House of Commons
Thursday 16 November 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On today’s Order Paper it is noted that on 18 November 1917, Captain The Hon. Neil James Archibald Primrose, PC, MC, Royal Bucks Hussars, Member for Wisbech, died from wounds received in action at the Third Battle of Gaza, Palestine. We remember him today.
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Thank you, Mr Speaker; the length of the name of the Department now makes it sound like a land grab.
Over 94% of UK homes and businesses can now access superfast broadband and we are on track to reach 95% by the end of the year. Superfast broadband coverage will extend beyond that to at least another 2% of premises. For those not covered by superfast broadband, we will ensure universal broadband coverage of at least 10 megabits.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I am delighted that Aberdeen is one of six pilot areas for superfast reliable full-fibre broadband, which can offer speeds as high as 1 gigabit. However, at a time when the Scottish Government’s slow roll-out of superfast broadband has left my constituency with one of the worst broadband speeds in the UK for an urban constituency—as well as the city being Europe’s energy capital—does the Secretary of State share my belief that this UK Government investment is vital to boosting connectivity in Aberdeen?
I am disappointed to hear about the superfast coverage in my hon. Friend’s constituency, because this Government have put the resources behind the superfast programme, but we are obviously reliant on local authorities, and, in the case of Scotland, the Scottish Government, to deliver the superfast programme. But we have always said that superfast gives good connectivity to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, but full fibre is the future, and the fact that Aberdeen is in the pilot is good news for his constituents.
We are determined to make sure that all businesses and people living in my hon. Friend’s constituency are able to access the broadband speeds they need to ensure they can be part of the digital revolution in our economy. I assure my hon. Friend that we will deliver full fibre to his constituency as soon as practicable.
Virgin Media has recognised that Wrexham is a great place to invest and is building new infrastructure in Wrexham. What can the Secretary of State do to help all the Conservative Members who ceaselessly complain about this Government’s performance on superfast broadband, and ensure they have the benefits that Wrexham is now having?
It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman takes that approach. In 2012 only 2% of premises in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for example, had access to superfast broadband, but the figure is now 94%, thanks to the actions of this Government. We know that we need to continue working on this, because it is important that we get the right access for people, and I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has such good broadband access.
Ceredigion has the dubious accolade of being in the bottom 10 UK constituencies for broadband provision. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales, and in particular its rural areas, are not left behind and lose out on superfast broadband?
My Department speaks regularly to the Welsh Government, who, as with the Scottish Government in Scotland, have responsibility for delivering superfast broadband across Wales. They will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I am sure they will act upon them.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State talk about superfast broadband coverage. Superfast Essex will provide coverage for 95% of the county, but what is being done to provide access to the 5% of residents in Essex, many of whom live in rural areas in my constituency, who desperately require improved connectivity?
I am very pleased that Superfast Essex will reach 95%, and, as I said in my opening remarks, the superfast programme does not end at the end of 2017; we expect a further 2% of premises to be covered by superfast under the programme. I also urge my hon. Friend and her constituency neighbours in Essex to encourage take-up of superfast broadband, because, as people take up access to it, money then comes back into the system to connect even more premises to superfast broadband.
Will the Secretary of State explain why the UK Government’s contribution to the Scottish Government’s broadband roll-out project is just £21 million, an amount less than that awarded to Devon and Somerset? Will she join me in applauding the scale of the Scottish Government’s ambition to achieve 30 megabits per second for every Scottish household? Does she not think that the people of England deserve that level of ambition from their Government?
This is about delivery of superfast broadband, not just ambition, and I am afraid that the Scottish Government are behind on every single measure compared with other areas—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman talks about money, money, money but the important point is that this is about delivery. Other local authorities and areas have been able to deliver, and I hope that the Scottish Government will take note.
Creative Industries: Careers
We are collaborating closely with industry to develop a sector deal for the creative industries. This includes considering how Government and industry can partner to strengthen the pipeline talent to the sector. Following the independent review of the sector by Sir Peter Bazalgette, we are working with the Creative Industries Council and the Creative Industries Federation and discussing measures including ways of improving information about careers in the creative industries and tackling barriers to working in the sector.
I have visited a number of excellent apprenticeship schemes across the broadcast media, and apprentices often tell me that they have had to seek out information about apprenticeships themselves rather than receiving it from schools or careers advisers. What can we do to better promote the value of apprenticeships among our young people?
I completely agree that apprenticeships are a fantastic thing, and it is a great achievement of this Government that so many more young people are taking them up. They are a fantastic way of getting the skills and training they need for their careers. There are specific issues with regard to apprenticeships in the creative industries, particularly as a result of there being so many freelancers in those industries, but I know that the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), attended a roundtable of the creative industries earlier this week to discuss how exactly we can make this work so that all young people can benefit from apprenticeships.
Nurturing diversity is key to our vibrant creative industries, and access to those industries. Will the Minister join me in urging the new chief executive of Channel 4, Alex Mahon, to adopt a different approach from that of her predecessor by putting diversity and access to the industry at the top of her wish list as she considers relocation to the likes of Birmingham and Solihull?
I think we have a question on Channel 4’s location later. Channel 4 has done incredibly great work when it comes to diversity. Its on-screen talent includes people with disabilities, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and people of different sexualities. It has been very good at promoting diversity, and I want to pay tribute to it for the work that it has done. Across the industry as a whole, more diversity would mean more creativity, and that is a message that the whole industry must listen to—and that diversity may possibly be located outside London.
In order to progress their careers, creative artists need lots of work opportunities. For musicians, that means venues, many of which are now being closed. Will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to embedding the agent of change principle into legislation, as I hope to propose in a ten-minute rule Bill in the near future?
Of course, the people with the greatest interest in careers in the creative industries are the workforce. In those industries, those people are often rights holders as well as workers, so why are the Government continuing to deny membership of the Creative Industries Council to the trade unions? Will the Secretary of State make a pledge now to rectify that glaring omission immediately?
Membership of the Creative Industries Council is determined by the membership of the council. It is not a Government decision. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, if he has been speaking to the council, that because of the sector deal, any decisions about future membership have been deferred until the deal has been finalised.
