The Minister of State was asked—
Full-fibre and Gigabit-capable Broadband
I begin by paying tribute to the former right hon. Member for Loughborough, who is now Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from the Lords. She is still very much the Secretary of State, and following her elevation, she will shortly be watching us from the Public Gallery. She will take questions—[Interruption.] She will be here shortly. She will take questions in the Lords herself next week.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She asks about one of the few areas in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for which she was not responsible, but she knows how vital gigabit broadband will be across the whole country. Finally, I pay tribute to the British people for rejecting Labour’s economically and technologically illiterate broadband policy at the election.
The Government’s ambition for full fibre is to be applauded, but while coverage is generally good across the majority of my constituency, I still receive regular complaints from residents and businesses that are unable to access even superfast broadband, including in significant pockets of urban areas such as Chatham, Aylesford, Ditton and Snodland, as well as more rural villages, where residents are deeply frustrated at the lack of coverage. With so many people and businesses reliant on access to decent broadband, what assurances can the Minister give that the future roll-out of broadband infrastructure will address those more localised notspots and that they will not simply be left behind?
My hon. Friend is right that notspots are by no means confined to rural areas. Through the Government’s voucher scheme, we are covering all of the country, and the 2025 commitment to gigabit broadband remains. The crucial issue is the universal service obligation, of which she will be aware. Fifteen per cent. of her constituents get less than the 10 megabit limit. They will benefit from that later this year.
This is my first questions session shadowing the Digital Minister, who, as a former tech journalist, knows something of his subject—and as a former telecoms engineer, so do I. We both know that in towns, villages and cities, everyone is suffering the consequences of a wasted decade. Under Labour, we rolled out first-generation broadband to half of all homes within a decade. But today, full-fibre broadband only reaches a mere 10% of homes, and we languish at the bottom of all the international tables. The Prime Minister has promised full-fibre broadband for everybody in five years. Does the Minister have a plan for that? Who will be delivering it? How much will it cost? Will it really be fibre or just gigabit capability—or are Big Ben’s bongs the only telecoms infrastructure that he can plan for?
As an engineer, I think the hon. Lady will know that a bell is not telecoms infrastructure, but we will leave that to one side. The important issue that she raises is one on which there is some cross-party agreement. We are completely committed to rolling out gigabit-capable networks across this country. That means building on the work of the superfast programme to ensure that we deliver the infrastructure needed across the country. The plan for that will come forward. I hope she will welcome the news that, immediately after questions, we will be heading to No. 10 to meet the broadband providers, to ensure that the industry can come together to deliver the best possible infrastructure, which this country needs.
The universal service obligation is welcome to my constituents in Suffolk and to many rural residents, but for rural businesses, the basic service commitment may well not be enough. What more can the Minister do to support rural businesses that need a large amount of broadband capacity to support their staff and expand their businesses?
My hon. Friend is right to welcome the universal service obligation. Schemes such as our gigabit broadband voucher scheme allow businesses to access the far faster speeds that they need, and there is provision in due course to review whether 10 megabits is sufficient for the USO. I would like to see it go up as soon as it can.
Will the Minister congratulate my constituents who are involved with Broadband for the Rural North—B4RN—which prides itself on delivering full-fibre gigabit broadband, not just gigabit-capable broadband, to thousands of properties in my constituency? Phil Hughes from B4RN tells me that it is much cheaper sometimes to deliver this broadband in very rural areas than in semi-urban areas, where “in pavement” build is needed. Can the Minister clarify that the Government’s new gigabit voucher scheme will also work for smaller, community interest companies such as B4RN?
The hon. Member is absolutely right that B4RN does really great work and has been doing so for a number of years. It has a huge amount of expertise that I hope we can learn from when it comes to working across the country. One of the issues that we will be raising at the summit that I mentioned, which we will be heading to shortly, is street works. It is very important that that does not hold up works unnecessarily. She is of course also right to say that the voucher scheme needs to apply equally across the country in a way that works wherever people live.
