I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am sure that many Members have already noticed that the Bill is in not my name, but that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey). It is a huge honour to take over the Bill from my right hon. Friend following her recent and richly deserved promotion to the Government. I am very grateful to her for having brought this important Bill before the House and for entrusting its further safe passage to me.
The purpose of the Bill is to make our prisons safer and more secure. It would amend the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012, which was guided through Parliament and brought to the statute book by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I am very happy to have an opportunity to build on his previous work.
Let me start with the problem that the Bill is intended to tackle: the presence of mobile phones in our prisons. These illicit phones cause significant harm both inside and outside our prisons, where they are used to co-ordinate the smuggling of drugs and other contraband. Mobile phones are key enablers of the illicit economy in our prisons, which drives a significant amount of violence and self-harm. They also have an impact outside the prison walls. They can often be used to harass victims and witnesses, or to run organised crime gangs outside prison. The high price that mobile phones command in our prisons funds the organised criminals who supply them to carry out other illegal activities.
The 2012 Act recognised the significance of the threat and provided the Secretary of State with the power to authorise governors to interfere with wireless telegraphy in their prisons. Using this authority, governors are currently empowered to carry out interference to prevent, detect or investigate the use of devices capable of transmitting or receiving images, sounds or information by electronic communication such as mobile phones.
Despite the authority provided in the 2012 Act and the considerable use that has been made of its powers, mobile phones continue to cause real and severe problems in prisons throughout the country. In particular, prisons continue to face the challenges posed by the increasing availability of mobile devices. Although governors have been authorised under the Act to interfere with wireless phone signals to combat the use of illicit mobile phones, and although seizure figures show how effective they have been in using the detection equipment available to them, the sheer number of seizures demonstrates that the Act needs to be expanded.
Hard-working prison staff make every effort to detect and confiscate illicit mobile phones and SIM cards, but the figures illustrate the scale of the problem. Only last year, 20,000 phones and SIM cards were found in prisons in England and Wales—approximately 54 each day. That is a significant increase on previous years, with just under 17,000 found in 2015, 10,000 in 2014, and just over 7,000 in 2013. Having met prison officers in my local prison in Lewes and heard at first hand about the problems that mobile phones cause them, I believe that the Bill will significantly improve safety and make their jobs easier.
It is clear that the current ban on mobile phones in prisons is not working, and that the 2012 Act needs to be expanded to combat the increasing problem. The Bill will build on the Act by allowing the Secretary of State to directly authorise public communication providers and mobile phone operators to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons, as is set out in clause 1. As a result of the 2012 Act, mobile network operators are already involved in work to combat illicit phones, but because the authority to carry out interference lies with individual governors, the role of the mobile phone operators has so far been limited. Clause 1 provides both the authority and a clear line of accountability in primary legislation for mobile phone network operators to become more actively involved in combating the problem. It is of course important to ensure that such activity is subject to safeguards that are needed to prevent inappropriate use. To that end, further consequential changes are made in the schedule to the Bill, which amends sections 2, 3 and 4 of the 2012 Act.
The schedule amends section 2 of the 2012 Act so that safeguards that already apply to authorised governors will also apply to authorised public communications providers. Like an authorised governor, any authorised public communications provider will have to comply with directions from the Secretary of State which must specify descriptions of the information with which governors are to be provided, the intervals at which it is to be provided, and the circumstances in which the use of equipment authorised for the purposes of interference with a wireless signal must be modified or discontinued. There will also be directions aimed at ensuring that authorised interference does not result in disproportionate interference with wireless technology outside prisons.
Section 3 of the Act governs retention and disclosure of information obtained by means of interference. It provides that information must be destroyed after three months unless the governor of a prison authorises its retention on specific grounds. When the information is retained, the governor must review its retention every three months, and must destroy it if its retention is no longer justified. Under the Bill, responsibility for deciding about retention and disclosure will still rest with the governor of the relevant institution, but because relevant information may now be obtained by a mobile phone operator or public communications provider, who may have been authorised in respect of multiple institutions, the Bill amends section 3 to clarify which governor is responsible for decisions about retention and disclosure in such cases.