Windsor is a well-connected constituency —particularly given one notable resident—but we do have concerns that some rural and semi-rural areas may need further connectivity. In order to boost the creative, home education and home entertainment markets, does my right hon. Friend agree that developers and local authorities would do well to push on with ensuring that they deliver broadband infrastructure, such as ducting alongside the mains?
Windsor is not only well connected, but well represented. My hon. Friend’s point is that it is important that new developments get infrastructure and connectivity right from the start. We have agreed with the Home Builders Federation and major broadband providers that all new large developments of over 30 homes will get good connections, but we are also talking to the Department for Communities and Local Government to strengthen that requirement, because it is pretty absurd to build a new house without the ducting to take fibre all the way to it.
I wrote to the Treasury about its £200 million locally led infrastructure fund, but I was passed to the Minister, who passed me to the local authority. The local authority says that the criteria mean that people have to make bids that are too big for a rural area. Will the Minister please look again at that so that my constituents in Teesdale can get the broadband they need?
As it happens, I was in Teesside last week talking to local authorities from across the region. We designed the scheme to allow all local bodies of whatever size to bid—district and borough councils, county councils and larger metropolitan areas—so I look forward to engaging with the hon. Lady to ensure that that can be taken forward.
May I suggest that my right hon. Friend comes to the other end of Berkshire to look at what West Berkshire Council has done to try to get to the hardest to reach, particularly in rural areas? Only a fraction of the 72,480 homes do not have superfast broadband or will not have it in the next months. Instead of BT, the council is working with Gigaclear, which is a really effective delivery company.
West Berkshire is also extremely well represented, and testament to that is the fact that so much progress has been made on superfast broadband. I love the fact that there are now more and more different providers—not just Openreach and Virgin, but Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and others—that are working to get Britain connected.
I understand that the UK Government are likely to be taking up BT’s offer of a 10-megabits universal service obligation for the remaining 5% of premises, which is far behind the Scottish Government’s commitment of 30 megabits for 100%, so concerns have been raised about how the two will align. Will the Minister tell us whether he intends to discuss that with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity before reaching a decision? Will he take up the suggestion of a UK-wide working group?
Yes, I saw my Scottish counterpart last week, and I am going to Scotland in a fortnight to discuss the matter. The problem in Scotland is that we delegated the funding to the Scottish Government, who have contracted more slowly than any English county or the Welsh Government. They need to get on with it.
Gigaclear is also coming into Devon and Somerset in competition with BT to deliver more superfast broadband. However, the percentage of hard-to-reach people is still big, so we really must concentrate on getting superfast broadband to them.
My hon. Friend is dead right. I pay tribute to the work that Devon County Council and Somerset County Council have done together to deliver into some very hard-to-reach rural areas. In contrast to the Scottish contracting, they have been getting contracts out the door in order to achieve connectivity as quickly as possible.
Leaving the EU: Creative Industries
The creative industries are one of the UK’s greatest success stories, contributing over £87 billion to the economy. We have been working with the creative industries to understand the impacts and opportunities presented by our decision to leave the EU.
The Secretary of State will understand that new technologies are fuelling economic growth in our country, and nowhere more so than in Manchester—home to the world’s first computer and the new wonder-material graphene. Manchester is an international city that was built on the work of people from all countries, as exemplified today by an international student population of 20,000. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that Brexit does not create new borders that will separate a community that thrives when there are no physical, language or cultural barriers, just like-minded innovators?
I agree that Manchester is a fantastic, creative, innovative and diverse city. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming, for example, the Factory project, in which £78 million is being spent on regenerating the old Granada studios into an amazing creative space and hub. He will also welcome the fact that yesterday the Government announced a doubling of the number of tier 1 visas available for highly skilled—the brightest and best—creative and tech people. He will also join me in welcoming the fact that the success of Tech North, a Manchester success story, will now be expanded across the whole UK through Tech Nation.
My hon. Friend is right. Clearly there are challenges, but there are great opportunities. These are global industries that have operated outside the 27 member states of the European Union forever. They are a great British success story, and I am determined to make that continue.
Digital Infrastructure Investment
As well as the current generation of technologies, we have provided more than £1 billion of funding to support the next generation of digital infrastructure, including investment in full-fibre networks and 5G testbeds, so that we are ready to ensure that we are ahead of the pack as 5G is developed.
Given the number of companies in and around Cambridge that specialise in technological innovation, the growth of agritech in east Cambridgeshire and the rural nature of Cambridgeshire as a whole, does the Minister think that South East Cambridgeshire would be an excellent place to hold some of the 5G trials?
My hon. and learned Friend has been assiduous in putting the case for Cambridgeshire, because of the combination of amazing high-tech growth in Cambridge itself and its rural hinterland, as an area where we can really test these technologies. I look forward to working with her and with Connecting Cambridgeshire to see whether we can make that happen.
As well as fibre and base stations, data is a key part of digital infrastructure. The Minister claims that his Data Protection Bill will put people in control of their own data, but it systematically strips various groups, including immigrants, of any control. What is he doing to ensure that people can actually control their own data?
I am slightly surprised by the question, because we have introduced the Data Protection Bill, which is currently in the other place, to give people much more control and consent over their data and to ensure that in the UK we have a system that supports the use of data in a modern way while strengthening privacy. No doubt we will have a debate when the Bill comes to this House, but it is great that the Bill has cross-party support.
Absolutely. Not only are we ensuring that we roll out the current generation of technology—we are pushing the Scottish Government to deliver on that—but for the next generation of technology we will deliver directly to local authorities in Scotland, rather than going through the Scottish Government, because we want to make sure that Scotland does not get left behind, as it has this time round.
The Minister will be aware that some 63,000 premises in Northern Ireland cannot get a download speed of 10 megabits per second, and 94% of those premises are located in rural areas. Through our confidence and supply agreement with the Government, we secured an extra £150 million for broadband. Can the Minister indicate what discussions have taken place with the Assembly to ensure that the roll-out continues?
We have been putting a lot of work into trying to ensure that we get a faster roll-out in Northern Ireland, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about the details. The passing of the Northern Ireland Budget Bill this week will help to deliver that, and it will help to ensure that we have the structures in place. I am determined to make sure that Northern Ireland continues to get connected.
As the hon. Lady will know, Euryn Ogwen Williams’ independent review of S4C is ongoing. It will consider a range of issues, including S4C’s remit, governance and funding methods.