My constituency of Banff and Buchan is among those with the lowest coverage of superfast broadband in the whole United Kingdom. Aberdeenshire Council applied to the UK Government for additional support. One of the reasons it was declined, it was told, was that it was assumed that that would be covered by the Scottish Government’s R100 programme—the Reaching 100% programme. Now that the Scottish Government have admitted that this is going to be at least two years behind, can we revisit the coverage in places such as Banff and Buchan, with support from the UK Government, to make up for the shortfall left by the Scottish Government?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the deeply disappointing delays to the R100 scheme administered by the Scottish Government. I will shortly be meeting my Scottish counterpart, Paul Wheelhouse, again to see how the Government can help the Scottish Government to go further and faster, because they certainly need to.
Free TV Licences
The Government are disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession to those in receipt of pension credit. As we said in our manifesto, we recognise the value of the free TV licence for over-75s, and they should be funded by the BBC. We know that taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences.
If the Tories break their promise to older people and scrap their free TV licences, about 4,000 households in Newport West will be affected. This loss of free TV licences would be a disgraceful blow to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. No Government should force people to choose between heating and eating, or engaging with the outside world, so will the Minister finally listen and rethink the decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s?
May I gently remind the hon. Lady that the Government agreed a deal with the BBC in 2015? The director-general at the time said that it was
“a strong deal for the BBC”,
and that it provided “financial stability”. It saw BBC income boosted by requiring iPlayer users to have a licence. We have unfrozen the licence fee for the first time since 2010 and, in return for this, we agreed that responsibility for the over-75 concession would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. The BBC needs to honour this agreement.
I am sure that when the Minister was, like me, knocking on doors in November, he was struck by the number of older people who were living on their own who were relying on the TV for company. I think four out of 10 older people nationally do that—rely on the TV for company during the day and evenings. I heard what he said about being disappointed about what the BBC has done, but disappointment does not butter any parsnips, so what is he actually going to do about this to make sure that older people can keep their free TV licences?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is really important that people over 75 who are on their own are able to get their TV licences paid, but I remind her of the words of the former shadow Secretary of State, Tom Watson, who had the very good sense to leave this place before the election. He actually admitted that this was a decision for the BBC. In an interview with LBC in late 2018, he actually criticised the BBC for accepting this deal. I will say again that Lord Hall said that the overall deal provided “financial stability”, and the
“government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
Tourism contributes £60 billion to the UK economy each year and my Department is committed to encouraging visitors from across the world to visit the whole United Kingdom. Our strong and growing tourism industry is good news for the economy and local communities, supporting small businesses and jobs up and down our country. The tourism sector deal will help to solve some of the industry’s challenges and establish tourism zones in areas with great tourism ambitions. The £45 million Discover England fund encourages visitors to travel beyond London, contributing to levelling up across the country.
I thank the Minister for her response. As she will know, in constituencies such as mine, the tourist industry is heavily based on our industrial heritage and history. The Chesterfield Canal Trust is midway through a restoration to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2027; it is restoring the final nine miles of the canal. May I invite my hon. Friend to visit the Chesterfield canal to see the fantastic tourist offer in North East Derbyshire?
I know that my hon. Friend has been working hard and lobbying a range of Ministers to support the regeneration of the Chesterfield canal—rightly so, as it is a fabulously ambitious project to restore that historic and beautiful waterway in time for its 250th anniversary. I would be delighted to visit to find out more.
As you are well aware, Mr Speaker, Fylde is at the heart of the Lancashire riviera, with fabulous beaches and world-class golf courses. With inadequate transport infrastructure, however, people struggle to access it. What representation is the Minister making in Government to ensure that people can visit our seaside gems?
My hon. Friend is correct that our wonderful coastline, including in his constituency, is one of the great things that our country has to offer visitors. We are supporting coastal tourism, including with the £45 Discover England fund. The Government have also invested £229 million in the Coastal Communities fund—including in his area—and there is the English coast path. I completely agree, however, that we could and should be doing more to support our seaside attractions. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss his constituency’s infrastructure requirements and to arrange a meeting with the Secretary of State for Transport to lobby on his behalf.
Putting rivieras to one side, the Windsor constituency enjoys 7 million visitors a year and I would say it is one of the most attractive constituencies in the entire country. Yes, we are known for military and monarchy, but we also have two race courses—Ascot and Windsor—and two barracks, with regular parades in Windsor town centre. We have magnificent buildings such as Windsor castle and Windsor Great Park, as well as Legoland, which all our children enjoy. Does the Minister agree that investment in public transport and links to places outside London would make a huge difference when we are drawing tourists into parts of the country that are not the capital?