The House had an opportunity to consider similar provisions to those in the Bill during its scrutiny of the Prisons and Courts Bill in the last Parliament. I am pleased to say there was genuine cross-party support for the measures, but two concerns were raised. The first was about prisoners accessing legitimate telephone services to retain contact with family members, friends and their communities outside prison. Multiple pieces of research, including the Farmer review, show that maintaining contact between prisoners and family members is crucial. Ministry of Justice research shows that prisoners who maintain contact with a family member are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who cannot. It is therefore crucial that we enable that to happen, and some Members have stressed that mobile phones are a tool to maintain that contact.
While being able to contact family members using legitimate telephone services while in prison is key, the Ministry of Justice already has a programme of work under way to ensure that prisoners have access to legitimate phone services and do not need to turn to mobile phones. The Department is trialling in-cell handsets and call tariff reductions in the prison estate, starting at HMP Wayland, and the ongoing trials aim to test the impact of this technology further. Conservative Members have already lobbied the Minister about this important issue through “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, and if I was not confident about this work, I would not be recommending the Bill.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on this important Bill. I have constituents who work for Winchester prison. While they stress the need for family connections, they also have grave concerns about connectivity through illicit mobile phones. The Bill can address both of those points.
Absolutely. Existing legislation bans mobile phones, so prisoners should not be accessing them to contact their family. That is not to say that contacting and keeping in touch with family members is not important; it is crucial both for inmates’ welfare and to reduce reoffending.
The second concern raised previously was about the possibility of interference activity in prisons having a detrimental effect on properties close to prisons, perhaps by blocking legitimate signals completely. My constituents in Lewes are worried about this. Under the powers of the 2012 Act, there was a small risk that genuine customers could be disconnected if their phones were incorrectly identified as being used in a prison without authorisation. To counter that, under this Bill, before any system is deployed, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will calibrate and test its approach, including any technology and infrastructure measures, with mobile network operators and Ofcom to ensure that only those handsets that are being used in a prison without authorisation will be identified and stopped from working.
The increased active involvement of mobile network operators under this Bill should be welcomed as reassurance that genuine mobile phone use near prisons will not be blocked. Mobile operators will be the first to know about any leakage from prisons through spikes in complaints, and I am pretty sure that Members of this House will be contacted by their constituents if mobile phone signals outside prisons are affected.
The Bill is not intended to facilitate any one technical solution. Instead, it gives mobile network operators the authority to become more directly involved. By doing so, it provides the freedom, and perhaps the stimulus, to develop a range of solutions. Authorising operators will also add an element of future-proofing to the process, which has been missing so far. As the experts, they will be aware of new technical developments and will be able to adapt their solutions in response to them.
I hope that Members will support this important Bill and the contribution it can make to improving the safety and security of our prisons. I commend it to the House.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak here today in support of the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). She has clearly done a tremendous amount of work, on top of the preparations and foundations that had been laid by the right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), who first presented the Bill to the House. As someone who has taken two private Members’ Bills through this place—my aim is to make it a hat trick, but who knows? It is all down to the ballot—I really appreciate how much hard work my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has put into getting the Bill this far. I sincerely wish it a safe and secure passage through its remaining stages here and in the other place, so that it can take its rightful place on the statute book.
My hon. Friend has a prison in her constituency, and she therefore brings a huge amount of experience and knowledge to the debate. I cannot bring any such experience, but I know that my constituents are very interested in the Bill, as I am sure all our constituents are. The fact that this topic has frequently been raised at Home Office questions is a further indication not only of the fact that the Government take the issue seriously but of the interest in it from Back Benchers and from our constituents.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that even those of us who do not have prisons in our constituencies understand that people who have been locked away to protect the public should not be able to communicate with their former criminal associates in our constituencies?
My hon. Friend makes a valid and pertinent point. People who go to prison should not have the connections and privileges that those of us in the outside world enjoy. I know that a lot of my constituents would take that point on board as well.
The main aim of the Bill is to authorise public communications providers to disrupt the use of unlawful mobile phones in prisons. When I was reading the background papers for the Bill, I was interested to note that in 2016, approximately 13,000 mobile phones and 7,000 SIM cards were found in our prisons. The number of phones represented an increase from 7,000 in 2013. Those shockingly high numbers are a further indication of why the Bill is so important. I hope that it will make it easier for the governors of our prisons to tackle this problem. It is a way for us to show that we are on their side.
The illicit use of mobile phones undermines the safety and security of our prisons and enables criminals to access the internet. It is unacceptable that criminals should be able to continue to direct illegal activity from behind bars. The Bill will create a new power for the Secretary of State to authorise public communications providers to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons in England and Wales, in addition to the existing authority that can be given to governors.
