Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Thank you for calling me to respond, Mr Speaker, and I hope that your voice is fully recovered very soon.
The UK tourism industry is of vital importance to the UK, with 38 million visitors from overseas in 2018 spending £22.9 billion. A total of 1.6 million jobs are supported by the sector, and the Government are working closely with the industry on delivering both the tourism sector deal and the international business events action plan.
Since the expansion of the tourist industry has undoubted economic benefits but significant local costs, will the Minister accede to the request of local authorities of different political persuasions for the right to impose a small levy on overnight stays to defray some of those costs?
It is important to have a sensible conversation on this subject, and the Government are always keen to hear the views of all stakeholders. As the right hon. Gentleman implies, tourism brings great benefits to local areas but there are undoubtedly some costs and strains on the local economy. If he wishes to write to me with any further proposals, we are always interested to hear them.
I have Strepsils, Mr Speaker.
Our most popular tourist attractions are our national museums, led by the British Museum with more than 6 million visitors last year, but we also have some hidden treasures in our regional and local museums that have been squeezed dreadfully by the issues with local government funding. What plans does the Secretary of State have to help investment in that important part of our cultural heritage, which helps to educate future generations, boost regional identities and diversify tourist interest away from the capital?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that our local museums play a really important part in our local heritage and culture. I am thrilled to be heading up this Department, and I hope very much that we will be able to find the funding. I will be having conversations with the Treasury to ensure that we are investing in places, and in the feeling of place, right up and down the country, and I know that he will want to be involved in that process locally.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government’s plan to put a £30,000 salary floor on migrants entering the UK will massively damage the tourism industry in the Lake District and the Yorkshire dales, leaving many unable to fill vital positions? Representatives of the tourism industry and I have spoken to Ministers past and present about the need to massively lower that figure. Will she listen?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will know that I am a Minister who always listens. He represents a beautiful part of the world in the Lake District, whose benefits I have been delighted to enjoy on many visits. I am very aware of this issue, which is obviously under active consideration. One point is that post 1 November, the UK will be able to set its own immigration policy that is right for this country. We are aware that the tourism sector is reliant on domestic talent, but also on recruiting from overseas.
Kettering may not be the first place people think of when it comes to tourism, but they would be wrong, because located in the beating heart of the east midlands, right in the middle of the town, is Wicksteed Park. It was the first ever leisure park in the UK devoted to children’s play, and it attracts 800,000 visitors a year. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it will be celebrating its centenary in 2021. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Wicksteed Park is at the forefront of her mind whenever she considers tourism?
As my hon. Friend knows, Kettering is very much in my heart because I go through it at least twice a week on the East Midlands Trains service to and from my constituency. I am delighted to hear that Wicksteed Park is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This goes to the heart of the fact that there are some real treasures up and down the country. This is about the importance of place and ensuring that we invest in it.
Tackling disinformation is a key Government priority, and in our online harms White Paper we seek to take a world-leading approach to doing just that. We also seek within that to develop a media literacy strategy that tackles it through the people who are reading it.
Civil servants have said they cannot see how the data being gathered by gov.uk could help with Brexit preparations. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal still fresh in the memory, along with the arrogant refusal by Dominic Cummings to assist the departmental Select Committee with its inquiry in any way, does the Minister not see that another mass data gathering exercise in the run-up to an election is a huge red flag for all those worried about a free and fair process?
It is important to say in this context that what the Government are doing, via the Brexit website or any other website, is, first, nothing out of the ordinary, and secondly, serves a very useful purpose in ensuring that we, just like businesses, know our users.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend and his fellow Ministers to their leadership roles in this remarkable Department.
I urge my hon. Friend to translate the online harms White Paper into legislation as swiftly as possible, and invite him to agree that doing so is not just good for the United Kingdom, because it will create a regulator with the authority to enforce a proper duty of care on online companies, but will also be an act of global leadership, whether or not other countries are acting as swiftly as we are.
I begin by paying tribute to the great work that my right hon. and learned Friend did in overseeing the birth of the online harms White Paper. He is completely right: we should be proud in this House that it is an open, liberal democracy such as the United Kingdom that seeks to lead the way in an immensely difficult area. He is right to say that we should move quickly, but we should also move at a pace that allows us to get this vital issue correct.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, and I look forward to her appearing before us at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 16 October. She knows that we undertook a large inquiry into fake news and disinformation, for which the Prime Minister’s chief adviser refused to attend the Committee, and is therefore in contempt of Parliament. Would she like to bring Mr Dominic Cummings with her on 16 October?
