House of Commons
Thursday 31 January 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
The Government have taken firm action against nuisance calls, which cause untold stress and anxiety to older people and vulnerable groups in particular. In December last year, we introduced new rules. Directors of companies found to be in breach of those laws against nuisance calls can now be held personally liable and face fines of up to half a million pounds. That liability will extend to directors of companies that have gone into liquidation.
Like your constituents, Mr Speaker, my constituents are fed up to the back teeth of receiving scam phone calls from companies trying to get people’s savings, forcing them to get their pensions transferred and almost any other telemarketing. It is good news that the Government have taken action to set the rules so that the Information Commissioner can take action, but what are they going to do to ensure that the rules are enforced, so that company directors lose the ill-gotten gains acquired as a result of these activities?
The Information Commissioner has powers to require companies to address unlawful practices and issue monetary penalties, including, now, against directors. Figures available for the past 12 months show that fines worth over £1.9 million have been issued to 23 companies. We have also increased substantially the resources available to the Information Commissioner’s Office, so she will be able to pursue more irresponsible and reckless companies.
Bearing in mind the fact that nuisance calls make up some 40% of calls to elderly residents, have the Minister and the Department given consideration to putting in place a system whereby people have to opt in to allow their number to be shared?
Opting in is a potential solution. In the past 12 months, we have extended opt-in as the means of controlling calls from pensions providers and claims management companies. I trust this will make a significant difference as they are a significant proportion of the problem.
TV Licences: Over-75s
Many older people across the country value television as a way to stay connected with the world. That is why we have guaranteed the over-75s concession until June 2020, at which point the responsibility for the concession will transfer to the BBC. After that, it is for the BBC to decide on the future of the concession, but we have made it clear that we would want and expect it to continue with it.
This obligation would cost the BBC three quarters of a billion pounds, rising to £1 billion by the end of the decade. That equates to one fifth of the BBC budget, more than its entire radio budget and equivalent to its entire spend on drama, entertainment, comedy and sport programming. Scottish sport and minority sports need more coverage, not less. Are Age UK and BECTU—the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union—not correct? This is an age-related benefit and as such it should remain the responsibility of this Government.
Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the discussions with the BBC about the transfer of this responsibility took place in 2015, at which point the BBC agreed to take on this responsibility. He will know that the licence fee income continues to increase for the BBC and he will know that this House passed legislation in 2017 to effect the transfer, so the BBC has understood throughout what the level of commitment would be and it has agreed to undertake it.
One suggestion in the consultation is that the TV licence is means-tested and linked to pension credit, yet in my constituency 1,211 over-75s do not claim the pension credits to which they are entitled so would miss out on the TV licence if it were to be linked. Does the Minister agree that that option is totally unworkable and that it is wrong of his Government to lay the burden of their own manifesto promise at the door of the BBC?
On the hon. Lady’s last point, I have laid out how that has happened. On the consultation, as she points out the BBC has set out many options. Not all of them will find favour. I am sure that she and others will want to submit their own responses to the consultation to underline the concerns she has expressed. It is right that the BBC is consulting. It is right that it is doing so in an open way. It must consider carefully all the views it receives before deciding its next moves.
As I have set out, we expect the BBC to honour that commitment. We made it clear that we expected the BBC to take on responsibility for that concession, and it agreed to do so. That was clear to all in 2015. While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of promises, perhaps he or one of his colleagues can explain what Labour’s view on this is. Labour Members criticise us for passing that commitment on to the BBC. Will the Labour party in government take it back? If so, how will it pay for it?
As ever, I admire my right hon. Friend’s ideological purity. It is important that we make sure the BBC continues to provide an excellent service to all those who watch television. That is what it is committed to doing, and it has agreed to take over responsibility for a very specific concession. It is one of many concessions, of course; the others remain entirely unaffected.
As the Secretary of State will know, many across Torbay enjoy BBC services such as BBC Radio Devon and the BBC “Spotlight” evening news. Does he agree that very few people over 75 understand that the BBC did not take the chance to look carefully at some of its costs—particularly for very high-value entertainment and talent—rather than cut that benefit?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. It is of course important that the BBC continues to be accountable to the public for the money it spends, and particularly for the money it spends on talent. As he will recognise, we are able to discuss that in an informed way because the Government have brought about transparency on that point so we can see what those people are paid.
The Secretary of State is not going to get away with devolving the blame for his cuts. More than 2 million over-75-year-olds live alone, and the Campaign to End Loneliness reports that four in 10 of them say that television is their main source of company. The last Conservative manifesto promised to keep TV licences, and the Government have committed to ending loneliness with a loneliness strategy. Will the Secretary of State pledge now that no one over 75 living alone will lose their free TV licence?
The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on loneliness. He will know that the Government have produced not only a strategy but funding to follow through on the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. That money is being spent to good effect. We want to make sure people continue to have access to all methods of support to deal with loneliness. I make the point again: it is all very well the Labour party’s criticising this move, but unless that is more than hot air it will have to explain whether it intends to reverse this policy. If it does not, people will suspect that it is just making further promises it has no intention of keeping.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to put on the record the condolences and sympathy of everybody in this House for the family of Molly Russell. Her untimely death stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of online self-harm posts. I hope the Secretary of State will join me in offering the family our condolences and in doing everything we can to tackle those harmful posts.
Is it not the case that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the previous Chancellor and the previous Secretary of State for Department for Culture, Media and Sport held the BBC to ransom over this issue, and that he has been left to clean up this mess? He should stick to his manifesto commitment to maintain pensioner benefits, including the TV licence, so elderly constituents in my Livingston constituency and across the UK can continue to enjoy it.
First, I endorse what the hon. Lady has said about the family of Molly Russell, and I know the whole House will offer strong condolences for her family. As the hon. Lady knows, not only is this a subject of considerable interest to the Government on a number of fronts, but we will of course discuss it later on this morning, I am sure.
On the TV licence, let me first point out again that this Government have an exceptionally proud record on benefits for pensioners. We have made considerable provision for the increase in the state pension, a record that compares extremely favourably with that of the previous Labour Government. But in relation to this particular transition from the Government to the BBC for responsibility for this concession, I say again that the BBC understood exactly what the consequences of this change would be, and of course at the time professed, through the director-general and others, satisfaction with the charter review and funding settlement. It is a little late in the day for everyone suddenly to wake up to this issue and claim that it will have terrible consequences; the consequences have been clear.
Social Media Platforms and Hate Speech
In the digital charter we set out our ambition for everyone to access the opportunities of the internet and to feel safe in doing so. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out measures to ensure platforms take adequate steps to protect their users from online abuse, including hate speech, and as part of the Government’s internet safety strategy we have asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of the current law around abusive and offensive online communications.
May I add my thoughts and those of my constituents and of everybody on this side of the House and across these Benches to the sympathies and condolences to the family of Molly Russell for that tragic incident?