The Serious Crime Act 2015, introduced by this Government, which created the new offence of coercive behaviour, has been transformative for people in threatening and difficult relationships. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill could also help to manage those difficult situations that do not seem to stop when one party goes to prison?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. What we are trying to do here is tackle the problem while keeping a focus on what prison is all about. It is about trying to reduce reoffending, and about rehabilitation.
A number of years ago, I visited an organisation in the north of England and met one of its pastoral workers. He explained to me how some individuals seemed to go through a revolving door, in that they would go into prison, come out, reoffend and go back in. It is not right for those individuals to be caught up that sort of lifestyle, nor is it good for others in prison. Importantly, it is also not good for our communities, so my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) makes an important point. It is worth remembering that almost half of all prisoners are reconvicted within a year of release, and the cost to society of reoffending by former prisoners is estimated to be up to a staggering £15 billion a year, so this Bill is vital.
I had intended to ask the following question of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, but I failed to intervene, so perhaps she or the Minister will clarify this later. Will the Bill create an extra burden on prison governors? My understanding is that it will not and that it will actually make their job a lot easier, but it is important to get clarity on that for those listening to the debate.
If we can take this Bill through Parliament and if we can transfer powers to public communications providers, that will enable us, the Prison Service and prison governors to stay a little more ahead of the curve or at least keep close to it. We all know how quickly mobile technology, and technology in general, can change, and we so often hear how quickly new powers that we have legislated for can become out of date because those who seek to do us harm are one step ahead of us. I therefore hope that the Bill will go some way towards addressing that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill’s key purpose is to shift powers to the providers? Ultimately, it is the providers that have the technology and the teams of skilled people. The Bill also is about them ensuring that their networks are not being used to continue criminal activity by those behind bars, from whom the public should be protected.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. The Bill will hopefully give the initiative to those who are at the heart of technological advancements so that we do not have to legislate again if we are behind the curve after six months or a year. This is about the Government working in partnership with prisons, governors, the Home Office and providers. If we can get it right, that has to be the way that we continue to move forward. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton is nodding. I appreciate that she cannot contribute to the debate, but it is so good that she is here and lending her continued support to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes.
I want to touch on one or two other points about mobile phone use in prisons, which is often raised in the Chamber. If I check my record, I think I will find that I have asked questions about it. As Mr Speaker knows, I frequently ask questions on various topics that affect my constituents and my constituency—as he would of course expect. The Government have made it clear that the illicit use of mobile phones undermines the safety and security of prisons and enables criminals to access the internet, which should not be the case. In addition to the Bill, other action is being taken to tackle the issue of mobile phones in prisons because the number of devices seized continues to be high, as I said earlier.
Some £2 million has been invested in detection equipment, including handheld detectors and portable detection devices. Every prison in England and Wales—I sadly note that no Welsh colleagues are here today, but I am sure that they are listening to the debate—is being equipped with technology to strengthen searching and security, including portable detection poles that can be deployed at fixed points, such as at reception, and extra portable signal detectors to use on the wings in support of searches. In September, an invitation to tender was launched for the testing and purchasing of new equipment to block mobile signals at close range. Other new technology is being trialled, including body cameras, to tackle the threat posed by contraband smuggled into prisons, which includes mobile phones.
This is a further example of the Government’s continuing good work to support those working on the frontline—in this case, our prison officers and governors. A few weeks ago we debated the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, which is another good example of the Government and the Opposition working together to protect the protectors.
I will support the Bill, I sincerely wish it good and safe passage through the House, and I look forward to following its progress.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak on Second Reading. It will come as no surprise to those who follow my contributions in this House that this is exactly the sort of Bill that I like to be here to support on a Friday. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) has picked up the Bill, following on from the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), and introduced it, having been lucky in the ballot. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), I had a private Member’s Bill passed in the last Session and came to watch the doffing of caps as it received its Royal Assent. It is always good to see people coming forward with ideas, and it is a reminder that Back Benchers can make a difference in this place.
My Bill will make a big difference to the future of community radio, and this Bill will hopefully make a big difference to protecting many of our communities.
As I said in my earlier intervention, this is not just a Bill for people who have a prison in their constituency. This is about preventing people who have been sent to jail by the courts—particularly those who have been jailed as a deterrent and to protect the public—from continuing their criminal activities via modern technology. A Victorian designing a prison such as Dartmoor, which is remote and outside Princetown, would have thought prisons keep people away from communication. Many of our jails are located away from populations.