We would have a world-class regime for shutting down fake news and disinformation if we had courts that were actually accessible in the fight against misbehaviour by big tech. The breakthrough in the Court of Appeal yesterday, in the case of Richard Lloyd, shows just how hard it is to bring to account big tech firms, like Google, that have clearly misbehaved. So when the Minister brings the online harms Bill to the House—he might tell us when he expects that to happen—will he look again at the proposals that we will table in Committee to make it far easier to bring class actions against some of the biggest firms on earth? He has the chance to level the legal playing field against big tech; will he tell the House that he is determined to seize it?
We are absolutely determined to tackle these vital issues, because we know that the behaviour of social media companies is not always acting in the best interests of all our constituents. Of course we will look at any proposals that are advanced by the Labour party, but it is important to say that we need to get this right, and that requires us to work with industry, as well as against it.
It is the responsibility of the football authorities to govern the sport and provide assurances to fans that proper protections are in place. We welcome the EFL’s financial and sustainability review, and stand ready to support and feed into it as appropriate.
Football clubs are not just economic, or even sporting, entities: they are, as we have seen in the sad case of Bury, often the heart of their communities and of key significance in the lives of individual fans, without whom they are nothing. So would the Minister support legislating to give fans a right to be represented in boardrooms, to gain more influence over their clubs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his question. I should have said that my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport, Media and Creative Industries is sorry not to be here; he has given apologies, I think, both to your office, Mr Speaker, and to Opposition Front Benchers. He is overseas on departmental business.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of local football clubs and their place in the community, and the importance of bringing people together. We are obviously open to dialogue and we know how strongly fans feel about their investment in their clubs. We want to see how the EFL review goes and whether in fact there are wider questions to be asked too.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), the Premier League clubs and the Football Association have been resisting the idea of a supporter being elected to the board of football clubs for a very long time. Why should the EFL review be any different?
We have seen what happened to Bury and very nearly happened to Bolton over the summer, and we know how strongly people feel about this. We need to let that EFL review happen, but it might be that there are some wider questions that we should be asking too.
Online abuse is unacceptable and far too prevalent. Close to half of UK adults say that they have seen hateful content in the last year alone. As has been mentioned, we published the online harms White Paper in April. It tackles legal but harmful and also illegal content, including hate crime, harassment and cyber-stalking. We will seek to bring that forward.
Recent events have highlighted the high levels of online abuse faced by Members of Parliament, especially women. The threats of violence and intimidation towards those in public life undermine democracy and cannot be acceptable. The Jo Cox Foundation is calling on all political parties to commit to a joint standard of conduct to uphold the highest standards in public life. Does my hon. Friend the Minister support that initiative?
I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done in this area, but to the foundation for the work that it is doing. She is right that we should seek to do all we can, cross-party, not only to discourage the abuse that she speaks of, but to encourage people to come into politics. That will not happen so long as the level of abuse is as it is, and we will look closely at the proposals, as well as those others that have come forward.
The Minister says that the abuse is unacceptable, and he is right. Some time ago, there was a picture on the internet of my young son being executed, but nobody seems to be able to do anything whatever about this. We say it is unacceptable, but we do not seem to be able to do anything. What are the Minister’s ideas?
My hon. Friend is completely right that, as things stand, we are not able to take the action that we should be able to. It is also important to say that social media companies themselves have also not taken the action required of them in a civilised society. The online harms White Paper and its journey into legislation will be a crucial method of tackling this, but it is not the only one, and I would like to continue to work with the social media companies to bring forward much more rapid progress.
Good morning, Mr Speaker. May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and, on behalf of my team, welcome her team to their new roles too?
The cyber-security fund forms part of this Government’s approach to combating harmful online activity, but serious doubts have been raised about the fund’s management. Given the concern, can the Minister or the Secretary of State confirm today whether Hacker House is a UK-based company?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we discussed this subject in an urgent question earlier this week. As far as Companies House is concerned, and as far as all the due diligence that was done at the time was concerned, Hacker House met all the criteria. He also knows, however, that we are looking into this matter, and that a review will report to the House by the end of this month.
Last week, the Minister made a statement to the House in which he gave the impression that Hacker House was UK-based when he referred to a UK phone number owned by the company. My team phoned it and it was answered by a woman in California.
