Social Media Access in Prisons

– in the House of Commons am 8:09 pm ar 26 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Ceidwadwyr, Sedgefield 8:24, 26 Chwefror 2024

Why am I here talking about social media in prisons? One of my usual expressions for describing what it is like to be an MP is “push and pull”, meaning that I push my experience and knowledge into this place, but I am pulled by the issues that affect my constituents. I bring my life experience and business background, and I react to issues that arise, particularly those from my constituents. That is why I have been engaged on issues as diverse as left-behind neighbourhoods, Ferryhill station and female hormone deficiency.

Today I take the opportunity to discuss two of the most challenging issues facing young people: knife crime, and the damage done by social media. Those problems were horrifically exemplified by the case of my constituent Zoey McGill, and her son Jack Woodley, who was tragically stabbed to death in 2021. The past few years have been incredibly challenging for Zoey. Although her son’s murderers were jailed for between eight and 17 years, one can imagine her horror when she discovered that one of them had made a TikTok video in which he raps about his sentence, implying that it is not serious, and he boasts of having a phone while wearing a designer T-shirt.

As a result of my work with Zoey I became involved in The Northern Echo’s North East Knife Crime Taskforce. It was launched last year as a way to co-ordinate the efforts of individuals and groups who want to address the causes of knife crime and change the culture and mindset of young people who carry those weapons. Zoey has been involved in that from the start, along with other parents who also lost their children. We are seeing far too many examples of young people being stabbed, and leaving behind relatives fighting for a cause. As was said at the last session of the North East Knife Crime Taskforce, those parents and families did not sign up for that job, but they have absolutely no choice but to do it. One of those is Theresa Cave, whose son Chris was stabbed to death in Redcar in 2003. Chris’s mother, Theresa, launched the POINT 7 anti-gun and knife crime programme for young people aged 11 to 25.

In 2007, Samantha Jane Madgin was 18 years old and on her first night out with friends after the birth of her son only weeks before. She was brutally stabbed to death by a 15-year-old girl. Samantha’s friends and family created Samantha’s Legacy, and their mission is to prevent knife crime, raise awareness and engagement, and support other families who have been affected by that atrocious crime. In 2019, 18-year-old Connor Brown, who was on a night out in Sunderland, tragically lost his life trying to prevent other people from getting hurt in a knife attack. Connor’s mother, Tanya, and family and friends created the Connor Brown Trust in order to provide young people with a bespoke youth work programme that benefits them and the wider community. There are too many families like them, and it is imperative that we in this place do all we can to help.

Social media is well identified as a source of information in prisons. The term “fake news” is well known, and it is imperative that those who have been influenced or radicalised by false agendas are not further influenced in that way during their time in prison. For that reason alone, access to social media platforms in prison should be frustrated. I am concerned enough about what inmates could see and hear on social media, but giving them the opportunity to broadcast is even more disturbing. It is incumbent on us all in this place to do everything we can to stop this cancer.

Zoey recently said that people sometimes ask how she manages to do her campaigning, and she said that it gives her strength and comfort. I admire that attitude enormously, but neither Zoey nor any of the other parents I have mentioned, or any other parent that is affected, should be in this position in the first place. As states, for anyone who cares to check, it is a criminal offence to give a prisoner a mobile phone—or other items such as illegal drugs, alcohol and weapons. The rules around access to social media in prison are likewise clear: prisoners are not allowed to access social networking sites while in custody. In fact, it is not even possible to email prisoners directly.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I did some research in this area, as he has. Does he agree that there is no human right allowing access to social media in prison? We should encourage rehabilitation—that is the right thing to do—rather than social media engagement. Although access to the internet, and training in understanding how to use media successfully in the outside world, are of use, the ability to post a Facebook status should never be facilitated in prison.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Ceidwadwyr, Sedgefield

I could not agree more, and I will cover some of those points as I continue. The closest those inside are meant to come to electronic communication is the Email a Prisoner service, which allows those outside prison to send a prisoner an email; it is printed out and delivered on paper. Some prisons will allow photos to be attached, but that is all. I suspect that if prisoners were actually limited to that form of communication, prisons and the wider community would be better for it.

