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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019

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.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report that if social media platforms host harmful contact and fail to act against it, they should have liability for it?

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.

Rural Broadband

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?

Order. The Minister’s responsibility is for the UK Government’s policy. She has no responsibility for the policy of the Scottish Government—a fact of which I am sure she is fully aware.

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.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his positive input, and I am planning to visit Scotland in April. I draw his attention to the excellent 5G testbed pilots that we are running in rural areas in his part of Scotland.

Sports Coverage

3. What steps his Department is taking to support media coverage of sport played by (a) women and (b) disabled people. (909639)

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

4. What the timetable is for the Government’s response to the consultation on society lottery reform. (909640)

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

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on free TV licences for people over 75 years of age. (909642)

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.

Charity Regulation

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?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We are looking to improve and strengthen the requirements on landowners to allow access to their land for vital infrastructure.

Leaving the EU: Tourism

9. What steps he is taking to help ensure the UK remains an attractive tourist destination after the UK leaves the EU. (909648)

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?

The hon. Gentleman is welcome. We are very pleased to have supported his area in the way that we have, and we will continue to do so.

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.

Against a very challenging financial background, will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the county council on finally coming up with sensible plans to keep all the libraries open?

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

14. What assessment he has made of the effect of gagging orders on the freedom of expression of charities in receipt of public funds. (909654)

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.

Topical Questions

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.

Will the Sports Minister comment on whether English Football League football fans were consulted on the “fans fare” scheme to protect the fares of away travelling fans?

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.

T2. May I congratulate the entire DCMS team on their truly world-leading work on online harms? On the issue of online abuse specifically, it would appear—certainly in this place—that women are targeted far more than men. Will the Minister confirm whether there is evidence to suggest that this gender bias in online abuse is an issue more broadly? (909656)

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.

T3. Equipping our ageing population with new skills is key, especially in areas such as Cornwall, where people have to travel long distances for local services. What plans does the Department have to ensure that technology can be used to support our elderly? (909659)

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.

T4. Ahead of International Women’s Day, we should remember the thousands of women who live with nude and sexually explicit images of themselves posted online without their permission. The current legislation is piecemeal and ripe for reform. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at amalgamating the legislation to outlaw all forms of image-based abuse and make it easier for such images to be removed quickly? (909660)

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.

T6. Will the Minister comment on the recently announced £500,000 campaign by VisitBritain in conjunction with Airbnb? Regulated holiday cottage and bed-and-breakfast owners across north Northumberland spend a lot of money each year meeting licensing, fire and health and safety requirements, whereas Airbnb owners do not have to. (909662)

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.

What discussions has the Minister had with Tourism Ireland to ensure that visitors from the United States of America who come to the Republic of Ireland are encouraged to go to Northern Ireland to enjoy its attractions as well?

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.

Attorney General

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.

How effectively does the CPS work with other law enforcement agencies to fight serious and organised crime?

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.

Can the Solicitor General outline how long it takes for proceeds of serious crime to be administered to communities through the safer communities fund and other grants?

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

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of the level of CPS resources to comply with its disclosure obligations. (909665)

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 disclosure process is a fundamental cornerstone of the criminal justice system. Can the Solicitor General outline his priorities to combat its shortcomings?

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.

What steps is my hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that victims do not feel afraid or concerned about reporting crimes?

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

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the legal implications of the Northern Ireland backstop. (909668)

7. What recent steps he has taken to seek legally binding changes to the Northern Ireland protocol in the EU withdrawal agreement. (909670)

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—

The hon. Gentleman may be right. There are many lawyers who are eminently capable of deciding whether I have got my judgment right or wrong.

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

“expressly state”

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?

It grieves me to have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows I will be bound, and am bound, by the Law Officers’ convention not to disclose either the fact or content of my advice, if any were given on that subject. I am sorry.

Legal Education

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.

It is important that all citizens have the opportunity to learn about the law and their basic criminal legal rights, so will the Solicitor General explain his vision for the public legal education committee?

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.