The Minister mentions Companies House. I looked at the Companies House website this morning and saw that there has been a registration detail change—one of the principal directors now registers their state of residence as the United States. So I remain concerned, not least because Hacker House’s accounts show receipt of a loan of £700,000 from one of the company’s directors. Can the Minister assure us that this unusual transaction was not used to unlock a taxpayer-funded Government scheme?
Free TV Licences: Over-75s
The Government are very disappointed with the BBC’s decision on the future of the TV licence concession. We know that older people in particular value television as a source of companionship and entertainment, and as a way to stay connected with the world. I have met the chairman of the BBC board and the director-general of the BBC, and I have asked them to do more to help those affected by the decision.
Promises matter, and people who are elderly, lonely and housebound are not interested in squabbling in this place or in excuses—they want that promise honoured and their free TV licence. So will the Secretary of State say why she made a promise at the election, why she is letting down older people across the country and what she is going to do about it?
Of course this is not a promise that I made, because I took this job only in July, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there was a commitment. There was also an agreement with the BBC in the 2015 funding settlement; we committed to increase the licence fee in line with inflation and close the iPlayer loophole. She is right to say that the people are not interested in squabbling in this place, be it about TV licences or anything else. If older people are entitled to pension credit, they will get the help they need. The BBC will also be working to ensure that others are aware of that entitlement and the other support that is available.
We are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and for many older people television is their main source of company. For those who are housebound or live on their own, it is a window to the wider world. There are 5,170 households in my constituency who look set to lose their free TV licences, which they were promised by the Government at the last election. Does the Minister agree that you cannot means test for social isolation?
As the hon. Lady also knows, we are the first Government in the world to appoint a Minister to lead work on tackling loneliness, and last year we published the world’s first Government strategy on loneliness and secured £20 million of new grant funding for projects run by charities and community groups to bring people together. We know that there are people who are not claiming the pension credit who would be entitled and would fall into the categories she has mentioned. I hope that she, like me, as a local MP, will work with all local agencies to make sure that everyone who is entitled to that support gets it.
The Government firmly believe in press freedom. Clearly, that freedom comes with a responsibility to ensure that it is not abused. It is not unreasonable to expect the press to act with understanding in relation to sensitive personal stories. It is not for Government to arbitrate, but it is important that we have systems in place so that individuals can take complaints to independent bodies to be assessed.
Last month saw yet another example of a high-profile sports figure having to deal with tabloid newspapers publishing deeply personal and distressing information about his family’s private lifer. Leveson was supposed to change the way such publications operated. Does the Secretary of State agree that incidents such as that seem to suggest that it is just business as usual, with sales and profit being put before individuals’ rights to privacy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. All of us have complete empathy with the strong feelings of both Ben Stokes—I believe that is the story the hon. Gentleman is referring to—and Gareth Thomas, who experienced a similar invasion of privacy in the same week. Decisions on whether the press’s actions in those cases were in breach of its agreed standards should be made by the independent regulatory bodies. The press said it wanted to be self-regulated. I wait to see in these particular examples, if complaints are made, how that self-regulation works.
In March last year, the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stood at that Dispatch Box and axed the second part of the Leveson inquiry because he said that the culture in the media had changed. When we look at what has happened to the Duchess of Sussex, Gareth Thomas and Ben Stokes, we see that the culture of invasion of privacy has not changed. The Secretary of State says it is not for the Government to arbitrate such matters, so will she now resurrect the independent inquiry and let us properly move this forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I do not agree. The media landscape has changed significantly in the six years since the Leveson inquiry report was published. We believe that the steps we have taken mean that to continue with part 2 of Leveson is no longer appropriate, proportionate or in the public interest.
The family of my Livingston constituent Kirsty Maxwell have faced the unimaginable tragedy of losing her in suspicious circumstances in Benidorm in 2017, when she fell to her death from a balcony. To compound that horror, they have since had to face repeated violations of their privacy and intrusion from some journalists and media outlets. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a duty of care to our citizens, especially those who have been traumatised and faced a loss of such magnitude, to protect their privacy and the memory of their loved ones? Will she meet me to discuss this and the recommendations that will be in my upcoming report on deaths abroad and support for families when they face media intrusion?
I would of course be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. I am very sorry for everything that has happened to Kirsty’s family and friends after that unimaginable tragedy. I hope that at our meeting we can discuss whether in fact complaints have been made and how the system of self-regulation has worked in that case.