Nevertheless, as a Ministry of Justice report from 2018 recognised,

“Mobile phones in prisons are used for a range of purposes, both social and criminal, and would appear to have become a significant feature of prison life.”

Since that report, the Prison Service has undertaken the long-term project of installing landlines in cells in closed public-sector prisons. That began before the pandemic. The last installations are due to be completed shortly. These phones work the same way as the payphones on landings that were previously used by prisoners. The prisoner uses a PIN to access their account, and must purchase credit. The calls are restricted to cleared numbers and are outgoing only.

This innovation prevents the issues that often occurred with landing payphones, such as a lack of privacy and fights breaking out in the queue. As Julie Brett, deputy director of innovation and business change at His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, told Inside Time:

“Feedback from people in prison has consistently identified that in-cell PIN phones improve the quantity and quality of contact with their family and friends thanks to the opportunities they provide. These include being able to make calls at a time to suit everyone in a more private setting away from busy landings, and removing the need to queue to use a phone during brief unlock periods.”

That seems to me to be well in excess of what prisoners should have, but it also removes any argument about the need for them to have access to a mobile phone. I therefore believe that prisoners have no legitimate reason to possess a mobile phone, since a desire to contact their family is probably the only reason for a prisoner having a phone that most people could possibly sympathise with. Instead, prisoners look for mobile phones to continue their criminal activity, to harass victims and their families, or to remain in connection with the lifestyle that got them into prison in the first place. It must stop.

I draw attention to the work that my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher has done on phones in prison, particularly though her private Member’s Bill. It is already an offence to make video recordings in prison, but the Prison Media Bill seeks to close a loophole that allows third parties outside a prison to upload an illegal recording made inside a prison, or of prison workers on prison land. The Bill also specifies that the location of a recording device is not relevant, so recording a prison from a drone outside would still be an offence. The Bill will clarify existing legislation, which makes no specific provision for drones flying above prison land or recording images of the inside of an open prison. It is hoped that it will increase the security of prisons and those who work there; they would also be protected from unauthorised recordings. Moreover, the Bill would likely cause social media companies to remove images and videos that violate those conditions. Such a step would make all the difference to people like Zoey, who continues to be harassed by her son’s murderers and their families via social media and images taken in prison.

One can debate whether the primary purpose of prison sentences is to rehabilitate the prisoner with a view to reintegrating them in society, or to punish them for their crimes, but a denial of liberty, and therefore of social media, is necessary in both cases.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for securing this Adjournment debate. It is awful to hear about the appalling experience of his constituent, a victim of knife crime. Her campaign on access to social media is brave. In 2013, the Government sought to take from prisoners the right to access and read books. The Howard League for Penal Reform fought against that in its successful 2014 campaign, which was all about education and rehabilitation. Does the hon. Member believe as I do that prisoners ought to have access to books?

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Ceidwadwyr, Sedgefield

It is like anything else: it depends which books we are talking about. If it is books about how to develop a new gun, the answer is no, but if you are talking about—[Interruption.] My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. We could, however, be talking about educational books about the world prisoners want to go into. As with everything else in this place, the devil is in the detail of what we do.

A question in this case is: how can a person be rehabilitated if they still participate in the same social groups as before? They may do so virtually, but for many young people, their virtual activities are as real and meaningful as their physical ones. We would not allow prisoners serving time for murder to leave for the evening and have a drink with their friends, so why should we tolerate them having unmonitored video calls with the same people?

The purpose of prison—especially for serious crimes—ought to be punishment. It is no bad thing if prisoners are sat in their cells, sadly wondering what is going on with their old friends and feeling out of touch with the outside world. The denial of liberty and restricted access to the world outside prison is exactly the point of being locked up. The rules are clear: mobile phones are not allowed among prisoners. Jack’s killer should never have been able to make or post a video. I also question why the murderer should be dressed in a designer T-shirt, looking to all and sundry as though he is about to go on a night out.

In response to Zoey’s complaint, the Prison Service said that mobile phones are not tolerated, and that those who have them face extra time in prison. May I ask the Minister what is happening in this case, and what steps are being taken to prevent something like this from happening again? What repercussions have followed for this individual? We must demonstrate that actions have consequences; otherwise, we give the impression that the justice system thinks it is acceptable to show off contraband such as mobile phones in prison, and to use it to harass a victim’s family.