My hon. Friend is an excellent advocate for his constituency and all its wonderful places to visit, including Legoland, which is popular with my children. I completely agree that visitors to the UK must be able to get to destinations outside London by public transport. I welcome our Government’s commitment to investment in public transport. I want to make that travel as easy as possible for tourists. I would be happy to talk further with my hon. Friend if he has any specific suggestions to help visitors get to his constituency.
Many of our northern towns have great tourist attractions, such as Norton priory in Runcorn and the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes. What is the Minister doing to ensure there is more focus on getting tourism into our northern towns, not just concentrating on cities?
I completely agree with the hon. Member. I am very keen as a Minister to ensure that visitors to the UK go beyond London and the great cities, important though those are, and get to the towns and further afield. That is one of the things that the £45 million Discover England fund supports, including with bookable packages to enable international visitors to come and travel further afield. I want that to go further in the months ahead.
I do not need to tell everyone in this place how beautiful Edinburgh is and how important it is to the tourism industry in this country generally. However, with our departure from the European Union, it will face a problem, not just day-to-day in the hospitality industry but every August with the festival; there is the issue of visas for foreign nationals coming from other EU countries. What will the Government do to ensure that important events, such as the Edinburgh International Festival, are not damaged by Brexit?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she will know, once we have left the EU with the withdrawal agreement on 31 January, visitor arrangements will not change. The arrangements for the future, however, will be subject to the relationship negotiations with the European Union. We are shifting to an immigration system that will deliver on the needs of the United Kingdom, rather than being dependant on where people come from. We will continue to engage with the tourism sector and the creative industries to ensure that the system works as they need it to.
My hon. Friend will know that north Wales is one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in the country, with over 30 million visits per annum. Increasingly, the area is specialising in adventure tourism, with such attractions as Plas Menai and the world’s only inland surfing lagoon. Is she willing to meet me and representatives of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to discuss the possibility of creating an adventure tourism zone in north Wales?
That sounds very exciting, particularly the inland surfing lagoon. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is asking me to visit the destination itself, but I would be delighted to meet him and colleagues to discuss the opportunities.
Yorkshire: Access to Arts and Culture
Through Arts Council England, we have invested over £190 million in Yorkshire for arts and culture programmes since 2017, including six projects in the hon. Member’s constituency. Last year, we also announced £18.5 million for the National Railway Museum in York, which will support a £55 million transformation project to create new exhibition space and restore heritage buildings to their original glory.
I thank the Minister for her answer. She is right to highlight the one-off and capital funding that has been available. That is welcome, but she will know that the key challenges our regional museums face are the fall in revenue funding; extra inflationary pressures in the year ahead; and the continuing imbalance in funding between London and the regions. Does she agree that the Arts Council should do more to rebalance revenue funding for arts and culture towards the regions? Will she agree to meet me and the chief executive of Museums Sheffield, ideally at one of our excellent museums, to discuss the challenges they face?
I can see that my diary will get very busy, but I am keen in my role to get out and about as far as I possibly can and spend time in regional museums, not just those in London. I point the hon. Gentleman particularly to the £125 million investment as part of the cultural investment fund, which will go in particular to regional museums and libraries to support their repair and maintenance. I am very keen to ensure that our regional museums thrive.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are over 1,000 UNESCO world heritage sites globally. The UK is the proud home to 32, six of which are in Scotland. The Government take their responsibilities under the world heritage convention very seriously. In recent years, we have sadly seen some of the world’s great cultural treasures destroyed by conflict or natural disasters. We are working around the world to help to protect world heritage sites.
Of course we are concerned about the destruction of cultural sites due to conflict. Any attack on one of these sites is an attack on our shared global history, but when we have President Trump tweeting one thing and his advisers saying the opposite, can we really trust the assurances that these sites will not be targeted in conflict?
The targeting of cultural sites contravenes several international conventions to which the United States is a party, including the world heritage convention and the 1954 Hague convention. The Foreign Secretary was very clear that we expect those conventions to be adhered to.
The lack of direct condemnation of Donald Trump’s threats by either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary was actually pretty shameful. Putting to one side for just a moment the Government’s desperate need for a US trade deal, will the Minister do what her colleagues have failed to do and unequivocally condemn the White House and President Trump for his reckless and provocative threats?