The idea for keeping people in prison is not just to punish them but to protect wider society. That means preventing people from running their activities in prison. When most of our jails were built—even 20 years ago—the explosion of technology would have been unimaginable. At that time a phone call could have been made via a mobile network, but people now effectively have an entire computer on their smartphone. They are able to tweet, to use social media and email, and to go on encrypted sites. These forms of communication are all far beyond any unopened letter, and our law clearly needs to keep up to date with that huge change. Even when the rules were passed a few years back, smartphones, smartwatches and various other items of wearable tech that could be smuggled into and used in prisons would have been unimaginable.
I welcome the Government’s action to stop contraband getting into prisons, but there is an obvious solution, which is to block the signals. That technology exists, and the onus should not be on a governor to turn over a whole jail to try to find every last phone. Likewise, people on duty need to be alert at all times, so use of technology is not a sensible part of their working day.
The onus should also be put back on the operators. Most operators will be up for this, because I cannot see any national network wanting to install a mobile mast to deal with demand from a local prison. They will not want to do that. [Interruption.] Mobile phones can sometimes even be heard in this Chamber, which shows their reception. [Interruption.] I do not know what on earth that is. [Interruption.]
Order. That most peculiar noise is not reminiscent of any mobile phone known to me. [Interruption.] It is an extraordinary pinging sound that should be discontinued. I suppose it shows the breadth and diversity of mobile phone noises. I hope the problem has now been addressed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is ironic that that would happen in this of all debates—we have a debate on where it is inappropriate for a mobile phone to be used being interrupted by a mobile phone left on the Benches. I suspect the Member whose phone it is will find the Deputy Chief Whip of our party wanting to talk to them about her views on where mobile phones are not appropriate. It is not just in jails, but in the Chamber.
I would like to help the debate and my hon. Friend. I believe that was a signal displaying that a phone has been lost, allowing it to be found by the person looking for it. This highlights just how technically able these phones can be—we may not know how capable they are.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on that. Modern phones can monitor someone’s heartbeat and health, and do a range of other things. We have just touched on how they can even be used to determine location, which becomes a real issue as this technology gets more accurate. One of the great train robbers was helicoptered out of a prison, so knowing exactly where someone is in a large complex can be a very useful piece of information for someone looking to carry out a violent break-out. Making it clear that someone cannot just be pinned down via mobile phone or a piece of wearable tech is one of the things—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for giving us the benefit of her wisdom. I was concerned that you might look at this Bill and think that there is perhaps some use for it here in the House of Commons, Mr Speaker—let us hope not! On a more serious point, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was touching on security and safety in relation to the mobile phone that went off a few moments ago, and he was making a salient point. Does he agree that at the heart of this Bill there is something important in relation to the safety and security of prisons, all the prison staff and everybody who resides in a prison?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. I suspect that someone might propose an amendment in Committee to say that we should define this Chamber as somewhere where certain things can be interfered with, particularly the noise of a mobile phone.
This Bill is about public protection. It is not about putting in place a rule just to spoil someone’s fun. It is about taking someone offline and stopping them using technology for harassment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) discussed, for the purpose of continuing to manage their criminal gang, for locating exactly where someone is in a jail or for intimidating prison staff. I will not provide names, as it is not appropriate for me to do so and I do not have this person’s permission, but I have had to deal with a member of our prison staff who was badly assaulted while doing his duty in one of our prisons. He explained to me that sometimes certain prison staff will be targeted by some of the inmates and by gangs outside. Again, technology does not help us on that, as it allows images to be taken, people to be located and others to see who is there. We forget that a mobile phone is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of recording almost everything that is going on.
It has the potential to do so, although there will always be issues with those who are confined in spaces because of violent offences and the backgrounds they have. My key concern is preventing their being able to do this outside and to continue intimidating victims. I have a particular concern about those on remand intimidating witnesses. The whole point is that they are in on remand to prevent them from absconding and from interfering with a witness, who may be the main part of the evidence against them. An ability to communicate outwards opens up opportunities to do so or to co-ordinate with people with whom they should not be co-ordinating via a mobile phone. The technology is in place, which is why it is right that through this enabling Bill—it does not set out the whys and wherefores—we are allowing providers to switch off those phones. As I mentioned earlier, they do not want their networks to be used for these purposes. They want to ensure that they are secure.