Steps such as airport-style security are taken to prevent contraband, but whatever the current approach is, it needs more energy, because this is not an isolated case of a prisoner possessing a phone. I acknowledge that we are taking steps in the right direction. Legislation was passed last October to crack down on the use of drones in prison. Previously, bizarrely, police could act on drone sightings near prisons only if there was evidence that drones were being used to smuggle contraband. Why else would a person fly a drone above a prison? To admire the architecture? I think not.

Since last month, it has become an offence to fly a drone within 400 metres of closed prisons and young offenders’ institutes in England and Wales. A fine of £2,500 could be issued for flying a drone, but, importantly, for those who deliver the goods, the punishment could be up to 10 years in prison. We have seen intercepted drone deliveries carrying more than £35,000 of banned goods, but some of that was before the law changed. I am delighted to see that change in law.

On contraband in prison, it seems to me that mobile phones should be the easiest to find and remove from the prison estate. The technology to find them exists, and it would make a significant difference in the behaviour of prisoners if used widely. For example, the company Unify offers a “detect” service that provides constant mobile detection and sends real-time alerts when it picks up unauthorised use of mobile phones. Using Bluetooth and wi-fi signals, it can locate the precise location of the phone, down to the cell. Can the Minister tell me how widely such technology is used in prisons to combat the use of mobile phones? Would his Department consider expanding its use?

With phones come social media. I do not need to tell hon. Members about the harm that social media can cause, even among users who have not been convicted of murder. In a place like prison, social media can be even more influential, as it is one of the few forms of contact used to get to the outside world. We know that it amplifies the peer pressure that young people already face, and it has been linked to poor mental health in teenagers.

Technology and social media can also be used positively to address issues such as knife crime. We have seen many examples of social media pressure being a key part of driving young people to action that results in them being in prison. Some exciting technology is being worked on—particularly in virtual reality—which could help. The EdTech company Round Midnight has done pioneering work, using art and technology, to engage young people in discussions on many sensitive topics. It offers a range of virtual reality workshops, and creates curriculums designed to transform students’ learning experience while tackling important social issues.

The company’s youth engagement programmes promote mental wellbeing and social responsibility, and address critical issues such as knife crime. I have seen an example of its work, in which it uses people who have been involved in knife crime as actors, and the person having the virtual experience is left to make decisions at various stages, based on questions they are asked. It is interactive, and something that they can learn from; they can see the consequences without being in a real world scenario.

The pressure that social media can put on people absorbed in that world is intense. The company I mentioned is the leading provider of virtual reality workshops. It creates bespoke programmes and trains teachers in schools across the country. Most importantly, its approach works, because it focuses on areas that the target audience cares about. The recent North East Knife Crime Taskforce event, led by The Northern Echo, allowed participants to use a virtual reality headset to explore the potential consequences of carrying a knife. The video was created with funding from the Home Office and West Midlands police, based on a similar tool that focused on gangs. They believe that it can be an important preventive tool for people who are not involved in crime but could be pressured into it or tempted by it.

The headset demonstrates how social media is used to pressure people to commit crime. I am interested in whether it can be developed as a tool for people who are in prison to understand how they got there, and how the outcome could have been different for them and their family. The virtual reality video is followed by a creative workshop that encourages participants to explore the issues in more depth. Young people can reflect on their journey through the video, and compare their experience with that of other participants. The session is not a lecture about the dangers of carrying a knife but a user-led experience.

When I was working on left-behind neighbourhoods, we talked initially about trying to help communities, then about helping them to help themselves, and finally about enabling them to help themselves without us being there in any way, shape or from. The same applies here: we are trying to create a situation in which the people who are engaging in the process feel that it is their space and they can learn from it.