I think that my previous answer was very clear. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that he expected the conventions on world heritage to be adhered to.
I am sure that we are all comforted to know that the Secretary of State is watching us from the Gallery. Further to the questions from my colleagues, the next time the Minister speaks with the Secretary of State, who has been elevated to the Lords and so is beyond the reach of elected Members down here, will she ask whether she has had a firm guarantee from President Trump that he has withdrawn his threat? It is not enough to condemn the threat; has he withdrawn it and given that assurance?
This questioning from the SNP feels slightly repetitive. I think that the United States can speak for itself on its policy towards heritage sites. As I have said, and as the Foreign Secretary has been very clear, we expect the international conventions to be adhered to.
Commonwealth Games 2022: Benefits to West Midlands
Birmingham ’22 will be the biggest sporting event ever held in the west midlands, with the region set to benefit from £778 million of public investment, and with venues spanning the whole region, from Cannock Chase in the north to Coventry and Leamington Spa in the south. With a cultural programme running alongside the games, there will be an opportunity for everyone in the west midlands to get involved.
The Minister has proven a doughty champion for the Birmingham Commonwealth games. Will he take up his not inconsiderable cudgels once again and ask the Chancellor to provide the money requested by our regional Mayor, Andy Street, to fund the trade, tourism and investment programme to herald the start of these magnificent games?
I certainly will, and may I say that no one has done more than my hon. Friend to ensure that women’s T20 cricket is included in the roster of sports for the games, which is very important? Birmingham 2022 offers fantastic opportunities beyond sport, and the Government are particularly keen to maximise those opportunities. The evidence from previous games demonstrates the positive economic impact that such events can have. The Glasgow 2014 games, for example, contributed more than £740 million to the Scottish economy.
Birmingham 2022 provides a great opportunity not only to attract additional visitors to the west midlands, but to increase jobs and skills in the region, so what steps is my hon. Friend taking to achieve that for the people of Dudley—and beyond, of course—in conjunction with our great Mayor, Andy Street?
May I first welcome my hon. Friend to his place? I know that he has done an awful lot of work for his local area as a councillor, and that he will be a fantastic voice for Dudley North. We are working closely with Andy Street and Birmingham City Council, with which we engage regularly. We want to make the most of the opportunities that my hon. Friend has rightly highlighted. The organising committee is expected to recruit 45,000 staff, contractors and volunteers. There will be 400 new jobs in the athletes’ village alone, including 50 new apprenticeships.
May I, on the occasion of my first outing as shadow Sports Minister, congratulate the outgoing shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), on her work on fairness in sport? May I also mention—this is between you and me, Mr Speaker—today’s important announcement about rugby league, with a royal flourish? I hope that rugby league will receive the coverage that it deserves.
May I ask the Minister what steps the Department is taking to ensure that the 2022 Commonwealth games are carbon neutral, and—importantly—what actions can be taken now to improve the air quality at the venue so that in two years’ time, the health of athletes, residents and visitors can be paramount?
The hon. Lady has made a good point I regularly meet the organising committee and I chair the strategic board, and I know that Birmingham City Council is keen to see the outcomes to which she has referred. At our next strategic board meeting, next month, I will certainly raise those issues on her behalf.
Leaving the EU: Creative Industries
The creative industries are one of the leading lights of our economy, outpacing growth by two to one and employment growth by three to one. All our sectors, including films, television, music, fashion, publishing, design and advertising, are globally renowned for their creative excellence. We are working closely with industry representatives on a range of issues to ensure their continued success in a post-Brexit world.
The United Kingdom exports more books and journals than any other country in the world, and, according to the Publishers Association, the UK generates £3.6 billion in export revenue every year. Will the Minister assure the publishing industry that it will be remembered and championed as new free trade agreements are negotiated around the world?
I know that my hon. Friend chairs the all-party parliamentary group on publishing, and he brings valuable experience to the House because his career was in that field before he entered it. The publishing industry is a highly valued contributor to our creative economy, here and abroad. The Publishers Association is a key member of the Government’s export trade advisory group, and we will continue to work closely with it as trade negotiations progress.
For the last three decades I have served my time as an actor in the medical shows “Casualty”, “Holby City” and “Doctors”, but breaking my ankle the day before my first DCMS outing is a plot point too far—so nobody say “Break a leg”, please!