Welsh is Britain’s oldest indigenous language and, as such, has great cultural, social and historic significance. Based in my constituency, S4C plays a huge role in providing constant opportunities for people to hear and learn Welsh. Will the Secretary of State commit to increasing S4C’s funding to ensure S4C’s digital content is adequately resourced for it to compete on an equal footing with other broadcasters?
I agree with the hon. Lady that S4C is a fantastic success story, one introduced by a Conservative Government in the 1980s and one that continues to promote the Welsh language in such a fantastic way. We have an independent review, and I am determined to support and deliver a fantastic S4C for the future, making sure it is fit for the 21st century.
Channel 4: Relocation
The Government have made it clear that Channel 4 must have a major presence outside London. As a publicly owned broadcaster, it is essential that it reflects and provides for the country as a whole.
The Secretary of State keeps saying that this has got to be ensured, but many of us have put bids in, particularly from the west midlands—I am from Wolverhampton so I would want Channel 4 to go there—and we still do not know. What will she do to ensure that any relocation of Channel 4 protects its ability to fund itself through advertising?
We are discussing with Channel 4 the appropriate way forward and what is appropriate for it to do. I make no comment on an appropriate place for it to relocate to. I have heard a number of bids just today. I suggest that right hon. and hon. Members contact the Channel 4 board to put their propositions forward. This is a decision for the board, but clearly if we cannot reach an agreement, we would need to legislate, and I welcome the fact that there is cross-party support for the private Member’s Bill on this matter.
Given that Norwich University of the Arts produces many digital and creative graduates each year, does the Secretary of State agree, notwithstanding the fact that she is not going to make a public endorsement, that Channel 4 should carefully consider the merits of Norfolk for a new location when it moves outside London?
What we have found through this process, which is still ongoing, is the vast number of incredible creative locations that we have across the whole of the United Kingdom. I urge them all to continue to put forward their suggestions and proposals, not just for Channel 4 but for all other creative industries, because getting creative clusters and a centre of gravity in an area means that creativity can flourish.
Football: Policing Costs
My officials and I have regular conversations with the Home Office on matters relating to football and other sporting events, including counter-terrorism, security and policing matters.
I am very grateful for the Minister’s response. The cost to the Met of policing premier league football last year was almost £7 million, but the clubs contributed only £360,000. Given that they draw in more than £240 million every match day, is it not high time that premier league clubs were paying their full share to overstretched police forces?
Football clubs do make a significant contribution to policing costs for home matches, and the Premier League and the clubs themselves contributed more than £2.4 billion to the public finances. We have to recognise that there are parameters as to policing costs and where these can be recovered from. I know that recent High Court cases have determined that, based on existing legislation, the police are not entitled to charge for these special police services where they are deployed on public land. That court decision has implications for what the police can charge, but we work with both the Premier League and the clubs on a host of policing matters, and I am sure that will continue.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) is absolutely right on this issue, about which I have had meetings with the Home Secretary. I urge the Minister to go with the Home Secretary to meet the Premier League and the English Football League and ask them to make a voluntary contribution from the massive amounts of money they get from TV rights, before they redistribute it to the clubs. If they refuse to do so, the Government should legislate to make sure that police forces get a realistic amount for the cost of policing matches; otherwise, the money is taken away from neighbourhood policing in all our constituencies.
As I said, the Premier League and the clubs contribute more than £2.4 billion to the public finances. We are aware of the continued increase in the cost of policing football matches and other sporting events, and we have ongoing discussions about that with all those involved.
The Prime Minister has been clear this week that the Russian authorities have been meddling in elections and using social media inappropriately. What extra steps is the Minister taking following those allegations, and has he raised them directly with the Russian authorities?
Does the Minister agree that companies such as Facebook and Twitter should respond to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s request to supply any evidence of Russian-backed activity or fake news interfering with British politics to Parliament so that we can scrutinise it?
There are now widespread reports of a wave of cyber-attacks, possibly backed by Russia, aimed at subverting our democracy. What conversations has the Minister had with social-media firms about the existence of evidence of Russian interference in the EU referendum and the general election?
We have discussions with social media companies on a whole range of issues, including this one, and we discuss the impact of social media on political campaigning around the world. Of course, we cannot solve an issue such as this without working with the social media companies, because they provide the platforms on which a lot of the communication occurs.
Well, that was a pretty high-level answer. If we are to stop the cyber-attacks on our democracy, it is important that the right agencies have the right powers. The Electoral Commission tells me that it does not have the power to investigate foreign spending in elections. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will co-operate fully with the Mueller inquiry into Russian cyber-attacks on democracy? Will he begin preparations now for an American-style honest ads Act, so that the right agencies have the right powers to stop these cyber-attacks in their tracks?
Since the previous oral questions, my Department has made progress on a number of key priorities. We have set out the internet safety Green Paper, which is the first step towards making the UK the safest place to be online. This week, we launched the Mendoza review—the first review of the museum sector in 10 years—which will help England’s museums to thrive and grow. We have continued to work to ensure that the UK is a world leader in digital and technology. Just yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor welcomed some of the best and brightest to Downing Street to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the sector. Finally, my Department will be leading work across Government and with a range of people and organisations to develop a civil society strategy. We value the vital work that civil society contributes in a number of areas, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Civil Society has today made a written ministerial statement to inform the House of our intention to take that work forward.
American football is very popular in this country, and growing more so. In fact, we have had four regular season National Football League games in London this year. It is rather like Arsenal playing one of their premier league games in New York. Next year, there will be two games at Wembley and two at the magnificent new Tottenham Hotspur ground. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what efforts are being made to attract a franchise to London?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who chairs the all-party group on American football. Mr Speaker, I am just contemplating what you would do if Arsenal were playing in New York and how you would manage to fit in going there and watching the match. It may be a bit of a challenge, but I am sure that you would enjoy it. I was at the Ravens v. Jaguars match at Wembley, and saw an amazing full house of people enjoying American football here in the United Kingdom. We want to continue to promote American football here, and discussions are ongoing about a full-time franchise.
The Minister will be aware that the Football Association made its final settlement payment to Eniola Aluko recently after initially withholding it because she spoke out about the abuse she had suffered. It is in the public interest to know how many people are being paid to stay silent. Does the Minister know how many settlement payments of a similar nature have been made to individuals by the FA or professional clubs after allegations of abuse or discrimination?
