to permanently confiscate the item and to subsequently arrange for its safe and proper destruction. In these instances where appropriate the relevant property card needs to be updated accordingly.”
It seems that instructions exist. In Committee, will the hon. Gentleman and the Minister say whether the Bill intends to clarify the position to avoid, for example, civil action or compensation claims made by prisoners?
The second question worth discussing—if not today, then in Committee—is whether the Bill will close concerns expressed in relation to the case of Coleman. The Minister might have had a chance consider that this week, but if he has not, he could save it for the Committee. My understanding is that a couple of changes have impacted on the way in which governors handle prisoners’ property in the light of the High Court ruling in the case of Coleman in 2009. Governors have been told that they do not have a general power to confiscate permanently or destroy a prisoner’s property. I appreciate the Minister will not be able to answer now, but will the Bill address that concern, which has been expressed by governors, prison officers and lawful citizens outside prison?
Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber raised the important question of what happens to unauthorised property when it is sold. Will we encourage governors to give the proceeds to Victim Support or to the families of victims, as the hon. Member for Pudsey suggests? It might be worth considering in Committee whether there is an appetite for ring-fencing the proceeds of sales when disposing of unauthorised property.
I do not want to detain the House any longer than I need to, because I am keen to get the Bill through. I conclude by saying two things. First, I again welcome the Minister to his position. I doubt whether he will take another Bill through the House that will involve such a consensual approach from the Opposition. I ask him please not to expect that in relation to other Bills he leads on—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Shipley supports the Government on this Bill, which is also infrequent.
My second comment is that it is rare that a Member comes towards the top of the private Member’s Bill ballot and introduces a Bill that has cross-party support and common sense. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey on choosing the Bill and on the importance he attaches to the victims of crime, including his constituents.
I shall be brief, because the Bill is short and because the context has been well set out by hon. Members.
On the scourge of mobile telephones, these phones are very often used as a communal resource by prisoners. They will obtain SIM cards, which, as hon. Members know, are very small and are sadly brought into prison very easily. The SIM cards are then inserted into a communal phone secreted in a cell, which will be accessible to prisoners during free association time, which is during the day. Of course, I am talking about category A to C prisons rather than open prisons. During the evenings, when there is a lockdown, if the phone is wanted, it can be swung on a piece of cloth out of the cell window to an adjoining cell or to a lower floor. That is what is happening in our prisons currently.
We know about wing phones, but the communal wing mobile phone has been with us for far too long. Although the Bill cannot deal with the problem of getting phones and items into prison—nobody is pretending it can—I believe it gives another resource to the prison authorities to deal effectively with contraband items when they are found.
I should like to raise two points on the Bill, the first of which is on the definition of “prisoner”. I see no definitional clause on whether the definition covers remand prisoners. There are two types of prisoner: convicted prisoners who are serving a sentence, or who have been convicted after a trial or pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentence, and remand prisoners who have not yet been dealt with by the court or convicted of anything. So some clarification of the term “prisoner” would be helpful, although it might well be that the Interpretation Act 1978 covers the definition and that the extra clause is not needed. I would be grateful, however, if my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and my hon. Friend the Minister could deal with that question.
Secondly—this might not be a matter for prison legislation or rules—there is another category of custodial area: the cell area of a court building, where a prisoner will be detained either while awaiting their court hearing or during the day in court. I understand that the prison legislation and rules probably would not apply to a court building, but I seek some clarification and reassurance from my hon. Friends on the arrangements for dealing with unauthorised articles found in the possession of prisoners in the retaining or custody area of a court building.
I see that the prison escort vehicle is covered. That, of course, is within the jurisdiction of the governor and the prison rules.
My hon. Friend is right to raise a potential issue about the distinction between remand prisoners and those who have been dealt with and convicted. It is important that we uphold the rights of remand prisoners. They have not been convicted of an offence, but are awaiting the resolution of the allegation against them, so their rights have to be respected. Nevertheless, withholding the right to bail has its consequences. When people are held on remand in custody, they must surrender their personal effects. The authorities will collect those items in the custody area of the court, bag them up, and record and retain them in the normal way.
The Bill deals with the position of unauthorised articles where there is no reasonable explanation or excuse for them to be held.
I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying about remand prisoners. Would he be concerned if the law allowed for the destruction of something found in the possession of a remand prisoner that was legal but unauthorised, in the event that he was then found not guilty?
That is the point, and a very important one too, and yes it would concern me. Therefore, the question of the destruction of an item properly taken from a remand prisoner should not be resolved until the status of that remand prisoner has been dealt with by the court.