I am conscious that time is moving on. I am pleased to support the Bill and I note the work that is being done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out, when about 13,000 mobile phones are seized in prisons each year that is not just a minor problem. I welcome the efforts being taken in every prison in England and Wales, and, given that the operators work on a UK-wide spectrum, I hope that there would also be co-ordination with authorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland—although no Members from those two nations are in the Chamber—to crack down on people in jail.
I suspect another technology we will return to is drones, and how they start to impact on safety and security in prisons. We have seen dramatic footage online and in the media of what is happening, and it would be interesting—although probably not in this Bill—to discuss how we can use technology as it develops to prevent drones from entering certain areas or to interfere with their command signals. That will probably not just be an issue for prisons, and I know that a Bill on drones is forthcoming. That will be a good thing for us to debate.
It is absolutely right that today’s Bill has been introduced, because, ultimately, it provides that stop. We can do a lot of work, we can have body scanners, checks and cell searches, but ultimately the way to kill off a mobile phone is to break its signal and stop it being used. We need to say to the operator that they have the ability to do so, and that there are ways in which they can locate a phone that is being used, as we have seen in cases of missing persons or that have tracked back what was happening with a phone. Fundamentally, a mobile phone regularly being used within the confines of a prison wall is a mobile phone that should not be being operated. It should be switched off. It is a potential breach of the sanctions.
As has been said, people are sent to jail as a punishment for criminal offences or because, in order to protect the public, it is in their interest to take away an individual’s liberty and certain ways of communicating. None of us would suggest that someone on remand for a sexual offence should be able to put letters into the postal service without their being monitored; the situation should be exactly the same in this instance and with electronic communication.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It will send out a strong signal by helping to cut off a signal; ultimately, that is what the Bill will do.
I am conscious that we are on Second Reading. There will clearly be opportunities in Committee and on Report to explore the Bill in greater depth, and any commensurate orders that the Government introduce to implement it will offer the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.
I totally welcome the Bill, which is part of our catching up with modern technology and ensuring that people are kept safe. That is why it is vital that it is given its Second Reading and that it has Government support. I am certainly looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments. I welcome the debate so far and hope all hon. Members will give this Bill the Second Reading it deserves.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), who is in the Chamber today, on introducing the Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on taking it up. I have not yet had the pleasure of taking a Bill through the House, so I am delighted to be part of the process. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends have been adamant campaigners on this issue. This absolutely matters to my hon. Friend, given the prison in Lewes, and I congratulate her on an excellent speech.
We are in a sphere of new challenges—I see the Minister in his place, and I look at the notes from the MOJ about the challenges in our prisons—and it is vital for the safety of our prisoners, prison officers and visitors that every necessary power be available. I found myself having a strange conversation with some prison governors during the Conservative party conference—they were not at the conference; they were on a walking holiday and found themselves in the same hotel as me. They had started their careers as prison officers and they raised several points with me, as well as highlighting many of the changes they were facing.
I mentioned in an intervention the issue of coercive behaviour and the conducting of threatening and dangerous relationships from behind bars—for example, prisoners continuing to coerce and threaten family members or, as we have heard, people going through a court process. Some prisoners, though deprived of their liberty, can still cross the line and threaten individuals. That was of great concern to the prison governors. I also mentioned earlier my surgery work with prison officers at Winchester Prison. In fact, some of my early surgery work involved supporting them in their challenging job. They raised with me, a new Member of Parliament, the fact that new technology was affecting how they worked. They were keen for the MOJ to understand the growing pressures on their security and the issues they had to deal with.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does she not agree that prison officers work under very stressful conditions and that the Bill would enable them to get rid of the curse of mobile phones in prisons, take the pressure off them and make prisons a safer working environment?
I absolutely agree. That was exactly their point—that it was becoming a more dangerous and difficult job, that they could be tracked down, perhaps on the school run or in the community, through connections within the prison, and have their families threatened. It was enlightening to learn about the pressure on our prison officers brought about by the changes in technology to which prison inmates still had access.
Let me put that in context. Winchester Prison was built in 1846. It is a typical Victorian prison. It has a capacity of about 690 inmates and now takes offenders from the age of 18. It does great work on community rehabilitation—it is one of the 10 pathfinder prisons—and is working hard to reduce violence, incidents of self-harm and suicide and is doing as much as is humanly possible to make sure that time spent in prison is practical and useful for the next stage of their lives. If, however, a prisoner is still being hassled from the outside and cannot get away from it, how can they move on?