I hear the Minister’s words and look forward to the forthcoming report, but I am afraid this just seems like too little too late. Does he not agree with the Science and Technology Committee, which has published a report today, that an existing regulator such as Ofcom could start work on a harm reduction strategy as soon as October, as I already put forward in a private Member’s Bill two years ago? This is urgent.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and am familiar with her private Member’s Bill and the report to which she refers; both are extremely valuable additions to this consideration. I am sure she will understand, however, that the most important thing we can do for the family of Molly Russell and other young people and their families who are concerned about this issue is make sure that our response is effective and properly thought through and will work in the long term. It is no good getting good headlines for a day or two and then finding that the structures we set up have holes in them that mean they cannot deliver. What that means is that the Government are taking time to get this right. It is also worth pointing out that we are the first country that will do this; if we produce a holistic approach to online harms and internet regulation, we will be the first country to do it. We should be proud of that, but we should make sure we get it right. We will do it and the hon. Lady will see the White Paper soon, but it needs to be got right.
On 8 January the Petitions Committee produced its report on its inquiry into internet trolling of people with disabilities. Will the Minister commit to our recommendation to ensure that the internet is no more dangerous for disabled people than for everyone else, and will he include people with disabilities in his consultation?
The answer to the last question is yes, and the hon. Lady is right to highlight again this report and the issues that surround the abuse that can be directed to disabled people. This is absolutely fundamental. What we must get across, not just in regulatory structures and Government action but in what we all say, is that there is no special rule that applies to the online world that means people can engage in abuse or behaviour that would be unacceptable in any other forum. That is not the case, and we all have to say it with clarity.
A bit more, I am told by a colleague sitting in front of me. Nick Clegg seemed startled at the idea that Facebook has any responsibility in this area when asked about it on television recently. Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any plans to speak with Mr Clegg about this—or is it Sir Nick? [Interruption.] Sir Nick.
I of course would wish to say that I am sure that my hon. Friend is being unfair to our former colleague, but I can tell him that I spoke to Sir Nick last week and I am happy to tell the House what I told him, which is that when the White Paper is published he and everyone else, including Facebook, will see that the Government’s intent is to set out with clarity what the responsibilities of online companies like Facebook are, how they should meet those responsibilities and what will happen to them if they do not.
I agree with the Secretary of State that the White Paper should provide remedies for dealing with hate speech; the real test will be whether it protects our children. Last week, we heard of the tragic case of a young girl taking her own life after being exposed to harmful material about depression and suicide online. This week, we have learned that online bullying has doubled. If I got to talk to Nick Clegg, I would tell him that, rather than focusing on protecting children, Facebook and others are focused on profiting from children. This morning, the Science and Technology Committee has called for a legal duty of care on social media companies, and we support that important report. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports that call, and will he state explicitly that it has to be underpinned and enforced by a regulator that has teeth?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says about Molly Russell and others who have been affected. As he knows, she is sadly not the first of these cases and she is unlikely to be the last. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute also to her father, who I am sure the whole House would agree has not only dealt with his loss with immense dignity but sought to ensure that that loss was not in vain and that people will make the changes that we all agree are necessary.
On the point about a duty of care, the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have discussed it, that this is something we are considering carefully. We are also keen to ensure that whatever structures the White Paper sets up can be enforced. Although it is right to point out that some social media companies have done some things in this space that we should applaud, it is clear that there has been nowhere near enough activity yet, and it would be wrong to assume that this House or this Government can sit back and allow the social media companies to do this voluntarily, so there will be further action, and the hon. Gentleman will see it set out in the White Paper. I look forward to his comments and the House’s reassurance on this; we will want to hear what everyone in the House and beyond has to say. As I said earlier, this is ground-breaking stuff and the UK should be proud to be able to do it first, but we must do it right. That means that the views, opinions, knowledge and expertise of many more must be included in the process.
Tourism is an incredibly important part—one of the most important parts—of the UK economy, generating £68 billion a year and employing more than 1.5 million people. Visit Britain and the GREAT campaign, backed by significant Government support, continue successfully to promote the UK internationally.
Very good. I understood that to be the request of the Government. It is quite important for the Government to know what the Government want. If the Government do not know what the Government want, how is the Speaker supposed to know, for goodness’ sake? I call Chris Davies.
If the Minister does not mind, I will ask my question before he answers it!
In my beautiful constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, the River Teme runs through the scenic Teme valley into Shropshire, the River Wye runs through the idyllic Wye valley into Herefordshire, and the well-trodden tourist trail of Offa’s Dyke—where one can walk with one foot in England in one foot in Wales—runs down my constituency border. Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department will ensure that rural tourism is indeed cross-border?
With the Brecon Beacons national park, my hon. Friend’s entire constituency is one of many with considerable beauty and attraction for tourists internationally as well as nationally. It is a key part of our economy to encourage tourism around the country, and we do that via Visit Britain and the GREAT campaign. I would happily encourage visitors to go to his constituency at any time.
With Southend-on-Sea about to become a city, please will my hon. Friend explain to the House how the tourism sector deal can help Southend-on-Sea on its journey to become not only the finest seaside resort in the country, but the finest seaside resort in the world?
The constituency certainly has one of the finest Members of Parliament. The important proposed tourism sector deal has moved into the negotiation phase, and we are exploring how the Government can work with the industry to reduce seasonality and address other tourism-related issues, such as increasing skills, improving local tourism offers and helping more people to develop tourism. All that will apply not only to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but to constituencies around the country. I wish Southend-on-Sea well.
One of the things that drives tourism is the arts, including theatre. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Nottingham Playhouse and its new artistic director, Adam Penford, on winning regional theatre of the year in The Stage awards? Does he agree that the theatre not only demonstrates outstanding creativity, but engages with and serves our communities, works hard to make the arts accessible to everyone, and provides yet another good reason to visit Nottingham?
I absolutely agree. In fact, more people visit the theatre than go to premiership football matches in any given year. The theatre is a key part of our economy and encourages visitors from around the world to come to this country, and I congratulate Nottingham Playhouse and its staff and management structure. I recommend that people go to the theatre and to Nottingham Playhouse.
Will the Minister do what he can to help to promote a summer of sport in Northern Ireland and in my constituency? The Open golf tournament is coming back for the first time in 70 years, and the North West 200 motorbike race celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
I do. My hon. Friend may have seen an article by the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was surprised that the director had time to engage with the subject of a tourism tax, on which I think he is wrong, but of course he is a former Labour Member and Labour MPs do like to tax as much as possible. The reality of the matter is that Bicester and other parts of this country benefit hugely from tourism, and we want to encourage it, not discourage it. There are 1.5 million jobs in tourism in this country, and Bicester attracts visitors from all over the world.
