Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill

Prison serves many functions and purposes: to punish, to reform, but also to protect wider society. That protection relies on being able to restrict and prevent criminal activities in order to break up the existing networks and ensure that the crimes and offences for which prisoners are in jail cannot continue while they remain there.

As my hon. Friend
the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) pointed out, technological advances have meant that mobile phones—effectively pocket computers—can be used almost as a mobile office. Almost wherever the user is, with anything more than a minimal signal they can continue with many activities. Of course, for most of us, those are perfectly professional and positive activities. Sadly, in too many of our prisons, the use of illicit phones is rather less positive.

An intrinsic feature of a custodial sentence is deprivation of liberty, part of which is the limitation of the rights and freedoms that those of us in society would normally expect to be able to exercise. Those who are in prison should not necessarily be able to expect the same connections and privileges enjoyed by those outside.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to allow mobile phone network providers to disrupt the use of unlawful mobile phones in prisons. We have heard about the large increase in the scale of the problem, with the number of mobile phones doubling in barely three years. That sharp increase is not due to some deficiency or inadequacy in the existing legislation—particularly the 2012 Act, which lays an important and valuable basis for prison governors’ powers. Instead, it is the use by criminals, prisoners and offenders of technology that is evolving at a rate that legislation sometimes struggles to keep up with.

The Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend
the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), will help to address the gap in the powers that may be used by those who keep us safe. We must be clear that the illicit use of mobile phones undermines the safety and security of prisons, prison staff and other prisoners, and it increasingly allows prisoners to carry on organising and co-ordinating serious and, at times, violent crimes that take place outside prison, in the community.

Other action is being taken to tackle the issue of mobile phones in prisons. As we have heard, the number of phones confiscated has risen. Some £2 million has been invested in detection equipment, including handheld detectors and portable detection devices, and all prisons in England and Wales are being equipped with technology to strengthen searching and security, including portable detection poles that can be deployed at fixed points around entrances and visitor areas. Other new technology is being tested to tackle the threat posed by contraband smuggled into prisons, which includes illicit mobile phones as well as weapons, drugs and a whole range of items and materials that, for very good reasons, are excluded from our prisons.

These are important powers. One thing that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes or the Minister will clarify is the impact of the Bill on prison governors and whether any additional obligations and burdens might fall upon them as a result of these powers to allow mobile phone operators to take action. The Bill is a tool that can be deployed to disrupt communications that undermine the security of our prisons. We can improve the safety of prisons and take a step towards minimising criminal activity. If that is achieved, this legislation will have played an enormous role in helping to keep our prisons and wider society safe.