I am not aware of the answer to that question. I am sure that the FA is watching this exchange with some interest and that it will be in touch with the hon. Lady.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the decline of local newspapers and the consequences for local democracy? Will she welcome the launch by the BBC of the local news partnership, which will support the employment of local democracy reporters? Does she agree that, perhaps now, Google and Facebook, which also profit from local journalism, could support that initiative?
My right hon. Friend deserves great credit for the work that he did on the BBC charter, which included this local news initiative now being carried out by the BBC. The idea that we might lose our local newspaper—the voice for local people—is of great concern to all Members of this House. I have regular discussions with the internet companies on precisely the point that he has raised.
It has been well reported that there has been a decline in the receipts of the national lottery, and it is something that we are looking at. However, we still expect returns to good causes of the national lottery to be in the region of £1.6 billion, much of which will be distributed across the nation, including the constituency of the hon. Gentleman.
Following the statement by the Prime Minister on 17 June, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport gave £1.5 million to Mind to support our emergency services. That was much appreciated. Will she look at increasing that funding going forward?
Mr Speaker, you will recall that on 31 October I published the 12-week consultation into gambling. That consultation will finish in January. On the day, we had an urgent question in which many of these issues were raised. None the less, the Government take the issue very seriously, and we look forward to getting back all the responses from the public and other interested organisations to help shape our policies in the future.
Society lotteries provide invaluable funding for charities and local causes, but they could provide a lot more if the jackpot prize was increased. Will my right hon. Friend outline what plans there are to reform the society lottery sector and the timetable for doing so?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about society lotteries. As Government, we of course want to ensure that we have one strong national lottery, but that does not mean that we cannot also have strong society lotteries. We are looking carefully at the role of society lotteries and we will make announcements in due course.
The biggest concern of the tourism and hospitality sector is access to the labour force once we leave the EU. Will the Minister confirm that he has got this message, and will he update the House on what representations he is making to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the matter?
My hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for the tourism industry. I have had numerous conversations with the tourism industry across the UK and I am having active conversations across Government. I look forward to progress being made on this important issue in the very near future.
I shall be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. I know about the exciting proposals. We are very strong supporters of music venues in Bradford and across the country. This gives me the opportunity to warmly welcome the decision of the Met to abolish form 696, which has done so much to prevent a diverse range of live music. Significant pressure was brought to bear and, thankfully, the Met has now taken that decision. That is in London, but I also want to work with the hon. Gentleman to deliver music venues in Bradford.
The Minister responsible for tourism will be aware of the importance of the industry to Torbay. It may seem strange to say this in winter, but many people will soon be starting to think about their summer holidays. What work will he do to ensure that people think of coming to Britain’s great coastline next summer when they book their holiday at Christmas 2017?
The listed events regime is incredibly important to ensure that the nation’s favourite sports are seen on public service broadcasting channels. We do not have a proposal to change the listed events regime as it is working pretty well, but I will look into the specific details mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
I am passionate about getting more women into sport, especially girls in the Eastleigh constituency and across the UK. This Government have done great work with the “This Girl Can” campaign. We must, though, ensure that everyone taking part in sport is properly protected. What is the Department doing to ensure appropriate safeguarding for all children participating in sport?
Mr Speaker, I hope you will forgive me, but it is actually a year ago today that the former Crewe Alexandra player Andy Woodward reported historical allegations. He was incredibly brave to do so. As a consequence of his courage, he has ensured that the Government and other parts of the sporting sector have taken the issue incredibly seriously. I am pleased to announce that I have secured ministerial agreement with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to change laws on the position of trust to include sports coaches.
The Natural History Museum is embarking on the monumental task of digitising 800 million items, including a collection of dung beetles and flea beetles. These items could hold the keys to our future biodiversity, climate change and pollution problems, so they are very important. Does the Minister agree that this is the kind of project the Government should be supporting in conjunction with our global partners?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are indeed supporting that sort of work, and we have some internationally renowned institutions doing wonderful work. Digitisation is really important, and the University of Sheffield, for example, is working closely with the Natural History Museum to take advantage of some of the pioneering work it has already undertaken.
The Attorney General was asked—
Terrorism Offences: Prosecution
The last financial year saw the highest number of terrorism-related arrests in any year since data collection began, and a 55% increase in trials from the previous year. The conviction rate in terrorism prosecutions remained at 86%. The team of specialist prosecutors within the Crown Prosecution Service counter-terrorism division has doubled in size and their skills have been enhanced through training and sharing best practice with partners.
Disclosure to the defence in terrorism trials, as in any other trials, of material that might be of assistance to the defence or that might undermine the prosecution is the touchstone of a fair trial. Yet, notwithstanding my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General’s guidelines, there are concerns about the inconsistent application of those requirements. What more can be done to ensure that this vital task is properly discharged?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has considerable experience in prosecuting cases. He is right that disclosure is a huge challenge, and becoming an ever greater one, because of the volume of material that arises, particularly in terrorism cases. We need to make sure we understand fully how we deal with a large quantity particularly of electronic material and sift it effectively. Then we need to make sure that all those involved in the disclosure process—both police officers and prosecutors—understand their responsibilities fully.
This is a matter of considerable public concern. He will know that many of the offences related to what is happening in Syria are offences of preparing to commit acts of terrorism. Over the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, 90 offenders were charged with these offences, 81 of whom received immediate custodial sentences at an average of eight years and five months’ imprisonment.
Across the United Kingdom, the volume of cases and convictions is going up all the time. It is important that we recognise that the volume of cases reflects a genuine problem—a problem not just of terrorist acts, but of those who encourage or glorify terrorism. We must make sure the law keeps pace with that in terms of substantive offences and the sentencing regime.
Following on from that answer, has the Attorney General seen the content published online yesterday by the Leave.EU campaign, in which a number of his hon. and right hon. colleagues were denounced as traitors and as a cancer, simply because they disagreed with the views held by the billionaire owner of that company? Will the Government consider amending legislation so that such clear incitements to hatred can be prosecuted through the criminal courts?
I agree that incitement to hatred is reprehensible, from wherever it comes and whatever subject it is based on, and it is important that the criminal law is available to deal with that conduct. The hon. Gentleman is right too—he has heard me say this before—that conduct online should be treated no less seriously than conduct offline. No one should imagine that they are immune from the criminal law if what they are doing is online instead of in what we might call the real world.