Innovative approaches involving virtual reality could be used to prepare inmates for reintegration in society, with a view to reducing reoffending. There are examples around the world: in the United States, Colorado has implemented a three-year juveniles and young adults convicted as adults programme, for those who committed serious offences at a young age. Since those people often entered prison before they developed life skills such as shopping for food, the virtual reality programme allows them to practise tasks in a safe and controlled environment. Knife crime is a much bigger issue, but the principle is the same. Other states use virtual reality to help offenders develop empathy for their victims or to reduce aggressive behaviour. A pilot programme in Alaska used virtual reality to incorporate mindfulness practices; the pilot resulted in a decrease in disciplinary write-ups and fewer reports of depression and anxiety. Those processes can move people to a better place.

We know that employment can be a problem. In Michigan, there is a virtual reality programme that helps people practise for a job interview. There are many examples of people running prisons and similar services using the tool to get people to a better place. Richard Foord mentioned the opportunity for books; I want people to get to a better place by the time they are released, but if they are not, they must understand that there are consequences of what they have done.

The professor who led the study I just referred to commented:

“Above just the employment rate, those that interviewed with Molly”— the virtual hiring manager—

“had stronger interview skills…greater reductions in interview anxiety”.

I am absolutely sure that such organisations can develop programmes that will deliver much better outcomes for repeat offenders and an appreciation of the impact of social media on others. Social media can be such a positive or negative experience, depending on how people engage with it, and such tools can get us to that place.

Music videos on social media can also influence people in a way that is difficult to imagine for those of us who did not grow up with social media. Many videos glamorise a life of crime, treating serious offences as proof of strength and encouraging others to follow suit. It is the lyrics of these songs that are the problem, not the music style itself. A number of organisations have used the same type of music, such as rap and hip-hop, as a way to access young people and give them a positive message. For example, Scotland’s largest prison, Barlinnie, has begun offering a programme that gives inmates an opportunity to change their lives through hip-hop music. The label Conviction Records supports ex-offenders by running a programme that culminates in a performance of their pieces. The workshops allow prisoners to express themselves and envisage a better life outside, at the end of their sentence. One participant said that it had given him such a sense of purpose it motivated him to avoid reoffending. That is what we want for people coming out—we do not want them to reoffend. The programme was funded by Creative Scotland. Does the Minister know of any similar plans for prisons in England and Wales, and, if not, whether we could look at similar initiatives?

Speaking with Zoey recently, she was quick to emphasise the benefits of social media, along with the horrendous damage it can do. She spoke about how last week would have been Jack’s 21st birthday. In honour of him—how brave is this?—she posted a video of their final moments together, when it was clear he was about to pass away. She said it has since been viewed nearly 2 million times and the feedback has been almost universally positive. In particular, a man contacted her to say that he used to be in a gang and had lost his best friend to knife crime. He now educates young people about the dangers of that life to help them to make better decisions. It is about getting the tools that have been used against people turned around and moving in the right direction. If rap is the thing that people engage with, then fine—but let us find rap people who are positive to this agenda. Zoey has found people like that, and I really do applaud them.

The problem we have is that the work of people involved in The Northern Echo’s North East Knife Crime Taskforce can so easily be undermined by posts such as the one by Jack’s killer, which give the impression that knife crime is not serious and prison is not a punishment. That is just so wrong. We cannot force a person to feel remorse for what they have done—that man clearly does not—but we can take steps to prevent them from influencing others to do the same. To do that effectively, crimes involving social media have to be taken more seriously. Zoey is still trying to get the police to deal with her son’s murderers and their families, who have been posting confidential documents about Jack on TikTok and Facebook which they obtained during the trial. She has found the process to be tortuously slow.

I would like the Minister to affirm that prison needs to be a deterrent and needs to be seen to be so. We need consequences of actions to be publicised, not hidden. We need education for those in prison on how they could react differently given their time again. We need victims like Zoey, Theresa, Samantha, Tanya, and the far too many others impacted, to have the protection of the system to prevent further distress from those convicted, and the belief that the lessons from each of their experiences are being applied far and wide to reduce occurrences of these shattering crimes.

I would like to understand what is being done to frustrate access to tools that enable social media access. What is being done to stop victims like Zoey suffering further? I would like to see that we can use tools to educate and inform those who have made mistakes, but we must also ensure that those who do not recognise their errors are not given platforms to promote their actions.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 8:49, 26 Chwefror 2024

As ever, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. You will be reassured to know that I do not intend to take all the time available and speak until 10.30 pm, but I am genuinely pleased that in a debate of such significance we have enough time to address the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend Paul Howell, whom I congratulate on securing it.

