Clause 17

Offender Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 23 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Conveyance of prohibited articles into or out of prison

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

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want, if I may, to highlight my concerns about the importation and use of controlled drugs in the prison estate. Drugs must feature heavily in any discussion of prison policy, not only because they are responsible for bringing the majority of offenders into prison but because they present apparently intractable problems inside. They also prevent successful resettlement and rehabilitation after release.

As we understand it, the main cause of crime is drugs, followed closely by alcohol. The number of people beginning a prison sentence for drugs offences has more than doubled in the past 10 years from 3,483 to 7,153 each year. At the end of December 2005,17 per cent. of male sentenced prisoners and 35 per cent. of female sentenced prisoners had been convicted of drugs offences, by far the largest proportion convicted of any offence. Furthermore, the problem is getting worse. In 1995, drug offences accounted for only 10 per cent. of male sentenced prisoners and27 per cent. of the sentenced female prison population.

The figures are still misleadingly small: a much larger group of prisoners have committed an offence that is in some way drugs-related. Some 55 per cent. of prisoners report having committed offences connected to their drug taking, with the need for money to buy drugs being the most commonly cited factor. A study for the Home Office found that 73 per cent. of respondents had taken an illegal drug in the year before entering prison.

Of course, drug use does not stop on entry into prison. Little or nothing is done on the inside to cure addictions. There are things called drug-free wings on prison, a concept that I find extraordinary. The situation is regrettable and, in a speech provided as evidence to the all-party group for abuse investigations, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, said:

“Drug treatment is an essential step to rehabilitation in the case of many offenders.”

Of course, efforts are being and have been made to improve the situation. Prisoners are subject to random mandatory drug tests and, in 2003-04, many morethan 53,000 people entered drug detoxification programmes—nearly double the target of 27,000 entrants by April 2004. Nevertheless, use among prisoners remains high and the situation unsatisfactory. A recent Home Office study found that 40 per cent. of prisoners had used drugs at least once while in their current prison, 25 per cent. in the past month and16 per cent. in the past week. The problem is particularly acute among women prisoners, of whom it is estimated that two thirds have a drug problem. Total eradication might be unrealistic, but we ought to be doing much better than we are.

If clause 17 and other parts relating to controlled drugs improve the situation, I will be happy to applaud them. However, I am concerned that the proposalis just another headline to be deployed by the Government to show that they are doing something about the use of illegal drugs in prison and that nothing more will happen. I would like to use this stand part debate to urge the Government to get a grip. I appreciate that they are doing something, but they need to do a lot more about the scourge of drug use in our prisons.

We face a terrible problem. As I pointed out a moment ago, drugs are the root cause of much of the crime that leads to people going to prison, but there are pressures on those outside to import drugs to those inside. Numerically, the numbers are small, but some prison officers, particularly those in big city prisons, are under tremendous pressure from drug gangs or barons to import drugs into prison. People will approach them, either in prison or outside, and tell them that their home address is known, as well as that of their children’s school and their wife’s, husband’s or partner’s work place, and that it would be a sensible idea if they delivered drugs to a customer inside prison.

We also know that prison officers—certainly the rank and file—are not terribly well paid and, therefore, must be very tempted by offers of large sums of money to import drugs into prison. We can tackle that in a number of ways. For instance, we could enhance the professionalism of prisoner officers’ careers, and give them better training and more self-esteem in order to prevent that very small number of officers from being tempted or pressured into bringing drugs into prison and to take a better course of action.

Clearly, most of clause 17 is common sense and brings up to date the criminal law relating to the conveyance of prohibited articles into or out of prison. I shall stop there and trust that the Government will do rather more than just pass a law and that they will provide greater support to the Prison Service, the police and prison officers so that the scourge of drug taking and dealing, and the resultant high reoffending rate, can be dealt with coherently and effectively.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for raising an important issue about the use of drugs in prison. He is quite right to point out that clause 17 will modernise parts of the Prison Act 1952 dealing with prison security. Clauses 16 to 19 deal with illicit articles. He moved on to a wider point about drug taking and I agree with him—it is a major problem that cannot be treated cosmetically. We must get to the heart of the problem. That is why I am pleased that mandatory drug testing, which is considered the most accurate assessment of drug use, is showing the lowest levels of drug use since 1997. However, our ability to detect drugs pushes up the figures on drug use.

We must deal with the problems that people have regarding drug use but, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, we must also determine what we can do to stop the smuggling of drugs and mobile phones into prisons. The clauses deal with stopping that smuggling.

