Oral statement to Parliament

Prisoner communications

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Oral Statement on prisoner communications by the Secretary of State for Justice, 11 November 2015.

With permission Mr Speaker, I want to inform the House that telephone calls between prisoners and their constituency Members of Parliament, or their offices, may have been recorded and in some cases listened to by prison staff.

This issue stretches back to 2006, and primarily relates to the period prior to autumn 2012, when this government made changes to tighten up the system.

This is a serious matter, and I would like to start by apologising unreservedly to the House on behalf of the Department for any interception of communications between a prisoner and their constituency MP. I also want to set out the steps I am taking to address the issue, which include an independent investigation by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.

The issue was first brought to my attention on 5 November, and having asked for urgent work to establish the basic facts, I have come to this House at the earliest opportunity.

Mr Speaker, I will first explain how telephone calls in prisons are managed.

Prisoners’ ability to phone and talk to family members, friends and others is an important part of the Prison Service’s work to help prisoners in maintaining family and other ties that support their rehabilitation.

However, you will recognise that in facilitating such phone calls, it is important that safeguards are in place to ensure prisoners do not abuse the system, for example, by contacting victims or by continuing their involvement in criminality whilst still in prison.

All public sector prisons and Youth Offender Institutions, as well as the majority of private sector prisons in England and Wales have operated the same PIN Phone System for the past ten years. Prisoners are issued with a Personal Identification Number to activate the system and are informed that all calls are, by default, recorded and may be listened to by prison staff. This is set out in a Communications Compact, introduced in 2008, which prisoners are required to read and sign. The Compact is clear that the prisoner must advise prison staff of their legal and other confidential numbers to stop these numbers being recorded. This is because the PIN phone system requires an action from staff to override the default setting that all calls will be recorded.

Prior to 2012, provided that prisoners did not present a specific risk, they could contact any telephone number that had not been proactively barred from their PIN account. For example the telephone number of their victim would most likely have been barred.

In 2012, this government implemented greater control over those whom prisoners were allowed to contact, limiting it to specifically identified phone numbers. As part of that process, prisoners supply the legal and otherwise confidential telephone numbers that they wish to contact. Prison staff are then required to carry out checks that the number is indeed a genuine number that should not be recorded or monitored, so confidentiality is respected but not abused.

Now, Mr Speaker, let me turn in more detail to the issues that were brought to my attention late last week, and which will rightly be of concern to this House.

The Prison Rules and policy are clear that communication between prisoners and Hon. Members themselves must be treated as confidential, where the prisoner is a constituent of theirs.

As a result of an inquiry from a serving prisoner and following a rapid internal investigation, NOMS has identified instances since 2006 – when detailed audit records start – where calls between prisoners and MPs’ constituency and Parliamentary offices have been set to record. In a smaller number of cases, those calls have been recorded and listened to by prison staff.

From the initial investigation, NOMS has identified 32 current Members of this House whose calls – or those of their offices – appear to have been both recorded and listened to. For 18 of these MPs, it appears that the prisoner did not list the number as confidential and therefore the action was not taken to prevent recording. As these calls were not marked as confidential, some would also have been subject to the random listening that is completed on all non-confidential calls.

In a further 15 cases, Members appear to have been identified correctly on the system as MPs, but due to a potential failure in the administrative process, the required action was not taken by prison staff, so the calls were recorded and appear to have been listened to. One Member falls under both categories.

We are not yet in a position to confirm the details surrounding each occurrence, and this requires further investigation. I have however been able to establish that the most recent call recorded was to the constituency office of my colleague the Rt Hon Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Simon Hughes. The prisoner in question spoke to a member of the constituency office, rather than to the Rt Hon Member, to enquire about the progress of some constituency correspondence.

In each case it is important to understand whether the prisoners were speaking to an MP directly rather than their office, and whether that MP was their constituency MP.

These are relevant questions if we are to get to the bottom of what has gone on.

I must say, Mr Speaker, that I have seen nothing to suggest that there has been an intentional strategy of the Prison Service listening into calls between prisoners and individual members of Parliament. Indeed, given that – in the case of the Rt Hon Member for Blackburn – one of my predecessors’ calls were being recorded and listened to, this issue appears to have arisen by accident rather than by design.

That is not however to detract from the fact that confidential phone calls between Members of this House themselves and their constituents in prison may have been recorded and monitored. It is unacceptable and I want to ensure that we have taken every reasonable step to protect the confidentiality of communications between prisoners and their constituency MPs.

It has also been brought to my attention that, in a similar way, there have been a small number of cases over the last few years where a call between a prisoner and a lawyer was accidentally recorded. Whilst these have been dealt with individually with the prisoner at the time, I want to be confident that the safeguards for all confidential calls are satisfactory.

I have therefore asked HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick to conduct an independent investigation, which will firstly assure me by the end of this month that the necessary safeguards are now in place, and secondly by early 2015 report in full on the facts and make further recommendations.

I will make a further statement to the House once Nick Hardwick’s investigation has reported to me.

I want to close by reassuring the House that significant improvements were made to the system in autumn 2012, and that since then we have identified only one instance where an individual clearly identified on the system as an MP has had their – or their office’s – call recorded and listened to. But there is more that can be done. On the PIN phone system the main switchboard number for the Houses of Parliament is listed as confidential; as an interim measure, pending the outcome of Nick Hardwick’s review, I have asked that all MPs’ office numbers – as listed on the Parliamentary website – and Constituency Office telephone numbers be marked as confidential. All phone calls from prisoners to those numbers cannot for now be recorded or monitored. The Prisons Minister, the Hon Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will be writing to all Members asking them to provide any further numbers that should be registered in this way.

I will also write individually to all Members where we have particular concerns that their conversations may have been monitored, and intend to place a list of those MPs in the library of the House. Before doing so I want to inform those affected and give them an opportunity to agree. I hope to conclude this by the end of this week.

The relationship that exists between MPs and our constituents is crucial and must be protected. That is why I have acted at pace to bring these issues to the House’s attention, and have taken immediate steps to ensure our confidentiality is respected.

I commend this statement to the House.