House of Commons
Thursday 7 March 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—
Social Media Platforms: Harmful Content
More needs to be done to tackle harmful online content and to make it clear that social media platforms have responsibilities to their users. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out those responsibilities, how they should be met and what should happen if they are not.
On this issue, the Health Secretary said in January:
“It would be far better to do it in concert with the social media companies, but if we think…that they’re refusing to do so, then we can and we must legislate.”
What legislation is the Culture Secretary planning, and will he confirm whether this includes plans for an independent social media regulator?
I agree with the Health Secretary, and I have made it clear on a number of occasions that I believe the era of self-regulation must come to an end in this space. But the hon. Gentleman will understand that this is not just a complex matter, but a subject on which it is important to put forward our proposals in the round. We will do that in the White Paper that he will see shortly, and in that he will see what proposals we make for further legislation.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology heard chilling evidence about the impact that social media can have on young people’s mental health. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Committee’s recommendation that social media companies should have a duty of care towards young people, and if so, how does he intend to legislate for it and by when? If he does not agree, what other route does he suggest taking?
The Science and Technology Committee report to which my hon. Friend refers makes an important and worthwhile contribution to this debate, and I am grateful to her and her colleagues for it. Again, I hope she will forgive me if I do not set out at this Dispatch Box now precisely what the White Paper will say, but perhaps I can reassure her by saying that we are strongly considering a duty of care as part of the proposals we seek to make, and we believe it is important that responsibilities are taken seriously to protect not only young people but everyone from the harms that the internet may provide.
The Secretary of State mentions the duty of care applying to platforms. Is he aware that there are gaming platforms similar to social media platforms which are circulating material such as the rather horribly named “Rape Day” game, and will he extend any legislation he is planning for social media to game platforms?
I believe it is not what a company calls itself that matters, but what it does. What we will seek to do in the White Paper and anything that follows it is make sure that we can tackle the harms we define as in scope of that White Paper, wherever they may lie on the internet. I understand that the game the hon. Lady mentions has now been withdrawn; quite right too—I think all of us would have been horrified had any other course been taken.
Again, my hon. Friend will have to wait for the detail of the White Paper, but I have made it, I hope, very clear, and am happy to make it clear again, that I believe that social media companies have responsibilities in this space. They should take those responsibilities seriously, and if they do not there should be consequences.
Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) from the Labour Benches about “Rape Day”, the game was created by developer Desk Plant. For the benefit of the Secretary of State, those in the Chamber and those watching, I should say that the game enables players to
“verbally harass, kill, and rape women”,
and its contents include
“violence, sexual assault, non-consensual sex, obscene language, necrophilia, and incest.”
A game of this nature has no place in our society. I am glad it has been pulled by gaming site Steam, but its statement was woeful; it did not even accept or acknowledge the risk that it could pose. At a time when one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lives, and in the week when International Women’s Day falls, will the Secretary of State work with me and others to launch a review of how this game even got to the development and approval stage and make sure that it appears on no other platforms?
Yes. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I think that we should ask questions about this. It is profoundly unacceptable that material such as this should be available to young people, and older people, and we must worry about the sense it creates of proper relationships and the way in which these types of activity should be regarded by any fundamentally decent society. Of course, we must understand exactly how it has got to this point in relation to this game. As I have said, I welcome the fact that the game has been withdrawn. I think we would all have been having a very different conversation this morning if it had not been.
Every major social media platform other than YouTube has taken down Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s profile because of his hateful conduct. Late on Monday night, Yaxley-Lennon turned up at a journalist’s home and banged on the doors and windows demanding to be let in. After being escorted away by the police, he returned at 5 am and continued his intimidation. The incident was live-streamed. He later warned journalists in a YouTube video to expect a “knock on the door”. Does the Secretary of State think it is right that YouTube and its parent company Alphabet are continuing to give this man a platform?
In this House, we all believe in freedom of speech, but we also believe that that freedom of speech has limits, and that when people seek to intimidate others, and potentially to break the law—the description that the hon. Gentleman has given the House this morning is potentially a description of criminal behaviour—it is unacceptable. It is beyond the reach of the type of freedom of speech that we believe should be protected. As I have said, all internet companies and all platforms for this kind of speech need to take their responsibilities seriously, and I hope that YouTube will consider carefully what the hon. Gentleman and I have said, and reconsider its judgment.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Those who have expressed their opinion online will know that doing so can unleash a torrent of abuse designed to make them wonder whether they should speak out at all. This week we have heard of female colleagues having panic buttons installed in their homes because of the death and rape threats they have received. This culture of abuse, intimidation and threats undermines our democracy and the principles of free speech. Will the Secretary of State consider, and even guarantee, that the online harms White Paper will introduce measures to prevent hate figures, extremists and their followers from turning the online world into a cesspit of hate?
I will of course consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but we must ensure that we preserve our ability, online as everywhere else, to debate and discuss issues that are sometimes uncomfortable and certainly controversial. I repeat, however, that no freedom of speech can survive in this country if we do not protect people’s ability to feel free to say what they think, free of intimidation and free of the threat of violence. Those who engage in intimidation or threats of violence should not find succour online or anywhere else.
The Government have invested £1.8 billion of public money to ensure that 95% of the country has access to superfast broadband. Broadband UK operates voucher schemes, and the Government are introducing a universal service obligation that will give everybody the right to a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second. These interventions are particularly designed to help people in rural areas.
I thank the Minister for her response. The Scottish National party has been boasting about the £600 million that the Scottish Government have supposedly invested—past tense—in the R100 broadband scheme. That money has not been invested; more than a year and a half after the funding was promised, they have still not got round to awarding the contracts. This so-called investment remains just a promise, and the ambition of 100% superfast access by 2021 is looking less realistic than ever. Can the Minister assure me that when she next meets Scottish Government Ministers, she will remind them of the importance of sticking to their timetable?
I am indeed aware of that, Mr Speaker, but it is crucial that Governments stick to timetables when delivering an essential utility that is a fundamental part of public need. I will of course be happy to discuss this when I am next in communication with Scottish Government Ministers, who should be held to account for the unacceptable delay in even getting started on this vital work.
The Government’s shift to fibre investment is very welcome, although the levels of fibre in this country for delivering essential infrastructure are very low. North Wales has put forward an impressive bid to support our strong local economy. Will the Minister look closely at the bid and accelerate investment in fibre?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to catch up on fibre. The Government have exciting plans and funding to accelerate fibre roll-out, with a £200 million programme, which was announced in the last Budget, starting this April and a further £300 million before 2022. I will look at the north Wales proposal with great interest.
I thank the Minister most warmly and sincerely for her announcement yesterday of £1.91 million to get superfast broadband into Unst and Yell in Shetland. That money truly has the potential to be transformative for those communities. If she would like to come and see that for herself, she would be very welcome. If she does so, she will also be able to see the remaining communities in Shetland and Orkney where such investment could make a massive difference.
Sport is a devolved matter in Scotland, but through Sport England we fund 45 different sporting governing bodies that support grassroots participation and talented athletes. When people watch broadcast sport, they should see women and disabled people, too. Although progress has been made over the last few years, especially in women’s sport, there is scope to do better. I met broadcasters and sporting organisations recently to discuss with them what more they can do.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for golf, I am proud that we were one of the first signatories to the R&A women in golf charter, which commits to the development of a more inclusive culture in the sport. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming that initiative, and will he meet me and major golfing bodies to discuss what we are doing and what can be done to encourage more women and girls to enjoy the sport?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in offering congratulations on that significant step forward, and we want to see more. I am sure that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is the Minister responsible for sport, will be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
With the decline in print media, and in sports coverage in some local news programming, minority sports struggle to be noticed and they face challenges in attracting new participants. The problem is infinitely more acute in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have much smaller media and broadcast markets than England. I back the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport contestable fund, which supports children’s TV, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State or the Minister with responsibility for sport will meet me to discuss what we can do to support minority sports coverage.