Hon. Members will recognise the concerns raised in the House over several years about the use of mobile phones in prisons. For every prison in England and Wales, being equipped with technology is vital. We heard earlier the annoyance of a phone going off when it is not wanted, but if someone relies on it and cannot get a signal, it is a disruptive force, and that is simply what the Bill does. It is so important. We heard the figures earlier: 13,000 mobile phones—an increase of over 7,000 in just three years; 7,000 SIM cards, and these all have a value within the prison environment. Some inmates will be digital natives, having grown up with digital technologies, and for them connectivity will be absolutely normal, so being deprived of it could be very helpful.
This is an excellent Bill, and I think it will be very helpful in prisons. The interference we have seen with the court process, and the impact of social media on juries and judges, is highlighted in our courts now, so we need to make sure that prisons are not another place where pressure can be applied.
I commend this Bill and I wish it a safe passage, because it matters to our prison staff, to their families, to visitors and to all the people who rely on our prisons being secure. It will also help our governors, and eventually keep our communities safe. Ultimately, that is what we are looking for: to rehabilitate and help people and to keep our communities safe. I wish the Bill all the speed in the world, and I commend it to the House.
I am honoured to follow my hon. Friends, who have made some passionate contributions to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on continuing the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) on promoting this much-needed and important Bill. If it is passed—I am very glad the Government are supporting it—it will be a crucial component in our armoury in the fight against crime, as we seek to ensure the safety of all our citizens.
I am pleased to follow my colleagues and to talk in support of the Bill. I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is my neighbour in Hampshire. She made extensive reference to Her Majesty’s prison in Winchester, which is a large secure establishment serving both of our areas. I have met constituents in my surgery in Fareham who have been released from Winchester. On the whole, they have had very positive experiences, and I congratulate the staff at Winchester on their pioneering work and the efforts they put into providing inmates with a safe and appropriate climate for their terms in custody.
I am proud that in Fareham we have Swanwick Lodge, which is a secure unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned rehabilitation, and Swanwick Lodge provides accommodation for children and young people between the ages of 10 and 17 who have been caught up in crime. I have been to visit Swanwick Lodge, and I have been taken aback and impressed by the commitment, dedication and expertise of all the staff, who are really trying to transform the lives of young people who have, unfortunately, founds themselves caught up in crime but who want to come out, to reform themselves and to make their future better than their past.
The Bill contains new powers for the Secretary of State. It would authorise public communication providers, including mobile phone network operators, to interfere with wireless telegraphy so that they can disrupt unlawful mobile phone use in prison. For me, as I said, that is critical in the fight against crime.
That raises many issues about the balance of privacy and security, and about the pace and character of technological change in the 21st century. That is why the Bill has my support, in that it will equip our law enforcement officers and security agents—those at the forefront who are tasked with the difficult challenge of keeping us all safe—to stay three, four or five steps ahead of the criminals. That is important if they are to be effective in disrupting plots, to identify threats, to intercept communications and to properly take action before attacks are carried out.
Given her time in the law, will my hon. Friend comment on how the change in mobile technology has affected the court process and the matters she was involved with, and on how we must catch up when it comes to mobile phone usage and the pressures in the prison system?
I am grateful for the reference that my hon. Friend makes. Yes, I was a barrister for 10 years and worked in and out of the courts. Part of my work was serving on the Treasury counsel panel defending Government Departments, including the Ministry of Justice, and decisions by the Parole Board on sentences. On occasion, I visited prisons in that capacity.
The use of mobile technology has transformed not only the way that people in prisons communicate but, in relation to my hon. Friend’s point, the way in which we use our courts system. I am very glad that this Government are at the forefront of leading technological change in our courts so that we can speed up the filing of papers and the exchange of documents. We can even use technology so that witnesses can be cross-examined or examined-in-chief via satellite television links. Inmates in prison can be questioned by counsel in a court on the other side of the country if it is not convenient or feasible for them to travel. This technology has been integral in speeding up justice. Obviously that should not be done at the cost of good justice and proper decisions, but it cuts costs and enables swifter decision making, and that cannot be a bad thing.
