'No deliberate attempt' to monitor prisoners' calls with MPs - Chief Inspector
More than 3,000 phone calls between prisoners and their constituency MPs were recorded by prison authorities, and 280 were downloaded and listened to, an inspector's report has found.
The report by Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick found "no evidence of a widespread, deliberate attempt to monitor communications" between inmates and MPs, and said that the majority of calls were downloaded in error.
But Mr Hardwick said that in "a small number" of cases there was evidence of rules being deliberately broken by prison officers.
He demanded a formal investigation by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to establish whether disciplinary offences had been committed.
The report expressed "significant concern" over calls from one prisoner to MPs Paul Burstow, Conor Murphy and Ed Davey, where it found "evidence to suggest that staff monitoring these calls knew that they should not have done so".
One call involving Mr Davey was transferred to disc without the required authorisation.
In the case of another prisoner who contacted MPs Adam Holloway and Gordon Henderson, there was "si gnificant concern because the pattern of listening suggested it was deliberate and systematic".
In a further 10 cases, there was evidence that the downloading of calls in breach of the rules may not have been accidental, but it did not amount to a compelling case of deliberate interception of privileged communication, Mr Hardwick said.
He expressed "some concern" over these cases and suggested they could be investigated further.
The inquiry was ordered by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in November last year, when he said incidents took place between 2006 and 2012 and affected at least 32 current MPs.
Mr Grayling apologised then to the House of Commons, and that apology was repeated by prisons minister Andrew Selous as he released Mr Hardwick's report.
The report found that 35 prisoners, 37 MPs and 38 prisons were affected by eavesdropping on calls.
Since 2006, prisoners had made a total of around 5,600 calls to MPs, of which 3,150 (56%) were recorded.
Some 280 of the recordings (8.8%) were downloaded to a playback system and "probably" listened to on 358 occasions, the report said.
Some 68 calls were listened to live or exported to disc.
Mr Hardwick said: "I have not found evidence of a widespread, deliberate attempt to monitor communications with MPs and I believe that the majority of calls were downloaded for listening in error.
"In a small number of calls, however, I have found evidence that suggests the rules were deliberately broken.
"I have asked the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to conduct a formal investigation into these cases to establish whether any disciplinary offences have been committed.
"I have made a number of recommendations to address the shortcomings I have identified.
"They include improving levels of understanding confidential access privileges among prisoners and staff, and conducting formal investigations for the cases where we have identified significant concern."
Mr Hardwick said that arrangements put in place to ensure the confidentiality of MPs' calls were now "much more effective", but said there was a need for consistency in policy and practice across the prison system.
But he warned that existing phone systems, policies and practices "do not provide sufficient safeguards against staff error or corrupt practice".
NOMS needs a system to ensure that similar problems are identified "much more quickly" in future, he said.
The report also heard complaints from a "significant" proportion of prisoners that their legally privileged mail was being opened, and said NOMS must implement "more robust systems" for ensuring this did not happen.
In a written statement to MPs, Mr Selous said that ministers had accepted all of Mr Hardwick's recommendations.
Mr Selous said: "I wish to apologise to the House on behalf of the Ministry of Justice for the monitoring which is believed to have taken place.
"Prisoners and Honourable Members should rightly expect these conversations to be confidential.
"While I am content that the recording of these communications was done in error rather than by intent, it is unacceptable that this issue was not identified sooner.
"Since discovering this, we have taken urgent steps to ensure that prison officers have the correct training and processes in place to make sure this will not happen in future."