Mobile phones smuggled into British prisons could be used by Islamist militants to spread their extremist ideology and threaten national security, Conservatives claimed today.
Tory security spokeswoman Baroness Neville-Jones quoted official Justice Ministry figures which show that more mobile phones and SIM cards than ever are being secretly brought into jails, despite a ban on their use.
But Justice Secretary Jack Straw insisted that a vast amount was being done to counter the problem, and accused the Tories of resorting to "cheap propaganda" to grab headlines.
Some 8,099 phones and SIM cards were confiscated in prisons in England and Wales in 2008 - a rise of more than 350 per cent since 2006 - said Lady Neville-Jones. They included 388 found in high security jails, almost double the number two years previously.
She cited a report published last month by the counter-terrorism Quilliam Foundation thinktank which highlighted the dangers of mobile phone use by extremists in jails.
The report said that one militant jailed for running jihadist websites was able to access the internet from high-security Belmarsh Prison using an illicit phone, while terror suspect Amar Makhlulif and extremist cleric Abu Hamza may have used mobiles to smuggle out messages to supporters.
"These are really shocking figures," said Lady Neville-Jones.
"How can the Government have done so little as the number of phones found in prisons has more than tripled?
"In 2007 a convicted al Qaida supporter was caught using a mobile phone to build a website from inside a high-security prison. You would have thought that the authorities would have got their act together after that, yet there are now more mobile phones found in high-security prisons than there were then.
"This spreads extremist ideology and is a threat to our security. The Government must tell us how they are going to deal with it."
The figures were released by Justice Minister Lord Bach, who acknowledged in response to parliamentary questions from Lady Neville-Jones that they "understate the actual number of finds".
He added: "Tackling mobile phones in prison presents substantial and increasing technological challenges; and while the numbers of phones found clearly indicates the scale of the challenge, it is also a reflection of prisons' increasing success in finding them and better reporting.
"Due to the covert nature of mobile phone use in prisons, we are not able to estimate the number of mobile phones or component parts in circulation."
Lord Bach said that the National Offender Management Service (Noms) had implemented a strategy to minimise the number of phones entering prisons, and to find or disrupt those that do enter.
"Prisons have been provided with technologies to strengthen local security and searching strategies, including bodily orifice security scanner chairs, and we are trialling mobile phone signal blocking," he said.
Responding to Lady Neville-Jones's comments, Mr Straw said: "We have done a vast amount to tackle this problem but, like the way criminals manage to smuggle drugs into prisons, they have found ways of getting mobiles into prisons.
"Instead of using this problem as a cheap Christmas propaganda trick, the Tories need to say which bits of our strategy they disagree with, what more they would do and how they would fund any extra measures as a result."