There is a lot to be said for Bicester Village. I have been there many times, and I have an extremely agreeable Zegna tie that I purchased there some years ago. I am not wearing it today, but I will wear it for the benefit of the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) on another occasion.
Tourism is greatly boosted by our music industry. Sheffield’s musicians are renowned the world over, building their reputations on shoestring-budget European tours that are guaranteed because the movement of music equipment around Europe does not require a customs document known as the ATA Carnet. Will the Minister guarantee that musicians in Europe will not require such a document post Brexit, that the movement of music equipment will be frictionless and that the people of Europe will not be deprived of the Arctic Monkeys of tomorrow?
What I can guarantee is that my portfolio involves looking after the interests of musicians and orchestras. The Department does that by lobbying where appropriate and by discussing such matters with the Home Office, which is ultimately responsible for immigration issues. I met the Association of British Orchestras only last week. We are ensuring that musicians are looked after. They are an important part of our economy.
My Department works closely with UK Sport and national sports governing bodies, as well as with local, regional and devolved partners, to ensure that the UK successfully bids for and stages a range of the world’s largest sporting events. We have secured over 100 major international sports events since 2012, and this will be an exciting summer, which will include the cricket world cup, the cycling road world championships and the netball world cup. Of course, we are looking forward to UEFA 2020, and not far off is the rugby league world cup in 2021.
As the Prime Minister said last year, the UK Government would support a bid to host the 2030 FIFA World cup. I welcome that transparency and the football associations are free to decide whether to pursue that opportunity. The English FA is already working with the FAs of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland to explore the feasibility of such a joint bid.
I am sure the Minister will join me in welcoming the fact that the 2021 rugby league world cup opening ceremony will take place at Newcastle’s St James’ Park. Does she agree that all sport played at St James’ Park should be played in the interest of the fans, not of finance, and that the Premier League would do well to learn that?
The hon. Lady, adorned in black and white, makes her point once again. It is a very exciting announcement for the cities involved, and it is right that she continues to stand up for her football club and for the great sporting prowess in her constituency. It is right that we send the message that Newcastle should continue to play its part.
Does the excellent Minister agree it is important to have international sport here regularly? Four American football games a year are now played in this country—two at Wembley and two at the excellent Tottenham Hotspur ground next year—but would it not be better if we had a permanent franchise so that we could have American football played here throughout the season?
The Americans are coming—on a trade level, on a footballing level and on a baseball level. We will see Major League Baseball at the London stadium, as well as more National Football League games. The Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers are coming, and we will be seeing more and more coming across from the stateside. I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted to attend. Perhaps we could go together.
There are concerning reports this week that Six Nations rugby, one of the great annual sporting events that unites the nation, is about to be subsumed in a world tournament and disappear off to subscription TV. Will the Minister take steps to add Six Nations rugby to the listed events that must be offered live to free-to-air TV?
As the Six Nations approaches, the excitement fast builds. Such concerns have already been raised with me this week by the Secretary of State for Wales, and I have agreed to meet him and broadcasters. It is important that this area of sport, which we all enjoy, is available for everyone to see and to be part of. I will be taking those concerns forward.
On Saturday I enjoyed watching England’s under-18 schoolboys beat Australia at the excellent Stafford Town football club. Can we ensure that international matches in all sports are played right across the country, including in our great towns as well as in our cities?
That sounds like another bid. It is right that we should host international sporting opportunities across our great country. Perhaps my hon. Friend is bidding to be part of the future UK major sports events strategy, which is coming up shortly. We have seen that, with the announcement of the rugby cities, we are looking beyond London, and it is right that Stafford plays its part.
Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage: Rural Areas
The Government have invested £1.8 billion of public money to ensure that more than 95% of premises in the UK have access to superfast broadband. UK broadband operates voucher schemes, and we are introducing a universal service obligation that will give everyone the right to a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second. These interventions are designed especially to help people in rural areas.
A number of Eddisbury residents have been denied superfast broadband because Openreach refused to connect them to their nearest cabinet as, for historical reasons, they are connected to one many miles away. What can the Minister do to ensure that common sense applies?
I understand the frustration of Eddisbury residents. Wherever possible, Openreach network planners seek to ensure that customers are connected to the nearest cabinet, but this is not always possible. Businesses and communities may apply for a voucher through one of our schemes to contribute towards the cost of reconnecting to a closer cabinet. I would be happy to facilitate a meeting between my hon. Friend and officials in my Department to establish the best way forward for Eddisbury residents.
The Government are investing £67 million in the gigabit broadband voucher scheme, which provides small and medium-sized enterprises with vouchers worth up to £2,500. We are focusing on rolling out full fibre where there is a strong case for public investment. Our strategy is to prioritise rural areas.
Will the Minister answer the second part of the question tabled by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), which was about mobile phone signals? What are the Government doing about that? Large swathes of my constituency in south Wales still do not have basic mobile phone access—some of them do not have 3G access, never mind 4G. The Government really must start resolving mobile phone signal issues.
I can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question by referring to the new spectrum auction, which is taking place this year, on which Ofcom is consulting. Ofcom’s duty is to manage the use of spectrum efficiently, and we expect it to deliver on our manifesto commitment to provide 95% of the country, geographically, with signal.
Our Department’s priority is to make sure that new-build properties and developments are all built with full fibre, wherever possible. If I have not answered the rest of the hon. Gentleman’s question with regard to the impact on the rest of the technology, I would be happy to write to him.
The UK is a world leader in AI. Our AI and data grand challenge, as part of the industrial strategy, is a major collaboration, with up to £950 million of industry and government funding driving measures for innovation, and attracting and retaining global talent to maintain our position as a global leader in AI.
We have established an Office for Artificial Intelligence across the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Its job is to encourage strong dialogue between Departments and the wider public sector, including academia. For example, The Alan Turing Institute’s specialist public sector AI unit is involved in this process.
Staffordshire University has one of the best AI robotics courses in the country. What role does the Minister see the universities that are training the AI robotics engineers of the future playing in ensuring that the AI technology of today is working?
I congratulate the university in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency on its great work. The Government have invested £50 million in AI fellowships and £100 million in 1,000 new PhD places, of which I hope his local institution will be able to take advantage.
Giving young people opportunities to participate in art, drama and music at school can be transformative for their self-confidence, mental health and life chances, which is why the Government are investing £500 million in cultural education between 2016 and 2020.
Fifty per cent. of children in independent schools receive sustained music tuition, but the proportion is only 15% in state schools. Does the Minister agree with UK Music that there is a growing crisis in music education in the state sector that will pose a threat to the talent pipeline?
It is important to have music in schools—I absolutely recognise that—and I am working closely with colleagues at the Department for Education. I have meetings with the Minister for School Standards and am pleased to be hosting a roundtable with him next week on the provision of music in schools.
