Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
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.
The Attorney General was asked—
Domestic Violence: Prosecution of Cases
The Crown Prosecution Service takes domestic abuse cases extremely seriously and is determined to bring perpetrators to justice and to provide victims with the greatest possible protection from repeat offending. In 2019, the CPS led the implementation of a national domestic abuse best practice framework for magistrates court cases, which aims to ensure consistent good practice from investigation right through to court by criminal justice agencies involved in domestic abuse casework.
I have previously mentioned the shocking statistic that Hull has enough domestic abuse perpetrators to fill our football stadium, which holds 25,000 people. Some 746,000 domestic abuse crimes have been recorded nationally, which is up 24% in a year. However, referrals from the police to the CPS have gone down by 11%. Will the Minister explain what he intends to do about that?
Before I answer, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her damehood? It is richly deserved. She asks an important question. National implementation in this area is overseen at a multi-agency level, and it is a priority for the Government and the CPS to work to improve the statistics. There has actually been a 21.6% rise in prosecutions for violence against women and girls, an increase in charging and prosecution of offences of stalking—80% of stalking cases happen in a domestic abuse context—and a rise in prosecutions for controlling and coercive behaviour. However, I accept that more needs to be done, and that is a priority for the Government and the CPS.
The CPS’s ability to successfully prosecute offences of domestic violence, or indeed any offence, is being undermined by prisoners not being produced at court—a trial at the Old Bailey has sat idle for two days this week for that reason. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that more needs to be done to hold those responsible for such an important job to account so that courts are not lying idle, affecting victims and witnesses? Frankly, it is a crazy situation that is not fair on the taxpayer.
That is a very good point, and my hon. Friend has considerable experience of prosecutions and the court system. The reality is that we expect those who are responsible for delivering defendants to court to do so efficiently, and of course, in the vast majority of cases, they do that. If there are cases that he wishes to bring to my attention so that I can make direct inquiries, he should please do so.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. Our departure from the European Union will not change that.
There are real concerns about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights as we leave the European Union. The convention has led to changes in UK law that protect victims of trafficking, tackle workplace discrimination and ensure the rights of disabled people. Can the Attorney General guarantee that this Government will never withdraw from the convention in any circumstance?
I am grateful for this opportunity to reassert the Government’s complete commitment to our membership of and subscription to the European convention on human rights.
I welcome what the Attorney General has just said. Will he take the opportunity to remind many people that the United Kingdom is one of the founding fathers of the convention that gave rise to the ECHR—not least in the person of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a distinguished Conservative lawyer-politician? I know my right hon. and learned Friend will want to continue in that tradition.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and, if I may, I offer him a word of congratulation on his recent knighthood. I am delighted to welcome him in his new incarnation as Sir Bob.
My hon. Friend will know I agree with him that, as we leave the European Union, the country and the world should know that this nation stands for liberty, freedom and human rights. One mark of our standing for those values will be our continued vigorous participation in the Council of Europe and our subscription to the convention on human rights. That should not mean that we do not turn a critical eye to elements of the human rights structures in our country, and we will look at those in the time to come.
Although I welcome most of what the Attorney General has just said, the Tory manifesto says:
“We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”.
Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that judicial review should not be
“abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 1019.]
Can the Attorney General tell us which recent court decisions have been about conducting politics or causing needless delays?
It has been an enormous pleasure to appear opposite the hon. Gentleman. He is a distinguished historian, a distinguished politician and an experienced barrister.
Flattery won’t help you.
Of course it will.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) knows I will not be drawn into commenting on individual cases, but what I can say is that there are widespread concerns throughout our society and throughout this House as to whether judicial review is sometimes being used in a manner, often through frivolous applications, that needs better focus and care in its procedures and tests. We will have a look at that to see whether the elements of judicial review could be better designed to serve its purpose of holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions.
I always welcome compliments, but I did not detect an answer to the question from the Attorney General. He often says that he is a lawyer first and a politician second. He knows that Governments are sometimes vindicated in the courts and that they also face decisions from the courts that are uncomfortable. The answer is never to attack the independence of our judiciary or our courts system. There is a real worry that the Prime Minister is seeking some sort of vengeance because he did not like the Supreme Court’s decision that his prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. Does the Attorney General agree that if we are to weaken judicial review, it will be not the Prime Minister who loses out, but all our constituents whose rights to hold public authorities to account are watered down?
There is no question of weakening judicial review. The question is whether we can make it more efficient and streamlined, and more focused on the purpose: holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions. Even the hon. Gentleman will have to accept that some judicial review cases have been brought that should perhaps never have been started—often they are indeed thrown out by the courts—and we can prevent the courts being clogged up with those applications. So I say to him: let us wait and see. The Government are looking at this extremely carefully, but I want him to understand one thing: there is no question of backsliding upon the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary.
I welcome the Attorney General back to his place on the Government Bench, but it was from the Back Benches, in February 2017, that he made a superb speech on the human rights of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, calling on the Government not just to pay “lip service” to those rights, but to make them “practical and effective”. So if the Government are genuinely committed to making those Dublin rights effective post-Brexit, why do they not just unilaterally decide to continue to accept unaccompanied children with family members here? Why are the Government seeking to repeal even the modest obligations to negotiate their rights under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?