Again, I am happy to agree to that proposal. It is worth our understanding more clearly the exact picture in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman says. Broadcasting is a reserved matter and sport is a devolved matter, so we must make sure that the two work in sync. In England, we support a range of sports—I am sure that the same thing happens in Scotland—and we want to see whether we can give such sports greater prominence so that people can find a sport that they get on with, that they want to do and that they enjoy, in order to promote greater participation in sport more broadly.
This lunchtime sees the official launch at Lord’s of the women’s parliamentary cricket team, which will attract media coverage. Will the Secretary of State, on International Women’s Day, wish the venture all success? Will he perhaps offer a word of congratulation to my senior parliamentary assistant, Megan Williams, who has gone to huge efforts to make this happen and will be captaining the side?
I am very happy to do that, and I wish Megan and the rest of the side the very best of luck. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of women’s cricket. He makes the case for it very well and often, and we hear him. We are also talking about the broadcast of women’s sport, and I know that he will recognise that it is a step forward that the first stand-alone women’s world T20 competition this year will be broadcast on British free-to-air television.
Let me join in the congratulations to Megan Williams, the senior parliamentary assistant to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight). I am aware, courtesy of a letter from her to me dated yesterday, of the inaugural event, which I am advised will take place from 11 am onwards. I gather that as a result of co-operation with the England and Wales Cricket Board, they will be joined by Lydia Greenway, a top England women’s cricketer—lending real weight and ballast to this very welcome initiative. I think Megan deserves huge plaudits from across this House.
Thanks to Sky Sports, the women’s Six Nations has received much wider coverage since 2017 than ever before. However, Sky Sports is a subscription channel. Can the Minister tell us whether the conversations he has mentioned extend to conversations with the rugby unions of the home nations and free-to-view channels about getting this competition on a free-to-view channel before the next International Women’s Day?
We are certainly having conversations with all the broadcasters about what more they can do.
By the way, I should correct myself: I think it is in fact Sky that will be broadcasting the women’s world T20, not a free-to-air broadcaster as I suggested. Sky is doing a good deal, and we welcome that. We hope it will do more. I am having conversations about how we can broaden the scope of women’s sport and disability sport that people see on television so that they can see a variety of different sports, perhaps including in the highlights packages they may see. That is an important way of engaging people with a broader understanding of what is happening in the sporting environment.
Society Lotteries Reform
I am carefully considering the evidence submitted during the consultation, and I hope to respond in the first half of this year.
Despite many warm words stretching back over several years, the Government have shown a distinct lack of urgency in considering the future of society lotteries. It has now been six months since the consultation closed and, all the while, charities and good causes are losing desperately needed funds. Will the Minister now confirm that the Government’s preferred option of a £100 million annual sales limit will be applied and implemented, as previously stated, on 6 April? If not, why not?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is a real strength of feeling on this matter. The fact that I am still regularly meeting colleagues and hearing from the sector shows that we want to get this right. I understand the sense of urgency, but I appreciate that we need to get the balance right. Society lotteries are important, and they make a huge contribution to the fundraising landscape, with £296 million raised for good causes last year alone. Of course we need to balance that alongside supporting the national lottery, too.
In concurring with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), does the Minister agree that the request by society lotteries to raise the maximum prize to £1 million is both popular and reasonable, and that there is no evidence this would damage the national lottery? She will be aware that society lotteries do untold good in our constituencies, so will she now stand foursquare behind them?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and it is right to admit and react to the fact that we consulted on the £1 million prize, but we need to balance it with any potential impact on the national lottery. There is a balance to be made. Society lotteries, as we well know, are widely used as a fundraising tool across our communities to support local charities and hospices. To my mind, if we find this balance, we will grow the pie and help all lotteries to survive.
The players of the People’s Postcode lottery, based in my constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith, have raised an amazing £400 million for good causes, but achieving that incredible fundraising milestone has been greatly hindered by this outdated legislation. The Government said last June that a £100 million annual sales limit is their preferred option. Why has that not been implemented? When exactly will they bring forward the legislation to do just that?
I know that the People’s Postcode lottery does a huge amount in the hon. Lady’s constituency. In fact, it recently brought George Clooney to her constituency to celebrate this success. I am very disappointed not to have been able to accept the invite—can’t think why!
The work of the People’s Postcode lottery has supported our building connections fund, with £11.5 million going to tackle loneliness. It is right that we balance all these great but competing opportunities to support charities across the country.
Free TV Licences: Over-75s
I discuss a range of matters with my Cabinet colleagues, and we know that older people across the country value TV as a way to stay connected with the world. That is why we have guaranteed the over-75s licence concession until June 2020, at which point responsibility for it will transfer to the BBC. After that, it will be for the BBC to decide on the future of that concession, but the Government have made it clear that we would want and expect the BBC to continue with it.
A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that one in six of our pensioners are now living in poverty, so the last thing they need is an extra £150.50 added to their bills. I know that the Minister and his Government are keen to shift responsibility for this on to the BBC’s shoulders, but will the Secretary of State accept that having promised in his party’s manifesto that licences for the over-75s would be maintained, he must either fulfil that promise or admit that his party and his Government have let pensioners down?
First, the responsibility has been transferred—that happened by statute in 2017. The deal was done with the BBC in 2015. What we do not yet have are the proposals that the BBC intends to make. My suggestion is that we all wait to see what the BBC actually decides to do, and then we can comment upon it.
The Secretary of State is right: it is in statute. We opposed it, and right now the National Pensioners Convention is protesting outside DCMS—not outside the BBC. That is because this policy was invented by this Government. It is about transferring social policy to the BBC, which should not have happened. Should this not be up for the prize for the most cynical policy this Government have ever created?
No, but what is truly cynical is to criticise the Government for the transfer of a financial liability without any hint whatsoever from Her Majesty’s Opposition that they would be prepared to take it back. So I would be very interested to hear whether it is the policy of the Labour party, in government, to take this responsibility back into the Government’s hands, and exactly what would be cut, what extra would be borrowed or what taxes would be raised to pay for it. Otherwise, it is just hot air.
The Charity Commission performs a vital role as the independent regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales. The National Audit Office conducted a review of the commission as recently as November 2017 and was positive in its findings. The commission continues to regulate robustly to ensure that the public can support charities with confidence.
Some £43 million of public money going on a bridge across the Thames on which zero construction occurred has led us all up the garden path and now we know that the trust is being wound up. The Charity Commission says it will do no further investigation, so will the Government instigate an independent inquiry so that lessons are learned and no project like this ever has the same fate? Frankly, to have a regulator that is not regulating feels useless.
The hon. Lady raises the specific issue of the Garden Bridge Trust, which is concerning. The commission has rightly scrutinised the trustees’ conduct and management, and the charity itself, carefully, and it continues to monitor the charity’s progress on winding up. I understand that the commission intends to publish a concluding report on the running of the trust and to learn those wider lessons, setting them out for policy makers so that we can learn from them. I am happy to hear from the hon. Lady if she has further concerns.