The Government’s recent funding announcement on music education will barely cover the pay increase for people who teach music. Since 2011, more than 1,200 music teacher jobs have been lost. Is that not a direct result of the Government’s contemptuous attitude towards creative subjects?
Of course, the state of education that the Government inherited in 2010 was because of the previous Labour Government’s incompetence. As a consequence of Labour’s education failures, this Government focused on science, technology, engineering and maths. We now want to focus on arts subjects, including music, as well.
TV Broadcasts: Audio Description
Ofcom’s code on television access services sets out broadcast requirements on accessibility for the visual or hearing impaired. Since the code’s introduction, 84 UK channels have been required to provide access services. In December 2017, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport asked Ofcom to provide recommendations on making on-demand services more accessible. This Ofcom has done, and we are considering our response.
Despite there being more than 2 million people with visual impairment and approximately 400,000 registered blind people in the UK, broadcasters are mandated to supply audio description for only 10% of programmes. Does the Minister agree that TV broadcasts should be enjoyed by everyone? Will she review legislation to end this discrimination?
The House will have noted this week that digital, culture, media and sport sectors are growing more than twice as fast as the UK’s non-financial business economy as a whole. That is testament to the hard work and global appeal of our creators and innovators. I congratulate all DCMS sectors on this success.
Talking of success, Mr Speaker—you will want me to get this bit in—I am sure that the House will join me, as I know you will, in paying tribute to Andy Murray after he announced earlier this month that he is likely to retire this year. He has been an inspiration both on and off the court, and I know that the whole House will want to wish him well for the future.
We do indeed support the directive. We think it is very important that those who create content from which the platforms benefit hugely are properly rewarded for their efforts. We want to make sure that the system is workable, and that is exactly what we are attempting to achieve.
Football supporters are repeatedly made worse off when fixtures are rescheduled. Fans’ representatives from every single premier league club agree that it is time for action. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), cancelled his meeting with me this week. The football family needs a Government who are on our side, so can the Minister make it clear what the Government’s position is on a fans fair travel scheme?
I have met my hon. Friend on exactly this issue, and can say that he is making strides on it. He is very concerned that our fans are being caught in the middle of this and is working with us to do something about it. If the hon. Lady knows of particular fixtures that are affected by strike action or by broadcasting issues that she would like me to raise again, I am happy to meet her and take this forward.
I am happy to have the cup of tea so long as my hon. Friend stays awake. On the Cultural Development Fund, I am sorry that his constituency was not successful, but he will know that there were five successful bidders, who, we think, will be able to deliver huge advantage to their own areas. I hope that that success will demonstrate a good case for pursuing this objective, and, as and when we do, we will make sure that he and his area have the chance to bid again.
Yes, the hon. Lady makes an important point that this is about broadcast media and about what we can do online. We will bring the consultation forward, as we promised to do, very soon. She will recognise that considerable progress in the area to which she refers has already been made, including, of course, with the soft drinks levy, which has effectively removed 45 million kg of sugar from the diets of children in particular.
I wonder whether the Minister is aware that non-league football is in a really difficult financial position. I know that myself, as I am president of Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club. Is the Minister aware of any future money coming down the line from the premiership, which seems to be flush with money? Money is literally flowing in the transfer market. Teams galore have money flying everywhere, especially Arsenal, but it needs to flow down to non-league football.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that concern. The grassroots is benefiting from £100 million a year in Premier League investment, and we are already in discussions with the body about ensuring that it remains at least at that level for the next three years. However, I absolutely agree that the time is right to keep looking forward to what can be done to enhance the pipeline of youngsters coming through, and to ensure that there is equal opportunity in participation so that, wherever a person comes from, they can get involved in sport.
The hon. Lady is quite right: it was a very good debate in Westminster Hall. Since then, I have asked my officials to do some work with key stakeholders to consider whether this would be a valuable extension of the City of Culture. I have agreed to meet the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and other hon. Members to discuss this further. The Arts Council England is also looking to undertake further analysis of this important area.
The Attorney General was asked—
The Crown Prosecution Service plays a central role in combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the pursuit of asset recovery within our criminal justice system. Dealing with illicit finance through the prosecution of money laundering offences remains a critical priority for our prosecuting agencies. Just last year, more than 1,400 convictions were sustained where it was the principal offence charged in the Crown Court.
My hon. Friend must remember that the financial action taskforce in December carried out an evaluation of system responses to money laundering. Of the 60 countries assessed, the United Kingdom emerged first for having the most effective system in the world for combating money laundering. Set against that background, we can make improvements and I hope to make them through the governance changes that I am introducing. We are instituting a ministerial board, which I shall chair. We shall have a much stronger grip on information coming from the Crown Prosecution Service, and we hope to anticipate problems before they arise.
Last year, £80.1 million was recovered by the Crown Prosecution Service, but I am afraid that I am not in a position to help the hon. Gentleman with regards to the community funds. I can undertake to write to him with those details, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that.
Soldiers and Veterans: Protection from Prosecution
The Government are unstinting in their admiration and gratitude for the work of the armed forces. We expect the highest standards of our service personnel, and the overwhelming majority meet those expectations, serving with great honour and distinction. The Government are taking very seriously the concerns that have been expressed by this House about investigations and prosecutions of veterans in historical operations. The Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I are looking carefully at the measures available to us, and we shall be making announcements during the course of this year.
Does the Attorney General agree that we need urgently to derogate from the European convention on human rights? Apart from anything else, it is the right thing to do. It is also on page 41 of the Conservative party manifesto, and there is clearly overwhelming public support for protecting our soldiers and veterans from legal pursuit.
I can confirm that we shall give consideration to a derogation from the convention before future military operations commence. That will necessarily depend on the nature of the operation, and the circumstances and facts of the activities that we are contemplating, but it will now be a consideration that will be taken into account before any military operation.
The writ of the Attorney General runs large, but it does not extend to Northern Ireland in criminal matters, where he features as the Advocate General. Will he give a commitment today that any scheme that is brought forward to protect our service personnel extends to them, wherever they should live in this United Kingdom?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation. No area of the United Kingdom can be left out; plainly that would be wrong. As he knows, that does not mean that there may not be particular considerations peculiar to Northern Ireland that have to be taken into account, and I am in discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about those considerations.
Is the Attorney General aware that servicemen of my age who served in Northern Ireland through the ’70s will be petrified about the fact that there is a letter about future prosecutions coming down the line, even though they were investigated decades ago? We need to move forwards so that this House decides whether our veterans are protected in the same way as it seems this House protects terrorists that were out there then.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have the greatest respect for all those who have served in our armed forces. My own family were an armed forces family, and I am acutely anxious to resolve this question to the satisfaction of this House. The measures that we have in mind would not be peculiar to one area of the United Kingdom, would be comprehensive and, I hope, would give dignity, peace of mind and assurance to all those who have served in our armed forces. We are anxious to make announcements as soon as possible.
