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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
13 February 2020
Volume 671

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Minister of State was asked—

Broadband

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1. What steps his Department is taking to help support the roll-out of (a) full-fibre and (b) gigabit-capable broadband to homes and businesses throughout the UK by 2025. [900773]

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3. What steps his Department is taking to help support the roll-out of (a) full-fibre and (b) gigabit-capable broadband to homes and businesses throughout the UK by 2025. [900776]

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5. What steps his Department is taking to help support the roll-out of (a) full-fibre and (b) gigabit-capable broadband to homes and businesses throughout the UK by 2025. [900778]

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6. What steps his Department is taking to help support the roll-out of (a) full-fibre and (b) gigabit-capable broadband to homes and businesses throughout the UK by 2025. [900779]

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Gigabit broadband roll-out is accelerating, and as a result of the steps that the Government are taking, full-fibre coverage has doubled in the past year. We have introduced legislation to make it easier for operators to deploy broadband in blocks of flats and will legislate to mandate gigabit connectivity in new builds, while providing £5 billion of funding to support the roll-out in hard-to-reach areas.

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I was delighted when this one nation Government announced a £5 billion package to roll out broadband to the hardest-to-reach areas, but can the Minister tell us when we will see that money being put into action, so that places such as west Oxfordshire can benefit?

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As my hon. Friend knows, through our rural gigabit connectivity programme we are already putting £200 million into some of the hardest-to-reach places, not least in west Oxfordshire. The £5 billion of funding, which we will talk about in much greater detail in the Budget and beyond, will see us work with local authorities, particularly in areas such as west Oxfordshire, to get this broadband rolled out there as quickly as possible.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that no business should be held back because of poor broadband infrastructure? Can he confirm that this one nation Conservative Government are making record investment in levelling up digital infrastructure?

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I can. The value of superfast and gigabit broadband to businesses is enormous, and it will allow the businesses of the future to power this country’s economy. It is the fact that those benefits can be shared so widely that makes the £5 billion Government investment so valuable.

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The percentage of residents without access to superfast broadband in Banff and Buchan has decreased from 18% to 16% in the last two years, but that is still far too many and nowhere near fast enough in both senses. In 2020, decent broadband is a necessity for everyone in my constituency, not a luxury. Can the Minister assure me and my constituents that the Government will do all they can, including keeping up pressure on the Scottish Government, to accelerate the roll-out of superfast broadband to my constituents?

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Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the progress that has been made in his constituency, but there is more to do. I recently spoke with my Scottish counterpart, Paul Wheelhouse, and the sense that we can work together to deliver this vital programme means that perhaps in Scotland we can have more broadband and less party politics.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that remote communities in the Derbyshire Dales, such as Chelmorton, Stanton in Peak, Birchover, Taddington and Cressbrook, like other parts of the country, need to be levelled up and have a chance of getting decent broadband, because they have been forgotten?

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It is precisely because of the needs of remote areas such as those in her constituency that we are investing £5 billion in gigabit-capable broadband. I know that, with her speaking up on behalf of her constituents, they will by no means be left behind.

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If only complacency built networks, we would have the fastest broadband in the world, but it does not, and neither does it keep our network secure. In June, the National Cyber Security Centre said that we had to act to mitigate the risk of high-risk vendors such as Huawei in our 5G and full-fibre networks. Since then, we have had more disturbing reports from our Five Eyes allies Canada and the US, while former Cabinet Ministers fall over themselves to criticise the Government, but we have had no legislation and not even a plan for legislation. Where is the plan to keep our networks safe?

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As the hon. Lady knows, the NCSC has published comprehensive guidance, which the networks are paying close attention to. The networks work closely with our agencies. We will bring forward legislation on this as quickly as we can, because national security will always be at the top of our priority list. That is why we have taken the decision we have taken.

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Scotland is approximately two thirds the size of England, but we have more challenging topography and islands to serve, yet Scotland will get a fifth of England’s Building Digital UK fund, and for the R100 programme, the UK Government are only committing £20 million towards the £600 million programme. Does the Minister agree with the recommendation of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that future allocations to Scotland should be based on need, taking into account all those factors?

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As I said a minute ago, I recently had a productive conversation with my Scottish counterpart on how the Scottish and UK Governments can work together to get the broadband into Scotland that it so clearly needs.

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It is a nice view from up here, Mr Speaker.

The Minister’s Duracell Bunny-like enthusiasm is all very well, and I hope it stands him in good stead during the clear-out today, but it is not enough. Does the Government’s ambition not fall pathetically short of what is really required?

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The £5 billion will go an awfully long way and build on the huge progress being made already, but the hon. Gentleman is right: this is not simply about money. That is why we are making legislative changes as well. The Prime Minister has been very clear on his ambition. The recent roundtable at No. 10 with all the broadband providers shows that this is far more than words; it is a real commitment in legislative and financial terms, and it will get Britain the broadband it deserves.