I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest sympathies for my hon. Friend’s constituent Zoey McGill, the bereaved mother of Jack. For Jack’s murderer to have been allegedly using TikTok in prison is sickening, and no parent should have to suffer in this way. That is one of the reasons I stand at the Dispatch Box this evening to respond to my hon. Friend and explain how the Government plan to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

How can I say no to the hon. Gentleman?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Paul Howell said that the video had been made in prison, and the other people involved were in prison. Surely, given the clear evidential base, there must be a methodology enabling the governor to take this person to task and impose sanctions to ensure that he spends a longer time in prison.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment, because I will turn to that specific point. However, I want to begin by highlighting the close interest that my hon. Friend has taken in this horrific case on behalf of his constituent. As we all know, he is unfailingly courteous, diligent and passionate as a constituency Member, when acting and speaking on behalf of his constituents, but I think he would acknowledge that however diligent he is in relation to all cases, some cases have a real impact on an individual Member of Parliament, and I suspect that this is one of them. He and I have spoken about this case on a number of occasions, and I pay tribute to his work on behalf of his constituent, but I can reassure the House that no sooner did it hit his desk than it hit my own desk and my mobile phone.

I also thank my hon. Friend for raising the extremely important and challenging issue of knife crime—a crime that destroys lives and, so often, not just the lives of those who are not carrying knives and who end up as innocent victims. We also need to remember, and to remind people, that those who carry knives are at serious risk of being victims themselves. The Government take the threat posed by knife crime incredibly seriously, as has been demonstrated by our investment of £170 million since 2019 alone on prevention and enforcement initiatives in the 20 policing areas where violent crime is most prominent. That includes Northumbria, which covers Newcastle, Sunderland, and the surrounding area. Through those initiatives, an estimated 136,000 violent offences across the country have been prevented in the first three years of their operation. As a result of these efforts, together with the broader Home Office serious violence strategy, 120,000 weapons have been removed from Britain’s streets, and knife crime is now 7% below pre-pandemic levels.

I also want to acknowledge the important work of the North East Knife Crime Taskforce. I am aware of the vital work that it does—not least from the representations made to me by my hon. Friend—and of how it brings together victims’ families, representatives of sports clubs, teachers and people from across the criminal justice system to share ideas and forward-thinking strategies to help prevent lives from being lost on our streets. This relatively new organisation, founded last year, has been set up and driven by that national institution The Northern Echo and by brave local parents, including Zoey McGill. Let me take a moment to pay tribute to her for her dignity in the face of a terrible tragedy, and her willingness to put herself out there to try to make a difference and prevent this from happening to other families. In that vein, I should recognise, as my hon. Friend did, Theresa on behalf of Chris, Samantha’s family and friends, and Tanya on behalf of Connor.

As constituency Members of Parliament and as a House, we owe a huge debt to those who have suffered the most unthinkable things, but who want to make a difference and prevent them from happening to anyone else. Tackling knife crime and preventing future victims is a policy area led by my colleagues in the Home Office, but I will be very happy to work with my hon. Friend and Home Office colleagues to see what can be done to work with the taskforce.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned that Jack Woodley’s murderer allegedly being able to access social media potentially undermines the criminal justice system and, of course, torments the families of victims. That is clearly unacceptable, which is why my Department has invested in the digital media investigations unit. As soon as it spots or is alerted to prisoner misuse of social media, it acts swiftly to work with social media companies to have the content taken down. In the case of Jack’s murderer, the team did just that: they quickly and thoroughly investigated that social media misuse, and successfully worked with TikTok to remove the content—and, indeed, the account—within three hours of it coming to our attention. I appreciate that this will frustrate my hon. Friend, but I must be a bit cautious about speaking about the details of that specific case in the public forum of the Floor of the House.