There is overwhelming evidence from academics and respected organisations such as Historic England that heritage-led regeneration provides substantial economic and social benefits. Last month, we were delighted to announce a £95 million investment in high street heritage action zones, which will support ambitious projects to revive our historic high streets, thereby boosting local economies and quality of life throughout the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his constituency’s successful bid for £1.9 million from the scheme to revitalise Gloucester’s cathedral quarter.
The Government have done wonders for heritage regeneration, and I am grateful for the Minister’s confirmation of the successful bid by Gloucester’s cathedral quarter to the heritage action-zone fund, which will enable the medieval Fleece hotel to be regenerated after two decades of sitting shut. My hon. Friend knows that culture is also important for inspiring young people to stay and work in small cities. Will she consider setting up a small pot for the 15 unsuccessful runners-up to the cultural development fund?
My hon. Friend is a tremendous campaigner for heritage funding in his constituency. In fact, since he has been MP for Gloucester, his constituency has secured more than £15 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and it has now secured close to £2 million for a heritage action zone. But clearly my hon. Friend wants more. He asked about the cultural development fund, which also supports the use of culture and heritage as a catalyst for regeneration and economic growth; the Government are monitoring the success of the fund and will in due course consider whether there will be future rounds of funding.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware, but we value heritage a great deal in Huddersfield. We have more listed buildings than Gloucester, Bath and York, and we are keen to have our fair share of the money for regeneration. Will she look into the role of some of the people high up in English Heritage who seem to want to stop any positive, forward-looking project if they do not like it?
I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was successful in securing some support from the heritage high streets action-zone scheme, so I congratulate his constituency on that. I look forward to seeing that funding make a positive impact in his area.
Leaving the EU: Creative Industries
The UK’s creative, digital and media industries are a global success story. Our creative industries continue to outperform the wider economy: their value went up from £95 billion in 2016 to £102 billion in 2017. As Europe’s leading tech hub, we generate more billion-dollar tech businesses than any other country in Europe. Over the past three years, we have maintained a dialogue with the creative industries on EU exit. I recognise that the movement of people and goods are among their concerns, but the UK is a global leader in these sectors, and our decision to leave the EU will not change that.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Will the Minister guarantee that musicians and others in the creative industries, with their roadies and their techies, will be able to work across the EU as they do now—as they need to do to make a living—if we leave with or without an agreement, taking their instruments, their kit and their merchandise in a system that works across borders without carnets or additional costs?
We are talking to the industry about exactly those concerns. I have already had some conversations along these lines, as has the Secretary of State, who met UK Music earlier this week. It is true that, when the UK leaves the EU on 31 October, free movement as it currently stands will end. In the event of a no-deal exit, creative professionals will need to check whether they need a visa or a work permit for the EU country that they are visiting. I am very optimistic that we will get a deal, and I would encourage the hon. Lady to vote for it when she has the opportunity to do so.
The Musicians Union states that most UK musicians rely on performing and touring in the EU to make a living, so a bad deal or a no-deal Brexit will jeopardise their careers. I have listened to what the Minister has had to say, but we are almost at Brexit date. What discussions has her Department had with the Home Office about creating a musician’s passport that is inexpensive, lasts for a minimum of two years, and would do away with the need otherwise for permits, permissions and so on, which are unsustainable for the music industry?
I very much appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns and those of the industry, as I have already said. The Secretary of State, in fact, spoke to the Musicians Union earlier this week. We are acutely mindful of the concerns that exist, but I will say yet again that the best way through this is to have a deal and, when there is the opportunity to vote for one, I encourage her please to do so.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of a deal, but she will recognise that the concerns of the Incorporated Society of Musicians are legitimate and need to be addressed. Will she also speak to those who run our major opera companies? Britain is a world leader in this regard and the ability to fly in replacements—often from the EU—at the last minute for roles, which, often, very few people can actually sing, is very important to our international status in this art form.
As I said earlier, this is my first oral questions since I was appointed, and I am thrilled to be holding this role and working to make the country better connected and more creative.
This week, the Government announced £5 billion further to support the roll-out of gigabit connectivity, delivering greater connectivity to those who need it. Hon. Members will be aware of our ongoing work to keep people safe online and our proposals around age verification for online pornography. I wish to notify the House that the standstill period under the EU’s technical services and regulations directive expired at midnight last night. I understand the interest in this issue that exists in all parts of the House, and I will update the House on next steps in due course.