The Minister will be aware that public trust in charities was shaken to the core by the revelations of the sexual abuse and harassment that occurred not only in the UK and Europe but around the world. What work is the Charity Commission doing to make sure that that issue is addressed, and that emerging concerns about the role of overseas orphanages in issues of modern-day slavery are looked into? These are important issues involving charities.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue; she is a doughty campaigner for women around the world and it is absolutely right that we will have the debate later today ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow. People have been horrified by what has been allowed to be done around the globe under the watch of charities, and it is absolutely right that we learn lessons. I am due to talk to Ministers from the Department for International Development about this matter, and I would be happy to speak to my right hon. Friend about particular issues if she feels that anything has not been picked up on. We must make sure that we learn further lessons. Nothing can be left alone on this issue.
I want to press the Minister further on the garden bridge issue. It has been a total fiasco. We have seen £40 million of public money wasted; public tendering and procurement processes bypassed; contracts awarded before the business case was even drawn up; and a cosy relationship—to say the least—between the chair of the trustees and senior figures at the Charity Commission itself, as well as the former Mayor of London. How can the public have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission will not properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude? What is the Minister going to do herself to make sure that a full investigation—not just a report—into this scandal is conducted?
As I said, there has been an investigation and lessons will be learned. I am due to meet the Charity Commission fairly shortly. The Government increased the commission’s budget by £5 million in January 2018 so that it could increase its core regulatory functions. I admit that I have had issues in my own constituency relating to concerns about the Charity Commission, so I am happy to take the matter further. I am the charities and lotteries Minister and, as we heard earlier, if we do not have confidence in our charities’ ability to make sure that they look after other people’s money properly, we need to carry on and do more.
Mobile Phone Coverage
Our ambition is to have good mobile coverage where people live, work and travel. I welcome the coverage obligations that Ofcom recently proposed ahead of the 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz spectrum auctions. We have reformed the electronic communications code and made changes to planning laws, all to encourage the roll-out of digital infrastructure by making deployment cheaper.
People living in part of North Walsham in my constituency have been waiting years for any signal at all. They thought their wait was over when a mast was erected in November 2017 but, despite constant pressure on BT Openreach, it still has not been connected. Openreach needs to lay cables across land owned by Anglian Water. Should we not be able to compel these monopolies to provide a service to local people?
Leaving the EU: Tourism
The UK has a thriving tourism landscape. Both 2016 and 2017 showed all-time record numbers of visitors and spend, and we want that to continue. The UK and EU have proposed reciprocal visa-free travel for tourism, and the use of e-passport gates will be expanded to seven countries this summer. An additional 6.5 million passengers per year will benefit.
The B&Bs and caravan parks in Pembrokeshire are looking forward to another good season, but the concern I hear time and again is that poor broadband and mobile phone signals are a real hindrance. In 2019, who wants to go on holiday to a place that does not have a decent signal? Does the Minister agree that these 21st-century essentials are vital for a healthy tourism industry?
They are vital. Everyone wants to go on holiday in Pembrokeshire. We need broadband to work well. The Government have allocated £66 million to Welsh regions to support the roll-out of superfast broadband, and we will continue to work in partnership with the Welsh Government to support that roll-out. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to promote Pembrokeshire’s wonderful assets, including its beaches and tourism vista.
Is the Minister aware that Huddersfield has more listed buildings that either Bath or York? Does he also realise that we have just launched as the first gigabit town, which gives us superfast broadband right through the town and makes us one of the most attractive towns in Britain?
Public Libraries: Northamptonshire
Northamptonshire County Council is responsible for the delivery of a comprehensive and efficient library service. The Department is aware of its plans for changes to the service. Officials have been in regular discussions with it, as I have too.
Yes, I will, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this regard over many months. I have been in touch with the council leader and the chief executive. I am pleased to confirm that their plan is not to close any libraries in Northamptonshire. They are working towards that end, and he, I and others in Northamptonshire have worked and lobbied in that regard, but we will continue to monitor the situation carefully.
Gagging Orders: Charities
It is vital that charities feel free to speak on behalf of everyday people and continue to develop the right policy with Government. Government contracts will include provisions to ensure that providers adhere to the high standards that we expect. However, those provisions are in no way gagging clauses.
In my constituency, we have a large number of charities and advice agencies dealing with the fallout of Government cuts, universal credit, and, of course, the after-effects of Grenfell. Does the Minister truly believe that those frontline organisations should be silenced rather than being able to share their justified concerns, which could then be rectified? I draw particular attention to some of the groups involved in Grenfell that have been told, “Play nice, and you’ll get what you need.” They should be allowed to speak out.
I reiterate that this is not a gagging clause. I repeated that when I met the charities group in December and spoke at its event here in Westminster, and the Prime Minister wrote to Sir Stuart Etherington and reaffirmed the point. If the hon. Lady wishes to meet me to discuss those who feel that they cannot speak out, I would be very happy to do so. It is absolutely right that we should be able to hear the sector’s voice and to hear its expertise, its insight and everything that it can bring to Government to tackle burning injustices. As I say, I am very happy to meet her to discuss the matter.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the England women’s football team on winning the SheBelieves Cup this week. I also congratulate all our outstanding British winners in this year’s Oscars, particularly Olivia Colman for her Best Actress award. We are proud of them all, and they remind us of how sport and culture can unite us.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. I am a former employee and a huge supporter of our public service broadcaster, but on the issue of TV licences for those over the age of 75, is it not the case that the BBC accepted responsibility for this concession when it made an agreement with the Government? Should it not now deliver that in full, and do so without the threats of cuts to services?
My hon. Friend correctly relays the history of this. As I said earlier, it is right for us to await the conclusions of the BBC’s review of this matter. It is far more sensible to comment on something when we have seen it rather than before we have seen it. Once we have seen it, we will all be able to reach a judgment. It is the Government’s clear expectation that this concession should continue.
My hon. Friends in the Department for Transport have been working strongly with fans to ensure that travel is appropriate. My understanding was that the issue had been dealt with, but I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman if he still feels that there are concerns in this area.
My hon. Friend is quite right. There is a mounting body of evidence that women in public life—in an elected capacity or as journalists—face a disproportionately high level of abuse online compared with men. If we are to protect free speech and open debate, it is vital that our White Paper on online harms addresses all types of abuse, harassment and intimidation online.
Last week the Government admitted that only a fifth of FTSE 350 boards had a grasp on cyber-security. Only 4% of businesses recalled using any Government sources of information, and there is a growing skills gap of 50,000 specialists. May I politely ask the Government to wake up to their failing strategies and urgently get a grip on the growing cyber threat?
I assure the hon. Lady that the number of FTSE 350 companies—which I met representatives of to discuss this subject earlier in the week—prioritising cyber-security is growing. The Government have committed funding, through the cyber-security high impact skills fund, to helping industry close the skills gap.
The Department has just launched the digital inclusion innovation fund, which has been specifically designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people. A few weeks ago I visited a 5G test bed in the Kensington part of Liverpool, where I saw at first hand how we are harnessing this technology to improve social care and tackle loneliness among older people.
The Offensive Weapons Bill bans the online sale of offensive weapons to residential addresses, but it has revealed a significant gap in the legislation around the sale of offensive weapons on platforms. Will the Secretary of State address that gap in the upcoming White Paper?
I will look carefully at the issue raised by the hon. Lady. Of course it is important that we closely keep track of where these weapons are being sold and the methods being employed. She would expect me to say that the online harms White Paper will focus on the responsibilities of the online platforms to keep people safe from harm. Harm varies, and we are concerned about a variety of different harms, but we will certainly pay close attention to the point that she has raised.