We are clear that there are robust systems in place to prevent and address poor behaviour in prisons, including serious rule breaking. Under section 40D(3A) of the Prison Act 1952, those caught with a mobile phone can face referral to the police and extra custodial time for the offence of possessing a communications device in a prison without authorisation, while those who are caught smuggling in phones can face the same consequences under section 40B(1)(a) of the same Act. As the Minister responsible for prisons, I am increasingly concerned by photos and videos from custody being shared on social media. Such content traumatises victims, can intimidate prison staff and threatens the security of our prisons. It is indeed a critical issue, and I recognise the impact that this type of online material can have on victims of crime and their families.

In separate cases from those mentioned by my hon. Friend, I was made aware that a parent whose son had been murdered contacted His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service after seeing photos on social media that were posted from prison by their son’s murderer. HMPPS reported the content to the platform in question but, regrettably, it remained online. In another example, the victim of an assault contacted HMPPS about a video of their attacker in prison, who talked for almost 15 minutes about the offence and was disparaging about the victim. Again, HMPPS reported the video to the platform on which it was hosted but, regrettably, it remained online. I cannot imagine the distress that seeing those posts must have caused.

As my hon. Friend stated, we cannot allow prisoners to use illegal phones to engage in criminality from behind bars. The Ministry of Justice has a zero-tolerance approach to illegal phones, and prisoners caught smuggling illicit items can and, rightly, do face extra time behind bars, a loss of privileges and other sanctions. The most serious crimes, including those where a mobile phone has been used for criminal activity or identified as belonging to a prisoner who is a high-risk offender, are also referred to the police, in line with the crime in prison referral agreement. We have a commitment from the Crown Prosecution Service that it will always seek to prosecute in serious cases. Moreover, prisoners are not permitted to have unsupervised access to the internet or any access to social media. Again, they can be punished if they access the internet without authorisation. Under national policy, prisoners can only access the internet in a supervised environment, and only for rehabilitative purposes.

We are clear that harmful social media content posted from prison should not have a home online and that we need to take effective action to remove it. Clearly, the current legislation does not quite go far enough, which is why the Government are committed to supporting the Prison Media Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher. The Bill tackles the issue of harmful media, such as videos and images created within, or showing the inside of, prisons, being uploaded to social media platforms by strengthening existing legislation—namely, the Prison Act 1952. Crucially, the Bill would close existing loopholes, because although it is currently illegal for a person to upload content from inside a prison, it is not yet illegal for a person in the community to upload media that they have been sent by someone in custody. This means that social media companies need to try to establish whether content was uploaded from inside a prison, to determine whether it is unlawful.

The Bill would make the uploading of all unauthorised prison content illegal, regardless of whether it is uploaded from within a prison or from within the community. The Bill will also address loopholes around the creation of prison content. While it is currently illegal to film inside a prison, the law is not clear that it is illegal to film the inside of a prison from the outside—for example, by drone—or to film staff from outside the prison walls. For example, videos taken from above by drone can pose security risks by showing the lay-out of buildings in detail as well as the movement of staff and prisoners, thereby helping prisoners to smuggle in drugs or weapons. The Bill provides a solution to these issues by making it an offence to create or upload unauthorised media of the inside of a prison from outside or of prison workers on prison land. These measures will remove any ambiguity and bring the law up to date.

This is a wide-ranging problem with real-world impacts. I have mentioned a just few examples today, but in 2022 and 2023 combined, HMPPS identified and reported over 1,200 pieces of harmful prison content. The Bill will support the work of HMPPS’s specialist digital media investigations unit that I have already referenced. Last year this Government passed the Online Safety Act 2023, placing world-first legal duties on social media platforms to protect the public from harmful online material. If this additional Bill passes, we will explore how content created of or inside prisons could be added to the list of priority illegal content in the Online Safety Act, meaning that social media companies would be required by law to proactively remove it.

My hon. Friend touched on the significant investment already made by the Department in stopping mobile phones being smuggled into the prison estate. We finished delivering our £100 million security investment programme in March 2022. We continue to adapt and develop our countermeasures to tackle new methods as they emerge. That investment included the deployment of 75 additional X-ray body scanners, allowing staff to see whether prisoners are smuggling illegal contraband, including phones, internally. This means that we have the ability in every single closed adult male prison to detect illicit items via X-ray. This is particularly important as some phones, known as micro-mobiles, are no bigger than a matchbox. They are small, easily concealed and hard to detect. Between July 2020 and October 2023, the X-ray body scanners have recorded 46,925 positive indications, helping to tackle the supply of mobile phones and drugs into prisons.