Finally, I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate Dina Asher-Smith, who won a 200 metres gold medal at the World Athletics Championships. She is the first British woman to win a major global sprint title and the first Brit to win a world or an Olympic sprint title since 1993.
The Government have been taking out full-page newspaper adverts, including in the Cambridge News, to warn businesses of the issues ahead. On data issues, they have been inviting businesses to take out standard contractual clauses. One business in my constituency tells me that they will have to take out 72,000 such clauses, so will the Secretary of State tell us how many clauses will have to be negotiated for the entire economy and how many are actually in place?
The hon Gentleman is right that, if we are not able to reach a deal with the European Union, one of the ways—the recommended way—to handle the transfer of personal data is to insert standard contractual clauses in relevant contracts, and the Information Commissioner’s Office has full details. We have tried to make that as easy as possible. Inevitably, many private businesses are, of course, reliant on, or focusing on, running their business, but I refer really to what my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), said earlier on: if we want to avoid any of these problems, the best way is to have a deal and for Members to vote for that deal when, hopefully, it is presented to them.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s very welcome announcement yesterday about broadband access and mobile phone connectivity really will have a transformational impact on rural areas such as North West Norfolk. Can she also confirm that it is actually new money?
Yes, it is new money, but it is also very much intended to ensure that our rural areas do not lose out in the search for greater connectivity. My hon. Friend will know from his constituency work just how important it is that businesses and households in his constituency are fully connected to the internet and how important that is for driving up productivity in our economy.
Given that spending on youth work has fallen by £880 million since 2010, I was very interested in the Government’s announcement this week, but note that it is just £50 million a year in revenue for the sector. Given that at least 760 youth centres have closed their doors and 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs since 2010, does the Secretary of State think that the announcement of just 60 new youth centres really cuts it?
I do find it extraordinary that there is no welcome—only criticism—from the Opposition Front Bench for this £500 million youth investment fund to be spent in myriad different ways. Actually, the sector has shown itself to be very strong and resilient. Of course, it is typical of the Labour party to focus on buildings and facilities, not on what is going in or on the support offered to young people.
Further to that answer from my right hon. Friend, let me say that the £500 million youth investment fund is warmly welcomed across the country. What steps will she take to ensure that young people can participate in sport, drama and music as a result of the fund?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can give him that reassurance. Access to art, drama, sport, and other creative and cultural activities is an absolute right and entitlement for young people. I am delighted and excited to find that this Department is responsible for youth policy outside of school hours. I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage organisations in his constituency to put in bids for this funding when details are announced.
As part of our online harms work, we will of course look at the benefits and costs of online anonymity. We are very conscious that online anonymity can be important for purposes such as whistleblowing, but we all also know that people hide behind anonymity as keyboard warriors.
As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently announced £5 billion that will cover connectivity in all its forms, and that will of course include Scotland. It is probably worth saying that I recently met Paul Wheelhouse, my opposite number in the Scottish Government. We got on well and will work well together. It is a good job that we got on well, because broadband needs all the help it can get under the Scottish National party.
That is an excellent proposal. I have already visited the Tate since becoming a Minister, and I am well aware of the huge amount of work that it and other museums and galleries do to ensure that their collections are available around the country and to support other parts of the country as well as London.
A number of my constituents are stuck with a single broadband provider, which is in a monopoly position, so it is charging very high prices for very poor service. What steps are the Government taking to ensure greater competition, which will drive down prices and improve the service?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government ran a consultation from June to September 2018, reviewed the 1,600 responses and concluded that the per-draw limit for society lotteries would increase from £4 million to £5 million and that the prize limit would increase from £400,000 to £500,000. The Government are committed to making sure that the regulatory framework for lotteries is appropriate and that both society lotteries and the national lottery can thrive. The Gambling Commission will, however, run a consultation seeking views on additional transparency measures before the new limits are implemented.
It has been another brilliant year for National Citizen Service schemes in Witney, through which young people learn vital life skills and have great fun at the same time. Will the Minister please confirm that the scheme continues, and will continue, to have the Government’s full support?
I am happy to provide that commitment. We think the National Citizen Service is a fantastic scheme. I think it is the fastest growing youth activity scheme in the country. My hon. Friend has obviously enjoyed his visits to see it; I very much enjoyed my visits to NCS in Loughborough.