I am slightly concerned by the direction that my hon. Friend is going in. If a remand prisoner is not allowed a mobile phone in prison, but we do not threaten the same destruction, it might encourage other prisoners to target remand prisoners to help them with their criminal activity. If somebody is not allowed a phone in prison, it should not matter whether they are a remand prisoner or not. The solution is in their own hands: do not have a phone in prison.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am referring to the specific power to destroy the phone, rather than to confiscate it. I entirely support moves to confiscate contraband from prisoners, whether they be on remand or convicted. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made concerned the question of destruction, and I think he was right to make it. If we are to respect the rights of people not convicted of any criminal offence, issues of destruction should await the resolution of the case.
I want to press my hon. Friend on this point. Many people on remand are on remand for very short periods. The loss of their mobile phone for a day or so will not be much of a punishment at all, but they might be deterred from engaging in any other criminal activity within the prison, if they know that their phone will be destroyed.
I hear what my hon. Friend says; I do not agree with him. I think the mischief is cured by the confiscation of the telephone. At the same time, we can balance that with respect for the rights of people who are acquitted of the offence they are facing.
I do not want to detain the House unduly. I hope that I have illustrated two legitimate questions that should be answered during the passage of the Bill, which I fully support, and I am grateful for the House’s indulgence.
(Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who is clearly very knowledgeable about such matters. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing his place in the private Members’ ballot and on introducing this Bill.
I have a particular interest in this subject because HMP Woodhill—one of the eight national high-security prisons holding category A prisoners—is in my constituency. Next door to the prison is Oakhill secure training centre, which I understand would also be covered by the Bill. I had the privilege of visiting both establishments—like other hon. Members, I was let out at the end of my visit—and I was impressed by the commitment of both to prisoner rehabilitation. It is also appropriate to put on record my appreciation of everything that the staff in such establishments do, in what can be very challenging circumstances. It is incumbent on us as legislators to ensure that they have the full range of powers at their disposal, so that they can perform their roles with minimal interference.
Although rehabilitation must be one goal of the criminal justice system, its primary role is to protect the public from people who pose a threat to the safety and security of others. I was quite frankly appalled by some of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey read out of prisoners being able to organise crimes and intimidate victims and their families while inside. That is clearly ridiculous, so I certainly support the Bill, which will remove the loophole that allows prisoners to retain or claim back mobile phones or other equipment that enabled them to continue committing such crimes.
In preparing for this debate I contacted the Prison Officers Association to get its perspective. The POA certainly supports the Bill, as my hon. Friend said, but if the House will indulge me I would like to read a short statement by the POA that highlights the need for the Bill:
“The loophole does create operational difficulties for staff. It also has the potential to lead to compensation claims from offenders and has hidden costs as staff have to record, store and preserve contraband, for years in some cases. We would also point out the frustration this can cause to staff who work hard trying to prevent contraband entering our prisons and when they do find it and confiscate it offenders take great pleasure forcing them to store it in their private property.”
That is a succinct reason the Bill is so essential, and I wish it speedy passage through the House.
In preparing for the debate I also contacted the governor and deputy governor of HMP Woodhill to try to ascertain the scale of the problem there. Although the number of confiscated phones at Woodhill is comparatively low—my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) did not refer to it, but I think we are at the single-digit end of his table—that has a lot to do with Woodhill’s success at seizing mobile phones and the like in advance of prisoners going in. Therefore, the number of phones confiscated while prisoners are there is comparatively small. However, I appreciate that the picture is mixed, and I was quite concerned to hear that the figure runs into the hundreds at Pentonville and other prisons.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, typically, he is on the ball when it comes to what is going on in his constituency. According to the table that I have here, there were 11 seizures of mobile phones in Woodhill. More troublingly, however, the table also shows that there were no seizures of any drugs whatever between September last year and August this year. Perhaps my hon. Friend could use his next visit to gain a better understanding from the prison governor of why that was the case? Is it perhaps being claimed that the prison is totally drug free?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He gives me a good reason to revisit Woodhill. I was impressed by the facility; it is a modern prison with advanced security procedures, and I am hoping that that is the reason for the low number of seizures. Perhaps the design of a prison is a factor in this regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has visited Leeds, which is a Victorian establishment. It is possible that the geography of the prison estate has some bearing on this. The key point is that there is a mixed picture, and it has been acknowledged that a credible problem exists. It is essential that we remove the loophole.