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The Prime Minister promised full fibre broadband roll-out by 2025, but pretty quickly that was watered down to “as soon as possible”. What proportion of houses will have full fibre broadband by 2025?

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The hon. Member is right: we have said we will make gigabit-capable networks available as soon as possible. The Prime Minister has talked very clearly about that 2025 target and we will legislate to make sure that all new builds have gigabit-capable broadband, and of course we will focus our greatest attention on the hardest-to-reach areas where broadband is currently the worst in the country.

Problem Gambling

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2. What steps his Department is taking to help tackle problem gambling. [900774]

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We know that about 1% of the population are problem gamblers, and I want to make sure this group is helped, not harmed. That is why I have asked the Gambling Commission to use its powers to make sure gamblers are not taken advantage of—for instance, through exploitative VIP schemes—and why we have recently banned gambling with credit cards and will be reviewing the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure it is fit for the modern age.

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Too many people have had their lives turned upside down by gambling addiction, so I commend the Minister for her decision to ban people from gambling using credit cards—essentially gambling with money they do not have—but what more will the Government do to tackle the scourge of problem gambling? We have probably all seen constituents in surgeries who have had their lives ruined by this terrible problem.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the ban on gambling with credit cards, which was an important decision, but our work to tackle problem gambling continues. The intention of the Gambling Act review is to make sure we have the right legislation to protect people from harm, but in the meantime, for those struggling with problem gambling, the Department of Health and Social Care is opening 14 new specialist NHS clinics, and we are working on a cross-Government addiction strategy, which will include gambling.

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As chair of the all-party group for gambling related harm, I am delighted that the Government have adopted so many of our recommendations over the last 18 months. Our latest one is that we would very much like to see no gambling advertising in sports activities. Will the Minister agree that this is a way forward?

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I know the hon. Lady is a determined campaigner on this issue. I am also well aware of concerns about gambling in sports. I have spoken about this with the Sports Minister, who is here beside me. There are already controls on advertising in sport—the whistle-to-whistle ban is a step forward—and as I said, the Gambling Act review is coming up. We are working on the scope of that at the moment.

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The 2018 gaming machines review, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the NHS lead on mental health, the Children’s Commissioner and many Members of the House have expressed concerns about loot boxes, skins and e-gaming. What discussions has the Minister had with the Gambling Commission about it exercising its powers to safeguard young gamers from gambling?

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My hon. Friend did a huge amount of work in this area when she was Minister with this responsibility. I have spoken to the Gambling Commission about loot boxes and the risks of online gambling, and we are working at the moment on the scope of the gambling review.

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The gambling arena currently resembles the wild west. This is resulting in increased harm and even suicides. Rather than tinkering around the edges of the Gambling Act, will the UK Government rip it up and write a new one fit for the 21st century and in doing so engage with those people with lived experience?

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Absolutely. We intend to engage with people with lived experience and a wide range of stakeholders as we review the Gambling Act. We must get a balance here: making sure we get on and update that legislation, hand in hand with doing it thoroughly and making the changes so that our gambling legislation is fit for the modern age.

Grassroots Sport

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4. What steps his Department is taking to support grassroots sport. [900777]

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The Government are committed to making sure that everyone is able to participate in sport and physical activity, regardless of their background or ability. Sport England is investing over £1 billion of lottery and Exchequer funding in grassroots sports over the period 2017 to 2021 to support a physically active nation.

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As we all know, rugby is in the blood of the Welsh, but in Wrexham football is prevalent. Would the Minister like to accompany me to Wrexham rugby club to see the work it and Welsh Rugby Union are doing to introduce grassroots rugby to the children of Wrexham?

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Of course, I would love to go to Wrexham. I would love to go to Wrexham regardless of whether I have still got the job. I can tell my hon. Friend that it will not be my first visit. If anybody remembers, Goole Town—the mighty Goole Town—played Wrexham in the FA cup third round in 1976, and I was there. If anybody can tell me the score, there will be a prize for them.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this area. Nowhere has a richer rugby heritage than Wales. I would like to offer my commiserations on Wales’s disappointing Six Nations result on Saturday—a valiant clash—but we look forward to 7 March. She will know that sport is a devolved matter, but I look forward—fingers crossed—to coming to Wrexham very shortly.

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And they play rugby league there.

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At the moment, horse racing is the only sport where there is a levy from gambling. Are the Government considering taking a levy from gambling in other sports to pay for grassroots sports participation, given that there has been a 20% drop since 2010 in grassroots cricket and tennis?

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The hon. Member will be aware that there is huge investment going into grassroots sport, no more so than the £550 million that we announced for grassroots football. Of course, currently the lottery does play a big part in grassroots sport, and Exchequer funding goes in. She asks about the levy. We have no plans currently to introduce a levy on other sports, but like any Government, we keep an open mind.

