Robert speaks on the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Technology) Bill

Watch this speech in full here.

Robert Courts said, "It is a great honour to speak on this timely Bill, as we bring the law up to speed with emerging technologies, which present so much of a challenge to prison governors and warders as they go about their business.

It is also a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, and I am delighted he was able to make his speech without being harassed by a mobile phone, as he was on Second Reading—the timing of that interruption was extraordinary and is perhaps never to be beaten in the annals of Hansard. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield for her calm, cool, thoughtful and detailed stewardship of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill, and I am delighted it is one that the Government support. As I have mentioned, this is a necessary Bill. I practised at the Bar before coming to serve in this place. As anyone who has worked at the criminal Bar will realise, mobile phone use in prison is now a serious problem. It is beyond a curious fact and it is beyond a joke. There is no suggestion that mobile phones are not available in prisons, because they are. Frankly, they are a form of currency and they are in daily use.

People in prison can do an extraordinary amount of things with a mobile phone. A number of Members have mentioned those things and, in some ways, we should get away from calling them mobile phones, because the time will come in the not-too-distant future when the extraordinarily capable devices we have in our pockets will replace desktop computers. We will be able simply to plug it in, and everything we do from a computing perspective will be carried around on this very small device.

These devices can be used to make calls, certainly, but that is by no means the only thing they can do. They can do everything from secure, encrypted instant messaging through to word processing and controlling things. So we now live in a world in which people can control the lights in their home on a device that they carry around in their pocket. It does not take a great deal of imagination to realise that if someone is able to do that, they can do other things as well. Phones are now integrated with the systems of some cars. This world presents extraordinary difficulties for prison governors.

As someone who has practised at the criminal Bar for years, I know there is no longer a suggestion that going into prison presents any more than a nuisance to someone seeking to continue carrying out what they see as their business—their criminal activities. As has been said, some Members use their phones in the Chamber—I can reassure their constituents that they are working. They are dealing with emails, reading briefing papers and responding to what constituents have written to them. If they can carry on their business inside the Chamber, it is fanciful to think that if prisoners are given access to devices and the technology to communicate, they will not be able to continue with their criminal activities. They clearly will be able to—"

Kevin Foster

"Does my hon. Friend agree that we talk about these things as phones, but in reality we are talking about a computer system that can make calls?"

Robert Courts

"I could not agree more. When the iPad was first introduced it was described as being a large iPhone that cannot make calls. We are almost now dealing with the reverse of that: a computer that just happens to make calls. Increasingly, that is a by-product that is not needed, because people might communicate by text message or WhatsApp—people can do absolutely everything. I recall thinking years ago, as basic phones started to include things such as photos and syncing with computers, that it would not be very long before that small device replaced everything else—we are well on the way to that now."

Jeremy Quin

"My hon. Friend Alan Mak alluded to the fact that people can use phones to take videos and smuggle them out of the prison system over the airwaves. That is dangerous to the discipline inside prisons. It makes it difficult for governors. Does my hon. Friend Robert Courts share my concern on that facet, in particular?"

Robert Courts

"I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and I entirely share his concern on discipline. I was about to mention photographs and a point that brings the one he made into sharp relief. When we first had phones with cameras on, the photographs were grainy and did not really show anything; they were not helpful as photographs. We now have extraordinary camera abilities with high-definition video. When those things are able to be operated from within a prison, people could photograph or video a prison officer and then harass them by sending that to someone who is outside. The prisoner could show exactly who that prison officer is, in order to humiliate them or blackmail them. That is a very serious problem.

It is also a serious problem that people can record something that is taking place in a prison. Another example of the obvious need for the Bill is that a prisoner can ring a contact on the outside and arrange for the delivery of drugs or other contraband, but this goes far, far beyond that. These extraordinary small devices provide the ability to run an entire business operation and those inside prisons have the ability to carry out an entire criminal operation. That has serious corrosive effects on the ability of prison officers to maintain discipline and to protect the public, as hon. Members have suggested."

Kevin Foster

"Does my hon. Friend share my concern that not only do people have this ability to communicate, but that is now combined with what was once military-grade encryption technology? I alluded to that in my speech. Does he share my concern that it is bringing a whole new angle to this area?"