I also want to make a few points on matters that have been raised in the debate today. In an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend, I asked about the definition that would be used when ascertaining the ownership of property. I reiterate that the Bill needs to be absolutely clear, so that we do not inadvertently create another loophole. This is a matter that can be dealt with in Committee. It would be perverse if we were to create a loophole in a Bill that has been designed to close one.
In that regard, it might be instructive to look at the situation north of the border. Quite rightly, the territorial extent of the Bill covers only England and Wales, as Scotland has a separate criminal justice system. New guidelines were published in a statutory instrument last year—the Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Rules 2011. They contain an extensive description of what happens to prisoners’ property in these circumstances. Not all aspects of devolution are beneficial, but one positive one is that, when there are different models operating, we can look at the experiences of other parts of the United Kingdom and learn lessons from them.
Other hon. Members have talked about what should be done with confiscated property and how it should be disposed of. The general view was that it should be sold on, but it will be interesting to debate whether the proceeds should be used to reduce the general burden of taxation, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) suggested, or to provide monetary reparation to victims and their families. That debate should be held at a later stage, however.
I reiterate the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that many charities here and in developing countries can put mobile phones to constructive use. I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) to have a think about how we could effectively use property that is to be disposed of under the provisions.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has just said. There will be some very good prison governors who will dispose of those items in the way he suggests, but there will be others who might be too busy or who perhaps do not realise that the option exists. Those governors could continue to leave confiscated property sitting in their storerooms, or simply destroy it, without ever taking advantage of some of the innovative ideas that are being put forward. If the hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to be chosen to serve on the Committee, will he suggest to the Minister some ways of encouraging the less good governors to do these things?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for that suggestion. I think that I have just been volunteered to serve on the Committee. He makes a good point.
The last thing I would want is to add to the administrative burden of governors, who are incredibly busy people working in a very challenging environment, but this is perhaps a discussion we could have with the relevant charities to see how it might operate in practice. It is certainly an idea worthy of further consideration.
Despite those few questions and concerns about the Bill, I very much hope it gets its Second Reading today. It is an important measure. It is simple, but the very straightforward Bills are often the most effective. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey again on his good fortune in securing this debate, and I wish his Bill Godspeed in its later stages.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on doing so well in the lottery to get a private Member’s Bill so high up the list; perhaps he should participate in other lotteries and then have millions to spend on good causes.
I also want to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), on his promotion. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate to which I know he will reply. I am grateful to him for asking me to speak on Disraeli earlier this year. It was a great pleasure, but I shall not talk about the late Earl of Beaconsfield today.
With this Bill, I want to go back to first principles. As a House, we should always be careful when we do anything that undermines the rights of property. The foundation of our state is the right of property—the right of people to enjoy the property they legitimately own. We can go back to the Magna Carta of 1215 when it comes to the right of people not to have their property taken away without proper process.
It is very easy, in looking at prisoners, to say that they have given up all their rights, so they do not have this right either. It is a very tempting argument and in some respects it is true. It is justly part of the punishment that some of prisoners’ rights are taken away. In my view, it is right for them to lose the ability to vote in general elections. It is a right that they have lost, by the will of Parliament, and it should remain lost to them. It gets more complicated, however, when it comes to things that they are sometimes allowed to have and sometimes not allowed to have. What we do not want is a prison regime that is fundamentally arbitrary, in which a prison governor can decide that he will allow a prisoner to have a mobile telephone at one moment, but then change his mind the next moment because the right circumstances have not been met. It is, I believe, the case that many people in prison are not as educationally advanced as many people in the House of Commons, so they might not fully understand the regulations that apply to them or be able to cope with the differentiations that might apply.
As a starting-point—here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh)—I believe that we should always be enormously careful about extending the powers of the state to do something, and we should be particularly careful where there is cross-party support. In that case, there is often a popular view that it is right to do something and people find it very hard to object to it, but that is because they have forgotten the first principle that they should have borne in mind at the beginning of the process. My starting point, then, is general suspicion of extending the powers of the state and general suspicion of undermining the rights of property.
There is, of course, an exception. Going right back to the Magna Carta again, people’s property can be taken away if a proper process is involved, if the system allows it to be taken away and if the approach is fundamentally just and proportionate. To quote the Magna Carta, it says that “no free man” shall have certain penalties applied—and, of course, by their very definition, prisoners are not free men; that is the whole point of them being in prison. The definition of a free man in the Magna Carta is, of course, completely separate from our modern understanding, but I think a brief foray into the feudal system would be unhelpful on this occasion. Here, it is perhaps more interesting to look at the language literally rather than to apply a mediaeval interpretation of “a free man”. The limitation on the protection of property is that it is the protection of the property of a free man, and for many centuries the state has taken upon itself the right—to some extent, the obligation—to take away property from people as a form of penalty for their misbehaviour.