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Just a few years ago, Buckingham Ladies hockey team were using marmite jars on a table top to plan their tactics, and they had only five players and no goalkeeper, but I am delighted to say that, on 2 February, they lifted the cup, winning the Jaffa Super 6s final. Will my hon. Friend join me in warmly congratulating Buckingham Ladies, and let me know what plans the Government have to support more teams like them to thrive?

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First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking his seat; it is great that Buckingham has a Conservative MP once again. I also congratulate Buckingham Ladies: what a fantastic effort to win the Jaffa Super 6s. I really encourage my hon. Friend to get the club to engage with local representatives from Sport England. These are exactly the sorts of clubs we need to nurture and see grow.

Online Harmful Material

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7. What steps his Department is taking to help prevent the spread of harmful material online. [900780]

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The Government are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to go online. Yesterday, we published our initial response to the consultation on the world-leading proposals in our online harms White Paper. This document set out in additional detail how we will introduce a duty of care on companies to keep their users safe online while protecting freedom of expression.

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It has been many months since the consultation on the Government’s online harms White Paper closed, and we have only just received the initial response. Based on the latest police recorded crime data, it is estimated that an average of one online abuse offence against a child was recorded every 16 minutes in England and Wales, which equates to up to 90 online sexual offences against children every day. Can the Minister tell us today when we can expect to see legislation brought forward?

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This Government are absolutely committed to moving as quickly as we possibly can on this legislation. That is why we have said we will be publishing a full response in the spring, and why we will be legislating this Session. Many of the offences that she talks about are already covered by other legislation, but the online harms Bill will bring a coherent and world-leading approach to some of the most important issues of our age.

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Recent figures from Ofcom show that half of all parents are worried about the online safety of their children, and sadly, as we have heard, they are right to be worried. The Government’s online harms consultation closed more than 200 days ago. If NSPCC estimates are right, there have been more than 20,000 unspeakable child offences and abuses in the time that it has taken for the Government to string together an initial response. We are told that legislation is on its way, but how many more days will anxious parents have to wait? Who will take responsibility for children who are harmed while this Government dither?

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The NSPCC has come out strongly and welcomed what we announced yesterday, which is a hugely important step. The hon. Lady is right to say that there is never an excuse for delay in this sort of area, but as the NSPCC said to me yesterday, bad regulation is worse than no regulation. We will take our time to get this right, but we will not delay for a second longer. That is why we will legislate in this Session.

Shared Rural Mobile Network

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8. What steps his Department is taking to help deliver a shared rural mobile network. [900781]

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The Government announced support in principle for the mobile network operators shared rural network programme, which will see those operators collectively increase 4G mobile coverage throughout the UK to 95% by 2025. Although the SRN is not yet a done deal, the Prime Minister has made improvements to rural mobile coverage a key part of his “first 100 days” pledge.

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In answer to the Sports Minister’s question, I think that Wrexham won 1-0, and he was one of—off the top of my head—the 4,200 people in the crowd.

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rose—

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I’m being intervened on by the Sports Minister!

The £1 billion shared rural network, 50% of which is paid for by the taxpayer, has the support of just about every rural parliamentarian in this place, but apparently it is at risk because BT is increasing its charges to other operators. What can the Minister do to bring BT back to the table and ensure that the deal goes through?

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I am sorry there is a dispute about the important matter of the score at Wrexham. To return to my hon. Friend’s substantive point, I pay tribute to his work on behalf of so many rural MPs on this important issue, and I will continue to work with the sector to ensure that the shared rural network is delivered. It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of commercial negotiations, but if mobile network operators are unable to reach an agreement for any reason—I very much hope they will be able to—we will continue to explore all possible options, including rural roaming.

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What discussions have been held with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the roll-out of the rural network programme—that began in this place, and is now continued by the Assembly, which is operating again—is on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that when we talk about “levelling up”, it is vital that we bring all parts of the United Kingdom with us. I have already been to Northern Ireland to talk about this and other issues, not least the roll-out of the fibre network in Dundrum, which was impressive. We will continue those conversations to ensure that every aspect of the United Kingdom gets the broadband and mobile coverage it deserves.

Youth Projects

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9. What steps he is taking to support youth projects. [900784]

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10. What steps he is taking to support youth projects. [900786]

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The Government are committed to investing in young people’s futures, and alongside delivering the national citizen service, we announced a new £500 million youth investment fund from April this year, which will provide capital and revenue investment in youth services for the next five years. The £7 million youth accelerator fund, which was launched last month by the Secretary of State, will deliver extra sessions and youth clubs, alongside a range of positive activities in sport and culture for young people.

