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Commons Chamber

Volume 671: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 13 February 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Minister of State was asked—

Broadband

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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

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

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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)

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.

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?

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

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)

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

Online Harms Legislation

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for online harms legislation.

I thank my hon. Friend for their question on this important issue.

The Government are taking significant action to tackle the issue of online harm and make this country the safest place in the world to go online. There is widespread consensus that online platforms must do more to make sure that their services are safe for all users, particularly children, while also promoting freedom of expression online. Strikingly, far fewer parents now believe that the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks, with the proportion falling from 65% of parents in 2015 to 55% last year. That is a worrying trend that we must address. We can keep the benefits of the digital economy only if we can improve trust and confidence in technology and tackle what erodes it.

The “Online Harms” White Paper proposed a statutory duty of care, enforced by an independent regulator. Since its publication, we have consulted on our proposals and announced our intention to legislate in the Queen’s Speech. The evidence given during the consultation will help us to get the balance right between an open and vibrant internet and one where users are protected from harm.

Yesterday, as set out in a written ministerial statement, the Government published our initial consultation response. The response set out our proposed direction of travel following the consultation, and we will publish a full response in the spring, before bringing forward legislation in this Session. I wish to bring to the attention of the House four specific points raised during the consultation.

First, we must ensure that in aiming to make the internet safer we do not inadvertently stifle legitimate debate. We will place safeguards in legislation, giving companies and the regulator the responsibility to protect users’ rights, including freedom of expression, online. We will introduce greater transparency about content removals so that users can appeal if their content is taken down.

Secondly, we know that greater protections are needed to keep young people safe online. The new regulatory framework will require companies to take steps to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content and protect them from other harms.

Thirdly, some consultation responses raised concerns that the regulation would place undue burdens on sites where opportunities for harm to occur are limited. Our legislation will be proportionate and risk-based, affecting only those companies in respect of which there is a risk of harm. The duty of care will apply only to businesses facilitating the sharing of user-generated content, for example, through comments or video sharing, and only around 5% of UK businesses provide these functions.

Finally, the regulator will ensure that in-scope companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to protect users from harm, especially children and the most vulnerable. We are minded to appoint Ofcom to regulate online harms, building on its experience and expertise to make further progress on this important issue. We also yesterday appointed Ofcom to regulate video-sharing platforms under the audiovisual media services directive, which aims to reduce harmful content on these sites. That will provide quicker protection for some harms and activities and will act as a stepping stone to the full online harms regulatory framework.

We will publish our full consultation response in the spring, setting out further details of our plans ahead of legislation and, alongside this, the Home Office will publish voluntary interim codes of practice to set out what companies should do to prevent terrorist use of the internet, or child sex exploitation and abuse on their platforms.

We are confident that this publication and the other plans that we are driving forward will help to make Britain the safest place to be online and the best digital economy in the world. No other country in the world is working faster to foster tackling this vital issue.

I thank the Minister for his initial response. A regulator is nothing without the ability genuinely to disrupt the business practices of a firm that it is regulating. What assurances can he give the House that the proposed Ofcom plus regulator can genuinely bring social media companies to account with simply a bit of public shaming and fines? Does he agree that there needs to be a tech levy set at 2% of UK revenues in order properly to fund this super-regulator?

Will the Minister confirm that there will be a legal duty on companies to inform users of their personal privacy rights? Would not the new regulatory framework benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as well as from allowing the Committee a veto over the appointment or dismissal of the head of the regulator, in exactly the same way that the Treasury Committee has over the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility? Will the Minister assure the House that legislation will be forthcoming this calendar year, as we have been waiting a very long time for this?

The Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right that regulation without teeth is not a valuable form of regulation. We will be talking to Ofcom about what it believes the most effective form of regulation will be, and we will obviously be feeding in our own thoughts as well. The decision that we made yesterday allows us to start having those formal conversations, and Ofcom to start talking to the industry as well. In the same vein, I agree with my hon. Friend that a levy has been much discussed. He mentions one figure. We will obviously have to discuss with Ofcom what it considers to be the level of resources that it needs, and I do not use that as a way of trying to weasel out of what he suggests by any means. It is a very interesting suggestion.

There will be, of course, a legal duty on companies to be more transparent with their customers. We are talking about transparency already in some working groups that I have been chairing. My hon. Friend mentions pre-legislative scrutiny. It is, of course, a tradition, although not a necessity, that full pre-legislative scrutiny in one Session would require the Bill to be introduced in the following Session, and this Government are not content to introduce that kind of delay. However, he did in fact mention pre-legislative scrutiny by his Committee, rather than in the formal way, and it is an interesting suggestion. I look forward to working closely with him on what the best form of scrutiny looks like.