We then come to the question of whether the penalty is appropriate and suitable or unduly harsh in relation to what the prisoner has done. There are some categories where it will be incredibly easy to determine that. As we have already established, something that is a criminal item of itself can be taken by the police—although that is a different procedure—and destroyed by them. Fortunately, it will not be the case that a prisoner who is found with a stash of heroin on him will get it back at the end of his sentence, only to be arrested by the police and have it taken off him again. That would create a bureaucratic muddle. Of course, it would not necessarily be heroin—it could be any number of other illegal substances—but because some Members probably know more about illegal substances than I do, I shall stick to heroin for the time being.
Then there is the question of armaments. Some of us remember the break-out from Brixton prison when Lord Baker, I believe, was Home Secretary. Some IRA prisoners smuggled in a gun in the false bottom of a shoe. Had it been found, as it should have been, it would have been confiscated and undoubtedly not returned. However, there are grey areas. What if a prisoner has a replica gun? Replicas may be legal in the outside world, but they are obviously not encouraged in prison because they cause a certain amount of confusion, especially if they are good replicas. Prison officers would fear that a good replica might be a real gun. You would have to be a brave soul—and I know that you are a brave soul, Mr Deputy Speaker—to be certain that a replica gun was genuinely a replica, and would not actually fire. Although replica guns can currently be confiscated, it seems to me quite sensible to destroy them as well.
I thought that a replica gun might not be of enormous value, and that it might therefore be easier to destroy it. Let us, however, take the example of a set of 18th-century duelling pistols. I do not know whether those crop up frequently in prisons, but they might. They are not very effective, the gunpowder that is required for them has got a bit damp and the flint does not work perfectly, so they are not necessarily enormously dangerous items, and they are legal to hold in the outside world. My hon. Friend is right, however: if these were found—
When it comes to issues of this kind, I am the ultimate Treasury stooge. I am very much against hypothecation of any kind, ever. It is a fundamentally bad principle for a Government to have. All spending should come out of the Consolidated Fund, and all money should go into the Consolidated Fund. That is why it is consolidated, after all. If things are put into specific pots, people sometimes find that they have more money in a pot than is actually necessary. If items are confiscated and then sold, the money should go to the Treasury.
There is another reason, which is always important. You may be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that some local authorities have been accused of ramping up parking fines just so that they have more money to spend on other things. A process that falls hard on the subject is used to raise revenue in a way that was never intended. If the money went to the prison, or to certain areas within the prison, or to a cause that the governor particularly liked, it might give governors a false incentive to be particularly harsh in deciding what to confiscate. Such an incentive would be removed altogether if it were ensured that the money went into the Consolidated Fund. As I have said, in this respect I am very much the Treasury stooge.
Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that it may be difficult to identify what is contraband in a prison cell and what is not? For example, a member of the public may well go into a prison cell, observe the prisoner enjoying Sky TV and assume that it must be contraband—that the prisoner must have smuggled Sky TV in—only to find that the prison authorities have actually allowed 4,070 prisoners to have Sky TV in their cells.
As always, my hon. Friend comes up with a shocking statistic, but the situation he described was, perhaps, even more worrying: members of the public being able to wander into prisons and look into prisoners’ cells. If prisons are really like that, we face a more fundamental problem. Prisons should be good at keeping people in, but they also ought to keep some people out, and I would have thought that members of the general public should not be waltzing in and out of prisons. Having said that, I agree with my hon. Friend’s general point.
The nub of my concern, however, is that there needs to be clarity, because we do not want to have circumstances in which, for instance, a new governor is appointed and he decides to have a new rule on what is, and what is not, allowed. That would lead to prisoners being uncertain about the rules. The new governor may think Sky TV ought to be banned. He may be left-wing and not like Mr Murdoch and therefore think anything to do with him should be banned, so he may decide to remove Sky TV and only allow people to watch the BBC. If that were the case, that would be a very fair uncertainty for the prisoner, however.
My hon. Friend and I hold many similar views, but although I, too, believe prison ought to be a reasonably robust experience, I do not go all the way with him and say prisoners should be denied all rights. They ought to have a basic understanding of the general rule of law that allows them to live by a code that is set and certain, so they know from day to day what the situation will be and what they will be allowed to do.