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Local clubs are a great way to help young people participate in sport. In my Broxtowe constituency, Sarah Green, a parent volunteer, has worked tirelessly to renovate the Trent Vale community sports association clubhouse. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to all community volunteers who support grassroots sport?

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It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents. There are 6.7 million volunteers in sport throughout the UK, which is an incredible number. We must recognise the people who give of their own time by volunteering specifically to help young people. Sport England is investing £15 million a year through its community asset fund between 2017 and 2021 to support communities just like my hon. Friend’s.

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The Way Youth Zone provides young people in Wolverhampton with a variety of facilities and fantastic activities in the heart of the city. However, many young people in Wolverhampton are unable to access the Way Youth Zone, as they live too far away. What plans does my hon. Friend have to provide investment opportunities for replicating that successful youth inclusion model in other areas of Wolverhampton, such as Whitmore Reans?

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My hon. Friend is right. Young people in Wolverhampton and elsewhere should have access to high-quality youth services such as the Way Youth Zone regardless of where they live—whether that is in a city, a village or a town, or on the coast. The youth investment fund to which I referred will enable the development and expansion of capital resources, including buildings and mobile facilities for harder-to-reach areas, alongside investment for positive activities across the country.

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With youth services having been slashed by 73% since 2010 under savage local government cuts, and given that a peer gets more for turning up for one day than an under-25 year old has to live on for a month under universal credit, when they are already suffering from job and housing insecurity, when will Ministers admit that, under this Government, youth have never had it so bad?

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It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member’s questions, which are usually positive and upbeat, as we have seen this morning. I would just remind her—politely and gently—of what I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). We have announced a £500 million youth investment fund, which starts this year. We also have the £7 million accelerator fund. I am not going use her words about having it so bad; I think she should recognise and reflect on the fact that the sums being invested in youth services are huge.

Local Theatres

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11. What steps his Department is taking to support local theatres. [900787]

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Many of the stars of stage and screen who recently won awards at the BAFTAs and the Oscars started out on stage at a local theatre, but even if a role in a local panto does not lead to a BAFTA, we know that local theatres bring people together in a way that no west end theatre can rival. The Government recognise the importance of local theatres and we are actively supporting them. Arts Council England invested £650 million in theatres over the past five years. Theatres all around the country benefit from theatre tax relief. I recently attended the launch of this year’s Theatres at Risk list, a successful scheme that has saved 80 theatres since it started.

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Carshalton and Wallington was left as nearly the only part of London that did not have a local theatre, so will the Minister join me in thanking and congratulating the team at CryerArts, a local community group which has stepped up and saved the Cryer in Carshalton to promote local artists?

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I am very glad to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the team at CryerArts. I understand that the theatre reopened in November and I hope it continues to be a much-loved local venue.

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In order to ensure the future of local theatres, what conversations is the Minister having with counterparts in the Department for Education to ensure that all children are given access to high-quality performing arts education from a young age?

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I am in conversation with the Department for Education about arts in school. The hon. Lady may be aware that an arts premium is coming in for secondary schools, which will mean more investment in arts in our schools.

BBC Licence Fee

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12. What his policy is on BBC licence fee penalties and payments. [900808]

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The Government have committed to maintain the licence fee funding model for the duration of this 11-year charter period. We want to help vulnerable people who may struggle to pay for their TV licence, which is why we have announced the simple payment plan, which will come into effect on 1 April. On penalties for evasion, we believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction remains appropriate, given ongoing concerns about whether it is unfair and disproportionate.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that the BBC should stop focusing on criminalising customers who cannot pay for the licence and focus instead on its agreement to provide free TV licences for over-75s?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. As we made clear in our manifesto, we recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s. They should be funded by the BBC, and we remain disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession only to those in receipt of pension credit.

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As the Minister just made clear, he is aware that in only a few weeks’ time, some of our poorest and most vulnerable pensioners will be hit with TV licence fee charges. The Government deliberately foisted what should be a social provision on to the BBC which, foolishly under Lord Hall, accepted this responsibility. Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State that the Government have no business doing that, and will he commit today to stepping in to cover the cost for the most vulnerable in society?

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Forgive me for repeating the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), and the answer that I gave to the urgent question last week, but we are consulting on whether the decriminalisation of TV licence fee evasion should go ahead—that is absolutely the case. If the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) is saying to me that, in 2020, the future of a broadcaster’s financing is based on potentially sending someone to prison, we perhaps need to look at other models of funding.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900788]

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I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the British film “1917” on picking up three awards at the Oscars, along with the seven BAFTAs that it picked up earlier this month. “1917” is one of thousands of film productions that has benefited from the Government’s creative industry tax reliefs, which the producer of “1917” said were “crucial” to supporting our world-leading production industry.

As we heard, yesterday the Government published their initial response to the online harms White Paper, confirming their commitment to free speech and that they want the UK to be the safest place for users to be online.

