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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Wednesday 9 May 2018

Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mrs Madeleine Moon

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)

† Foster, Kevin (Torbay) (Con)

† Harrison, Trudy (Copeland) (Con)

† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)

† Hussain, Imran (Bradford East) (Lab)

† Keegan, Gillian (Chichester) (Con)

† Knight, Julian (Solihull) (Con)

Lee, Karen (Lincoln) (Lab)

† Lloyd, Stephen (Eastbourne) (LD)

† Pearce, Teresa (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)

† Russell-Moyle, Lloyd (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

† Scully, Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

† Selous, Andrew (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)

† Smyth, Karin (Bristol South) (Lab)

† Stewart, Rory (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)

† Yasin, Mohammad (Bedford) (Lab)

Gail Bartlett, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 9 May 2018

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill

Before we start, I advise people to switch electronic devices to silent. Teas and coffees are not allowed during sittings. Given the temperature today, if anyone wants to remove their jacket, please feel free to do so.

Clause 1

Interference with wireless telegraphy in prisons etc

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 2 stand part.

That the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Your wise guidance to us in our deliberations on the Bill will be much welcomed. I also welcome members of the Committee and thank them for their support in getting the Bill to this stage. It was clear on Second Reading that the Bill has cross-party support, so I hope that we will be able to complete our proceedings relatively swiftly, while still giving the Bill appropriate scrutiny.

As hon. Members know, mobile phone technology in particular is constantly evolving. The Bill is designed to ensure that legislation keeps pace with developments and provides the means to combat the serious problems posed by illicit mobile phones in prisons. Illicit mobile phone use is linked to the supply of drugs and other contraband, serious organised crime and evasion of public protection monitoring, bringing further harm to the victims of crime.

The scale of the issue faced in our prisons is stark. In 2016, nearly 20,000 mobile phone and SIM cards—54 a day—were found in prisons in England and Wales. Although it is not a new problem, the scale of it has been increasing steadily, as in 2013 only about 7,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were found. To help combat this increasing challenge more effectively, clause 1 and its associated schedule make several changes to the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012.

As technology has developed, public communications providers such as mobile phone operators have been at the forefront of those developments. The changes in this Bill are designed to ensure that their specialist knowledge and expertise can be used to improve the effectiveness of activity to combat the use of illegal mobiles in prisons, young offenders institutions, secure training centres and secure colleges. Importantly, the Bill will ensure that there is a clear line of accountability for the activity set down in primary legislation.

I believe that this change is necessary to ensure that public communications providers can take appropriate direct action to interfere with wireless telegraphy to prevent the illegal use of mobile phones in prisons. Under the 2012 Act, mobile phone operators can act only as agents of the governors of individual institutions, rather than in their own right. Making this change means that the latest technological advances will be available to combat illegal mobile phones, governed by a clear legal framework.

The changes in clause 1 provide for the Secretary of State to authorise a public communications provider to interfere with wireless telegraphy in prisons in England and Wales. That is in addition to the existing authorisation that can be given to governors under the 2012 Act to interfere with wireless telegraphy in their institutions. Of course, it is important to ensure that this activity is subject to the right safeguards to prevent inappropriate use. To that end, consequential changes are made in the schedule to the Bill, which amends sections 2 to 4 of the 2012 Act. Section 2 of that Act is amended so that the 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 the directions given to them by the Secretary of State. Those directions must include requirements to pass on information concerning interference activity, as well as circumstances in which the use of equipment must be modified or stopped. That will help to ensure that there will not be disproportionate interference with wireless telegraphy outside the relevant institution.

Section 3 of the 2012 Act governs the retention and disclosure of information obtained following interference. Section 3 provides that information must be destroyed after three months, unless the governor authorises its retention on specific grounds. Where that information is retained, the governor must review its continued retention at three-monthly intervals and must destroy the information if retention is no longer required. Responsibility for deciding about retention and disclosure will continue to rest with the governor of the relevant institution. Because relevant information may have been obtained by a public communications provider, section 3 of the 2012 Act will be amended to clarify which governor will be responsible for decisions about retention and disclosure in such cases.