I have a particular interest in this Bill because, along with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who I see in the Chamber, had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that became the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. It was an extensive Bill that dealt with the very issue we are talking about—powers to enable our law enforcement agents, intelligence officers and policemen to be ahead of the curve when tracking down crime. During its passage, we met many experts at the forefront of this challenge, and also many opponents of greater security powers such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch—organisations that advocate for privacy rights. I applaud their work in many respects.
In the course of my work on the Bill, I was struck by the pace and the character of technological change. Methods that we all use innocently to book holidays, to buy our shopping and to communicate with friends and family across the world are also, sadly, abused by people who are trying to harm society and take advantage of vulnerable people. Terrorists use WhatsApp. Serious fraudsters use telecommunications. Paedophiles use secret Facebook groups to pursue their insidious aims. I am glad that this Bill is the next step in this fight. It will continue the Government’s work in cracking down on crime, and it has my full support.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on bringing this sensible and important private Member’s Bill to the House today. She set out very eloquently and persuasively a strong case for the need for the Bill. In particular, she highlighted the fact that it extends powers in the 2012 Act, and is very necessary. There was no need to go to the trouble of placing a mobile phone in the Chamber; Labour Members readily support and agree with the Bill.
I do not really disagree with anything that Government Members have said. All hon. Members have made very persuasive arguments for and cases in support of the Bill. A key thing that was mentioned several times is that in recent years the number of illegal mobile phones confiscated has rocketed, with 7,000 confiscations in 2013 rising to 13,000 in 2016. That makes it clear that further action does need to be taken to curb their use. Those behind bars are not just using phones to call friends and family; they are using them for a range of criminal purposes, from arranging criminal activities on the outside to arranging contraband to be smuggled in.
While we support the Bill, the wider intention to cut down smuggling and contraband and the Bill’s role in broader prison reform are also important. Although restricting the operation of phones may reduce their use and complicate smuggling, that alone will not stop it. This is not a silver bullet. The Bill will not stop the demand for contraband, as there will always be a demand for banned items, specifically drugs and new psychoactive substances, which are among the most dangerous of the items smuggled into prisons that we must crack down on. Indeed, the demand for NPS has risen dramatically, just as their dangers have increased, with a serious impact on offenders’ mental health and rates of violence and even deaths in prison.
The Bill will not stop that, despite its good intentions, because there are technical challenges in achieving 100% success in blocking mobile phones. Indeed, phones are just part of the wider problem that makes substance smuggling in prisons possible. Many factors make it easier, such as the decreased number of prison officers. The number of band 2 to 4 officers fell from 31,000 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2017, substantially reducing the ability of prisons to restrict the flow of contraband. Without prison officers, we cannot hope to stem the flow of contraband, because we will not have staff on the balconies and the wings, inspecting incoming and outgoing packages and even getting to know prisoners to effectively gather intelligence.
The Government supported the 2012 Act as a means to tackle substance misuse in prison, but they failed to back it up with other measures to tackle contraband, such as ensuring that we have a fully staffed and trained prison officer workforce. Instead, they are choosing to make the prison officers’ jobs even harder, leaving them overworked and underpaid. Blocking mobile phones is just one strand of the efforts to tackle contraband, but it requires other approaches, too. The Government should remember that if the Bill moves forward. This Bill should be just one part of prison reform, not all of it.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the Bill originally appeared as clause 21 of the Prisons and Courts Bill, but that Bill was dropped at the election and the prison aspects were not taken up in the courts Bill. It is worrying that the Government now have to rely on private Members’ Bills to legislate for such important reforms. That calls into serious doubt the Government’s ability to progress with other much needed reforms. We are concerned that efforts to improve prisons will rely on handout Bills and Back Benchers’ good will.
To sum up, there is a wider substance misuse and smuggling problem in our prison estate, which is having a damaging effect on prison safety. We support the Bill and the powers to tackle the use of mobile phones and the supply of contraband to prisons. The wider intentions of the Bill are to restrict the use of phones to arrange criminal activities and organised contraband smuggling, but it will not solve the contraband problem. Instead, the Government have to get their act together and commit to real changes and real reform.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) for bringing forward this Bill. I note that she is the second Member to be associated with it, the first being the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household, our right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey). Recognising my hon. Friend’s considerable talents, I hope from a selfish perspective that she is not elevated as quickly as our right hon. Friend, so that the Bill can proceed through the House quickly.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s assessment that the Bill is an important contribution to making our prisons safe and secure. The Government strongly support it, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to do the same. The reason for our support is clear: the illegal supply and use of mobile phones present real and serious risks not just to the stability of our prisons, but to the safety of the public.