Yes. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Law Commission’s work in this area, and we are looking at the issue carefully. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to her, as she has played a significant part in the development of the law in this area? Whether on upskirting or revenge pornography, she and other Members have done a great deal to put the law in a better place.
Bearing in mind the dwindling pipeline of musical talent coming through from state schools, does the Minister agree with the chair of UK Music that music education should be seen as an intrinsic good, just as sporting education is?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take music and other creative arts education very seriously. The Minister for School Standards has introduced a hub scheme across the country, with substantial funding to enable state school pupils to access music, as they deserve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue. Northumberland is, of course, a county that millions want to visit, and should do. I am hoping, in fact, to visit myself; I commend it to everyone. I have addressed the issue of Airbnb with its representatives in person, and I see the Bed and Breakfast Association regularly. In my discussions with Airbnb representatives, I have made it clear, and cautioned them, that they need to work to satisfy all concerned about health and safety issues, and they assure me that they are doing that. We will continue to monitor the situation.
I am delighted to say that Northern Ireland tourism is doing extremely well with visitors from North America and elsewhere. The Titanic exhibition, for example, is extremely popular and has been winning awards. The “Game of Thrones” television programme also draws people to Northern Ireland. There are myriad reasons to visit—not least, of course, the warm welcome from the people of Northern Ireland. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his question.
Could I draw the Minister’s attention to an initiative that I launched a couple of weeks ago—“Derbyshire, the County of Culture”—to try to bring tourism to Derbyshire and make it a cohesive county? Would he like to comment on that initiative?
I commend my hon. Friend for what she does for her county of Derbyshire. I previously referred to her as the prima ballerina assoluta of this House when she asked a question about ballet, and she is absolutely an advocate for her county as well. There is also a major call from across the House for towns of culture, and we are working on and discussing that matter. I will continue to consider her suggestions.
When are the Government going to crack down on ticket reselling websites? A constituent of mine was scammed by being charged over £600 for tickets that should have cost £130 at the box office. Viagogo refused to take any responsibility even though it facilitated and profited from this rip-off transaction. The Government have to haul these companies in and get it sorted out.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken many measures to bring these ticketing companies into better standards. StubHub, GetMeIn and Seatwave have all complied with the law during discussions with the Competition and Markets Authority. Unfortunately, Viagogo has, for the second time, refused to do so. The CMA announced yesterday that it will be undertaking proceedings for contempt of court against Viagogo. I would urge all Members to make their constituents aware that there are alternatives to Viagogo and that they should use them.
CPS: Serious and Organised Crime
The Crown Prosecution Service has a crucial role in tackling serious and organised crimes such as human trafficking, money laundering and child sexual exploitation. It works with other criminal justice agencies to support the Government’s serious and organised crime strategy.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about international co-operation. I am happy to remind him of the important network of up to 27 specialist prosecutors who are based abroad and who work closely with other jurisdictions across international boundaries. Recent examples are the successful conviction of Matthew Falder for child sexual exploitation offences and the conviction of Keith Morris for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault against victims in Kenya. I am happy to say that the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has reported that the international justice and organised crime division has a conviction rate of over 90% and undertakes high-quality work.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his answers thus far. One of the most insidious aspects of serious and organised crime is the modern slave trade. What action is he taking to bring those criminals to justice, so that we can smash these rings once and for all?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention once again to the grim reality of modern-day slavery. The importance of the CPS in providing early investigative advice in all cases has been underlined, because solely relying on the testimony of victims, who are often vulnerable, can lead to challenges. I am happy to say that in the last year, there was a 119% increase in cases where that vital early advice was provided to the police.
Rightly, we are hearing a lot of concern about the existence of organised county lines, which are affecting our towns and cities across the country. The CPS has developed a particular approach and typology to help the police and other agencies deal with county lines, concerning in particular the balance between the need to safeguard the vulnerable persons—often young—who are being used and the proper investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.
Does the Solicitor General remember replying to me when I said that it was a great concern for those of us who represent towns where there have been dreadful grooming gangs that a senior police officer—not in my patch, but another part of the country—said that the under-resourcing of the CPS meant that it was unable to proceed when it found new evidence about perpetrators?
I assure the hon. Gentleman, who has long been properly concerned about this serious offending, that resource will not be a barrier to the prosecution of offences. We have seen an important sea change in attitudes to the complainants and victims of child sexual exploitation. Gone, I hope, are the days when young victims are disregarded or ignored by the authorities. The message has to go out that we will listen and act to protect victims.
Does the Solicitor General agree with the Chancellor that, rather than new money being spent, knife crime and serious and organised crime should simply be prioritised? If he does, which area does he think should be de-prioritised?
I assure the hon. Lady that it is not a question of choice when it comes to the prosecution of offences. I am happy to say that in the last year, more than 27,500 cases involving possession of a knife or bladed article were commenced in our courts. That is an important testimony to the seriousness with which the prosecuting authorities take the possession and use of knives and offensive weapons.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. I do not have the detail of that administration, but I know that in the last seven years, £1.5 billion has been collected in proceeds of crime. That is shared out between the police and other enforcement authorities, and I can write to him with more information about how it is then administered.
CPS: Disclosure Obligations
I have frequent conversations with ministerial colleagues about this issue and all issues relating to the criminal justice system. In November last year, the Attorney General published his review of disclosure, which examined the efficiency and effectiveness of the current system.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Attorney General and I, as criminal litigators, have a long and deep interest in this issue. One of the newer challenges has been the rise of technology and the proliferation of telephones and other instruments that have to be examined in many cases. I will chair a digital summit in the months ahead, to try to develop innovative new ways in which we can assist the process. The disclosure issue, I am afraid, is a cultural issue of long standing. Not only the CPS but the police and other agencies have to change their ways and improve the position.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She knows, in the context of disclosure, that we must be very careful to strike a balance so that it does not become a box-ticking exercise. In particular, in every case the necessity to seize telephones and other items from victims should be assessed very much on the evidence, rather than as a matter of course. I think we must do everything to make it clear to victims that they will get support and encouragement, rather than feel that the process is working against them in a way that can be just as traumatic as the crime itself.
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Northern Ireland
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including matters relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the Union. I am unable, I am afraid, to talk about the legal content of those discussions because, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) will know, the Law Officers are bound by the Law Officers’ convention to disclose neither the fact nor the content of that advice.
I remain committed to considering what assistance I personally can provide to this House on the legal implications of the backstop, to ensure that Members have what they need to make an informed decision. We have been engaging in focused, detailed and careful discussions with the Union, and we continue to seek legally binding changes to the backstop that ensure it cannot be indefinite. These discussions will be resumed shortly.
I am most grateful to the Attorney General for that very full reply. On 29 January, the Prime Minister told the House:
“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement...It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 678.]
Given the response that the Attorney General has had in Brussels and the remarks of the French Minister on the radio this morning, is it still Government policy to seek a reopening of the withdrawal agreement?
It is Government policy to achieve the necessary change in the backstop that will cause me to review and change my advice. That is Government policy; that is the subject of the discussions that we are having. I would say that it has come to be called “Cox’s codpiece”. What I am concerned to ensure is that what is inside the codpiece is in full working order.
Well! I hope everybody heard that. In the interests of the accessibility of our proceedings—in case anybody did not hear it—the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Cox’s codpiece. I have repeated it so that the alliterative quality is clear to all observers.