The hon. Lady is right to say that being a fan of a football club is quite an emotional experience; it can be a bit of a rollercoaster. I think that we ought to see how the new appointee decides to embrace the role, but of course I and the Minister with responsibility for sport are always very happy to meet organisations.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. In some ways, we have look at the very hardest-to-reach areas first, because while it is important to upgrade commercial areas to gigabit levels, it is in areas where there is very often no broadband at all that we will make the greatest social and economic impact.
The BBC has provided assurances that it will deliver the most sensitive possible handling for those who are affected and will work with older people’s groups, charities and voluntary organisations to design a bespoke system to support all those over 75 that will include new easy payment plans and an information and advice programme. We want everyone who is eligible for pension credit to make sure that they claim it, so that they get the benefit of the free TV licence.
I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the council on its decision to match-fund its successful £2 million bid for a heritage action zone in Kettering town centre with a further £2 million, and does she agree that that £4 million proactive investment in the local high street must be good news for the local economy?
I am delighted to congratulate Kettering Borough Council on its match funding. It shows that Government investment will often unlock other funding, whether from the private sector, the local authority or others, to make sure that our high streets are the thriving places that we all want them to be.
The Attorney General was asked—
EU (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act: Implementation
I cannot, as the hon. Lady will know, comment on the content of Cabinet discussions, but she will understand that I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of those discussions, and I am bound by the convention that neither the fact nor content of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside of the Government. I make it clear to the hon. Lady that the Government will obey the law, the Prime Minister is subject to the law, and this Government will comply with it.
Notwithstanding all that, I am going to ask the Attorney General a nice yes-no question. The Act requires the Prime Minister to ask for an extension unless Parliament has agreed a withdrawal agreement or agreed to leave without one, so will the Attorney General confirm that, if Parliament has not done either of those things, the Prime Minister would be acting unlawfully if he nevertheless took us out of the EU on 31 October? Yes or no?
When asked, the Attorney General said that his Government would be adhering to the Benn Act. A day later, when asked by me and others the Prime Minister prevaricated until the end. But when he was asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) whether he would comply with the law, the Prime Minister’s answer was a simple and quite astonishing no. Given the Attorney General’s previous answers this morning, will he confirm whether the Prime Minister was wrong?
I have not seen the response to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I can certainly confirm that the Government will comply with the law. I am not convinced that the Prime Minister said anything contrary to that; I would have to look at Hansard.
I have the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 in front of me, so perhaps the Attorney General can confirm his interpretation of it. The Act is clear that, if this House has not approved a deal or if it has not approved leaving with no deal, the Prime Minister
“must seek to obtain from the European Council an extension”
in the terms set out in the Act. Will the Attorney General confirm that that is what this Act of Parliament requires?
I am afraid that confirmation is required from the Attorney General. Let me explain why. We keep being told that the Government will comply with the law, yet the Prime Minister goes around saying that he would rather be dead in a ditch than apply for the extension that he is required to seek under the Act. Does the Attorney General not realise that the Government’s ambiguous position towards the rule of law is damaging our justice system, our society and our international standing? Why does the Attorney General just stand by and let that happen?
Prorogation: Supreme Court Judgment
I cannot comment on the content of Cabinet discussions but, as I told the House last week, the judgment sets out the definitive and final legal position on the advice given to Her Majesty on the Prorogation of Parliament. We are carefully and deliberatively considering the implications of that judgment. We need some time to do it, but a Queen’s Speech is necessary to bring forward a fresh legislative programme, and a short Prorogation, as announced yesterday, is necessary—we are advised to this effect by the parliamentary authorities—for the Queen’s Speech.
In the light of the Supreme Court’s judgment and the vital role it identified for this House of scrutinising the Executive, what discussions is the Attorney General having with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that we have sufficient time to discuss the proposals the Prime Minister is due to bring forward? How much time will we actually have to debate them?
I know that those matters are being actively considered. I am sure they will be considered in consultation and through the usual channels. As much time as conceivably can be made available will be made available to debate those very important matters. The Prime Minister is making a statement later this morning, and the Government are more than conscious—acutely conscious—of the need for all Members of this House to scrutinise any deal that may be agreed.
Eight days ago, the Attorney General told the House, in response to a question from the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), that he would consider disclosure of his legal advice on the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament. Can he now confirm that he will do the right thing and release his advice before Parliament is prorogued next week?
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that I do believe in the law and I have spent 37 years of my life adhering to those professional values? As for the advice I may or may not have given to any member of the Government, he will know I am bound by the convention. I cannot tell him whether I have. I understand the purport of his question, and I do not criticise him for it in the least, but I regret that I cannot help him as to the content of any advice I have given.