I am keen to follow on from a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). I should say first, however, that North East Somerset is looking forward to hearing from him this evening, and I hope he will speak for a little longer in North East Somerset because people have paid for their supper and they shall want a good after-dinner speech—and I am sure they will get one. He talked about remand, and the remand issue is fundamental to my understanding of how our criminal justice system works. People are innocent until proved guilty. The state has decided to remand them because it is nervous that they may escape or it deems them to be dangerous. The state is often wrong about their guilt, however, and people on remand frequently turn out to be innocent of any offence, and are sometimes able to leave court without a stain on their character. It is important to remember that, and to treat people on remand differently. I am not sure that the Bill does that at present. I hope it will be amended in Committee to ensure that there is no injustice to those on remand.
It is a fundamental principle of our justice system that people are innocent until proven guilty. That is often forgotten in respect of people on remand. Because they are in prison, the establishment deems they must have done something wrong. That is deeply unsatisfactory. They are as innocent as any other citizen in the land until the court has ruled and found them guilty. Therefore, to deny them things, or to destroy things that they could legitimately hold if they had not been remanded, is unreasonable. If they are not guilty—and many of them will not be guilty—they should not in normal circumstances be denied the right to use, or to have, a mobile telephone. Just because they have had the misfortune to be charged with an offence does not mean they should be punished for breaching a regulation that in ordinary life would never fall upon them.
I have great confidence in the police, but we know from events earlier this week that the police are not invariably impartial in the way they charge people or in the information they put forward. We cannot put so much trust in the state that we allow unreasonable punishments to fall on those on remand beyond that which they have already suffered—their loss of liberty. They are innocent until they have been through a proper court process.
I want to associate myself with some comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). He discussed at modest length—indeed, extreme brevity by his standards—the question of how things get into prison in the first place. He kept on talking about nets being put up. I thought the prisoners might be practising cricket, but it turns out that is not the case; the nets are there to catch contraband being thrown over. We must surely have a Prison Service that is more effective in stopping items getting into prison in the first place, whether they are mobile phones, drugs or other items that are not allowed.
How would that be done? I listened carefully to the shadow Secretary of State, who said quite rightly that some of the items might cost money. However—this is an argument one must treat with care—this might be one of those occasions when we could spend to save, because stopping such items getting in could reduce the drug problem in prisons and the ability to run a criminal enterprise, which one hears about. There is the image from “The Italian Job” in which a Mr Big character, played rather resplendently by Noël Coward, is still running his criminal enterprise from prison, and standing regularly for the national anthem, as all true-born UK subjects ought always to do. The idea that a criminal gang can still be run from prison by a Mr Big is one that I thought had passed out, but we find it is happening because illicit mobile phones have been smuggled in. Therefore, if we spent some money trying to stop these items getting into prisons in the first place, we might reduce the overall level of crime and so bring savings to the whole country. We would be cutting off some of the top people organising it.
I cannot finish my brief comments without talking about some of the items that might be taken into prison and can now sensibly be confiscated, rather than stored. One always expects that the first thing smuggled into prison is a cake, because a file can always be hidden in it so that the prisoner can eat the cake and use the file to saw through the bars. It would be a great relief to the cake makers of Britain that their efforts will no longer go to waste, because the prison officers who confiscate a cake because it has a file in it will now be able to eat it, rather than having to store it until the end of the sentence, by which time one has a nasty feeling the cake may have become rather stale, and therefore there would have been no point in preserving it and the file would not have been put to use to aid escape.
There is a serious point in that. Innocent items can be used for illicit activities. Things could be smuggled into prison that look completely innocuous by themselves but could be used as drugs paraphernalia or for the production of alcohol. We do not want to have a system in which those things are returned so that they can be used again, either inside or outside prison. We want to ensure that items that can be used illicitly, even if they look innocent, can be taken away and destroyed by the prison authorities.
When we look at the proposals overall, I think that we can be comfortable that there is the reasonable balance between the rights of property and the punishment of the individuals. I think that it is reasonable to say that the individuals have sacrificed sufficient of their liberty that goods that they should not possess can be taken away and destroyed. We have to be confident that this will be a fair, rational and non-arbitrary process. I note that the Bill provides for the Ministry to give guidance that prison governors would have to follow, which is very important, because this is not an area for localism. It would be very unfair on prisoners who might move prison or have a change of governor to find that the regime had suddenly ended and become more arbitrary.
The Bill does not tackle the concern about things getting into prison in the first place and, in that context, this House and the Ministry should not think that, by passing an Act of Parliament, we have solved the problem, because the truth will be something like the reverse. This is merely an indication of a deeper, underlying malaise that is being tackled; it does not deal with the fundamental problem that a little netting will not solve. I will not talk about body searches. I can think only that people might take in little pieces of gold in their false teeth to be used as currency, but other things can be done, and one does not wish to dwell on them in this House, or indeed anywhere else for that matter.