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Bridgend’s local council is proposing to increase the fees that it charges local sports clubs by up to 500%. Many of these clubs tell me that they will need to close if that is implemented. Does my hon. Friend that every step should be taken, at all levels of government, to improve grassroots sport?

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That is absolutely right. I agree that the Government should seek to support sport and physical activity at every level so that everyone, regardless of their age or ability, has the option to get more active. That is why, through Sport England, we are investing more than £1 billion between 2017 and 2021 to get more people active and to reach out to people who traditionally have not necessarily thought that sport and physical activity is for them.

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DCMS has not published impact data on the National Citizen Service since 2016. With former partner organisations going out of business and the transition to new contracts reported as being, at best, turbulent, what are the Government doing to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent appropriately and for the benefit of all young people across the UK?

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I remind the hon. Lady that the National Citizen Service has benefited almost 600,000 young people in disadvantaged areas across the country. It teaches life skills, improves confidence—I have seen that in my constituency—and boosts employability. It is still the fastest-growing youth movement that we have had in this country for a century.

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T2. Football fans have long called for safe standing in stadiums. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the fans want it, and it can be done safely, we should work with clubs towards introducing standing options in their stands? [900789]

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I fully intend to deliver on our commitment to work with fans to move towards standing at football. In one of my first meetings following the election, I met the Premier League, the English Football League, the Football Association, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and the Football Supporters’ Association to discuss this pledge with them. Last week, I was pleased to receive the interim findings of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority’s research, and I have asked it to continue that research with a view to delivering safe standing at football for football supporters.

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T4. The Department’s contribution to the funding of S4C is due to cease in 2022. Does the Minister intend the licence fee to make up the shortfall? Given the present uncertainty about the fee, will he, as a matter of urgency, make a statement about how the funding will be protected post 2022? [900791]

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The funding model that was agreed in 2015 is guaranteed, and the licence fee model is guaranteed until 2027. S4C is a very important public service broadcaster. Conversations will continue from this period onwards, and the funding element of S4C will feature strongly in them.

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T3. While cities embrace 5G, 3G is a dream for many of my constituents, particularly in the Teme valley, which is a large rural notspot. Can the Minister confirm that tackling poor mobile signals in rural areas is very much part of the Government’s commitment to levelling up? [900790]

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I absolutely can confirm that. I know how important any kind of mobile coverage still is in some parts of the country. My hon. Friend will have heard the earlier answer about the shared rural network. It is still being negotiated, and the exact sites that will benefit first will be negotiated by the mobile networks themselves, but I would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and talk about where we can benefit her constituents most.

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Since the Glazers took over Manchester United in 2005, more than £1 billion has been taken out of the club, which they are using as a personal cash cow. Does the Minister agree that that model of ownership is not what we want for our football clubs?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Football clubs such as Manchester United are at the heart of local communities. They have unique social value, and many of them have a great history. We have committed ourselves to a fan-led review of football governance, which will include consideration of the owners and directors test, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is very important for us to ensure that our game is protected for the fans.

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T5. Given the almost weekly stories showing the unsuitability of Huawei as a high-risk, high-tech vendor of our 5G, is the Minister aware that while we in this country are saying that we can build a 5G network that separates core and periphery, nearly all our closest allies and their cyber agencies say that that cannot be done? [900792]

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As my hon. Friend knows, the Government will legislate at the earliest opportunity to ensure that we do everything in line with the advice of our agencies, which is that with the “ban and cap” approach, we can ensure that national security is our top priority while also building the 5G network that we deserve safely.

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I have lost count of the number of times I have raised the faltering roll-out of broadband in my vast and remote constituency. The UK Government give money to the Scottish Government to ensure that that roll-out happens. May I suggest that the UK Government carry out some kind of audit to see where the money has gone—or, in my case, not gone?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no one is happy with the speed of the roll-out in Scotland, particularly in constituencies such as his. That is why I look forward to working with my Scottish counterpart to improve the position. I expect the Scottish audit authorities to take careful note of what he has just said.

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T6. Local newspapers are crucial both to our local democracy, in holding people to account, and to bringing our local communities together. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that newspapers such as the Jewish Telegraph in my constituency have the support that they need to flourish? [900793]

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My hon. Friend is right to mention the important role played by local newspapers—not least the Selby Times. It is clear to the Government that they play an invaluable role in the fabric of our society, ensuring that there is a healthy democracy both nationally and locally. On 27 January, we published our formal response to the independent Cairncross review, which outlines the steps that regulators, Government and industry will take to support the future of the news publishing industry nationally and locally.

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In the first weekend of this year, nearly 200,000 people participated in parkrun events. As the chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on parkrun, may I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss how the Government can support this new social phenomenon and improve public health?