Thank you for that breather, Mr Speaker.
They say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results. Given that the Attorney General has not and will not be able to change a single word in this withdrawal agreement, how exactly would he describe the Government’s plans to put it to a vote again in this House next week?
The plans for next week are not mine to decide, but what I can tell the hon. Gentleman is this: we are discussing detailed, coherent, careful proposals, and we are discussing text with the European Union. I am surprised to hear the comments that have emerged over the last 48 hours that the proposals are not clear; they are as clear as day, and we are continuing to discuss them.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give Parliament 48 hours’ notice or, at any rate, properly full notice of the outcome of his discussions with the EU? Will he provide to Parliament a draft of the withdrawal and implementation Bill, so that my European Scrutiny Committee, and others in Parliament and others outside, can assess how the withdrawal agreement will be enacted in domestic law, as obliged by article 4 of the withdrawal agreement; how the Bill would ensure the statutory manner in which the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 will be dealt with; and how the question of disapplication by the courts—by the Supreme Court—will be handled under that enactment?
We will endeavour to give as much notice as we possibly can. Of course those discussions are running. They will resume very shortly and continue almost certainly through the weekend. We will endeavour to give the House notice as early as we can, if and when we have something to report. My hon. Friend made a second point about the Bill. That is not for me to decide, although I will certainly discuss the matter with those who will make that decision. We will endeavour to give the European Scrutiny Committee, and my hon. Friend, the earliest possible notice.
The Attorney General is now in the interesting position of leading on these negotiations, which means that—to follow his nomenclature—he will end up examining his own codpiece in front of the House of Commons. How can he provide the objective advice to the House on which we rely when he will, in effect, be marking his own homework?
The law is the law. The question of whether whatever is negotiated with the European Union affects the legal risk of the indefinite duration of the backstop is a matter that I shall judge entirely impartially and objectively. If I did not, I would be conscious that there are many lawyers—
Article 175 of the withdrawal agreement which, as the Attorney General knows, deals with resolving disputes about the interpretation of the agreement, states that rulings of the arbitration panel shall be binding on the EU and the UK. In his letter to the Prime Minister of 13 November, the Attorney General stated that although the withdrawal agreement does not
that the backstop review mechanism
“is intended to be arbitrable…I consider that the better view is that it is.”
In his recent discussions with the EU, has it confirmed that it shares that better view—in which case, why would one need to consider another separate arbitration mechanism for dealing with the backstop? Or has the EU said that it does not regard binding arbitration as applying to the backstop itself?
That is a question I would have expected from such a sophisticated Select Committee Chair. The problem is that although the arbitration system applies to the protocol, the question that one asks the arbitrator is at the heart of the effectiveness of any arbitration. Although I am not at this stage able to disclose to the right hon. Gentleman the question that has been proposed by the United Kingdom to the Commission, the question is everything. He may very well need to take that into account, because the question about when the protocol would end is likely to be determinative of whether the mechanism is effective.
I am glad to see that the Attorney General’s powers of alliteration have not dimmed since we first appeared in court together, and I know that neither have his independence, rigour, and respect for his constitutional position, which should never be questioned. Does he agree that when dealing with important matters of textual analysis and detail, it is unhelpful to attempt a running media commentary? Such commentary will inevitably be partial and inaccurate, and these matters are best pursued with care and rigour, and with the overall objective that he has just given to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and of course he is right. Any negotiation of this kind involves dealing with complex legal questions and matters, and a running commentary that is partial and often based on hearsay and rumour is not helpful to the analysis of the question, or conducive to the success of the negotiations.
Order. I am sensitive to the fact that this issue is of enormous, and for some consuming, importance. I therefore want to let the question run, but colleagues must ask short questions of one sentence, and the Attorney General will treat them as he sees fit.
I understand that the Attorney General’s conversations with the Cabinet are privileged, but has he turned his mind to the concerns that, should the backstop be indefinite, it is likely to breach the commitments under the Belfast agreement, and indeed the commitments that are given to me as a Northern Ireland citizen under article 3?
The hon. Gentleman knows that if I were to answer that question, I would be breaching the Law Officers’ convention. All I can say is that I turn my mind to a great many of the legal implications of the treaty, and those that he has mentioned have not escaped me.
The withdrawal agreement contains many issues that we all agree on, such as citizens’ rights and a transition for business. Is it still the EU’s negotiating position that in order to reach agreement on our long-term relationship we need to agree a withdrawal agreement first?
The Northern Ireland protocol is there primarily to protect the peace process. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made some rather unfortunate comments that killings during the troubles at the hands of the security services were “not crimes”. Has the Attorney General advised her that her comments were ill-informed, insensitive and seriously potentially contemptuous of the current legal process, wherein the Director of Public Prosecutions is shortly to announce whether prosecutions will be brought against soldiers for unlawful killings on Bloody Sunday? Will he please tell his colleagues to be more mindful of these conventions in future?
I think the hon. and learned Lady knows that the Secretary of State has corrected those comments. I do not think it is necessary for me to advise her on the various matters that she suggests. I believe firmly that the Secretary of State will not have intended any offence and she has, in any event, corrected those remarks.
It is widely reported that, should the Attorney General have a more successful trip to Brussels tomorrow than he has managed so far this week, he will be putting any concessions that he receives on the backstop to a star chamber of Eurosceptic lawyers—one QC, six Tory MPs and one Democratic Unionist party MP. Why are there no MPs from other parties in the star chamber?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be putting them to the star chamber of this House. I am delighted that there are eight very distinguished Members who are going to sit in judgment on my opinion, but I expect and welcome the judgment of all Members of this House, on both sides of it.
I really hope the Attorney General appreciates the fundamental concerns here, because it now seems that as well as being part of the negotiating team he is advising the Government on the outcome of the negotiations. It seems he will then bring his proposals to the star chamber and then he will have to answer to this House. First, will he commit to publish any advice that he gives the Prime Minister on any concessions that he receives? Secondly, will he record what he has said in the star chamber, so that all MPs can make a decision on Tuesday on exactly the same information?
The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misconception. I am not appearing before any star chamber, either on this side of the House or the other. The star chamber I am appearing in front of is this House. I will account to this House. I am not going to be appearing in front of any star chamber, although it is composed, as I say, of exceptionally distinguished people. Any Member of this House can come and see me if they like and I shall account to this House. I say to the hon. Gentleman: do not grieve because I shall, I assure him, be wholly open about my advice. He asks me whether I will commit to publishing it. I will commit now to saying to this House that I shall publish my legal opinion on any document that is produced and negotiated with the Union.
Leaving the EU
The priorities of my Office are published in the business plan. In relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, my priority continues to be supporting the successfully delivery of the Government’s objectives by giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government, and, in particular, by contributing to international negotiations. I take a keen interest in the programme of Brexit-related domestic legislation and I am of course involved in supporting preparations for future international co-operation with the Law Officers’ Departments and the prosecution agencies.
Order. We are running late, but I am willing to accommodate colleagues. I know that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), notwithstanding any advance text that she has penned, will express herself with admirable succinctness, which reflects the urgency of the situation.
I will attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker. We now know that the Department for Transport’s botched tendering process for ferry contracts has already cost the taxpayer £33 million to settle legal action. Will the Attorney General tell us whether similar tendering processes across Government could mean further litigation, and how much public money has been set aside for the contingency of such court action?