It is important for us to recognise that the Bill is a palliative rather than a cure; it tries to deal with a problem that needs a separate answer. However, on balance it is a decent, sensible and prudent piece of legislation, which will go well with the legislation that we will be considering to enable the blocking of mobile telephone signals in prisons.
That combination of legislation may enable us to sleep a little more securely in our beds, knowing that malefactors are safely locked up, incarcerated and put away and that they cannot come out easily, or get their minions to threaten us, because they do not have the necessary communications. We will know that the drugs problem will be reduced because not only the drugs themselves but the associated paraphernalia will be taken away. Furthermore, prisoners will not have their cakes, either.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who gave this matter some historical context while putting forward cogent arguments against the hypothecation of taxes, which I am sure will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. He also highlighted the one area where there is a difficulty with the central thrust of the Bill: the impact on prisoners held on remand. There is a debate to be had on how we deal with that category of prisoner.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for bringing the Bill before us and I congratulate him on his success in the private Members’ Bills ballot. He was not, in fact, all that near the top of the ballot; some outside the House may think that he came just after my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who presented the previous private Member’s Bill, but I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey was 11th out of the hat. It is a great testament to him that he has persevered and not given up.
The situation is somewhat unusual in that we are in the happy position—I hope—of being able to shepherd not one but two private Members’ Bills through the House in a single Friday sitting. That may be approaching a record, even if it does not actually break one. I do not want to take up all the time available because I want to hear from the Minister, who I am sure will give the Bill the Government’s blessing.
Many of my constituents will be surprised that the loophole that the Bill addresses exists at all. They will be amazed that contraband seized from prisoners has to be given back at the end of their sentences, but such is the state of the law at the moment. The Bill proposes to change the law so that smuggled items, whether mobile phones or other things, that are confiscated do not have to be returned to inmates on release.
The items come in different categories. In its “Conveyance and Possession of Prohibited Items and Other Related Offences” document, the National Offender Management Service helpfully categorises items according to seriousness of offence. List A items are drugs, explosives, firearms or ammunition, or any other offensive weapon. I think we can all be satisfied that those are rightly put into the most serious category. List B items are things such as alcohol, mobile telephones, cameras and sound recording devices, or the constituent parts of those items, such as SIM cards, mobile phone chargers and so on, as well as other computer-related equipment such as discs, data sticks and memory cards. List C consists of things such as tobacco, money, clothing, food and drink, letters, papers, books, and tools.
These items are not always smuggled in in the ways that we have heard about so far—brought in by visitors, by the prisoners themselves, or sometimes, sadly, through the corruption of prison officers. Back in 2006, the director general of the Prison Service, Mr Phil Wheatley, gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, in the course of which he explained that in spite of all the security that prison authorities put in at the entry to prisons, there is sometimes little they can do to prevent items from getting into the prison. He gave an example:
“one of the things we found recently was a dead pigeon”.
One might think, “A dead pigeon—there’s nothing unusual about that, it’s just fallen out of the sky,” but in fact it was, he said, “stuffed full of contraband.” That demonstrates the resourcefulness and ingenuity that is sometimes used in getting contraband into our prisons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, the way to deal with the problem of things being thrown over the walls may be to extend coverings over open areas and put in netting. The first thing to do is to make it more difficult for these illegal items to get into prisons in the first place. As he observed, it is a problem not only in this country but throughout the world.
Once these items find their way into our penal establishments, the problem then arises of what to do with them when they are confiscated. I am concerned about the cost of this to the public purse. My hon. Friend commented on reports in the newspapers earlier this year about the lightning raids that were made on some of Britain’s prisons in the north-west of England, when hundreds of items were seized, including 322 mobile phones, 201 SIM cards and 308 chargers, leaving aside the 371 pints of hooch. I hope that the illicit alcohol was thrown away, but all those mobile phones, chargers and SIM cards would have needed to be stored somewhere. At a time when, as we all accept, public resources are extremely scarce, it cannot be right that NOMS is put to the trouble of having to retain these items indefinitely.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) enlightened us on one of the problems—I had not come across it before—namely communal wing mobile phones. The difficulty with such phones is that no one owns up to their ownership, so it is impossible to find out to whom that item should be returned.