The programme also delivered airport-style enhanced gate security at 42 high-risk prison sites across the private and public prison estate, implementing routine searching of staff and visitors. This investment paid for 659 specialist staff, 154 drugs dogs and more than 200 pieces of equipment, including archway and handheld metal detectors. These are vital tools in stopping mobile phones and SIM cards circulating in our prisons. We have procured, developed and installed a variety of detection and other mobile phone technologies across the estate, targeting prisoners that represent the highest risk of harm through illicit phone use.

I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that I always try to be as open as I can in this public forum, but I cannot go into in as much detail as he would wish about the specifics of what the equipment does, where it is deployed or the extent of its capability, or disclose suppliers due to security and commercial sensitivities and to protect the tactics involved. It is vital that those seeking to undermine our defences are not given any information that helps them to do so, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend separately and privately to discuss this area in more detail and hopefully provide him with further reassurance about our capabilities in this respect. He mentioned virtual reality, and that is an area I will look into further. We will consider the merits of potential options that would allow for VR delivery in regard to the training and rehabilitation of prisoners.

As my hon. Friend highlighted, in October 2023 we also introduced new legislation to crack down on criminals using drones to deliver contraband including mobile phones into prisons. The new airspace restrictions make it an automatic offence to fly drones within 400 metres of any closed prison or young offender institution in England and Wales. Drone operators who break the rules could face fines of up to £2,500, while those found smuggling illicit items will face up to 10 years in prison. These restrictions mean that police and prison staff can quickly identify suspicious drones and take action against suspected criminal activity, including the illegal filming of prison establishments. We are also investing in a new digital forensics unit to interrogate devices smuggled into jails, to produce improved evidence that is more likely to bring a successful prosecution in court.

Of course, as my hon. Friend said, there is fundamentally no need for a prisoner to be in possession of a mobile phone. The last installations of landlines across all closed public sector prisons in England and Wales are due to be completed this month. These phones are installed in prisoners’ cells to enable closer family ties and to improve safety on wings where payphones on landings were previously used. A PIN is used to access a prisoner’s account, and credit must be purchased in advance. The calls are restricted to security-cleared numbers and are outgoing only. Furthermore, since 2020, all prisons across England and Wales are able to offer social video calls with approved family members and friends, in addition to existing means of contact including social visits, phone calls and letters.

I commend my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of how young offenders can engage positively with a wide range of rehabilitative endeavours, such as music, helping them to move away from criminality and to rebuild their lives.

Richard Foord mentioned books, and he alluded to an example from when our parties were in coalition in 2014. He is right to highlight the importance of books but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said, we need to exercise a degree of caution. I had the privilege of visiting HMP Leicester last week, and I saw its amazing prison library and the work it does with the Shannon Trust and the National Literacy Trust. I have about 2,000 books cluttering my house, but we all know the power of books to give people new ideas and new opportunities to make a positive start.

I echo the views of my hon. Friend: sentencing has five objectives, one of which is to deter people from committing crime, and depriving people of their liberty represents a significant deterrent. Of course, those sentenced to custody are paying a debt to society and to the people they offended against. Prison also protects the public by keeping in custody those convicted by the courts.

The core role of protecting the public from serious offenders should also extend to giving those in custody a positive choice not to pursue a lawless life but to set out on the straight and narrow. This means that they do not reoffend, which means fewer victims of crime in all the communities we represent. It is important that we recognise that creating and uploading social media content from within prison does not form part of that rehabilitative journey. I urge colleagues across the House to close the loophole by supporting the Prison Media Bill’s Second Reading on Friday.

I pay tribute to Zoey and others who have seen their families ripped apart by the horror of knife crime and other violent crime. They will know that, in my hon. Friend, they have a fantastic champion and a genuinely caring and dogged advocate in this House. I believe we have made significant progress, but there is always more to do, and we are determined to do it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.