Domestic Abuse: Prosecution Rates
Dealing with domestic abuse is a top priority for the Government, and I regularly engage with the CPS on this subject. The CPS wants to ensure that every victim of domestic abuse has full confidence in the justice system. Only last month it unveiled a best practice model developed in partnership with the police and the Courts Service to help victims through the criminal justice process.
One of the main barriers to victims of domestic abuse and rape coming forward is the fear of having to hand their entire lives and personal information over to the defence. What steps is the CPS taking to ensure that victims are reassured that disclosure is appropriate and proportionate, and that victims are not asked to sign away their privacy?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. Several months ago, the Attorney General and I issued a new paper on disclosure, and that will be followed by revised guidelines this year. We are acutely conscious of the need to balance the interests of justice not just in favour of defendants but in favour of victims. A blanket approach to disclosure is not something we encourage; it will depend on the facts of the case. I am glad that the number of cases that are being dropped because of issues with victims continues to fall, and I think that is a sign of progress.
The latest figures published by the Home Office show that only 1.9% of recorded rapes are prosecuted. Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, said:
“I am often hearing from victims of sexual crime that their criminal justice journey is as harrowing as the crime itself. This is just not acceptable. I fear we are letting these victims down badly.”
She is right, isn’t she?
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that only last week I met Baroness Newlove and discussed these very issues. It is vitally important that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and across Government understand that the journey for victims in cases like this can be an extremely tough one. That is well understood. That is why the agencies are now working together to ease that journey. I do not pretend that the task is easy or that the job is anywhere near finished, but the commitment is there, and we will continue to work to support victims of rape.
I do not dispute the Solicitor General’s worthy intentions in this, but we have a situation where two in 100 reported rapes are reaching prosecution. It is a quite appalling statistic. First, he must acknowledge the impact that spending cuts have had on the ability to investigate these offences. Secondly, he should acknowledge that piecemeal change is no longer enough—the time has come for drastic action.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he must not forget that independent prosecutors have to apply evidential tests and it will not always be the case that complaints will merit a prosecution. I wholly reject his suggestion that expenditure cuts have resulted in a decrease in prosecutions. Expenditure is not an issue when it comes to the prosecution of offences, and never will be.
Knife Crime: Prosecution
I engage regularly with the CPS, and we recognise that this issue is a growing national priority. Prosecution rates have been rising year on year for knife crime. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, there has been a 33% increase. The Offensive Weapons Bill now making its way through this House will tighten the law around the sale, delivery and possession of knives.
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on not only talking to the CPS about changing the sentences on knife crime but actually taking action and going to the Court of Appeal to make sure that an unduly lenient sentence has been lengthened to three and a half years’ imprisonment, quite rightly. What action can he take to make sure that the courts understand their duty to imprison people who are guilty of knife crime?
My hon. Friend raises a serious London case, and as a London MP, he is a passionate campaigner against knife crime. I warmly welcome the decision of the Court of Appeal yesterday to increase the sentence in that case. Lord Justice Leveson, the president of the Queen’s bench division, was clear in his approach, stating:
“There can never be any excuse for carrying a weapon of the type this offender carried”
and that the courts must impose “substantial and effective” sentences on those convicted.
Internet Trolling: Prosecution Rates
I recognise that internet trolling can have devastating effects on victims, and where an offence has been committed, the CPS response will be robust. The number of prosecutions commenced for offences under the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 has increased by over 20% in the last three years, and last year the CPS published revised guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media.
We all know in this job how harrowing and tough trolling and online abuse can be. When I visit schools in my constituency, young people tell me that they not only experience a lot of online abuse but see it happening to people in jobs that they might aspire to and worry about the level of abuse they might face if they went into such jobs. What is being done to ensure that online abuse is given the serious treatment that other types of abuse is given, so that people can see that it will not be taken lightly?
The hon. Lady is right to point to the concern about the younger generation being disincentivised from coming forward, particularly into public service. That should worry us all as parliamentarians and legislators. I can reassure her that the CPS has worked hard to develop new guidance for prosecutors, which makes it clear that online abuse is just as bad as offline abuse; there is no distinction in law. Where communications amount to credible threats of violence, prosecutions will commence. I know that Members are concerned about the balance between freedom of expression and prosecutions, and I assure the hon. Lady that that matter is very much in my mind as we develop further guidelines to assist not only parliamentarians but everybody in public life.
The hon. Lady may know that I have a particular passion about combating disability hate crime. I have met disability organisations in her region—the wonderful north-east—and learned a lot from them about the importance of ensuring that they have the confidence to report crime. I have read the Petitions Committee report. It is excellent, and I am noting in particular the actions that the CPS needs to take.
Does the Solicitor General agree that, while robust action is needed through the courts and the CPS, there is also an enormous responsibility for those who hold public office and offices that command responsibility to call this sort of behaviour out?
Hunting Act: Prosecution Rates
Each CPS area has a Crown prosecutor dedicated to act as a wildlife, rural and heritage crime co-ordinator, to ensure that the specialist knowledge needed to prosecute such offending is readily available. Co-ordinators work closely with specialist officers from local police forces and from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, to ensure a robust CPS response.
I am disappointed that I did not hear from the Attorney General, because I wanted to hear about his recent field visit to a hunt, where I am sure the law was perfectly observed. The Solicitor General will be aware that there have been many reports up and down the country over the Christmas period of transgressions of the law. The public expect the law to be enforced in full. Is it not time we strengthened the Hunting Act?
Leaving the EU: Priorities
In relation to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, my priority is to support the delivery of the Government’s objectives. That includes giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government on our international negotiations and treaty obligations, the programme of domestic legislation to implement the consequences of exit, and of course supporting preparations for future international co-operation between the law officers departments and with prosecution and other criminal justice officers.
I suppose we should congratulate the Attorney General on his appointment to the glorious new negotiating troika that is going to solve in the next two weeks all the problems that the Government have not been able to in the past two years. During that time, how open will he be with the House about the legal advice that he is providing so that we can make informed decisions about the new deal that is going to be negotiated—or will we have to keep dragging him kicking and screaming to the House through Humble Addresses and other procedures to get that information out of him?
I have already said to the House that in future, on matters of law that are particularly relevant to the House’s consideration, I and the Government will consider releasing advice that has been given on these questions. I will not give any guarantee in advance, but let me make it plain that I shall listen carefully to the House and, in so far as it is needed, I will endeavour to satisfy Members.
One of the matters that the Attorney General decided was a priority was to launch a case in the Supreme Court challenging the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament, which has just passed the Continuity Bill. Not only did the Government delay that by taking that action but they then mounted a retrospective power grab through the unelected House of Lords to remove from the elected Parliament of Scotland the power to pass legislation that it had already passed. What was the cost to the taxpayers of the United Kingdom of that Supreme Court case?