The Bill addresses one of the most serious current threats to the safety and security of our prisons. Illicit phones erode the barrier that prison walls used to place between prisoners and the community. They can be used to harass victims and carry on extremist activity, as well as for organised crime, gang-related activities and commissioning serious violence. This is therefore a serious problem for our prisons.
I note the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) about the wider issues of prison security and stability, but the Bill focuses on just one aspect of our plans to bring safety and security to our prisons. Mobile phones are key to the illicit economy in prisons, whether they are used for co-ordinating the smuggling in of contraband, or for organising payments for the contraband once it is inside. That in turn drives a devastating cycle of debt, violence and self-harm.
We need to benefit from technological advances. Those involved in organised crime have benefited from the rapid pace of technological change when it comes to smaller, more sophisticated phones becoming available, or new network frequencies being activated. We need to turn the tables on the criminals, and to do so we need to make even greater use of the skills and knowledge of the mobile network operators. We are already working closely with operators to develop groundbreaking technology so that we can block mobile phone signals in prisons. Making mobile phones in prisons ineffective in such a way is the surest means of disrupting the market for those involved in organised crime.
The Bill provides the enabling powers that will enable us to continue such direct partnership working. It will allow us to continue to tap into operators’ expert knowledge and specialist skills to come up with new and creative solutions to address the problem of illicit mobile phone use in prison. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes made clear, the Bill is not tied to any one technical solution. It provides a clear line of accountability in primary legislation to allow mobile network operators to be more directly and independently involved, while retaining appropriate safeguards to regulate activity. That makes the powers in the Bill as future-proofed as they can be.
Members have made several points during this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) rightly raised the link to coercive behaviour, and I welcome her support of the Bill. I confirm that improving the effectiveness of anti-mobile phone activity is intended to minimise opportunities for bullying, harassment and coercive activity behind bars. As I said at the start, public protection is the Government’s No. 1 priority.
The Bill will help governors by providing them with an extra tool to tackle the prison security problems posed by mobile phones. Under the 2012 Act, governors are required to comply with directions from the Secretary of State and to make decisions about the retention and disclosure of data. The amendments that will be made to the Act are not new obligations, and we judge that they will not impose any unimaginable burden on governors.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned, we should of course make provision for prisoners to contact their families. That is important for prisoner rehabilitation and to help to reduce the incidence of self-harm, as well as to bring stability to our prisons. As we tackle the illicit use of phones, we will continue to provide legitimate ways in which prisoners may contact family and friends. I recognise and endorse my hon. Friend’s powerful point.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for taking on the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton for her earlier work on it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for his sterling work in starting all this off in 2012. This Bill is important for prison security, and for protecting victims and the public, and I commend it to the House.
With the leave of the House, I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) asked about the Bill’s impact on prison governors, but it will actually reduce their workload because responsibility will lie firmly in the hands of the mobile phone operators. Governors have tried hard to keep up with technology, but each time that we move from 2G to 3G or 4G, they have to start the process again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) made the excellent point that mobile phones are no longer just phones; they are small computers with a wide range of capabilities. Blocking phone signals will not just block people’s ability to make calls, but stop them from communicating in other ways.
My hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) highlighted the important work that is being done in HMP Winchester and the fact that prison officers have asked for such legislation to make their lives easier. I welcome the support for the Bill from across the House. The shadow Minister highlighted the wider impact that this Bill will have in our society, because it is not about just reducing crime and problems in our prisons.
The only objection to the Bill seemed to be when mobile phones fought back against it live in the Chamber, so I hope that it has cross-party support. I am grateful for the widespread support for the measures. The Bill is small but important, and it is gratifying that it has been endorsed by Members on both sides of the House. I am not surprised by that endorsement because I believe that there is a shared understanding of the problems in our prisons, and a shared willingness to try to deal with them.
I thank the Bill’s sponsors: my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), for Angus (Kirstene Hair), for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn), and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). The fact that those sponsors include a Member for Wales shows that there is support for the Bill across the United Kingdom. Although the Bill will not apply in Scotland, I understand that the Scottish Government hope to introduce changes.
If the Bill receives its Second Reading, I will look forward to it completing all its remaining stages successfully. If and when that happens, I am confident that it will make a significant contribution to improving the safety and security of our prisons.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).