I urge the Attorney General to reflect that departing from the norm that Law Officers’ advice is not disclosed should be undertaken only with great care, because of the implications for all future Law Officers and all future advice to Government. Is not the rub of this issue simply this: that, as the President of the Supreme Court said, the circumstances that gave rise to the judgment were a “one off”; the Court was asked to rule on a novel point on which, up until then, legal opinion had varied; it has made a ruling; and the Government accept and will abide by the ruling, as they should with any ruling of our independent courts?
I completely agree with both parts of my hon. Friend’s question. Plainly, the Law Officers’ convention is not a question of personal ownership by any particular Attorney General. It is a long-standing convention that protects all Governments on often extremely sensitive, complex and difficult subjects, sometimes affecting the most important interests of this country. Of course I agree that the Supreme Court’s judgment must be respected. It is final and binding as a matter of law, but it is peculiar to its circumstances.
Our courts are scrupulously impartial and independent. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment, some unwise voices have suggested that we ought to move to some sort of US-style process of appointment. Does the Attorney General agree that that would be extremely unwise, and will he confirm that there is no prospect of Her Majesty’s Government proceeding down that route?
My hon. Friend, as ever, from a background of practice in the law, feels, as I do, that those kinds of hearings—certainly US-style hearings—would be a regrettable step for us in our constitutional arrangements. The Government have no current plans to do so, but it is fair to say that the implications of the judgment and the continuing development of our constitutional arrangements will no doubt receive, properly, the intense scrutiny of this House.
Judicial Appointments Process
The priorities of my office are set out in the published business plan for this year, but on the UK’s withdrawal—I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker, I am answering the wrong question. I also beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon—[Interruption.] Nobody noticed probably, the answers being the same. I can only plead that I am getting your cold, Mr Speaker, and was up far too late this morning.
Again, I am not going to comment in detail on the content of Cabinet discussions, but the Supreme Court judgment undoubtedly represents a significant development in our constitutional arrangements. As I said the other day, it is important to take stock of the implications of that judgment not in the immediate aftermath of a ruling, but deliberately, carefully and thoughtfully. We should not jump to hasty conclusions. The UK’s exit from the EU will have profound ramifications for our constitutional arrangements. As I have said many times, I think that requires a coherent, careful examination, possibly through some formal channel, of the means by which we are to be governed after we leave the European Union. I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the Government have no current plans to introduce such an appointment system.
The Government have no plans to introduce any such appointment system. The only thing I would say is that this House must have the right to determine the constitutional arrangements of this country, and of course parts of that will have to reflect on the role of the Supreme Court and its constitutional functions. But I agree with him that a US-style appointment system would be a wholly retrograde step.
Having had responsibility for a time for judicial appointments, including approving those of the current Lord Chief Justice and the current President of the Supreme Court, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to endorse the fact that the track record of the Judicial Appointments Commission shows that it makes its recommendations, having looked at the available candidates, with the utmost thoroughness, scruple and genuine independence? We as a House and a country would cast aside that independence, and instead make the appointment of judges the plaything of a temporary party majority in this House, at our peril.
I could not have put it better than that. I agree with every word that my right hon. Friend said. As I have had cause to say in the House only recently, we have one of the finest judiciaries in the world. Throughout the world, they are beacons of impartiality and independence, and the House should do all it can to promote, protect, and preserve those values. I agree that a US-style process of appointment would not be in the interests of this country and I do not think I can improve on the way he put it.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
The unduly lenient sentence scheme is an important avenue for victims, family members and the general public to ensure that justice is delivered in the most serious cases. That is why the Government have announced an extension to the scheme to cover further child sexual abuse offences such as those that involve the taking, distributing and publishing of indecent images of children. In 2018, the Law Officers referred one fifth of all eligible cases that were considered by my office to the Court of Appeal and, of those, 73% were found to be unduly lenient.
The unduly lenient sentences scheme is extremely effective. It has now been in existence for some 30 years. It applies to myriad offences, but we wanted to extend the scheme to include 14 offences of a sexual nature, including child abuse and indecent images. The scheme now includes those and will do so in future. A range of other offences are available for consideration under the unduly lenient scheme that will serve to ameliorate the situation as far as the previous gaps were concerned.