The Government won that case, as the hon. Gentleman quite knows. The truth is that it has gone back to the Scottish Parliament, and the system is working. It is the purpose of the referral system to delineate and demarcate the proper boundaries between the devolved Governments and Westminster. That is what the Supreme Court decided. As to the cost, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman if he would like me to do so.
In December a ferry contract was awarded to Seaborne Freight without competitive tender, due to extreme urgency, but the Government have known for years about the possibility of no deal. Will he release the legal advice that permitted the Department for Transport to proceed under regulation 32?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, that is not a subject within my ministerial responsibility. The legal advice inside any Department is a matter for that Department; it does not come automatically to the Attorney General. There is an important principle of confidentiality and privilege associated with legal advice, which I hope the House will not lose. The matter that he has raised is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Secretary of State.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the most pressing practical priority for the prosecuting authorities is to secure continued access to the critical database systems available under the Eurojust criminal co-operation arrangements, and that that requires as an absolute priority achieving a deal to ensure continued data regulation alignment so that there can be lawful access to those databases?
If we find ourselves in the backstop, the withdrawal agreement allows the EU to make the decision whether our trade arrangements avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Would a simple, workable solution for both sides be to allow an independent body to make that decision?
Article 20 of the proposed Northern Ireland protocol allows already for either party to discuss and agree with the other that the backstop is no longer necessary, and that is arbitrable under the dispute resolution mechanism of the withdrawal agreement. I do not necessarily accept the characterisation that there is a veto. The European Union under the proposals would be bound by the duty of good faith and best endeavours, and it could not just decline to consider a reasonable measure put forward by the United Kingdom.
May I return the Attorney General’s attention to the question of Seaborne Freight? He, like me, will be well aware that if the Department for Transport has avoided competitive tendering under regulation 32 without a proper basis in law, it could face legal action. Has he been asked to advise on the matter, and how much money has been set aside for the contingency of court action concerning the potential illegality of the procurement process and any claim for damages?
The hon. and learned Lady, who is a lady of great distinction in the legal profession, knows quite well that I am bound by the Law Officers’ Convention. I realise why she is trying to tempt me to give fuller answers, but I cannot disclose either the fact or the substance of any advice that I may have given. As for her substantive question, I suggest that she address it to the Secretary of State.
Oversight of Solicitors
I have had regular meetings with the Secretary of State for Justice, in which we have discussed a range of policy matters including regulation of the legal professions. Legal services in England and Wales are independently regulated in accordance with the framework set out in the Legal Services Act 2007. Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which prosecutes solicitors and firms where necessary.
My right hon. Friend tempts me down a path leading to the SRA’s discretion with regard to compensation. I am grateful to him for raising an important issue that concerns many colleagues in the House. I think it best that we take these matters up not just with the Ministry of Justice, but with the SRA itself.
May I urge the Solicitor General to do more about solicitors up and down the country who are carrying on their business in a very strange and devious way? I have been talking to representatives of the insurance industry, and I understand that clusters of solicitors are making false claims relating to holiday insurance and whiplash. We know where those dodgy solicitors are, but the current regulation does not seem to be working. What is the Solicitor General going to do about it?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The Legal Services Board has currently drafted proposed new rules relating to the governance for regulators; the consultation closed last week, and new statutory guidance will be issued. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Corrupt solicitors not only damage the reputation of the profession but raise insurance premiums, driving smaller firms out of business. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and his point is fully understood here.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 4 February—Motions relating to the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2019 and the draft Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2019, followed by a general debate on sport in the United Kingdom.
Tuesday 5 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Wednesday 6 February—A motion relating to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General, followed by motions relating to the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 and the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2019.
Thursday 7 February—A general debate on antisocial behaviour, followed by a general debate on beer taxation and pubs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 8 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The House has much to celebrate this week. Yesterday, the House agreed to additional days for private Members’ Bills to give more excellent Back-Bench proposals the chance to reach the statute book, and I am truly delighted that on Monday the House agreed to introduce proxy voting. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) exercised the first proxy vote on Tuesday—a memorable day to do so. Today is Young Carers Awareness Day. On behalf of the House, I thank all those amazing young people whose love and care save lives. We owe them our gratitude and a commitment to do all we can to support them.
The House will know that recess dates are always announced subject to the progress of business. In this unique Session of Parliament, and in the light of the significant decisions taken by the House this week, it is only right that I give the House notice that there are currently no plans to bring forward a motion to agree dates for the February recess and that the House may therefore need to continue to sit to make progress on the key business before it.
I realise that this is short notice for colleagues and House staff, but I think our constituents would expect the House to continue to make progress at this important time. I will endeavour to provide confirmation of the sitting arrangements and business for February as soon as possible. I am very sorry for the inconvenience this will cause to colleagues, House staff and their families. Where House staff are concerned, conversations are under way to ensure that disruption is limited and that no one is out of pocket, and where Members have family, ministerial or constituency commitments, the usual channels will work hard with them to limit the inconvenience.
I do not know whether to thank the Leader of the House for this last-minute change of plan. There is a way of doing this, particularly through the usual channels. Is this the business—staggering from one week to the next? I cannot possibly imagine what hon. Members are going through with this announcement. The shadow Secretary of State for Education has asked me to raise this—she heard on the media that it is possible that the recess may be cancelled. What provision will be given to hon. Members for their children? It cannot be right that hon. Members have to support their children in that way without the Government stepping in and providing proper provision for it.
The House has a lot of business to get through before exit day on 29 March. Other than the withdrawal agreement, six other essential Bills need to be got through: the Trade Bill, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be substantial debates during those two weeks rather than general debates, which we are seeing next week?
I want to thank the Government for one thing: for working constructively through the usual channels to ensure that the REACH regulations, which I raised last week, will be debated on the Floor of the House. Could the Leader of the House do this again through the usual channels? We prayed against the Securitisation Regulations 2018. Securitisation is really important. It is the pooling of different kinds of loans and debts wrapped up in a financial package. I am sure the Leader of the House knows how important it is, because it was widely regarded as one of the reasons for the financial crash. Not only does that piece of secondary legislation amend primary legislation—which is anathema to constitutional lawyers—but it affects criminal offences already on the statute book and transfers significant powers to the Financial Conduct Authority. The statutory instrument does not quite make it clear whether the FCA will get additional responsibilities, what they will be and whether it will get additional resources for supervision or compliance.
The Leader of the House said in business questions on 17 January that she remained confident that all statutory instruments that needed to be brought forward would be in time for exit day. She will know that 600 SI are still to be tabled. Last week, 21 were laid, which was seven short of the Government’s average weekly target. On a scale of one to 10, how confident is she that the SIs will be properly debated by 29 March, given that multiple SIs are sometimes wrapped up in one package?