Leaving the EU: Prosecution of Criminals
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the United Kingdom is committed to maintaining both the UK’s and Europe’s security now and after our withdrawal from the EU. We believe that the UK and the EU should work together to design new, dynamic arrangements as part of our future partnership, that would allow us to continue and to strengthen our close collaboration on security, law enforcement and criminal justice.
Next year, London will host the Commonwealth summit, which is a real chance to build on what the Minister has just said—that commitment across different countries to build up capacity to prosecute criminals. Can the Attorney General assure the House that every effort will be made to build the widest possible coalition to tackle crime, which knows no borders?
Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance, and he is absolutely right that such offences are best dealt with transnationally, because they are committed transnationally. He will recognise that outside the European Union we have a number of different relationships with many other countries to enable us to do law enforcement more effectively and of course bring prosecutions more effectively too.
The Justice Committee, in its report in the previous Parliament on the legal implications of Brexit, referred to a number of practical measures that need to be taken to maintain criminal justice co-operation. Can the Attorney General help us on what progress has been made on those, and in particular what steps are being taken to ensure that we have continuing data regulation alignment after we leave?
Yes. My hon. Friend is right that data is crucial to this, and he will recognise that two things need to be done simultaneously. We need to aspire to the closest possible co-operation in law enforcement and security with our European friends after our departure from the EU. We also, of course, need to prepare for what I think is the unlikely possibility that we will not have an ongoing relationship, and there may be a need to fall back on other things. But as I say, I think that is an unlikely possibility, and I think it is very important that we have the closest possible co-operation, which of course is in the interests not just of the UK but of the EU.
It is vital that we maintain the advantages of our current prosecution toolbox when we leave the EU.
May I press the Attorney General on the allegations that exist of widespread international money laundering against the President of South Africa and the Gupta family, which is stripping money from South Africa and leaving that country as a captured state? Can the Attorney General assure me that our exit from the European Union will not hamper any investigation into those matters?
As I said to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), we should all recognise that crimes like money laundering do not stop at national borders and therefore they cannot be combated solely by one nation state, and they are not being. Our co-operation with other countries will continue, and I hope be enhanced, because I believe this kind of transnational offending is likely to increase, not decrease. The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) would not expect me to comment on ongoing investigations in specific cases, but I can assure him that when it comes to money laundering, as with other types of offending, that transnational co-operation will continue.
I am grateful for that answer. Of course, I would not expect specific points on a specific case, but is the Attorney General aware that there are now further allegations against the Gupta family about a financial kickback from China South Rail that originates from the South African state enterprise Transnet? Can he assure me that if necessary the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority will undertake appropriate investigation of this matter?
Yes. As the hon. Gentleman will readily recognise, one of the challenges in cases like this is to determine the appropriate jurisdiction, because many other law enforcement agencies in many other countries may well have an interest, but we do try and do that, and we are generally successful in reaching what I think are sensible settlements on who does what. He can rest assured that under this Government, offending of the type he has described will be properly pursued, wherever it takes place and whoever is responsible.
The number of sentences considered by the Attorney General and me has more than doubled since 2010, from 342 to 837 requests last year. We took 190 of those cases to the Court of Appeal in 2016, and the Court agreed to increase the sentences of 141 offenders.
Controlling behaviour is mentioned in my constituency surgeries and the new law in this area is welcomed. Constituents have also welcomed the Court of Appeal’s increase of the sentence imposed on an offender engaged in serious incidents of violence and controlling behaviour against his partner. The offender is now spending an extra three years in prison, following the Attorney General’s referral of the case through the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will my hon. and learned Friend please outline what steps he is continuing to take to increase public awareness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme?
Indeed. We use every type of media, including social media, to raise awareness. We also use local radio interviews and I personally conduct a number of cases in the Court of Appeal on behalf of the Government. The results show an increase in the number of referrals.
A number of my constituents are concerned at what they see as unduly lenient sentences handed down to some people who have been convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm how many such sentences have been reviewed and increased?
The offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink and drugs are in the regime, and since the beginning of 2015 eight cases of that nature have been referred to the Court of Appeal, five sentences have been increased and one is currently pending, even today.
Pro Bono Work
As pro bono champions in the Government, the Attorney General and I chair the pro bono panel and committee to bring together the most important players to steer and co-ordinate the overall work. As Members will be aware, last week was the 16th national pro bono week, and the Attorney General and I attended and supported events up and down the country to encourage and support the excellent work being done.
I am sure that, like me, many colleagues receive requests from constituents who are not wealthy and come to our offices with complex legal issues, although our offices are not capable of dealing with them. How can we ensure that people in desperate need get help, either through legal aid or a much enhanced pro bono scheme?
I am sure that my hon. Friend and many other colleagues will use the services of the Bar pro bono scheme and, indeed, the LawWorks scheme, which can assist in individual cases. The Government are reviewing the operation of the legal aid regime, and we are going to work with expert advisory panels to find the most effective ways to provide that essential early advice and support for people in need.
Rape and Sexual Offences: Prosecutions
I have frequent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of issues, including cases of rape and other sexual offences. May I take this opportunity to update the House on one aspect of trials of this kind of offending?
Earlier this year, the then Justice Secretary and I asked the Crown Prosecution Service to review a sample of case files to ascertain the frequency of applications to introduce evidence relating to the previous sexual history of a complainant, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Section 41 provides for a presumption against the inclusion of evidence based on previous sexual history, but allows that evidence to be heard only in restricted circumstances. I am grateful to the Director of Public Prosecutions for her findings, which show that in only 13% of the cases looked at was an application under section 41 made, and that in just 8% of those cases was an application granted by the judge. That indicates that the overwhelming majority of rape cases see no evidence submitted of a complainant’s previous sexual history, but the Government are looking carefully at the detailed findings to assess the operation of the law in practice, and we will set out our conclusions shortly.