The hon. Lady knows that she is asking me questions that belong to the Department for Transport, not to me. These matters do not come to the Law Officers unless they have a Law Officers’ point, so the reality is that I am afraid I must direct her to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Will the Attorney General therefore confirm whether or not he provided any legal advice to the Department for Transport in relation to that contract and settlement with Eurotunnel; and if he did, given the huge public concern about this, will he publish it?
The Attorney General and I are the pro bono champions of Government. As part of that, I work closely with those involved in public legal education, supporting initiatives to increase its profile and to reach more members of the public.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the work of my public legal education committee, which released its vision statement in October 2018. Among the goals that we have set, we are looking at scaling up the delivery of PLE via the legal profession, using on and offline methods, and we are looking to embed it in public services as an aspect of early intervention in health advice and community settings.
The most recent prosecution for what is sometimes known as high treason was that of William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw-Haw, in 1946. Treason remains an offence that can be prosecuted. However, its provisions are somewhat archaic. Modern criminal and terrorism offences are more likely to be applicable and provide sufficient sentencing power, and usually offer a better chance of a successful conviction.
Will the Solicitor General strongly encourage the Law Commission to revise its 2008 guidance that the Treason Act 1351 has ceased to be of contemporary relevance, so that the law may be applied to British nationals who betray our country by going abroad to join a jihad against Her Majesty’s armed forces?
My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the 1351 Act is very much on the statute book. The question of who the sovereign’s enemies are is perhaps easily answered when we have clearly defined state actors who are clearly acting against the interests of our country. It is somewhat more difficult when it comes to returning foreign fighters, but I assure him that when people come back to this country who have committed atrocities abroad and where there is evidence, we will prosecute them.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the crisis of knife crime.
The Home Secretary flew to Brussels last night to participate in the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council, the significance of which at this time I am sure colleagues across the House will recognise. He asked me to respond to this urgent question on his behalf.
The senseless killings in recent days, and the too many others before them, have rightly shocked the country. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the families of all the victims and everyone affected. There is no denying the urgency of this issue. Day in, day out, we are acting to end the bloodshed. At the start of the week, the Home Secretary came to the House to set out our approach to serious violence. He said there was no single solution and that we had to unite and fight on all fronts to stop the slaughter.
We are taking a tough law enforcement approach with our Offensive Weapons Bill, which is going through Parliament, and we have listened to what the police tell us they need and at their request are introducing knife crime prevention orders in that Bill. We are also increasing police funding by up to £970 million next year, including council tax, and police and crime commissioners are planning to recruit hundreds of new officers as a result.
We recognise, though, that we cannot arrest our way out of this. In the serious violence strategy, we announced a multi-agency approach, and we will consult very soon on a statutory public health duty of care to ensure that all agencies that can and must work on this play their part. We are also investing more than £220 million in early intervention projects to stop the most vulnerable being sucked into a life of violence and addressing the drivers of crime, including the drugs trade, with the launch of our independent drugs review.
Day in, day out, we, the police and others are acting across the country to try to stop the bloodshed. We continue to look for new ways to tackle this epidemic. Yesterday, I attended a serious violence summit with senior police officers hosted by the Home Secretary as part of our continuing work under the serious violence strategy. Consulting those on the frontline is vital to making sure our next steps are effective. While lives are being lost, we are determined to do even more to stop knife crime and serious violence. We owe it to our young people and our communities to get this right.
We have had several days of newspaper headlines on knife crime, but does the Minister accept that for families and communities up and down the country this is not just a few days of newspaper stories; this is their lives? It is every mother’s worst nightmare: they say goodbye to their son in the morning and the next call they get is from the emergency services telling them their child is the victim of violent crime.
On police numbers, does the Minister accept that it is a question not just of police officers on patrol, but of community policing, safer school partnerships and police officers working with our diverse communities? Does she agree with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, who says there is a clear correlation between the fall in police numbers and the rise in violent crime, including knife crime, or does she agree with her Prime Minister, who denies any such correlation? Does she agree with the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who said of the Prime Minister:
“I don’t think she listens, quite frankly, to what she’s being told”?
Does the Minister accept that many people will find the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s suggestion that the police only have to move resources from other areas to fight knife crime, monstrous and an insult to grieving families? The police are under pressure in nearly every area. Our constituents know this from the delays in responding to 999 calls—not just a few hours, but sometimes the next day—and they know when they ring up to say they have seen people selling drugs or other criminality on the street that the police do not have the resources to respond. We need more resources for the police, and we need them now.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary met police chiefs from seven forces and others. Since 2010, Tory Governments have cut more than 9,000 officers from those forces alone. Did the Home Secretary apologise to them? Did he offer them extra resources? Is the Minister able to tell us?
In 2009, the Home Affairs Committee published a comprehensive appraisal of what needs to be done to fight knife crime. We know about the success of what has been done in Glasgow. Does the Minister accept that what frightened communities, families and mothers need is not more hand-wringing, not more summits, not more committees, and not more reviews? They want the Government to put the necessary resources into the youth service, into work with excluded children, into strengthening mental health services for young people and adolescents, and, above all, into the police service. Only then will the public believe that the Government are taking the knife crime epidemic seriously.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. She knows from the many debates that we have had on this matter, and the many occasions on which she and I and Home Office Ministers have discussed it, that we all recognise the great fear, worries and concerns of mums and dads in certain parts of the country that have been suffering from these crimes for some time. That is precisely why we issued the serious violence strategy last year. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady is chuntering at me. I am trying to answer her questions.
It is because of that fear that we are putting so much effort into supporting local charities, through both our anti-knife crime community fund and our early intervention youth fund, to help young people and children and their families. We are also working on the youth endowment fund, which will invest some £200 million over 10 years to support projects to intervene on young people and protect them from being ensnared by gang leaders.
The right hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of resources. Only a couple of weeks ago we voted to increase police resources by nearly £1 billion, and I am sorry that she did not feel able to vote for that. Police funds were increased last year, and will be increased again next year.
The right hon. Lady talked about summits and meetings and so on. The point of those is getting the right people into the room to tackle this issue together. As we all know, there is no single simple solution. I wish that there were, but the issue is very complex. That is why there are both short-term and longer-term measures in the strategy, which meets with the approval of the police and others with whom we engage to try to crack this problem.
I very much hope that today we will yet again hear fruitful, constructive and non-partisan comments about this topic, because it is affecting every single one of our constituencies. We need to work together to get it right, because when I meet victims and their families they want to hear what we are doing, not what our conversations across the Dispatch Box are about.
Many police in London now use body-worn video cameras. Does the Minister agree that that should help to give them the confidence to use stop-and-search in all circumstances within the law as part of a concerted effort to end the terrible tragedies that are afflicting our city?
My right hon. Friend has made a very important point. The use of body-worn cameras enables officers to use their stop-and-search powers with even greater confidence than they had before. Interestingly, the chief constable of Merseyside told us yesterday that since his officers have started using body-worn cameras, the volume of complaints about stop-and-search has decreased dramatically: I think he said that there were about seven last year. This is the point of stop-and-search. If we target it correctly and officers are stopping people when they believe that a search meets the test of being proportionate and necessary, that will not just help them to catch those who are carrying knives, but will, I hope, give confidence to communities.
I thank the Minister for explaining why the Home Secretary is not here to answer this question, but there can be no doubt that the Home Secretary faces a massive crisis on his doorstep. We have heard repeatedly in recent weeks about how the public health approach to knife crime has worked not just in Glasgow, but across Scotland, where knife crime has greatly reduced and crimes of handling an offensive weapon have decreased by 64% over the last 10 years. The evidence speaks for itself, and the World Health Organisation has commended this approach, so I want to know why there is not more of a sense of urgency on the part of this Government about following the public health approach.