Similarly, another interesting suggestion is what role my hon. Friend’s Committee might play when it comes to the regulator of this. We have compared regulation of financial services when we have been thinking about this, and he is right to make a comparison. It is another interesting suggestion. I look forward to working with him and his Committee—I hope. [Interruption.] I will put my phone on speaker on the Dispatch Box. I look forward to working with him, to be serious, because this is an area where I hope we can form genuine cross-party consensus on what is the right way forward without introducing a moment’s delay.

Order. I will allow up to 45 minutes on this urgent question, but first we will hear from Chi Onwurah.

Molly Russell was only 14 when she killed herself after viewing posts on Instagram. David Turnball was 75 when he lost his pension through an unregulated financial product that was prominently advertised by Google. Last year TikTok live-streamed a teenager’s suicide. Misinformation on the coronavirus is spreading on social media. An online abuse offence against a child is recorded every 16 minutes. When we talk about online harms, these are real people, real stories, real pain and real hurt.

Before becoming an MP, I was an engineer. I helped build out the internet. I am proud of my work, which enabled people to better communicate and connect, but it has been clear for years that the internet requires regulation. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, has said it; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said it; and Facebook has said it.

This response on online harms is overdue, weak and ultimately ineffective. Social media companies will have a duty of care, which Ofcom will regulate—good. Tech companies always had a duty of care, in my opinion, but the first online suicide was over 10 years ago, and still victims await legislation. When will these proposals be law?

Instead of creating a new regulator, the Government have given responsibility to Ofcom. I like Ofcom—I used to work for it—but in the last ten years it has had the BBC, postal services and more added to its remit. What additional resource will it have? What powers of enforcement will it have? Companies will regulate complaints themselves, although we are told that it will be transparent—how? The transparency working group has been mentioned, so could we have some transparency on that?

New online harms are emerging. Just a few weeks ago the smart doorbell system Ring was hacked, putting children at risk. Algorithms, facial recognition and artificial intelligence are not addressed—why not? In a week’s time the European Union will announce measures for digital services regulation. Has the Minister spoken with the EU about alignment, and if not, why not?

Online harms cause untold damage in the real world. If the Minister cannot give clear answers to these questions, victims past and present will have lost out in another wasted year.

I welcome the tone of the hon. Lady on this. These are hugely important issues that affect real people. We call them online harms, but they are profoundly real for the people affected. She is right that legislation is overdue; Parliament should have acted many years ago to address the issue. But the reality is that the duty of care that, in her opinion, social media companies have to their users will be put into law by this Parliament. That is progress, and I think we should welcome it.

We will bring forward the legislation in this Session. We will produce the full consultation response by the spring. We will be going as fast as possible. The hon. Lady wants us to go faster. I welcome the tone that she has struck, but I know that she would not want us to rush and then introduce half-formed legislation that would not work. If we committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, we would be introducing the legislation in the next Session, and that is too long a delay.

I will try to answer some of the many entirely legitimate questions that the hon. Lady asked. She is right that the NSPCC and Facebook have welcomed this. The industry is ready and ripe for regulation, and we should work together to deliver it. Like the Chair of the Select Committee, she asked what additional resources and enforcement powers Ofcom would have. We will ensure that Ofcom has the resources and the enforcement powers that it says are going to be the most effective. I hope that will be a transparent and open conversation.

The hon. Lady mentioned the internet of things, which is an important area. Harms that derive from being online are not limited to social media; they now extend to the doorbells she mentioned and a whole host of other things. She will know that this Government have already committed, through what we call “secure by design”, to legislate on that. I look forward to our bringing that forward by whatever vehicle as soon as we possibly can. That is why we have talked about it already.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the digital services regulation. Of course, we work in consultation with countries around the world. This is a global industry. Britain is taking the lead; it is right that an open and liberal democracy takes the lead on these difficult decisions. We will do this as fast as we possibly can. We will not be delayed by the activities of other countries, but we will work with them.

The Science and Technology Committee in the last Parliament conducted a significant inquiry into the impact of social media on young people’s health, so I welcome the fact that the Minister has committed to the principal recommendation of the Committee’s report—that Ofcom should be given the responsibility for regulation in this area. But may I press him on the timing of the statutory powers for Ofcom? There is no time to lose, as the Committee’s report and Members today have made clear. I welcome the fact that the legislation will be introduced in this Session. When it comes to pre-legislative scrutiny, I hope that he will take into account the precedent set by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in relation to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, which was introduced very quickly within a Session and included all the recommendations of the Committee. There is a big opportunity for the work of both the Science and Technology Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to inform rapid legislation that will give great comfort to our constituents.