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I will definitely meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue. Park runs have taken off phenomenally well across the country. As yet, my schedule has been so busy that I have not managed to fit one in, but I am sure that the opportunity will arise. Park runs are great things—they are great for community meeting—so let us potentially do one together.

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T7. I should like to reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones). Does the Minister agree that, while every effort is rightly being made to roll out 5G, it is not just rural communities that are having a problem? The peripheries of towns such as Wrexham are also struggling to obtain 3G. Will he please meet me as well? [900795]

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I look forward to having a meeting with my hon. Friend on this subject, but I reiterate that it is not only rural areas that will benefit from the shared rural network; urban and suburban areas will benefit as well.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Female Genital Mutilation: Prosecutions

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1. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for female genital mutilation. [900796]

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4. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for female genital mutilation. [900800]

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The Crown Prosecution Service is determined to bring those responsible for female genital mutilation to justice. These are complex cases, usually involving very young and vulnerable victims. When expert medical evidence confirms that an offence has been committed, CPS prosecutors work closely with the police from the outset to build robust cases. This Government regard FGM as a serious criminal offence of child abuse, and we are committed to tackling this appalling crime.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. In Nottingham, we are really proud to be the first community in the country to declare ourselves a zero-tolerance area for FGM, but we cannot do this alone. We need other parts of the system to work, too, so can the Minister assure me and the campaigners in my community that the Crown Prosecution Service is adequately resourced to do all the good things that he has just described and that it is focused on doing them as a priority?

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I commend the hon. Gentleman and the city of Nottingham for what they are doing in this area. I have been told that piloting and trialling are taking place in some Nottingham schools. The CPS is working very hard to fight the scourge of female genital mutilation. We have lead FGM prosecutors in each CPS area, and there is a stakeholder group for so-called honour-based abuse and forced marriage, as well as FGM. That met twice in 2019, and it is already helping to improve investigation and prosecution performance.

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The lack of services to support the victims of female genital mutilation is often seen as a reason why so many cases are left unreported. What effect does the Attorney General—whoever that might be—think the cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service have had on the reporting of FGM cases?

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I am pleased to say that £85 million has just been allocated by this Government to the Crown Prosecution Service. That enormous sum has been very well received. The reality is that FGM is a complex criminal offence. It is difficult to prosecute, but when these matters are made the subject of a complaint, every effort is made to gold-standard the process to make proceeding as easy as possible. I say again that the joint police-CPS taskforce—the stakeholder group—was established in order to make progress across this range of areas, including pre-prosecution.

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My hon. Friend has spoken a lot about FGM in the UK, but does he agree that a lot of the problems come when children go abroad? At the moment, the Gambian Government are rewriting their constitution and there is a question mark as to whether they will maintain the clause banning all forms of FGM. Will he reach out to his opposite number in Gambia, through the Foreign Office, and support them in drafting a constitution that is appropriate in this area? Will he also support the work that people such as Nimco Ali are doing to ensure that our voice and the voices of women around the world are heard?

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Nimco Ali is doing some great work in this area. We will liaise with the Foreign Office, where appropriate, to offer our views. I can also say that the point my hon. Friend makes has a tendency to raise jurisdictional issues, which is one of the points of complexity that we have in prosecuting these cases. However, every effort is—rightly so—being made to tackle this appalling crime.

Domestic Violence: Prosecutions

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting cases involving domestic violence. [900798]

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Domestic abuse offences are horrific crimes that can have long-lasting traumatic effects on victims. It is of the utmost importance that victims are provided with robust protection to protect them from repeat offending. The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to prosecuting these crimes and ensuring victims are supported. That is why the CPS led the implementation of a national domestic abuse best practice framework for magistrates court cases in 2019. The framework provides a holistic approach, going further than the criminal justice system and ensuring consistent good practice by all agencies.

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Nearly three quarters of a million domestic abuse-related cases were recorded in total—a rise of almost a quarter on the previous year. What is the Attorney General doing to combat that and to ensure that many more cases are prosecuted?

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. In 2007-08, offences involving violence against women and girls accounted for 7.1% of CPS case load. The figure is now 17%, but I very much accept that more work needs to be done. There has been a rise of over 8% in prosecutions for crimes of violence against women and girls, and the conviction rate has risen—it is now 78.2%. However, I agree that more needs to be done, and it will be.

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In the year to March 2019, which is the last year for which we have a full set of statistics, the number of domestic abuse incidents and crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales increased by over 118,000 on the previous year. However, over the same period, police referrals to the CPS fell by 11%. What are the Government going to do about that?

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The Government are working very hard in this area. In fact, I have personally dealt with a case in the Court of Appeal, trying to get the sentence raised on a domestic violence rape. However, I understand that the reduction in the number of suspects charged, together with the falling charge rate, is a cause for concern. We await the findings of what the hon. Gentleman knows is the cross-Government review of the criminal justice system’s response to this matter, but the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate identifies a number of relevant issues, and I urge him to have a look at it.