The creative industries are set to lose more than £40 million per year in EU funding. Stakeholders have told me that they are holding off scheduling tours after 2020 because they fear costly delays and cancellations caused by the complicated visa system. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that our creative industries can flourish across Europe? Is it planning to introduce creative visas and passports that will recognise their unique situation?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position, and congratulate her on her stoicism in making it into the Chamber today. She stole my line about breaking a leg. However, I am pleased to note that the administration of discipline by the Labour Whips Office has not broken down since the election.
I can assure the hon. Lady that the free movement of people will end when we leave the EU, as is set out in the White Paper published in December. We will instead have a new immigration system based on skills, not nationality. We have made it clear that we will protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK after we leave. We have commissioned advice from the Migration Advisory Committee on various issues including salary thresholds, and we will be on top of this process over the course of the year.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the former Member for Loughborough on her elevation to the other place? We continue to work very closely together. She is still the Secretary of State, and it is good to see her watching over us with a beady eye this morning.
This week it was announced that gambling with the use of credit cards is to be banned throughout Britain from April, with the exception of non-remote lotteries. This is an important step: we are acting decisively on our manifesto commitment to take whatever action is necessary to protect vulnerable people from gambling-related harm. I should also like to use this opportunity to congratulate our on-screen and off-screen talent on their incredible success at the Golden Globes, where 40% of the awards went to Brits or to shows and films with a predominantly British-led production team. This clearly shows the exceptional talent that Britain has.
It is important that we act to ensure that big social media companies do more to protect people from harmful content online, and that this should be overseen by an independent regulator with statutory powers to ensure that they do so. This major issue was looked at in the last Parliament by the Government and by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Can the Minister confirm the press reports that the Government will respond in the next few weeks to the online harms White Paper, and that we can expect to see a Government Bill in this Parliament as well? I would be happy to accept either an answer from the Minister at the Dispatch Box or a positive hand gesture from the Secretary of State in the Gallery.
My hon. Friend is going to have to settle for an answer from the Box. We are committed to making the UK the safest place to be online and the best digital economy in the world. As the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, we are developing legislative proposals at pace and we will bring forward a Bill as soon as possible.
My father used to enjoy a weekly 10 bob yankee down the bookies, but he would have been appalled at the sheer volume of advertising and the dodgy practices that are going on in picking on vulnerable people in relation to gambling. The Government seem to be following rather than leading events in this regard, with today’s intervention from the NHS leadership adding to that. When are the Government going to introduce the new gambling Bill that is so long overdue? Will the Minister tell us that right now?
I am slightly surprised by the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government have been taking steady steps to increase protections to ensure that people can gamble safely, unlike previous Labour Administrations, who oversaw a huge liberalisation of gambling. As we committed to doing in our manifesto, we will be launching a review of the Gambling Act 2005, and work is going on right now to identify the scope and timeframe of that review.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to raise this again, because there is a huge level of concern about gambling in this country. As he says, we announced this week that we were banning gambling on credit cards, because we know that that is particularly harmful. We are also going to review the Gambling Act to ensure that it is fit for the modern age. Also, in healthcare, there is increasing support for people who are struggling with gambling addiction, including 14 new clinics being opened to provide specialist support.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we announced last year that we would be increasing society lottery sales and prize limits. These changes require affirmative secondary legislation, and our aim is to lay this in Parliament very soon.
My hon. Friend is right that we must ensure that the 10-megabit universal service obligation is delivered on the ground. We will of course continue to talk to the two providers— BT and KCOM—to ensure that it is there when it needs to be in March this year.
The hon. Lady is right that we hear a lot of nonsense in this Chamber—primarily from the SNP Benches. It is deeply disappointing that the Scottish Government’s delivery of R100 has been delayed again. The UK Government have provided significant amounts of funding, and we will continue to work with the Scottish Government to provide the help they so clearly need.
Silicon Stoke is certainly a real possibility, and my hon. Friend is right that that is in part due to this Government’s £5 billion commitment. I welcome the council’s work with certain companies, which shows that if we look further than the usual suspects, we can get action on the ground that delivers huge economic growth.
We will of course consider whether to adopt the copyright directive. I agree that it contains many protections for our creative sector, but the decision will be taken over the coming year.