I welcome the Attorney General’s comments, but does he accept that low conviction rates for rape and sexual offences can deter victims from reporting those incidents to the police—an issue that was recently brought to my attention by a constituent? If so, will he work with the Director of Public Prosecutions to improve confidence in our ability to prosecute such cases and ensure that victims are able to come forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and the answer to her last question is certainly yes—that is what we are doing. She is right: there are a number of factors that might deter those who should come forward to report crimes of this nature from doing so, and of course deter them from pursuing those cases throughout trial. We must not only do what we can to ensure that conviction rates are where they should be, but make sure that complainants are properly supported throughout the case. We do that through independent sexual violence advisers and special measures. She will know that, in relation to vulnerable witnesses in particular, we are beginning to roll out pre-recorded cross-examination so that people can give their evidence outside a courtroom and get it done before the trial begins. All those things will help, but there is more to do.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is important for two reasons. First, as I have indicated, for those people it means that their part in the case can be over before the rest of the trial takes place, meaning that they are not subject to any delays from which the case may suffer. Secondly, they are of course giving evidence outside the courtroom, without having to confront the defendant in the case. It is of huge benefit and, as I have said, I look forward to its further roll-out.
In his capacity as ex officio Advocate General for Northern Ireland, what advice has the Attorney General given to his colleagues in government about the implications of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 on cases of rape in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the non-consensual sex exemption form?
As the hon. Lady may anticipate, I obviously do not discuss the advice that I have given within government. However, she can take it for granted that in relation to Northern Ireland, as in relation to all other parts of the United Kingdom, we take these offences extremely seriously, and we wish them to be prosecuted effectively.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change this.
When the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to this House, we will debate the EU charter of fundamental rights. Will the Government support the codification of the charter into UK law following its departure from the EU, and will they support their own Back Benchers’ amendments that have cross-party support?
No. The reason is that the charter of fundamental rights, as the Labour Government indicated at the time, does not create any new rights. It incorporates rights that are already part of European Union law, and the Government’s intention is to translate those substantive rights into domestic law by the operation of the withdrawal Act. We do not intend to incorporate the charter of fundamental rights into domestic law.
How will leaving the European Union protect and enhance our rights, under the European convention on human rights, to free and fair elections of the legislature? Given that the vast majority of legislators in this country are not elected—they are Members of the House of Lords—are the Government confident that they will be complying with their ECHR obligations both before and after Brexit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I find it surprising that Members of this House have so little faith in their own institution. This House is perfectly capable of protecting the rights of the citizens of this country, and routinely does so. We do not need the assistance of the European Union to do it, and after we no longer have the assistance of the European Union, I am confident that this Parliament will continue to do it effectively.
For many years, many people in this House seemed to think that human rights in this country started only with the Human Rights Act 1998, and they now seem to think that they started only with our membership of the European Union. Will the Attorney General confirm that our rights and freedoms in this country go back way beyond either of those points in our history, and will continue long into the future after they have both been replaced?
May I press the Minister following the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell)? Last week, in front of the Exiting the European Union Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) stated that the Government believe that the Human Rights Act can be relied on in place of the charter of fundamental rights. Does that mean that the Government are now fully committed to the retention of that Act beyond Brexit?
I thought we had made clear that this country will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights for the duration of this Parliament. The Under-Secretary of State was making the point that I made earlier: we are confident that the substantive rights that all Members of the House wish to continue to be protected, will remain protected in domestic law.
Does the Attorney General agree that it is an absolutely absurd proposition to suggest that if we come out of the EU we will deliberately in some way reduce human rights? That is an absolute nonsense, and it is a shame that the Opposition are peddling it.
The Attorney General does not seem to get the point. Our role in human rights in Europe has been to set the gold standard and to show an example. The Council of Europe has experienced recent cases of corruption, with a man called Luca Volontè who took a bribe. The chairmanship was by Azerbaijan—a corrupt country. Our role is not to protect our own human rights by being in Europe, but to set a standard that can be emulated by other countries that have very serious breaches of human rights.
The hon. Gentleman may be in danger of confusing the European convention on human rights with the charter of fundamental rights. As I said, the Government he supported—the last Labour Government—made it clear that no new rights were created by the charter of fundamental rights. Therefore, taking away that charter cannot remove any rights, and the Government have no intention of doing so.
Online Abuse: Prosecution Rates
The CPS is working with the police locally and nationally to understand the reasons for that. Anecdotally, it is believed that some police forces are using restorative justice or out-of-court disposals where they could have pursued prosecutions. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and make clear that it is unacceptable for any group or person to use the internet as a means to harass, intimidate or threaten individuals in an illegal manner online.
That issue is being considered as part of the code of practice that is being established, pursuant to the Digital Economy Act 2017. That code will set out guidance on what social media providers should do regarding conduct on their platforms, which includes the behaviour referred to by my hon. Friend. He also raised the important issue of anonymity, and the individuals who hide behind that and use it as a cloak for their illegal activities. The prosecution will always seek to pierce that cloak and prosecute those responsible.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Finance (No. 2) Act 2017
Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017
New Southgate Cemetery Act 2017.
I am sure that the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 will be of great interest in particular to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), when he has concluded his intense and, I am sure, extremely urgent conversation with the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane).
Hormone Pregnancy Tests
Yesterday, the Commission on Human Medicines published the report of its expert working group on hormone pregnancy tests. As I said at Health questions on Tuesday, this subject demands the utmost sensitivity and I will do my best.
Based on its extensive and thorough review, the group’s overall finding, endorsed by the Commission on Human Medicines, is that the available scientific evidence, taking all aspects into consideration, does not support a casual association between the use of hormone pregnancy tests, such as Primodos during early pregnancy, and adverse outcomes of pregnancy with regard to either miscarriage, stillbirth or congenital abnormalities. Ministers have accepted the advice of the Commission on Human Medicines. A written ministerial statement was published yesterday, along with a copy of the report.
In the UK, hormone pregnancy tests first became available for diagnosing pregnancy in the 1950s. Between then and 1978, when Primodos was withdrawn from the market in the UK, a number of studies that investigated a possible link between women being given a hormone pregnancy test to diagnose pregnancy and the occurrence of a range of congenital anomalies in their babies was published. Although there was never any reliable evidence that HPTs were unsafe, concern about the issue, coupled with the development of better pregnancy tests, meant that a number of precautionary actions were taken to restrict the use of HPTs. The tests were voluntarily removed from the market by the manufacturers.