Clause 2(1) sets out the short title of the Bill, and subsection (2) states:

“This Act comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may appoint by regulations made by statutory instrument.”

That is a standard procedure to provide for commencement by regulations if commencement provisions are not placed in a Bill. Clause 2(3) and (4) mirrors provisions in the 2012 Act concerning the Bill’s territorial extent, and the possibility of extending its provisions to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in the future. All those provisions are standard and, I hope, uncontroversial.

I will not detain the Committee long, but I want to add my wholehearted support to my hon. Friend in introducing this important Bill. Having had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for prisons, probation and rehabilitation for two years, I am particularly aware of how necessary these provisions are.

We very much want prisoners to use telephones legitimately, and to stay in touch with their families and children in the approved manner and under the control of the prison authorities. That is a good thing that we want to encourage, and nothing in the Bill will prevent that. However, we must also be aware that prisoners have used mobile phones to carry on a life of crime in a truly shocking and appalling way, to the extent that they may as well not even have been in prison. Murders have been arranged and organised from within prisons, and drugs rings and even arms importation schemes have carried on because prisoners have had the use of illegal mobile phones.

There is also the issue of the intimidation of victims by perpetrators who have been sent to prison. When someone has been sent to prison, at least for that period of time the victim should not be afraid of being confronted by the person who attacked or raped them or whatever. Such intimidation is truly shocking, and the Bill will go a long way towards preventing it.

I remember that there are some prisons—HMP Brixton, for example—where people live right next to the prison wall. If memory serves me right, HMP Cardiff is another example of a built-up area where people live right next to the prison. In the past, mobile phone companies were obviously wary about that, and Members of Parliament would not want their constituents who live lawfully next to a prison to have their mobile phone usage interfered with. I believe the Ministry of Justice and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes have come up with a solution that means that that will not be a problem, and that we will not affect the legal use of mobile phones by law-abiding constituents who happen to live next to but outside a prison. Perhaps my hon. Friend or the Minister will provide clarification on that point.

I offer my wholehearted support to this important Bill. We want phones to be used to help prisoners stay in touch with their families, because we know that that aids rehabilitation and helps to reduce crime, which is a good thing. However, phones are absolutely not to be used for ongoing criminal purposes, and that is why I support the Bill so strongly.

I start by thanking the hon. Member for Lewes for bringing in this important Bill. I will not rehearse many of the points that other hon. Members have made, but I put on record that the Opposition have supported the Bill’s passage through Parliament and continue to support it. We think it is rather unfortunate that this change has to be made via a private Member’s Bill—it should have been forthcoming from the Government—and equally we must put on record that it is not a silver bullet that will resolve the issues in our prison system. I look forward to the Minister’s coming back with a more substantial plan for reform, but in essence, this Bill strengthens the 2012 Act, which we support.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has very powerfully explained the legal necessity for the Bill and exactly how it will work in law. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, my distinguished predecessor, has pointed out some of the challenges in balancing the need of prisoners to remain in contact with their families and retain a connection to broader society with the dangers posed by illegal phones. The hon. Member for Bradford East has pointed out that, of course, the Bill is just one element in what must be a much bigger strategy. As he says, it is not a silver bullet on its own.

We face an interesting and tricky problem. Those who remember reading “The Man in the Iron Mask” will remember that in 17th century France the only way of communicating out of a prison was to throw a silver plate, with some words scratched on it, out of the window. Today the prison walls are, in some senses, not really walls in the way they were in the 17th century. Modern mobile communication allows criminals, in the worst situations, to continue criminal activities from within those walls, to threaten or abuse people, to harass partners who do not wish to be harassed, or in the most dramatic cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire pointed out, even to organise drug importations or contract killings from a prison.

Dealing with that has been difficult for the Department, because there are very strong human rights protections in article 8 of the European convention on human rights around the right to a private life, which protect citizens’ rights to communication and prevent interference with communication. Ofcom polices that very strictly. Therefore there were two legal issues that needed to be dealt with. The first was whether a private prison governor could be exempt from the article 8 restrictions and the Ofcom regulations on interference. The Crown is usually exempt, but the question was whether a private prison governor could be exempt. That was largely dealt with in 2012.