I thank the Solicitor General for his answer thus far. What action is he taking to alert the victims of crimes, as well as the wider public, on the steps they should take to bring the scheme into operation, so that the public will understand that unduly lenient sentences should be a thing of the past?
We are very fortunate in this country to have a judiciary who get it right almost 100% of the time. Some 80,000 sentences were passed last year, and of those only about 100 had to be referred to the Court of Appeal and were found to have been unduly lenient. So they are few and far between, but my hon. Friend is right that victims should be aware of the available options if a sentence has been unduly lenient. The Crown Prosecution Service is doing everything it can to make sure that victims are so informed.
Sexual Offences: Prosecution
I engage with the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly on criminal justice issues, including rape and serious sexual offences. Both the director and I recognise the devastating impact that those horrific crimes have on victims. I met with the director only a week or two ago and again this week. The Crown Prosecution Service and my office have worked closely with criminal justice partners in the ongoing Government review of the response to rape and serious sexual offences.
I am disappointed by the figures that the hon. Lady refers to and I appreciate that they are a cause for concern. However, I would emphasise that they are not indicative of a lack of commitment to prosecute by the Crown Prosecution Service, any of its prosecutors or the Director of Public Prosecutions. We believe that a number of factors have contributed to this. They include perhaps a fall in the volume of referrals from the police and an increase in the volume of digital data. We are looking at the situation closely and a review is under way.
There have been reports that the number of reported rapes, sexual assaults and harassment allegations in universities has trebled in the last three years, including worrying reports that universities are trying to carry out their own investigations of the assaults. What role does the Minister think that his Department can play in trying to ensure that those allegations are taken seriously and go through the proper judicial channels?
I have also heard about the increased statistics from universities, and I urge them to look carefully at how they handle those matters. It is a particularly sensitive issue which they should handle with professional assistance. The reality is that we must do everything we can to deal with those allegations immediately, sympathetically and appropriately in all the circumstances. They are devastating allegations and must be dealt with sympathetically and appropriately by universities and by everyone else.
I am alarmed to hear that police forces across the country are demanding highly personal records and data, including health, school and college records and even counselling notes, from potential rape victims before pressing ahead with their cases. Campaigners have long warned that victims will be put off going to the police by that intrusion into their lives. Can the Solicitor General outline what he is doing to combat that?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We want victims to have the confidence to come forward and report crimes. I do not want to see anything that disincentivises victims from making proper reports of crimes. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service continue to work with victims groups that specialise in this area, and with the Information Commissioner’s Office when it comes to digital disclosure, to ensure that their approach achieves the necessary balance between the requirement of reasonable lines of inquiry and the victim’s privacy.
No-deal Brexit: Priorities
The priorities of my office are set out in the published business plan for this year. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union exercises the interest of my office in supporting the successful delivery of the Government’s objectives. We give legal and constitutional advice within the Government and throughout the Departments. Of course I am engaged in supporting preparations for future international co-operation between Law Officers’ departments and prosecution and other criminal justice organisations.
It would be good to hear the Attorney General recognise the damage that a no-deal Brexit would create and the severe disruption that we know it would create across all Departments, instead of the language that we heard from him last week in the Chamber, when he said that this was “a dead Parliament” and that MPs had “no moral right” to be here. Will he apologise for those comments?
Certainly not. I stand by every one of them. When this Parliament assumes its responsibilities to pass a withdrawal agreement, then I might reconsider them, but certainly not at the moment. We may soon have a chance to assume those responsibilities if we can get a deal from the European Union. I hope then to see the hon. Lady vote for it.
Some of us, however, will stand up for Parliament at all times. I completely respect the right of the Attorney General to his view. This Parliament is entirely legitimate. It is doing its work, it should be expected to do so and no amount of cheap abuse, calumny and vituperation directed at this Parliament will stop it doing its job. That is the way it is, that is the way it will continue to be, that is the way it has to be.
May I ask about extradition? Obviously we in this country rely on being able to extradite people from other countries in Europe to face justice in this country. We have relied on the European arrest warrant but, as I understand it, four or five countries in the European Union have now stated categorically that, if there is no deal, they will not extradite to the UK. How will we make sure that we get people to face justice in this country?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right; there are some countries that will not extradite their own citizens. In those cases it is a case of bilateral discussion with them. There is the existing Extradition Act 2003, but if they will not extradite citizens, there is of course the option of trying them in that country. That is generally the option that those countries offer in connection with their own citizens.