We are not seeking to repeal this; we are simply removing the statutory requirement to negotiate it. The Government wrote in October last year seeking commencement of negotiation on family reunification. The principle is fundamental and one to which the Government are committed: vulnerable, unaccompanied children must be able to reunite with their family members in this country.
Hate Crimes: Prosecution Rate
The CPS is committed to tackling hate crime, working closely with partners across government under the hate crime action plan. The CPS has trained its prosecutors, drawing on expertise and insight from key community groups, and has established national and local scrutiny panels to inform decision making. As a result, last year the number of convictions for hate crimes with a recorded sentence uplift increased to 73.6%, the highest rate yet.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Antisemitism and hate crimes are on the rise right across this country. What further action can he take to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice and we eliminate hate crime forever?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to be concerned about this issue. The rise in antisemitism is significant. One thing that has been happening is that mandatory hate crime training for the CPS has been developed, with community involvement, including that of the Community Security Trust. That has been delivered, and the CPS has refreshed a guide for lawyers on antisemitism, with the assistance of that trust. The guide includes key aspects of the law and victim support. We must do everything we can to stamp out this scourge of antisemitism.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response. The internet has hugely positive values, but it can allow the spread of hate crime behind a veil of anonymity. What steps is his Department taking to ensure that crime online attracts and is subject to the same penalties in law as offline crime?
The proportion of hate crime convictions with an announced and recorded sentence uplift has increased from just 12.1% in 2014 to 73.6% now. My hon. Friend is right about online instances of hate crime, and the hate crime conviction rate has also increased in the past decade significantly. It now stands at 84%, but we are continuing to work on dealing with the issue of hate crime online.
Overall prosecutions have fallen from a quarter to only one in 10. Why is the CPS prosecuting so few people for hate crime? Why is the number of prosecutions falling, not rising? Is that not deterring people from reporting hate crime in the first place?
There is considerable evidence that people are particularly concerned about hate crime, and I do not think they are being put off making complaints to the police about that. We are constantly liaising at the Crown Prosecution Service with local police forces about their conduct, and we focus very much on getting results in instances of hate crime. As I have said, the number of convictions for hate crime has increased to its highest ever level.[Official Report, 20 January 2020, Vol. 670, c. 2MC.]
There is no doubt that the rise of Islamophobia is causing real concern and fear in the community, and particularly in the community that I represent in Oldham. The online platforms have been allowed to self-regulate for far too long. It would be easy for them to have a simple “report it once” button that automatically feeds through to the police. Will the Government do far more to make sure that victims are protected and that we raise the tone of the debate in our politics?
The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this issue. The issue of Islamophobia is of particular concern, as are all forms of hate crime. We see examples of cases in this area being robustly prosecuted throughout the country, and likewise we see examples of courts recognising the seriousness of these offences with exemplary sentences. The sentencing tribunal has noted that such sentences have been increased because of the Islamophobic or antisemitic element, or because of elements relating to other areas of hate crime. That is right and should be a warning to all.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme: Extension
The ULS scheme is an important avenue for victims, family members and the public to ensure that justice is delivered in the most serious cases, which is why the Government have extended the scheme to cover further child sexual abuse offences, as well as some domestic abuse offences, including controlling and coercive behaviour. The remit of the scheme remains under constant review.
I am grateful to the Solicitor General for his answer. It is absolutely right that the most serious sentences are reviewable, but will he also ensure that there is always a path towards rehabilitation, and even redemption?
My hon. Friend is quite right. It has always been recognised in our criminal justice system that punishment includes not only deterrence but rehabilitation. That is something we seek to do in our sentencing regime and in our criminal justice system generally. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that feature.
I am glad to hear what the Solicitor General has to say, because the people of Willenhall and Bloxwich certainly do not want to see unduly lenient sentences for those convicted of rape, murder or terrorism. When he gets a referral under the scheme, how often is the sentence increased?
The number of sentences considered by the Law Officers—the Attorney General and myself—has trebled since 2010. There were approximately 1,000 referrals last year, of which 86 cases were referred to the Court of Appeal and 50 offenders had their sentences increased.
I often ask this question because it is a little campaign of mine. When people get unduly severe sentences, I write to the Solicitor General. It is usually women sentenced for a non-violent crime who get a long, disproportionate sentence. Does he welcome that kind of communication from Members? What does he do about that communication when he gets it?
I always welcome communication from the hon. Gentleman and, in fact, from any Member. The issue of manifestly excessive sentences is one for the defence in each case, and there are mechanisms by which, within a time limit, defence lawyers can appeal to the Court of Appeal against a sentence that they consider to be manifestly excessive. It is not a matter for the Law Officers; we deal with unduly lenient sentences.
Assaults on emergency workers continue to increase, particularly against ambulance workers and people working in the NHS and in the police. Surely that is a disgrace. I have yet to see a single sentence handed down in such cases that is not unduly lenient. One reason for that is that the Sentencing Council has still not introduced any guidelines in relation to assaults on emergency workers since the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill became an Act more than a year ago. Will the Solicitor General ring up the chaps or the women who run the Sentencing Council and ensure that we get proper sentences for people who attack our emergency workers?
I think I can provide some reassurance because I have seen some cases where sentences have clearly been imposed for the offence mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, who played a large part in bringing about the legislation. Assaults on emergency service personnel are serious aggravating features in many cases and I know that they are already being prosecuted. The Sentencing Council is clearly looking at a number of offences, and I am sure that they will look at that one in due course.