The Prime Minister’s comments that police numbers on the streets have not been a factor in this crisis have been met with significant criticism and fly in the face of what experts such as Cressida Dick have told us. By contrast, Scotland has a better record on police numbers: in 2018 in Scotland there were about 32 officers per 10,000 of population, compared with only 21 officers per 10,000 of population in England and Wales. So does the Minister agree that the Home Secretary should take immediate steps to match the ratio of police to population figures that we have in Scotland?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question. I understand there are reports of a stabbing in Glasgow last night, and I am sure the condolences of the House are with the families and those concerned.
We are determined to act on the public health multi-agency approach. It was in the strategy published a year ago, and we are due to consult very soon on whether we should put into law that relevant agencies have the duty to collaborate and work together on this. One listens to doctors working in A&E departments talking about the data they can gather and provide to the police, which will then help the police target particular houses on streets in huge cities; precision policing is what it is called in New York and Chicago and places overseas. This sort of data can really help to protect those who may be victims, but also frankly help go after those who may be perpetrators and the gang leaders we are all determined to crack down on.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her support on this. We talk a great deal about the Glasgow model, and I for one am very pleased to be learning from it, and also from the experiences in Wales, where great work is being done on adverse childhood experiences.
A national newspaper this week featured a smirking criminal outside court having been given a suspended sentence for a second knife offence. Will this Minister, whose tenacity is matched by her talent, disregard those who are blinded by the soft soap of self-righteousness and see what in the eyes of those living on the frontline of crime is as clear as crystal: that more of the thugs and gangsters who, through their criminality, punish the innocent, should be stopped, searched, charged and locked up for as long as possible?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words, and I am reminded of the many comments made about him in celebration of his recent knighthood. He makes an important point about sentencing. Of course, it is the judiciary who decide the sentences they impose on defendants as they appear before them in court, but we really must emphasise the importance of the public message on this for local communities living in the sorts of circumstances outlined by the shadow Home Secretary, where people fear for their sons and daughters. That is why we have introduced mandatory minimum sentences for those caught in possession of a knife on more than one occasion. We have asked judges to apply a minimum of six months’ imprisonment to such people to send out that very clear message that holding a knife is not acceptable, is not normal, and if you hold a knife in a public place not only do you put other people at risk, you put yourself at risk as well.
I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions on this, and I think the whole House would agree on many of the things that can make a difference. The problem is that she could have been saying most of these things about a year ago. There is no real sense that the Government are doing anything on the scale that is needed or with the urgency that is needed, whether that is on extra policing, early intervention, youth intervention or tackling exclusions from schools. One summit is just not enough. We want to know what the Home Secretary is doing. Is he holding weekly meetings, either in Cobra or in the Home Office, to pull everyone together and get some action by the end of next week or by the end of the month? Let us see something that actually makes a difference and saves lives.
I take the right hon. Lady’s point about meetings and summits and so on. As she knows, the way in which we get things moving in Whitehall and then across local government and local areas is through drawing everybody together into rooms. We have been working on this day in, day out since the serious violence strategy was launched. We are already funding 29 projects through the early intervention youth fund and working with police and crime commissioners to reach those young people who need help. We have already funded many programmes through the anti-knife crime community fund, which involves smaller projects, and I hope that many Members of Parliament will have received letters from me about the projects in their constituencies that have benefited from it. We have a media campaign called #knifefree, which we in this place are probably not aware of because frankly we are not the people that the campaign is targeting. It is targeting young people in a very direct way on social media, through catch-up television and elsewhere, and it is supporting the message that it is not normal for people to carry knives.
I want to put out this plea: there is more that we as a society can do to press this message home. I am due to meet representatives of the Premier League to ask whether they can encourage their football legends to do even more as role models to get the message out there that carrying a knife is not normal, that people do not have to do it, and that if they do, they are putting themselves at enormous risk. There is a great deal more that we as a society can do to get that message out there to young people about carrying knives, but there is also a huge amount of work going on involving police officers. We have weeks of intensive activity in which police forces across the country make tackling knife crime the priority for that week. I went to an operational briefing on Friday where the plans for the following week were being laid out. Those weeks have extraordinary rates of success: in the last one, 9,000 knives were taken off the streets of our country. The more of these surge operations we can have, the greater benefit there will be in the immediate term on this very complex issue.
My right hon. Friend yet again attempts to skewer a Minister with a short, direct question. He knows that I must, and will, defend the independence of the judiciary, but my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and I do emphasise the point to the judiciary about the public messaging of sentences. We impose mandatory minimum sentences for those who are found in possession of knives precisely to get the message out there that this is simply not on.
Can I tell the Minister what the country is saying to the Government? It is saying, “Get a grip of this, and get a grip of it urgently.” Let me give her an example of what I mean. We had a crisis meeting yesterday where the police chiefs demanded emergency funding. The Home Secretary supported that and said that he wanted £15 million of emergency funding. The Chancellor then went on the radio this morning and said that it was a question not of additional resources but of re-prioritisation by the police. Absolutely pathetic! It is about time the Government listened to what the police chiefs are saying. This should not be a matter of debate. They want emergency funding so that they can surge police numbers into those areas where there are real problems. In the short term, that is what works, although of course we need a public health approach in the longer term. Surging police numbers into those areas requires emergency funding, so the Chancellor should be told where to go and the Home Secretary should be supported by the Prime Minister. The whole of this House will say, “Give the police the money they need to tackle this scourge.” The public of this country will have no idea what we are doing if we do not do that, so get a grip and give the police the money they need.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I might not have employed all the language that he used. Yesterday’s meeting was not a crisis meeting; it was part of a programme of meetings that the Home Secretary has regularly with chief constables, precisely as one would hope.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about resourcing, we voted recently to provide just under £1 billion to police forces, with the help of police and crime commissioners. We are actively looking at what the chiefs are saying and what more they need. We are conscious of the need to ensure, over the long term, that in the surge exercises that they conduct regularly as part of their operational policing powers, they can get their officers to the places where they need to be. So I do not think there is any disagreement here about operations; about how the police can crack down on this. The Home Secretary discussed that in detail yesterday with the chiefs precisely because we want to listen to their needs and take the matter forward.
We know that, when children go into care, they are more likely to join gangs. In Essex, we know that early intervention works; the number of children in care has fallen from 1,600 to 1,000. We also know that stop and search works. We have put 390 more police on the streets in Essex, and the number of stop and search encounters in my constituency has risen from 80 to 500. That is resulting in arrests, which mean that those at the top of the gangs are being taken off our streets. Will my hon. Friend congratulate all those in Essex and look at whether some of the lessons we have learned in our county can help the rest of the country?
I note that some 50 officers were recently sworn in to serve the good county of Essex. We are all learning about, and determined to do something about, the link between exclusions and participation in or victimisation by gangs. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is sitting next to me, is awaiting delivery of the Timpson report on exclusions. We need to make sure that if children are excluded—if that is what a headteacher believes to be appropriate not just for the child, but for the wider school community—they have excellent provision of services outside mainstream schooling.
I think we all recognise that the demands on policing have changed and intensified in recent years, not just in the realm of serious violence but, for example, in the investigation of historical sexual abuse. There has been a rise in the recognition of modern slavery cases, and in the reporting of domestic abuse cases. That is happening because we are trying to help people to understand when they have been victims of crime, and it has added to the existing pressures on the police. That is precisely why the Home Secretary has said that police funding is his priority for the next spending review, and it is why we have increased the funding to police forces for next year by nearly £1 billion with the help of police and crime commissioners.