Secondly, there was the question of instructing the mobile phone companies to work with the Government on interfering with communications out of a prison. The reason why that is important, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is that without the co-operation of the mobile telephone companies, we would get into a very strange war where we would end up broadcasting signals aggressively against those companies, which could potentially compromise the mobile phone signals of other citizens going about their normal life outside the prison walls.

This law will give much more certainty to the mobile phone companies and governors that there is proper, legal, proportionate and reasonable interference with illegal communication. However, we must bear in mind that we are now pushing ahead with in-cell telephony, which will allow controlled legal conversations between prisoners and their families. All of that is vital, because we face a big problem of violence and crime in prisons and driven from prisons. Tapping the almost 10,000 mobile phones that were seized in a single year and interfering with their ability to communicate is not a silver bullet, but it should help to make prisons a safer and more orderly place in which we can begin to address some of the underlying drivers of violence and crime.

I conclude with great thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes for bringing forward a very useful, practical step toward improving our prisons.

On a point of order, Mrs Moon. Before we finish, I want to place on the record my thanks to you for chairing the Bill Committee, and to the Committee Clerks. This is my first private Member’s Bill, so it has been a steep learning curve, and although the Clerks never said that there is no such thing as a stupid question, I am sure that that is what they meant at heart.

I thank the team at the Ministry of Justice for all their support, and I thank all hon. Members here. This is a great example of cross-party working to make a difference in all our communities; many of us have prisons locally. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his support, and I thank former Ministers as well, because the Bill has taken a little while to reach Committee.

I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to join me in placing on the record our thanks to all prison officers, up and down the country, who each and every day have to deal with the problems that mobile phones cause in prisons. I particularly thank my local prison, HMP Lewes, where prison officers have told me at first hand what a difference the Bill will make. We place on the record our thanks to all prison officers in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Ms Nadine Dorries

† Allan, Lucy (Telford) (Con)

Bone, Mr Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)

† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

† Foster, Kevin (Torbay) (Con)

† Harper, Mr Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)

† Khan, Afzal (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

† Lee, Karen (Lincoln) (Lab)

† Linden, David (Glasgow East) (SNP)

Mills, Nigel (Amber Valley) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)

† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)

† Smith, Chloe (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)

Stewart, Bob (Beckenham) (Con)

† Wiggin, Bill (North Herefordshire) (Con)

Kenneth Fox, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 9 May 2018

[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members to switch all mobile phones and electronic devices off or to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during the sittings. As it is impossible to switch the heating off in this room, hon. Members may remove their jackets.

I beg to move,

That, if proceedings on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill are not completed at this day’s sitting, the Committee shall meet on Monday 14 May at 4.00 pm and on Wednesday 16 May at 9.30 am.

I am glad that the Committee is finally meeting this morning, but I am very disappointed to have wasted hon. Members’ time, as we cannot discuss a single issue of substance without a money resolution. It has already been five months since the Bill passed Second Reading, with 229 votes to 44. The House sent a strong message that it wants the Bill to be considered in Committee. The Government are defying the will of the House by refusing to bring a money resolution forward, which they have had ample time to do. This is an abuse of just the Executive power that the Bill is trying to keep in check.

At business questions on Thursday, Members from all three major parties raised the money resolution with the Leader of the House. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough said:

“Money resolutions should follow Second Readings as night follows day.”—[Official Report, 3 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 467.]

The Leader of the House said she would bring forward a money resolution in due course, but who knows what that means in practice?

The Speaker weighed in clearly on the topic, saying that unease on the issue of a money resolution

“should have been heard, and must be heard, on the Treasury Bench.”

He also said that

“it would be appreciated if colleagues felt confident that there was a logic and reasonableness to the decision-making process.”—[Official Report, 3 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 477.]

