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Norman Baker (Lewes): My colleagues and I support the Bill and we will support it in the Lobby if there is a vote, but I am concerned about the sentences to which the Minister has just referred. I accept that it is important to send out a clear message, but I fear that, if the sentences are too severe, we will simply encourage the exporting to which the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred. After all, if the penalties are severe, people are surely more likely to try to avoid them by taking phones across the channel to France to re-programme them, and then bringing them back.

Mr. Denham: I do not think that that is right, and even if such a consequence were to occur, that would be no reason for not adopting the appropriate range of penalties for the crime. It must have crossed the minds of those in this country who are carrying out this currently legal activity that they are playing a role in encouraging the theft and re-sale of mobile phones. Enacting a Bill that sends powerful sentencing messages is the best way to get across to those people that they should not take part in that activity.

The idea that we should confine the issue to home and treat it as a cottage industry by keeping the penalties low, rather than allowing British illegal activity to go abroad, is

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not one that I have a great deal of time for, and I doubt whether that is what the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was really suggesting. We should set the appropriate penalty, and in the light of our discussions at European level, we hope that our stand might be replicated elsewhere in time.

The creation of these new offences will close the existing loophole in the law, and send out a strong message from Parliament. They will prevent businesses from advertising a re-programming service, thereby inadvertently fuelling street crime, and they will tackle those who must be aware of the way their activity relates to street crime. As a result, mobile phone theft will be considerably less attractive. Let us be clear: the aim of the legislation is not so much to generate the largest possible number of prosecutions, as to dissuade people from offering this re-programming service in the first place. If we can achieve that, it will be well worth while.

The new offences will make it easier for the police to prosecute cases involving the handling of stolen goods, which attracts a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment. At the moment, although the police may have reasonable grounds to suspect someone in possession of re-programmed handsets of being guilty of handling stolen goods, once the act of re-programming is itself a criminal offence, much stronger grounds will exist for prosecuting that person for handling stolen goods.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister is absolutely right to talk of the deterrent factor of stiff penalties, but have the very stiff penalties that exist for hacking into certain websites prevented such hacking from taking place? The evidence suggests not.

Mr. Denham: Several offences for which there are stiff penalties are still carried out by some people somewhere along the line. My guess in respect of the activity to which the hon. Gentleman refers is that those penalties do dissuade some people from carrying it out. I am pleased to say that, in anticipation of the Bill, some forces have already done the necessary preparatory work to bring about a change in attitude. For example, Merseyside police force has identified every second-hand mobile phone dealer across its area, and it is visiting each shop to provide advice and a contact helpline, should there be any future queries. That type of proactive initiative by the police is very welcome.

Legitimate businesses will not be adversely affected by the Bill. We have established with the industry that there is no legitimate reason for an individual to be involved in re-programming a mobile phone. We accept that equipment or software that can be used to re-programme a phone can also be used for other, legitimate purposes, but no offence is committed unless there is intent to use it unlawfully.

The Bill, though short, is an important part of the drive to stop the theft of mobile phones, which has fuelled robbery and underpinned a fear of crime on our streets. It should be viewed as part of a significant package of measures being taken in co-operation with the mobile phone industry and the police, and against the background of the wider initiatives we are taking to make our streets more safe. I commend the Bill to the House.

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6.11 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): We greatly welcome the Bill. We are aware of the background that has brought it about, and the Government could rely on our support if the House were to divide at the end of the debate, although I think that most unlikely.

The Minister rightly highlighted the serious problem of stolen mobile phones. Various statistics have been bandied about, and we must bear in mind the fact that they contain some element of individuals claiming that mobile phones have been stolen as part of an insurance scam. I noted that some 8,210 more Nokia phones have been claimed as stolen than have ever been made. That figure should incline the House to a moment of caution when considering the scale of the problem, although I wholly acknowledge that the number of people who reported the theft of a phone in 1998–99 increased by 377 per cent. However we interpret the statistics, mobile phone theft has clearly been an important component fuelling crime, especially street crime.

I do not wish to take up the House's time, so I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss that—even though this is a Second Reading debate—I intend to consider some of the wider problems. When I intervened in his speech, he said that my comment was self-evident. It may have been so to him, but to the wider public it might not be self-evident that although the step that we are taking tonight is important, it can be only a component part of the total fight against the misuse of mobile phones through theft, because vast areas are still open to exploitation.

The Bill criminalises those who, without the manufacturer's express authority, decide to reprogramme a phone to change its IMEI number. That, taken together with the willingness of mobile phone operators to bar the IMEI number of mobile telephones that have been stolen, should—at least, we hope that it will—go some way to ensuring that it becomes much less useful to steal a mobile phone. After the short period when one may be willing to use a phone on the basis of its current SIM card, which most thieves dispose of quickly, it will be more difficult to have the phone re-programmed.

Let me strike a note of caution—the same point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Bill's success will depend on its deterrent effect on the large number of individuals who are willing to re-programme telephones. As the Minister pointed out, those people must be carrying out that operation now in the knowledge that they are almost certainly facilitating the commission of crime. They are acting for gain as the facilitators of those who wish to make a profit from the theft or robbery of mobile telephones. I hope that the Minister will understand my reservation, because I fear that those people who are willing to do that in the first place will not necessarily be deterred by the high sentences that will be imposed.

I see nothing wrong with the sentencing regime in the Bill; the problem will be enforcement. Re-programming is carried out at car boot sales and in shacks and garages, and it has been described by the industry as so easy that anyone with the basic technology could do it. We must hope that the Bill will have an impact, but I have slightly greater reservations than the Minister appears to have. This is not the first time that a Government have come

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forward—this is not a political point—promising to criminalise an activity and therefore to stop it. For example, when the landfill tax was introduced, extra sentences were imposed for fly tipping, but it is still difficult to catch those who do it. I hope that the Minister will take that caveat in good part, because otherwise I entirely welcome the Bill's aim of criminalising re-programming.

The Minister will be aware that when the Bill was considered in the other place, only one amendment was tabled in Committee. The Bill refers to the custody and control of equipment that could be used to facilitate re-programming. It was suggested in the other place that the word "possession" instead of the words "custody" and "control" would make it easier to obtain convictions. I know that we will have a Committee stage on Wednesday, but I hope that it will be short. If the Minister has a view on that point at this stage, it might be useful if he shares it with us when he winds up this debate.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the burden of proof includes the intention

Those are the words in the Bill, although a better word than "thing" could surely have been used. Does he agree that the inclusion of that necessary mens rea will make it difficult to obtain convictions?

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We do not wish to see the criminal law become so onerous for an individual that it presents a real chance that the innocent will be convicted, but we may wish to consider the issue that my hon. Friend raises on Wednesday to see whether the Bill can be improved. I shall listen with great care to what the Minister has to say, because—given that he has been alerted to the point by the proceedings in the other place—I hope that he and his advisers have had the chance to mull over the matter. If we can improve the Bill, we shall seek to do so. I await the Minister's response.

The issue is clear. It is desirable that re-programming be outlawed, and the Bill will achieve that aim. Whether we can succeed in reaching the happy state in which stealing someone's mobile phone is a valueless activity will depend on the industry, and the Government's ability to co-operate with it in future moves. That may require further legislation or firm action by the industry, but it must be our aim. The Bill is a contribution in the right direction, and it therefore has our support.

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