The body of information subsequently accrued by the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and other campaigners led to a parliamentary debate in 2014, I think in Westminster Hall, during which the then Minister for life sciences, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), stated that he would instruct that all relevant documents held by the Department of Health be released. In addition, he determined that an independent review of the papers and all the available evidence was justified. The purpose of the review was to ascertain whether the totality of the available data, on balance, supported a casual association between use of a hormone pregnancy test by the mother and adverse pregnancy outcomes. It also considered whether, alternatively, the anomalies could have been due to chance alone, or other factors.
The final report summarises the scientific evidence that was considered by the expert working group, its conclusions on the evidence, and its recommendations. All the available relevant evidence on a possible association has been extensively and thoroughly reviewed with the benefit of up-to-date knowledge by experts from the relevant specialisms. The evidence reviewed by the expert working group will be published in the new year, once it has been rightly checked in line with the legal duties of data protection and confidentiality.
In addition to the overall conclusion, the expert working group has made a number of recommendations to safeguard future generations through strengthening the systems in place for detecting, evaluating, managing and communicating safety concerns about the use of medicines in early pregnancy. I recognise that the conclusion of the report will be a disappointment to some, but I hope that they will see the recommendations as positive. They are a credit to the efforts of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and the all-party group on oral hormone pregnancy tests, which is chaired by the hon. Lady, and also a lasting legacy.
I am so disappointed with the Minister’s response. Clearly he is just reading what his staff and the Department have been telling him. I wish the Minister would actually go through the documents submitted to the inquiry and those documents that we had, because if he had read them, he would never have to come the Dispatch Box and said what he has said.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that I have raised this issue in Parliament on a number of occasions. In 2014, an expert working group was set up to look at a possible association—not a casual link or a causal link. I am sure that hon. Members agree that that means that a lesser burden of proof is required. The first thing that the commission did was to say that it had found no causal connection, but it was never asked to do that—it was asked to look for a possible association. In 2014, the then Minister made promises about statutory oversight. From the papers we had, there appeared to be a clear criminal responsibility regarding the statutory body, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, and the people who ran it, given that so much evidence was adduced to them. They were alerted to the fact that Primodos was causing deformities and miscarriages in women, but they totally ignored that evidence. In fact, the person in charge actually said that he wanted to cover it up so that nobody could be sued. It is therefore highly surprising that the commission has come up with this recommendation.
The commission was shown evidence from many studies, the majority of which showed conclusively that when the drug was given to rabbits and rats—mammals, like ourselves—the tissues were damaged. There were—
Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but I am afraid, although she is highlighting an immensely important matter, and one that she has highlighted before, she has not asked a question—[Interruption.] Order. She has reached her limit and that is it. I have told her, as I have other Members. I have lost count of the number of times Members have been told that if they have an urgent question, they can begin with a few observations—a sentence or two—in response to the Minister, and then questions must follow, but that is not what has happened. I have the highest respect for the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of and commitment to this subject, but she cannot speak for two minutes and then indicate, “I’m about to get to my questions.” Sorry, I say to her—[Interruption.] Order. No, sorry, but you have had your time. It is up to Members to stick to the limits, so other colleagues will now have to pursue this matter. I genuinely thank her for what she has said, but Members really must observe procedures. If I may say so, there has never been a more enthusiastic friend of the House than me in the granting of urgent questions, but Members must then follow the procedure. That is the situation. I call Anna Soubry.
You are, indeed, a friend of the House, Mr Speaker.
I have the utmost respect for the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), with whom I have served on Select Committees, and I will try to help her out. I have seen some of her public criticisms in the past 24 hours. I know that she has been very consistent about this, but I am not just reading notes put before me; I am citing evidence from an expert working group. It really would come to something if Members suddenly started to second-guess expert, scientific and medical evidence. I am not just quoting what is before me. The review’s conclusions do not take away—I do not pretend for one minute that they do—from the very real suffering experienced by these families. This was a comprehensive, independent, scientific review of all the available evidence carried out by the best experts in a broad range of specialisms. Ministers are confident in the report and the review process, and the focus now must be on implementing the recommendations.
On Friday, two constituents came to my surgery to speak to me about exactly this. The mother had taken one of these pills and her daughter was born with deformities. This is not the Minister’s report—he is just giving his explanation and doing his job—but may I suggest that we have a proper Back-Bench debate in which we can exercise all these issues? With great respect to the working group, and having had some experience as a former public health Minister and knowing about contaminated blood, I am afraid to say that I smell something like a very large rat in all of this. I think that there have been cover-ups.
I thank my right hon. Friend—one of my predecessors in this role—for her question. I appreciate that she will have met constituents who have been affected by this in her surgeries and that that must have been very difficult. The report’s conclusions do not detract from the suffering experienced by the families, and we recognise that the families may find those conclusions hard to accept. Birth defects occur naturally in up to four in every 100 babies, and the existence of a birth defect in a baby exposed to a medicine during pregnancy does not necessarily mean that it was caused by the medicine.
As for the question of any future parliamentary discussion of this subject, I suspect—in fact, I know—that my right hon. Friend is more than capable of seeking such opportunities.
This decision has rightly been met with disbelief by campaign groups. It has been called a whitewash, an injustice and a betrayal. It is clear from the reaction to yesterday’s report that real anger remains about the way in which the affected families have been treated. Have we learnt nothing from previous scandals and cover-ups? The chair of the campaign group, Marie Lyon, has said:
“I could go to prison if I divulge what was discussed.”
Does the Minister not agree that that is as far away as possible from transparency? How can Marie Lyon or any of the other campaigners say that their views have been properly taken into account? Will the Minister tell us what conversations he has had with the affected families about the results of the report and what further action they want to take?
A draft of the report, which was published in October, stated
“Limitations of the methodology of the time and the relative scarcity of the evidence means it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion.”
However, that sentence was removed from the final version. It is critical that the Minister answers these questions: why was the sentence removed; why was there a delay of a month; and did he speak to the authors of the report about the sentence before its removal? The inquiry has answered a question that it was not asked to answer, and it has reached a conclusion not supported by the evidence. What is the Minister’s view of the various studies that have been referred to that show a causal connection?
When he set up the inquiry, the previous Minister for life sciences, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), said that he wanted to
“shed light on the issue and bring the all-important closure in an era of transparency”. —[Official Report, 23 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 1143.]
