HL Deb 10 January 2002 vol 630 cc690-2

3.29 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they are holding with manufacturers and operators to identify measures to nullify and counter the upsurge in crime related to mobile phones.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the Government set up the mobile phone theft steering group in January 2001, bringing together the industry and police to identify steps to tackle the increase in mobile phone theft. The group is pursuing aspects such as raising public awareness of existing phone security, encouraging greater co-operation between the industry and police and the development of enhanced security features in the current and the third generation of mobile phones.

Lord McNally

My Lords, although I recognise the initiative taken in establishing that committee, does the Minister agree that much of the onus lies with manufacturers not only to ensure that the public are aware of current anti-theft measures in mobile phones, but to implement, as standard practice, new anti-theft technology? Will the Government consider imposing a lower VAT rate on consumer products containing anti-theft devices as a major contribution to deterring crime?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, although the general thrust of the noble Lord's comments is correct, the Government do not envisage subsidising this highly profitable industry. The mobile phone market has grown by 600 per cent in the past five years and profits for the manufacturers have been enormous. Some manufacturers, however, seem to give no consideration at all to the security of the products that they sell.

The same applies to service providers, as is well known from discussions held this week. The technology used by BT Cellnet and Vodafone does not easily enable phones to be switched off when they are stolen, whereas that used by the other three providers—Virgin, Orange and One2One—does. Those two providers say that it is not financially viable to introduce the necessary technology and that we should wait until the next generation of phones is introduced. The customer, however, is king. After it was discovered that cars were easily broken into, motor manufacturers discovered that they were selling fewer cars.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, manufacturers and operators must have their proper responsibilities brought home to them. This Question is therefore welcome. Phone users themselves, however, have some responsibility to behave sensibly, and not to act, as one often sees, as if they were almost inviting someone to take their phone from them on the street. Do the Government have any plans to publicise what I can only describe as sensible personal behaviour for those using mobile phones? I cannot help but feel that the problem could be reduced considerably simply by more sensible behaviour by most of us as individuals.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the answer is, yes. As the report published earlier this week—Mobile Phone Theft—shows, many of those affected by mobile phone crime are quite young, school-age people, because of the way in which the market has developed. Part of the group's work in the past year has resulted in the publication of a leaflet entitled Protect Your Phone, 2 million copies of which have been distributed in schools and youth clubs, providing good advice on sensible precautions. Work is being done on the issue. A couple of days ago, at St. Olave's school, John Denham, the responsible Minister, noted that that school had addressed the issue by encouraging children to mark their phones with a postcode and to retain a note of code numbers so that action could be taken if a phone was stolen. However, as I said, some suppliers cannot switch off phones even if code numbers are available because they refuse to update their technology.

If youngsters, and those who buy phones for youngsters, are aware of the facts, the chances are that they will buy or upgrade only phones that can be easily switched off if stolen in a robbery or lost. However, phone users also have a responsibility.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister's supplementary reply was rather more satisfactory than his initial, rather dry one. I was not trying to protect the manufacturers; I agree with him that there is a heavy onus on them to participate in addressing the issue. I therefore encourage the Government to increase VAT on products that offer no protection. Many new technologies could, if manufacturers chose to use them, deter crime in relation not only to phones but other consumer goods. Where such anti-crime technologies exist, they should be a standard part of the appliance. That is the point I was asking the Minister to support.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the answer is that I do. As for the first part of the noble Lord's comments, the initial reply to a Question is often dry because it is written down for one, whereas, using the notes provided for one—although that depends on the supplementary question—one can answer supplementary questions in a much more precise and targeted fashion.

The noble Lord is quite right. In the next two years, third generation technology will radically change the way in which mobile phones are used. Our implicit objective is to ensure that available security features are incorporated not only in mobile phones but in all consumer goods. People can, for example, buy car tracker devices that lie dormant but can be switched on if the car is stolen, enabling its recovery at the docks or elsewhere. Although there is a cost to such technology, which was not available 10 years ago, it increases security. That benefits manufacturers because it is a unique selling point for the product. The Government should not have to subsidise that technology. In a competitive consumer society, manufacturers can market safe products capable of being disabled or easily recovered if stolen. We should, however, also encourage the public to take normal, sensible precautions to avoid items being stolen in the first place.