The Speaker was referring to the extraordinary fact that the Government brought a money resolution for the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill on 1 May but did not bring one for this Bill. The prisons Bill came 13th in the private Member’s Bill ballot, as opposed to mine, which came third. The prisons Bill had its Second Reading on the same day as my Bill, and I believe its Committee is meeting down the corridor right now. It would have been entirely possible for both money resolutions to be introduced on the same day, in good time for us to consider my Bill fully today.

Finally, I stress that my Bill is time sensitive. The boundary commissions are due to submit their final recommendations in September 2018. A previous private Member’s Bill along the same lines was introduced in the last Parliament, but it ran out of time after the Government failed to bring forward a money resolution before the snap general election last year. If the Government continue to delay my Bill, there is a danger that the House will not have a chance to debate or pass it before the new boundary proposals are before the House.

I do not deny that my Bill is controversial, but it is also reasonable, and such an important constitutional question—how many Members of Parliament should represent the people of this country—should be fully considered by the House, not blocked by the Government using parliamentary procedure. I will press the Government to bring forward a money resolution ahead of our next meeting, and I hope other hon. Members here will join me.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton for his remarks about his Bill. We all recognise that the review is much needed. It presents an opportunity for cross-party agreement on new boundaries.

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that a money resolution has not been forthcoming from the Government, because in December this House sent a strong message that we wanted the Bill to be considered in Committee. It passed its Second Reading by 229 votes to 44. I am sure that the Government would not want there to be a perception that not providing for a money resolution might be an attempt to sabotage a private Member’s Bill and, after all, the will of the House. They would not want it to be presented as an attempt to seek political advantage.

It is widely accepted that the boundary review in its current form would be a disaster for our democracy for various reasons, the most important of which would be the cutting of the number of MPs without a reduction in the number of Ministers. That would only increase the power of the Executive and make it more difficult for Back Benchers such as my hon. Friend to challenge the Government. However, as we have seen, there is no money resolution, and that sends a dangerous message. It concerns the respect that should be accorded to Back Benchers who have had success in the private Member’s Bill ballot, and their ability to bring forward measures for us to consider.

Constitutional changes should be dealt with fairly, and everyone should have a voice. Sadly, that is not happening this morning. I urge the Government to see to the matter of a money resolution at the earliest opportunity so that the Committee can get on with the vital work that we intend to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

The Scottish National party’s perspective on the Bill, in outline, is that we support it. We should like to amend it in one or two areas and, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton has explained, it is impossible for us to do so until the Government provide a money resolution. The Government regularly talk about Parliament taking back control. The Brexiteers in the Government talk about it. An hon. Member has now secured, through the ballot, the ability to introduce the Bill; the House voted fairly unanimously for it to go into Committee; and the Government are leaving it in political purgatory by not dealing with the money resolution.

I want to make it clear that the SNP will not accept a 10% cut in the number of Scotland’s MPs. We want to amend the Bill, but as we know, we can do that only after a money resolution. I do not want to spend endless weeks in a Committee talking shop. Parliament has spoken and it is up to the Government to respect that. If they do not, I think they will find that the consequences will be quite severe.

The situation brings us back to the fundamental point that Westminster is a place of limited democracy, which is exactly what the Government’s behaviour shows. That state of affairs should end immediately. There should be a money resolution, and we should get on with the job.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will make an extremely brief contribution to this morning’s debate, and say simply that the Boundary Commission for England began the 2018 parliamentary boundary review in 2016. It is due to report its final recommendations later this year. The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to continue with the boundary review and it would not, therefore, be appropriate to proceed with the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton at this time by providing it with a money resolution. The Government will keep the Bill under review, but we believe that it is right that the Boundary Commission be allowed to report its recommendations before careful consideration is given to how to proceed.

Question put and agreed to.

As the Committee cannot consider the clauses of the Bill until the House has agreed to a money resolution, I call on Afzal Khan to move that the Committee now adjourn.

I beg to move, that the Committee do now adjourn.

I feel ashamed that no progress has been made today, but I am hopeful that we may be able to make progress when we meet next time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly till Monday 14 May at Four o’clock.