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The statistics show that 2.1 million people experienced domestic violence over this period—1.4 million women and 700,000 men. There is also this shocking disparity between the number of incidents and the number of subjects charged. The Solicitor General talks about there being a cause for concern and about reviews, but surely, given the scale of the problem, we need action now.

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Action is being taken now. CPS policy on charging these matters, including on the charging of rape, has not changed. The code test has not changed; it still applies to all cases, no matter how minor, no matter how serious. Prosecutors do not apply a bookmaker’s test on this. They do not try to second-guess the jury. Where there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, they do, and they will. The CPS will not hesitate to do that.

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My constituent Chloe was held captive by her former partner for several months, but she found the time waiting for her abuser’s trial almost as traumatic. Does the Solicitor General agree that if we are to expect the survivors of domestic abuse and violence to have the bravery to come forward, they need to be confident that they will get the support they need at this horrific time?

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Yes, it is very important that they have the maximum support. Delay is always undesirable. I might add that, in an inspection into domestic abuse cases that was published only a few weeks ago, inspectors noted that CPS prosecutors had applied the code correctly in 100% of cases they examined.

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The recent criminal justice joint inspection report noted that

“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”

This is leaving staff stretched and facing difficult decisions. Will the Solicitor General pursue the Chancellor for the resources necessary so that decisions are made according to public interest, rather than budgetary pressures?

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These decisions are always made according to public interest and not to budgetary pressures. As I have mentioned before, the Treasury has already supplied £85 million more to the CPS, which is a very welcome sum and will be well spent.

County Lines Criminal Activity

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3. What steps the CPS is taking to prosecute people responsible for county lines criminal activity. [900799]

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting perpetrators of criminal activity by county lines networks. [900802]

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The county lines model of drug distribution blights communities and fuels serious violence. The CPS provides early advice to law enforcement to build strong cases against county lines and to ensure the robust prosecution of those using county lines to sell drugs. We have recent cases that highlight that model.

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We are all victims when it comes to county lines drug gangs, and no more so than my constituents in Hassocks, which lies on the main London to Brighton railway line. On their behalf, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making involvement in county lines activity an aggravated offence?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. British Transport police is doing good work in this area, and the Home Office is providing £25 million of targeted investment over this year and next year to tackle this particular issue, £5 million of which is already in operational use. Overall, expanding the national county lines co-ordination centre will be very positive in getting results, including work with British Transport police to prevent disruption on the rail network. There is also investment in new technology, including automatic number plate recognition. We are working across the board with law enforcement agencies and partners to deal with these gangs.

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As well as addressing county lines networks, what discussions is my right hon. and learned Friend having with the Scottish Government to deal with county lines across the border between Scotland and England?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I am pleased to say there is good co-operation across jurisdictions—between the English and Scottish authorities—and between the different counties in England that co-ordinate on these matters. The NCLCC is working in this area, and I understand it is working very effectively.

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The work of these gangs stretches right across the UK, with more than 20 known to be operating county lines in Scotland. Can the Solicitor General assure me that prosecutors in the different criminal jurisdictions are working closely together to ensure that those behind “country lines” are brought to justice as speedily and effectively as possible?

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The hon. Lady raises a good point. We know that county lines do not respect internal borders, and Police Scotland is engaged in the national law enforcement response to this issue. I am pleased to say Police Scotland is working as part of the NCLCC, which was established with £3.6 million of Home Office funding in 2018.

Public Understanding of the Law

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5. What steps the Government are taking to increase public understanding of the law. [900801]

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I chair the public legal education committee, and I regularly engage with stakeholders and other Government Departments on public legal education to explore how we can increase public understanding of the law. Valuable work is ongoing in this area. During Justice Week, for example, the “big legal lesson” will be delivered in schools around the country on 24 February 2020. I will also attend an MP drop-in session in Portcullis House on 26 February—you will be very welcome, Mr Speaker—to raise awareness of the justice system. I urge all colleagues to pop by.

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We are seeing more and more litigants-in-person due to the Government’s legal aid cuts, and many people never pursue their rights to see their children or to make financial claims because they do not know how. What will Ministers do to help people access justice, which is their right?

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It is right that public legal education provides people with vital awareness, which is what it does. People need knowledge and understanding of their rights and responsibilities, but it is wrong to say it is a quid pro quo with legal aid. It acts as an adjunct to legal aid, and individuals face difficult challenges and sometimes require additional help. The pro bono work we see in the public legal education carried out by the legal and the third sectors helps to make a real difference. I have visited a number of locations, including the pro bono unit at the University of Leicester just last week, and they are helping people. This is a valuable exercise.