Notwithstanding the views of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset on the hypothecation of taxes, I think the public would appreciate the justice of the situation if the proceeds from the sale of confiscated items, perhaps as a result of an auction, went towards the victims of crime and a charity that looks after them. I appreciate his point that we might reach the happy state of affairs whereby there is so much money in the fund that we will not know what to do with it, but I hope that our efforts to cut down on the amount of contraband will mean that there is less of it about and less of it to sell, so perhaps the fund will not have a surfeit of money after all.
I hope that one of the Bill’s consequences will be fewer mobile phones entering prisons. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey mentioned the fact that nowadays mobile phones are much more than a means of communication. In fact, I would go as far as saying that they are, in all manner and means, mini-computers. They do much more than simply transmit messages. As he said, they often have recording devices and can record videos and take photographs. They are of great value, and if they were confiscated they could raise a considerable amount of money for the public purse, regardless of what we decide to do with it.
Another way that I would like us to clamp down on contraband—this is my own pet scheme—is by increasing the sentence. If a prisoner is found to have arranged for contraband to be brought in, increasing their sentence would, I think, be met with widespread public approval.
I want to deal with a specific point and hope that the Minister will touch on it. Clause 2(2) provides that the operative clause, clause 1, should not come into force until such day as the Secretary of State may order it by statutory instrument. Since my arrival in this place, I have discovered that, sadly, dozens of Acts of Parliament and sections of Acts of Parliaments, having passed through all the procedures of this House and the other place, sit on the statute book without ever being brought into force. When I read clause 2(2), it set alarm bells ringing. I sincerely hope that the Bill does not become one of those pieces of legislation. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House, notwithstanding clause 2(2), that an appropriate statutory instrument will be brought forward at the earliest opportunity, so that this valuable Bill can be brought into force as soon as possible.
In conclusion, I support the Bill entirely. I think that it will make sense to most people outside the House. It cannot be right that prisoners’ ill-gotten gains are returned to them, because they should never have had them in the first place. Many people, both inside and outside this House, feel that far too much time and attention is paid to the interests of prisoners. The Bill will go a small way towards redressing the balance. It will affect only a small number of people, because the vast majority of people in this country will never be in prison. However, it sends out the message that we are on the side of the victim of crime, not on the side of those who choose, of their own free will, to break the law. If the spoils of prisoners’ activities can be sold for the greater good, so much the better. I am delighted to support the Bill, I wish it well in Committee and I hope that it receives a Second Reading. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to welcome the mood of general consensus, which was referred to by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I accept his advice not to get used to it, certainly as far as those on the Opposition Front Bench are concerned, but I will enjoy it while it lasts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on the Bill that he has brought forward and on his success in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) have made it clear that when one is successful in that ballot, one is never short of suggestions as to what one should do. I am sure the House will agree that both my hon. Friends have chosen well. In presenting the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has provided the opportunity for a wide-ranging debate around its content. I will refer to some of the contributions that have been made by hon. Members in the course of that debate.
I will begin with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who can never resist the temptation to speak in a debate with “prisons” in the title, and did not today. I am pleased to hear that he is happy with the comprehensive nature of the replies that he gets from the Ministry of Justice, even if, as I suspect, he is not quite so happy with the content.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said that we should do all that we can to prevent the arrival of illicit items in prisons in the first place. I agree with him entirely about that. He referred to several of the causes, one of which, regrettably, is that members of prison staff assist in the bringing in of illicit items. He will accept that it is only a very small minority of prison staff who do that. I think it is right for me to say, as this is my first opportunity to do so as Minister with responsibility for prisons, that those who work in our prisons, whatever they do, have a difficult and challenging job, and almost all of them do it extraordinarily well. We all have good reason to be grateful to them. The Bill will help them to do their job. For that reason, the Government are in favour of it and hope that it succeeds.
The right hon. Member for Tooting rightly referred to the Coleman case, and I can reassure him that the Bill addresses the problems that it raised. Of course, from some time ago until 2009, when that case was decided, prison governors routinely destroyed property as we hope they will now be able to do again.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) raised a number of matters, and I am sure that some of them will be discussed at greater length in Committee. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) were concerned about the interests of remand prisoners. Of course, the items of property that the Bill will cover are not the ones that prisoners, remand or otherwise, properly disclose to the prison when they arrive. Those items are held for them and returned to them when they leave prison, whether following a not guilty verdict after a period of remand or following a sentence served. The items of property covered by the Bill are those that are not properly declared but are held illicitly while someone is in prison. In those circumstances, it seems to me entirely appropriate that the Bill should apply to remand prisoners just as it will to sentenced prisoners.