The hon. and learned Gentleman raises many issues. He has also asked a number of parliamentary questions on drugs, which I have answered. I am sure that we will return to that in future. Clause 17 replaces the existing section 40 of the Prison Act 1952, with new sections 40A, 40B and 40C. The purpose of the clause is to update, clarify and refine the existing provisions, and to create new offences that address the development of new technology such as mobile phones.

When the 1952 Act was taken through Parliament, the primary focus of illicit smuggling into and out of prisons was alcohol and tobacco. As the hon. and learned Gentleman says, these days drugs present a  major problem and their illicit use within prisons is assisted by the use of mobile phones. Although the Prison Service is taking forward a series of measures to tackle those important issues, it is essential that the relevant legislation is also brought up to date to recognise and reflect the prohibited items that are of key interest now.

The clause offers greater clarity, breaking down the prohibited items into three bands that are grouped according to their seriousness; the maximum penalty for each band is also graduated according to seriousness. The most serious items of drugs, explosives, firearms or other offensive weapons are set out in list A in new section 40A(2). New section 40B makes it an offence to convey articles in list A into or out of prison without authorisation. The maximum penalty for committing such an offence will be10 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. That sends a clear message that we will not tolerate illegal operations in prisons that threaten or undermine the security of the prison, prisoners, staff and ultimately the public. The availability of a severe maximum penalty will help to deter visitors from making casual attempts to smuggle drugs into prisons.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Will the Minister comment on the inclusion of mobile phones in list B, rather than list A, given the increasing problem of mobile phones being smuggled into prison? They are often concealed, for example, within laptops that are used in the preparation of legal cases. Such smuggling may pose a risk in terms of public threats, including terrorism and other issues; if criminals are able to contact the outside world using mobile phones while they are in prison, that would seem to be quite an important issue to address.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I hope I will address it to his satisfaction shortly.

I was discussing the need for the maximum penalty to be increased, as it had not been raised since 1952. It is an anomaly that smuggling alcohol and tobacco should be subject to a more severe penalty than the penalty for smuggling drugs or firearms, unless the drugs or firearms are directly associated with assisting an escape.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the clause also addresses the problems caused to the security of our prisons by new technology. It does so by creating new offences of taking mobile phones, sound recording devices or cameras into and out of prison. Those prohibited items are set out in list B of new section 40A(3). New section 40C makes it an offence to convey those items into or out of prison without authorisation. As he said, mobile phones present a particular threat to the security of our prisons, and they can enable prisoners to continue their illegal activities and aid the supply of drugs.

Cameras and sound recording devices can also threaten the security of prisons. Pictures taken inside prisons can compromise security, and potentially aid escape. At the same time, new section 40C(4) provides a public interest defence for an offence committed under new section 40C; it maintains the right to bring to the  attention of a court a serious failure of a prison, such as the abuse of prisoners. Finally, a list C item is any item described as such by prison rules, and is subject to a maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine.

We consider the revision of section 40 of the 1952 Act to be sensible and reasonable. It addresses the issues raised by new technology and will provide the Prison Service with strong legislative support in its efforts to prevent illegal activities inside prisons.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch is right to raise the issue of mobile phones; it will always be kept under consideration, because of the related security issues. We believe that it is right that mobile phones are on list B at this time, to reflect the serious nature of the problem. We do not think mobile phones are as big an issue as drugs are at the moment for the reason that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough pointed out, but we will keep them under consideration.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:45, 23 Ionawr 2007

I am grateful that the Minister will keep the issue under review, because mobile telephone technology is moving on, and the size of the equipment needed and the ability to break it down are becoming more of an issue for the Prison Service. I seek the Minister’s assurance that there will be regular monitoring, given the ability to conceal parts within laptops and other pieces of equipment that now go through and are much more difficult to screen. The problem is particularly serious in view of of the terrorist threat that this country continues to face.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Prison security is always kept under review, particularly in respect of the more serious, category A prisoners. The distinction I wish to make is that list A articles are illegal outside prison as well as inside, whereas mobile telephones are on list B to reflect the seriousness of the problem that they cause inside prison. That does not negate what the hon. Member for Hornchurch says: certainly we have to keep reviewing security. As the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, who is sitting to my right, said, our aim is always to have a balance between the issues we face, and mobile telephones are not equivalent to, say, explosives. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. With that clarification, I hope that the Committee will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 18 and 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.