The Minister has already mentioned the link with exclusions and the report by the former children’s Minister, Ed Timpson, which I gather has been completed. When will it be published, and when will the lessons be learned? What lessons have been taken away from the “Positive for Youth” report, published in 2011 by the then children’s Minister, about better engagement with young people?
We expect to publish the Timpson report shortly. There are lessons to be learned on youth engagement. When I talk to youth workers and former gang members, I find it is about listening to people with lived experience; it is about former gang leaders and former gang members explaining to young people who may be at risk or already ensnared in criminal gangs, listening to them and advising them about their life chances. That has huge benefit.
Yet again, I ask role models in the sporting world and the music world to help us to send out the message that carrying a knife is not right.
The Home Secretary has tried to use the threat of prison to stop young people carrying knives, and it clearly has not worked. I passionately disagree with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes): short-term prison sentences do not work, and I include six-month sentences in that. Why are the Government creating more mandatory short-term prison sentences in the Offensive Weapons Bill, including for breaches of the new knife crime prevention orders?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising knife crime prevention orders, because it gives me an opportunity to explain what they are. Some of her colleagues in the other place may have misunderstood, because this is not about criminalising young people. We have put these prevention orders in the Bill at the request of the police to help to provide wraparound support to a small cohort of young people who have not yet been convicted of a criminal offence, and who have not yet entered the youth justice system.
Where the police receive intelligence from teachers, families or friends that they think a young person is carrying a knife, and where one of these civil—not criminal—orders is obtained, we will have the structure to wrap services and support around that young person. That might include, if appropriate, banning them from entering a certain postcode—the hon. Lady will know of the sometimes competitive nature of postcode gangs—or from using social media to incite violence. All these requirements can be included in an order to make sure that that child does not continue down the path of criminality, blighting not only their life with the harm they may cause but their life chances by having a criminal record.
I am glad the Minister sees this as not just a London problem. The number of people carrying knives in Thames Valley has doubled in the past five years. Has she considered what role MPs can play in this process so that we are not just observers but participants?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are leaders within our communities. If colleagues would like to speak to me afterwards about how they can help to lead the message on knife-carrying in their constituencies, I would be delighted to work with them. Members can google our #knifefree social media campaign, which provides all sorts of information about what one can do if one is worried about a young person or if a young person wants help and advice. There is so much that we as a community can and must do to tackle this.
We know that the rise in knife crime is multifaceted and multi-layered, we know that we need to adopt a public health approach—increasing community policing, youth work and early years intervention—and we know we need it to be a long-term approach. How will the knife crime summit be determined? Who will attend? Will it be long term, sustainable and cross-party, like the work of the Youth Violence Commission? How will the Government report back to the House?
As I say, the Home Secretary has his meetings with the chief constables. I hesitate to give the House a diary of my engagements in the next couple of weeks, but I am meeting police and crime commissioners. We also have the serious violence taskforce coming ahead of that—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is not letting me finish. I am about to get there. I am just trying to lay out the plan of work. I am meeting PCCs, because they are obviously vital. We have the serious violence taskforce, which, as she knows, is a cross-party body that brings everyone who can help nationally and locally into the same room. The Prime Minister has announced her summit, which will involve not just Ministers, but external stakeholders—victims, youth workers and others—to help to cement the work that is happening under the serious violence strategy.
We looked at this issue in detail in the preparation of the Offensive Weapons Bill and we have maintained the mandatory minimum sentence of six months. There are colleagues across the House who do not agree with that approach, but we think it is absolutely right to send out the clear public message that carrying a knife more than once will get you into very serious trouble. I should say that on the first occasion when someone is found carrying a knife it is of course open to judges to imprison them if that is appropriate. Through the Bill, we also wanted to make sure that the law on corrosive substances mirrors that on knives, so that we do not have gangs swapping knives for corrosive substances—we know they have done that in some circumstances—because the law simply is not up to date on that.
Three stabbings have occurred in my constituency since Monday. Two young men were stabbed last night in Queen’s Park, just yards from where I live. We have lost a third of our police since 2011. London policing is at its lowest level for two decades. Three years ago, Westminster City Council pulled all funding from the youth service, after school and holiday schemes. Whatever the debate about the causes of the current escalation in serious youth violence, can we agree that that is a catastrophic decline in our capacity to respond, and that we need an urgent intervention to help these authorities to intervene with young people and stop this tide of violence before it gets worse?
The hon. Lady will know that London is seeing a reorganisation at operational level of how it is policed. I am sure she has made those representations to the Mayor of London, who is accountable for the operation of the police in London, as the PCC. On youth services, my understanding is that Westminster City Council has brought forward a programme called “family hubs”, where it is putting all the services together in one hub to try to make them as easy and accessible as possible for members of the public. I repeat that at the central level we are working to help charities across London and further afield through the early intervention youth fund and the anti-knife crime community fund—I am sure I have written to her about local funds that have benefited from that. These are charities that use youth workers, many of whom have lived experience of the problems they are trying to counteract. That sort of work is very effective in trying to steer young people away.
The Minister’s answers are comprehensive, and that comprehensive character of answer and her commitment to the House are hugely appreciated. However, may I gently say to her that we are, in productivity terms, making very slow progress? So if she could speed up a bit, that would be enormously appreciated, but I respect her commitment on this subject, as well as her unfailing courtesy, which I think everybody acknowledges.
Nineteen people have lost their lives to this in London alone this year, which comes after a record number last year. Clearly, we need to send the message that carrying a knife is unacceptable, and I agree with what has been said about the increased use of stop and search. Will the Minister talk about an amnesty for knives, so that we can take them off the streets, they can be turned into the police and they are therefore taken out of circulation?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. One of the most successful parts of Operation Sceptre, the national weeks of action to which police forces throughout the country sign up, is exactly what he mentions: amnesties and knife bins. As I said, in the most recent week of Operation Sceptre, more than 9,000 knives were taken off our streets.
This is now a national crisis, with young people losing their lives not only on the streets of major cities but even in towns like Dudley. In the west midlands we have lost 2,000 police over the past few years. The police urgently need more resources so that we can get more police on the streets to deal with this problem. We have also lost youth services, sports clubs and all the other projects that keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. Will the Minister support the police and crime commissioner’s bid for more funding for the West Midlands Violence Prevention Alliance? Finally, when people are caught with knives they should be locked up. That is what the Conservatives promised in their 2010 manifesto, but that promise has never been upheld.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have often raised on the Floor of the House the use of reserves, because police reserves are made up of money that the taxpayer has given to police forces to spend on policing. In March last year, West Midlands police’s reserves were £85 million. I am sure the police and crime commissioner would be able to explain why that money is sitting in reserves and, indeed, he may have spent some of it in the past year, but the issue with funding is how it is spent as much as how much is given. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about sentences, we have put the legislation in place, and although it is open to any judge or magistrate to imprison someone who is found in possession of a knife once, it is then mandatory on the second occasion of their being caught. If that is not being followed by judges, it is a decision of the judiciary.
I very much will. I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s Erewash constituency recently to see the use of a scheme called Radio Link, which helps to co-ordinate the activities of people in the local town centre with the police. Those types of schemes are not huge in terms of resources or their public impact, but they can make a real difference in helping the police to police our streets.