The reaction that we have seen will demonstrate to the current Minister that on that measure the inquiry has failed. Will he look again at holding a full, independent review, so that families can feel they have seen justice done and we can be sure that this will never happen again?
The hon. Gentleman referred to a “whitewash”. As I have said, this was a comprehensive, independent, scientific review of all available evidence by experts on a broad range of specialisms who, with respect, are far more qualified to consider the subject than either him or me. It was a rigorous, important and impartial review conducted over the best part of two years, and the experts were given access to all the available documents.
As for the families and issues relating to disclosure, yes, Mrs Lyon was on the panel. However, it is standard procedure for expert working groups to sign such an agreement, as all members of the panel did, in order to keep the process free from external influence and to prevent it from being constantly discussed in the media. The companies did meet the group and gave evidence to it. Having discussed the matter briefly with members of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency this morning, I have to say that I think the families could have been treated a great deal better when they met the group. I thought that the layout of the room was intimidating. Not everyone is like a Minister or a Member of Parliament who can sit in front of a Select Committee and know how to handle it. I think that the process could have been handled better, and I made that very clear.
As for Ministers and meetings, my noble Friend Lord O'Shaughnessy, who ultimately has responsibility for the MHRA and whom I “shadow” in the House of Commons, has met the all-party group and the families group. He will meet them again on 6 December, now that the report has been published. The APPG is also meeting the chair of the expert working group.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned other research. He might have been referring to Dr Vargesson, an Aberdeen-based researcher who is, I believe, working on the components of Primodos in fish. He was invited to give evidence to the group, and he did so, but he did not want to leave his work and the evidence, which he said would shortly be published, with the expert working group. As far I am aware, that work has still not been published, but I know that the MHRA will be keen to look at any new work that is published.
I know the Minister very well. He is a passionate and caring Minister, but I am afraid that I disagree with many of the things he said this morning. The families do—I think, rightly—feel that the report is a whitewash. Material has been removed from the draft, and the group looked into matters that were not within its remit. The question of a causal link was not in its remit. The question was whether there was link with a drug that was often given to our constituents with no prescription: a drawer would be opened, and it would be handed out to them so that they could find out whether they were pregnant. An open inquiry was needed, but I am afraid that the families, and many Members who are present today, will not feel that that was what happened. Will the Minister please meet the families again, with members of the all-party group, and try to understand why they are so upset? Will the Minister please also watch last night’s report on Sky News, which exposes much of what has being going on over many Parliaments? No matter who was in government, Governments have ignored these people, and we cannot continue to do so.
My right hon. Friend and I do know each other very well, but I am afraid we will have to agree to differ on this; I do not agree that this is a whitewash. At the request of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, an expert, Nick Dobrik, who the House and outside world will know well as a respected and well-known thalidomide campaigner, attended all meetings of the expert working group and was invited to give a statement to the Commission on Human Medicines. Mr Dobrik is many things, but the notion that he is some sort of Government yes-man who would have allowed a whitewash to go on does not stand up to much scrutiny, if any at all.
A constituent of mine has had one of the most traumatic experiences over the past 24 hours. She was invited to come down and hear the results of that report, and she was not able to travel. Like many other such families, they have children who, they believe as a result of taking this drug, require them being at home to care for them. Does the Minister think 24 hours is a reasonable period of time in which to ask a family to travel to London, often from quite rural parts of the country? Does he also think it appropriate that the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and I were locked out of yesterday’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency press conference? That in itself smacks of a cover-up.
A number of relevant documents were not included in this inquiry, so it is not fair to say that it was comprehensive and independent. Will the Minister consider looking again at the process? A significant amount of public money has been used, and we must make sure, and have confidence that, it was used appropriately.
As we know, “causal link” and “possible link” are two very different terms. Does the Minister think it appropriate that an expert working group changes the goalposts halfway through a process, when it is looking at a matter that is, as he says, so serious?
First, may I correct myself? I might have said that the expert working group met “companies”, not “families”. If I said “companies”, I wish to correct the record.
I agree with the hon. Lady that the notice the families were given was not good enough. I and my colleague in the other place have made that crystal clear. Some notice was given to Mrs Lyon on Friday last week that there was likely to be an event on Wednesday, but that was not confirmed until Monday, so that was the notice the family got, and I do not think that is good enough; I have made that very clear.
On the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who chairs the all-party group, being locked out of the press conference, I cannot imagine how that happened, and again I have sympathy on that. I expect the MHRA to look into that and explain that to me, because, while we may disagree, I can see how that merely feeds the conspiracy theory that some have around this subject.
My hon. Friend is clearly struggling to defend this position. I urge him to look at the scope of this review and all the evidence that was presented to it, as all the evidence that was available should be looked at and looked at again. Without that, many people across this country will not be satisfied that justice has been done.
With respect, I do not think I am struggling at all; I am just setting out a very clear position. Ministers are confident in the report and the review process. I say again that this was a comprehensive independent scientific review of all available evidence by experts across the expert working group who have a broad range of specialisms.
It is my understanding that in the research on fish, the researcher was reluctant to submit the findings because they had not been peer-reviewed. Is the Minister confident that all the animal studies that were considered in this review were properly and adequately peer-reviewed?
I can only give the House the facts. Dr Vargesson’s research was there, and he presented it orally, and orally only, to the group. The expert group felt that it wanted more than that, and he has not been able to provide it. At some point, if he does, I am sure that the group will be more than happy to look at it.
As I have said, I think that I have been very honest about the way in which the families have been handled, about the notice that they have been given and about Members being able to attend report launches. There is no great secrecy here, but I can see how events like that merely feed that notion.
Like the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), I am reminded of the contaminated blood inquiry, which is ongoing. In 1975, the regulator knew that there was a potential 5:1 risk of the drug causing deformity. They told the manufacturers but not the patients, and papers were deliberately destroyed by the chief scientist. It is deeply worrying to the families that there is not an open and transparent investigation into this matter. Does the Minister know whether the Berlin archive papers were examined as part of this inquiry, because they demonstrate the cover-up that has happened over many years?
I come to this having had no constituency involvement in this issue at all, but I have been listening to the exchanges this morning and it is quite clear that the level of concern on both sides of the House is sufficient for the Government to call a debate on the matter in Government time, so that all these issues can be properly explored.