We have had two years of “road to Brexit” speeches. We stagger from vote to vote, from week to week. Today, we heard the Foreign Secretary make an announcement on the radio that Brexit may have to be delayed. Is that the way to run a Government—informing people outside the House before you have been informed, Mr Speaker, or before the House has been informed?
The Prime Minister said she wants no running commentary, yet now she wants to meet everyone. I am pleased to say that she met the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition Chief Whip yesterday. First, we are told that it is the only deal in town, and now there is a renegotiation. The Government voted for their deal, and on Tuesday they voted against it. The Prime Minister has said that “nothing has changed.” She is right, because the EU has said that nothing will change. Yet the Government are looking for “alternative arrangements”, so could the Leader of the House give us a clue on what exactly these alternative arrangements might mean? That is important because the shadow Secretary of State for Health has said that there are shortages of epipens, Epilim, aspirin and naproxen. These are all matters of life and death, so can we have a debate on the NHS 10-year-plan?
The Leader of the House has announced a debate next week on the local government settlement. That was sneaked out on Tuesday in a written statement—
Yes, it was—in a written statement. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State should have announced it in the House. The shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has called it a “shoddy deal”. Councils need significantly more than a 2.8% rise, and the Local Government Association has said that councils still face a funding gap of more than £3 billion a year. We have had no information on business rates retention, on new funding for social care or on the Green Paper on adult social care. Will the Leader say when that will be published?
We need a debate on why councils are investing in commercial property. Tesco Extra has been bought for £38.8 million by East Hampshire District Council. Branches of Waitrose and Travelodge have been acquired by Runnymede Borough Council for £21.7 million. Ian Hayes from Runnymede has told me that Runnymede Borough Council had to request an increase in the council’s authorised borrowing limit to facilitate earlier purchase of property acquisitions. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who interrupts me from a sedentary position, will know, a B&Q store is now owned by Dover District Council. These are purchases of commercial property outside the local authorities.
I agreed with the Leader of the House when she said that it was an interesting and very important day on Tuesday. Anyone looking in Hansard will have seen the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). She was able to cast her vote by proxy—it was done by my hon. Friend the excellent Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft)—so we know it works. I am just a bit saddened by the fact that the amendment was not referred to the Procedure Committee, rather than agreed by the Government. I hope that the Government will in future refer things to the Procedure Committee so it can look at them again.
The constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for Thomson Reuters, is still separated from Gabriella and Richard—it is over 1,000 days. The Government must act now to free her.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. As she will be aware—I have said this a number of times in the Chamber—in this Session, so far, we have introduced 46 Bills, 33 of which have received Royal Assent, with three others waiting to receive Royal Assent.
The hon. Lady asked whether we have time for all our Brexit legislation by exit day. I can absolutely assure her that my day job is to make sure, on a daily basis, that both the primary legislation and the secondary legislation are progressing through the House. That is the case and will continue to be the case. I am confident that the legislation we need to have Royal Assent—or, in the case of secondary legislation, to be made—by the 29 March will be done. On secondary legislation for Brexit, over 360 EU exit SIs have been laid to date. We are making good progress. We are under pressure, but it is all very much under control and we do expect to achieve what we need to do by 29 March.
The hon. Lady asks about statutory instruments the Opposition have prayed against. As I say consistently to the hon. Lady, the Government have a good record of providing time to debate negative SIs that are prayed against by the official Opposition when a reasonable request is made. The official Opposition prayed against six Treasury SIs very late in the praying period—in fact, the last day before they were made—and did not request a debate through the usual channels. I am afraid that is quite late in the day to be making such requests, but I will continue to consider requests that are made through the usual channels.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady is pleased that the universal credit regulations that are subject to the affirmative procedure will be debated in both Houses. She asks for a debate on the NHS 10-year plan. That is a very good idea and I will certainly take that away as a representation from her. She asks about the local government funding SI to be debated next week. She asks for a debate, which I have just announced will be next week, so I hope she is pleased that there will be a debate. She suggests that a written ministerial statement is “sneaking out” news. As far as this Parliament has always been concerned, a written ministerial statement is not sneaking out news; it is providing information to the House in a way that is entirely orderly.
The hon. Lady mentions the appalling situation for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The hon. Lady will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it a personal mission to seek to free Nazanin, so that she can get back to her husband and daughter. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says when. I am not sure what she thinks the UK Government should do, other than to continue to make representations, as we are doing, on the grounds of human rights and the innocence of Nazanin, to have her returned home to her family as soon as possible.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of the national lottery? It was set up with the best of intentions, but it has been completely ruined by a multiplicity of games, all at the expense of small lotteries, which give so much valuable support to many charities.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. He will be aware that the national lottery has raised over £39 billion for good causes since 1994. The Government are committed to ensuring both society lotteries and the national lottery continue to thrive. There was a consultation, between June and September 2018, on the proposed reform of society lotteries to try to allow society lotteries to grow by changing sales and prize limits, while protecting the position of the national lottery. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said that he will respond to the consultation in the first half of this year.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.
Well, who would have thought it? They actually all united, Mr Speaker. They are united around a fallacy, an illusion, a fantasy. As an exponent of the elaborate richness of the English language, Mr Speaker, you will know that there is a word for their current condition—denialism, a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. Nothing could better sum up these unicorn-chasing Tories and the way that they can interpret, “No, we will not renegotiate the political agreement” into “Yes, we will give you everything the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) wants.” It is denialism madness. At some point, however, the hard reality will have to catch up with this Government. Can the Leader of the House explain what happens when the Prime Minister inevitably comes back with nothing? What is the process then?
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for confirming that there will no longer be a February recess. I am sure that that has gone down like a bucket of sick with some of our hon. Friends who have already planned their holidays. What is going to happen during that week? Is it going to be Brexit-related business? Is it going to be business like the business we see for next week? What happens to departmental questions? The normal rota has already been done, so can she explain to us exactly what we will be doing for that week given that the recess is to be lost? Mr Speaker, you will remember that I asked the Leader of the House quite clearly last week whether the February recess would be cancelled. “No” was the answer, just like she told me that the meaningful vote would not be delayed just before it actually was.