Robert Courts

"Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The ability to load software such as virtual private network software on to a telephone, to use WhatsApp, which is encrypted, and to communicate with people anywhere in the world while being able to disguise one’s own identity and geographical position presents enormous challenges for those who are trying to make sure that prison is a disciplined place that protects the public from the activities of those within it.

It is extraordinary that going to prison is really only a nuisance, and that if people have access to the right technology, they can carry on from inside prison in exactly the same way as they carried on outside, with only minor inconvenience. We should not allow that. We can see from the statistics—13,000 phones were seized in 2016, going up to 23,000 in 2017, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes said, with 7,000 sim cards seized—that this is a real and pressing problem that we have to deal with now.

Why do we need this change to the law? Essentially, the existing law, as I understand it, enables governors to interfere with specific devices, but we are always playing catch-up. We do not know what technological advances are likely to come in future; we simply know that they will come, and we need to be in a position to address them as and when they arise.

Let me address briefly some of the objections to the Bill that are germane to some of the issues we have been discussing. Having practised at the Bar, I am particularly sensitive to some of them. My hon. Friend Victoria Prentismentioned the important rehabilitative aspect of communication, but it is important that we see communication between prisoners and their families as distinct from their having mobile phones; the two are not the same thing. Prison must, of course, be a punishment and it must protect the public, but having represented people over the years, I have seen countless examples of people who go into prison, meet people and learn more criminal skills there, and come out and continue their criminal activity."

Alex Burghart 

"On families staying in touch when a family member is behind bars, does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important to maintain personal, physical contact? Being able to make weekly or daily calls is great, but it is hugely important for people to spend physical time with their child, and too often that is not available."

Robert Courts

"Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. He has great expertise from his background at the Centre for Social Justice and is well placed to comment on that. I could not agree more. It is critical that prisoners are able to remain in contact with their family members and loved ones, and not just through calls. It is not simply a matter of providing telephony services. We need only look at the statistics: as I understand it, people are 39% less likely to reoffend if they maintain regular contact with their family members. The reoffending rate is around 50% within a year, so it is clear that we must address that, however we look at the criminal justice system."

Jeremy Quin

"Given my hon. Friend’s work at the criminal Bar prior to entering this place, he has a lot of experience of this issue. In response to the intervention from my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, he referred to the need for regular prison visits so that prisoners can see their families in a physical context, and I totally agree with all that, but as much as we would all like to see it there are many cases in which that becomes incredibly difficult to achieve, including because of the geography—where prisons are. Therefore, properly handled telephone connectivity is incredibly important. I may refer to this if I catch Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye and am given a chance to speak, but the costs, which can be up to half the prisoner’s wage for a 10-minute call to a mobile phone, are prohibitive. As my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield said, that needs to be addressed."

Robert Courts 

"My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The cost of calls in prisons is certainly being addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned that, and I have no doubt that the Minister will, too, in due course, because the Government have undertaken that work.

I have raised all these points because we must distinguish between the need for communication, which we must have, and the having of mobile phones, which is not terribly helpful. Communication is required partly because we must reduce the reoffending rate—although I do not want to sound managerial—but also simply from the point of view of humanity. Yes, prisons are a punishment, but they must be humane. Say somebody has committed a crime that means they have to go to prison, but they are a single mother and there are children involved. Anybody who has represented someone who has that double heartbreak will realise that there must be a way to make sure, although we accept that they have to go to prison because they have to atone for what they have done, that families maintain contact with each other. A mother who is in prison should be able to make contact with her children outside, lest the children start to follow down the same road, which causes me great concern. We must improve the access to telephony which is permitted—I know that the Minister will talk to that in due course as well as prison visits.

I wish to make one or two more points before I resume my seat. A concern has been raised about co-opting private companies to assist the state. An Act of Parliament will be enacted. The Secretary of State will be making the regulations. It is important to remember that, as that provides the reassurance. The reason it is helpful that the technological burden is pushed to the providers rather than sitting with the prison governors is that it means that they are actively involved. That will help with the technological increases that we know will come in the years ahead, which means that we will not always be playing catch-up as technology advances.

My final point is about the understandable concern of residents who live near prisons that their service may be affected. If the companies that provide the services are involved, they will be involved in providing any solutions to any unintentional disruption in the much needed communication service for those who live outside.

I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the time to speak. I welcome this Bill and I look forward to its further progress."