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Understanding of the law is vital for the rule of law, but as the president of the Law Society reminded us this week, in the light of the deportation rulings, so, too, is judicial review. So why does No. 10 keep attacking judges, instead of law-breaking Ministers? Is judicial review not all the more important because although Parliament might not be “dead”, as the former Attorney General described it, it is utterly supine on providing checks on ministerial powers?

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I do not think Parliament is supine in any context. The reality of the matter is that public legal education provides valuable insight and awareness to young people, in particular, about rights and responsibilities. I do not recognise the characteristic the hon. Gentleman puts on the issue.

Offences Against Emergency Workers: Prosecutions

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7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences against emergency workers. [900803]

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences against emergency workers. [900804]

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The CPS takes offences against emergency service personnel extremely seriously. Between November 2018 and November 2019, the first year of the offence coming into effect, almost 20,000 offences were charged under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, three quarters of which were assaults by beating; there were 19,771 offences against emergency workers, including 5,362 common assaults. In January, the CPS published a joint agreement with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, NHS England, the National Fire Chiefs Council and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. This shared understanding, and it will ensure that cases continue to be prosecuted and investigated effectively.

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Reports of serious and violent crimes endured by emergency services staff have caused some of my constituents worry and anguish about loved ones who work in this area. What assurances can my right hon. and learned Friend give my constituents that the Government are taking steps to reduce serious and violent crime?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I warn anyone who engages in any type of offence against an emergency service worker that the law will deal with them harshly; the estimated conviction rate, based on the first cases to go through the courts, was 90%. It is right that we see uplifts in sentence for those who assault emergency service workers, who serve the public diligently and courageously.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. I think everybody in this House will endorse the idea that we should protect the protectors, so will he assure us that we will seek the maximum sentence when prosecuting these crimes?

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Sentencing is a matter for the courts, but I agree with my hon. Friend in practice. A review sample revealed that nine in 10 assaults were against police officers. Almost all of those took place when the attacker was intoxicated by drink or drugs, and when they were being arrested or an unrelated offence was involved. Spitting was common. The violence perpetrated was wide-ranging, and included kicking, punching, headbutting, slapping and biting. The courts should and will come down on these offenders.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights and the Rule of Law

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9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK's departure from the EU on (a) legal protections on human rights and (b) the rule of law. [900805]

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The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, fulfilling its international human rights obligations and upholding the rule of law. Leaving the European Union has not and will not change that.

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The Solicitor General knows that our institutions of liberal democracy—the BBC, the judiciary and the civil service—are under attack. He is planning to water down the Human Rights Act. Will he give a solemn undertaking that we will not be withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, which was established 62 years ago, with the help of Winston Churchill, and nor will we withdraw from the Council of Europe?

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The UK is committed to human rights. The fact is that our EU exit does not change that; the UK will continue to champion human rights, at home and abroad—it is part of who we are as a people. We practised human rights before the 1998 Act and we will continue to do so. We are committed to upholding the rule of law. The UK is a beacon in this area around the world, and leaving the EU does not change that.

CPS Disclosure Obligations

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10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the correlation between the level of CPS resources and its ability to comply with its disclosure obligations. [900806]

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The proper disclosure of unused material is vital if there is to be a fair trial, which is in the interests of the complainant, the accused and the whole community. There has been unprecedented joint commitment and focus from the police and the CPS on finding solutions to the problem of getting disclosure right. The £85 million investment in the CPS, to which I have alluded, will enable the CPS to respond effectively to the expected increase in case load resulting from the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers.

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It is pretty clear that currently justice is not being done. Does the Solicitor General accept that that fund is simply not going to be enough to get the justice that this country deserves?

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No, I do not accept that. In fact, the £85 million that was given to the CPS recently was the largest sum, pro rata, given to any Government Department. It is right that it is a priority for the Government to deal with criminal justice robustly, which is what the Government are going to do.

Antisemitic Hate Crime: Prosecutions

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11. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the prosecution rate for antisemitic hate crime. [900807]

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The proper disclosure of unused material is vital if there is to be a fair trial, and we will continue to focus on these issues, including on the issue of better meeting the disclosure obligations. We will work with investigators to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry.

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The CPS does not currently publish figures on hate crime prosecution rates disaggregated by racial and religious bias. Will the Solicitor General join me in urging the CPS to make that data available so that we can judge its performance on antisemitism and properly tackle this most hateful form of crime?

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The issue of antisemitism, which my hon. Friend rightly raises, is one of very considerable concern. Just last week, I visited the Community Security Trust in north London; the work that the trust does with the Jewish community to combat antisemitism is significant and very much appreciated. My hon. Friend is right that it is important that proper records are kept by the CPS in respect of these matters, and we are constantly discussing with the CPS how better it can review its statistics and keep these things properly in the mind of the general public.