My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) both made perfectly sensible points about the details and definitions in the Bill, what we can learn from the experience of Scottish prisons, which is a valid point, and what we might do with items that have been confiscated. That will be for individual prison governors to determine, but I am sure we will want them to consider all the excellent options that have been spoken about in the debate.
I turn to the precise contents of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey explained, it would enable prison governors and directors to confiscate and then destroy, dispose of or sell property that prisoners have in their possession that they should not have. We have talked about what those items might include, such as illicit drugs; items that can threaten prison security and good order, such as mobile phones, which are unlawful to possess in prison; unauthorised items that have been adapted to conceal illicit items; and items that have been smuggled into the prison by various means.
Of course, it is right that all prisoners’ property needs to be managed efficiently, effectively and with care, and that maintaining a prison’s security and good order is paramount. Prisoners have access to certain property legitimately, and as I have said, some items of property will continue to be held for them by the prison if they are checked in appropriately when a prisoner arrives.
My hon. Friend mentioned his visit to Leeds prison. I am glad that he enjoyed it and even more glad that they let him out at the end. What he said about that prison was important. As I understand it, the arrangement is that on arrival, prisoners are provided with detailed information about which items of property they can retain in their possession. That information is displayed across the prison, including in the residential units and the library. Prisoners in that prison, and I hope across the estate, should therefore be in no doubt at all about what they are and are not allowed to possess.
I do not have time to go into the position of stored property now, but I am sure we can discuss it further in Committee if we need to. Of course, the Bill covers items of property that a prisoner should not have, which are either illicit by their nature or not recorded on a prisoner’s property card. We have talked a great deal about mobile phones, and there are obvious reasons why they should not be allowed in prison. It is a criminal offence to have a mobile phone while in prison, because they can be used for a variety of illegal purposes, such as those about which Members have spoken.
The current arrangement for dealing with unauthorised property is that when it is discovered, it is confiscated unless it noxious, in which case it is destroyed, or something such as an offensive weapon or controlled drug, which is passed to the police. As we have discussed, other items may be confiscated only temporarily. The consequence of that limitation is that 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 an item to be returned, the prison must return it, and as hon. Members have said, that cannot be right. The Government hope that the legislation will improve the situation relating to the 2009 case to which I referred.
Hon. Members have referred to the variety of uses that prisoners make of illicit mobile phones, and discussed what can be done about Facebook and the intimidation of witnesses by those using mobile phones and other similar devices. Such devices can, of course, be used to store images and recordings of the prison, which can undermine security by facilitating escapes or the smuggling of additional unauthorised items.
Reference has been made to the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and it is important to look at that in the context of other measures that we can take to restrict the flow of illegal items into prison, and to confiscate items and destroy or dispose of them. Where we can do neither of those things—this relates to my hon. Friend’s Bill—we should at least try to restrict and hopefully prevent the use of mobile phones in prison.
Let us look again at the problems that prisons face when storing confiscated items. The confiscated mobile phones must, of course, be kept somewhere, and hon. Members have spoken a little about where such items could be stored. Currently, those phones are in a central storage facility, and they will remain there unless and until the prisoner reclaims them on release, which in reality, very few do. In 2011, only 112 mobile phones were reclaimed from a total 41,000 currently being stored. Only 49% of those phones are attributable to specific prisoners, and the rest cannot be returned to a released prisoner. The cost of storing those phones is in the region of £20,000 a year, and around 800 are seized every month.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made a point about the public purse and he is right to be concerned. Whatever happens to those phones after they have been confiscated, the state will save considerable money in storage costs if we proceed along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. The Government therefore welcome the creation of a statutory power that will enable the governor or director of a prison to
“destroy or otherwise dispose of”
unauthorised property found in the possession of a prisoner. As such items can be obtained while the prisoner is in transit between prisons, or between prisons and courts, we also welcome the application of the power to prisoner escort vehicles as well as for property confiscated within a prison. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon raised a point about custody areas in courts, and I am sure we can return to that matter in Committee.
All hon. Members who have spoken will agree that the current situation is unacceptable, and the Bill is a good way of supplementing the Offender Management Act 2007 and the Crime and Security Act 2010, which introduced measures to reduce the smuggling of mobile phones into prisons, and made it a criminal offence to possess a phone in prison. There will be safeguards, and I am conscious of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset about the right of property and how that should not be infringed without good reason and due process. We will consider that issue, and put measures in place to ensure that prisoners have the right to make representations about their property, and to appeal decisions.
As hon. Members have said, we are discussing property that should not be in prison in the first place and that is used for a variety of nefarious purposes. We should do anything we can to prevent that and the Bill makes a significant contribution to that task. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it a safe passage through this House and the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).