RORY SPEAKS ON THE PRISONS (INTERFERENCE WITH WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY) BILL
Rory: 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.