I have raised the issue of the feral pack-like behaviour of Conservative Members before. Yesterday, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) was on his feet, it was simply appalling. Every mention of Scotland or Scottish sent them into apoplexy, with howls of derision even peppered with expletives. These are tribunes of the middle and upper classes. A good proportion of them went to private schools. What on earth happens in those private schools to cause behaviour such as that? The people of Scotland are watching and simply concluding that this House is not prepared to listen to us and will try to shout down every attempt to stand up for our country. We have a very elegant solution: it is called having a Government and independent Parliament of our own.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of denialism. I suggest that it is the Scottish nationalists in this place who are in denial over the result of the Scottish independence referendum. It is interesting that one of my favourite newspapers, The National, reports that the hon. Gentleman himself is questioning the merits of a second referendum on EU membership because he feels it might harm the Scot nats’ chances of a second referendum on Scottish independence. If anyone is a denialist in this place, it is him. Not only that; he is also a pessimist. It is deeply disappointing that he is already saying that the Government’s attempts will fail. If he looks carefully at what has happened in the past two and a half years, he will see that the Prime Minister’s deal for withdrawing from the EU seeks to ensure that we can have our cake and eat it. We have successfully cherry-picked and done all the things that the EU said we would not do, because we will be protecting jobs and our economy at the same time as leaving the EU and fulfilling the referendum result, so he should be a bit more optimistic.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Brexit-related business during the second week of February. He will appreciate that there is a huge amount of Brexit-related business. He criticised the business for next week, but these are very important Brexit-related statutory instruments, as well as some instruments that are always debated on the Floor of the House of Commons. The House should wish to discuss those very important pieces of parliamentary businesses.
The hon. Gentleman also suggested—it was somewhat inverted-snobbery—that Members on the Government Benches have all been to private school. I am an ex-grammar school girl, and the Government side is dominated by people who have worked hard in this life and want to do something for their country. He should be ashamed for saying that, but not nearly as ashamed as his right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) should be for his appalling remarks in the Chamber suggesting that there is anything other than a 100% commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That was a dangerous and appalling thing to suggest, and it was completely untrue.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should all be delighted not only that the Government are making the biggest investment in the NHS in its history but that, as we heard today from Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, with that investment, the NHS is training more doctors and nurses and, importantly, providing direct access so patients can go directly to a physiotherapist or somebody who can sort out their care needs more quickly. That will free up more time for GPs, so they can spend more time with the patients who need that.
The Leader of the House will be delighted to know that I went to a good school—it was approved.
We do not yet know when time will be allocated for a day of debates on departmental estimates, but we are asking that hon. and right hon. Members submit applications for such debates by Friday 8 February. The Leader of the House will know that I always try to help her to plan ahead. With that in mind, we have a very heavily subscribed application for a debate to celebrate International Women’s Day, which is on 8 March, on Thursday the 7th, if at all possible. We are anticipating an application for a debate to celebrate St David’s Day, on 1 March, with a debate on Welsh issues on Thursday 28 February.
May I remind the Leader of the House that, if the recess in February is cancelled or changed, that has an impact on important appointments and events that hon. and right hon. Members have had arranged in their constituencies for months in advance? This is not just about holidays; it is about important local events.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I totally agree, which is why I have apologised to Members for the fact that we are having to do this, and have made it clear that through the usual channels a lot of effort will be made to ensure hon. Members can continue to meet the needs of their constituents and so on.
The hon. Gentleman makes a bid for a debate on 1 March for St David’s day. Let us hope it is not snowed off—last year or the year before the debate sadly had to be cancelled because nobody could get to it. He also mentioned International Women’s Day, and I will look carefully at what we can do on both of them.
Across Britain, a trip up any road or down any street will be a chance, sadly, to see the litter—the detritus of our throwaway culture: cups and cartons, bottles and bags, from careless corporate coffee shops or feckless fast food outlets. The figures speak for themselves: according to Keep Britain Tidy smoking-related litter, alcohol-related litter and fast food-related litter are all on the increase. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has heroically led the campaign against single-use plastic, but may we now have a debate on packaging waste? That will give us a chance to consider the cause of this problem, rather than just nailing its effect. It might also give an opportunity to consider one of the most curious facets of change in our lifetime: that we have gone from the daily delivery of milk in a bottle which was recycled to plastic cartons obtained inconveniently from distant megastores. It is time that Ernie, the fastest milkman in the west, rode again.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the quality of his prose this morning. I am also very glad that he was able to join my fantastic Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), to launch the great British spring clean recently. That will take place mainly between 22 and 24 March this year, and I encourage everyone to get out there with their hi-vis jackets and litter pickers and their local teams and to contribute.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue; it is of huge concern, and always in the top three items that people in the country raise. Litter is a huge concern to all of us, and certainly it is a function of the improper use of packaging. I am very sympathetic, therefore, and my right hon. Friend might well want to seek at least a Backbench debate for all hon. Members to share their concerns.
May we have an early debate on the state of our town centres and the closure of Marks & Spencer stores? Marks & Spencer used to be a company with high ethical values; indeed, it used to buy a lot of its materials in Huddersfield for suiting and ladies’ fashions, but now its management is under a former Conservative vice-chairman and Member of Parliament, Archie Norman, who we know well from his asset stripping of Asda. We know from the involvement of his team in HBOS and other companies what they do; there is no ethical value there. May we have a debate on these asset strippers destroying our town centres?
The hon. Gentleman makes some very serious accusations, and I cannot share his enthusiasm for pointing at individuals and blaming them. Nevertheless, he makes an important point about the need to have thriving town centres; he is absolutely right to do that, and he will be aware that the Government are doing a lot to try to reduce and reform business rates to give our retail spaces a better chance so that we can all enjoy thriving town centres.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about asset stripping and the policy of big business, I encourage him to raise that directly during questions to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 12 February.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on her early years working group, and may I thank her for agreeing to attend the family hubs conference here in Westminster designed to promote the bonds of love within families, being held, appropriately, on Valentine’s day?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised this issue. The inter-ministerial working group I am chairing on behalf of the Prime Minister is looking at ways we can provide more support for the critical early years of a baby’s life, to ensure that we have strong, socially well secured and established human beings in our society, which is absolutely vital if we are to see the society change we want to see. I was delighted recently to visit the Lambeth Early Action Partnership, and more recently to go to Manchester with the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) to see the excellent work being done in family hubs and children’s centres. I will be delighted to join my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) at the conference she mentions.
This week, we learned that there was a near miss involving a drone at Edinburgh airport in November 2016. Given that there have been two major disruptions at our international airports recently, would the Leader of the House consider granting a debate on this issue, which is a matter of great public concern?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this serious and concerning issue. She will be aware that there has been an urgent question on the subject. There is in fact a business in my constituency that is seeking to provide a solution to this problem, so I have a personal interest in it. She will be aware that we have Transport questions on 14 February, and I am sure that Ministers will update her then.
Exeter city has just brought out an excellent report looking ahead to the security and growth of the city centre over the next 20 years. Across the border, however, my county town of Taunton is more like Aleppo than anything else. Following the request from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), may we please have a debate—in this place in Government time—on how town centres must look forward to visionary experiences as opposed to looking back to what has happened in history?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local authorities and local enterprise partnerships need to plan properly for the thriving future of their town centres and regions. He makes a good point, and I would encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise his particular issues.
I have been contacted by a group of women in my constituency who have been adversely affected by changes to their state pension age. They are struggling to make ends meet, and it is not good enough for the Government to keep saying that nothing further can be done for them. May we have a debate on this important issue in Government time so that we can try to reach consensus on how we can support these women?