I have a great deal of time for the Science and Technology Committee, having served on it myself. This is an important area that cuts across a number of different Select Committees. If we are going to pay attention to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, it is right that we should also look at how we can work with others—while not slowing things down—because this is a very important issue. We will continue that conversation with my right hon. Friend as soon as possible. As I said earlier, we will work with Ofcom to ensure its powers are in legislation as quickly as possible, but also that those powers are developed enough to ensure that they are really effective and persist beyond the current generation of technology, because we surely try to make legislation that does not need to be remade every year.

It is important that we respond to the new cross-border challenges that have arisen as a result of our society moving increasingly online. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the Scottish Government’s internet safety plan for children, and I hope that he will co-operate with the devolved Administrations on this issue.

The consultation on this area closed last summer, and it has to be said that a delay of concrete proposals until spring does not suggest an atmosphere of urgency. Will the Minister commit to no further delays in Government action past the spring deadline and ensure that the tech companies do not dictate the pace of reform? Moreover, will he confirm whether the Government will be giving Ofcom powers to make directors of social media companies personally liable—including facing prosecution for harmful content—and that these proposals have not been removed from the Government’s plans in the face of lobbying by tech execs? Does he agree that, although tightening regulations in this way is necessary, we also need regulations to close the loopholes that are seeing dark money being funnelled to political parties and campaigns in this country in a manner which, if it had happened in other states, would have the whole House of Commons united in condemnation?

I look forward to working with the Scottish Government on their plans. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a devolved matter, but it is important that we listen to all voices. What we did yesterday kicked off a process that I hope will be very collaborative, and we will work with as many stakeholders as we can possibly find.

I want to be absolutely clear that, whatever the hon. Gentleman might have read in some newspapers, not a single word of the response that we published yesterday was watered down at the request of tech companies. We have gone faster than many have suggested we might have been able to, and we will certainly not be delaying. My appetite is only for us to go as quickly as we possibly can.

The hon. Gentleman talked about director liability, which is something that has been effective—in financial services regulation, for instance. I look forward to looking at all possible options when it comes to sanctions. I want them to be as effective as possible, and nothing is off the table, whatever he might have read. I will leave his comments on financial matters, as they are issues that would be covered by other legislation.

My hon. Friend has already helpfully recognised that what the regulator in this space requires is the legislative authority to act, the personnel and resources needed to act, and, of course, the sanctions and powers needed to act. Is it not also right, though, that the urgency in giving the regulator those things is not just the need, great though it is, to protect vulnerable people, but the fact that this country could and should lead globally on this, and we will only do so if we get on with it?

I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. and learned Friend did as Secretary of State in leading this agenda. He is absolutely right. Ofcom needs the powers and resources to get this job done properly, but it also needs to make sure that we seize every possible opportunity that comes from the digital economy. Getting that balance right, alongside freedom of expression, is the priority that he set as Secretary of State. We will continue to do that, and we will not go any slower than we absolutely need to.

Two years ago, in debating the Bill that became the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, we discussed the problem that weapons that cannot be lawfully purchased in the UK are nevertheless freely available to buy online. Will the changes the Minister envisages address that specific problem?

Obviously, the duty of care is wide-ranging. I am conscious that we would expect economic harms, for instance, to be picked up through other legislation. Similarly, the Offensive Weapons Act itself picks up some other areas. This is one of the issues that we have to look at to make sure that there are none of the loopholes that the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is a valuable point.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is precisely Ofcom’s experience in broadcasting and telecoms that make it ideally placed to take on this regulatory role of duty of care?

Yes, I absolutely do agree. Ofcom is perfectly placed to balance our absolutely unequivocal commitment to free speech with the need to regulate an industry that is, as I said, ripe for regulation.

Could the Minister share some more details about the scope of this announcement? Specifically, does it cover threats to democracy and abuses of the electoral system that have been examined in the Lords by Lord Puttnam’s Committee, and will Ofcom be given future-proofing powers to adjust regulations not only to take account of technological changes but to protect against future threats that do not yet exist?

The work that the Cabinet Office is doing on protecting democracy is a hugely important, albeit complementary, part of the process, rather than something that is covered by online harms. Our intention is that the regulations and the codes of practice that Ofcom will draw up will be as future-proofed as possible, because we do not want to be coming back time and again having this debate in a whole series of forums. We need to get on with this.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on tabling this urgent question, and the Government on their response. Today’s focus has very much been on online content and protecting children, but will the Minister comment on how the internet continues to be used by jihadi extremists to recruit future terrorists? The Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill went through yesterday, so there is more money for counter-terrorism, policing, probation and rehabilitation. But ultimately, until we are able to remove harmful online content that is being used for recruitment, further terrorist attacks, I am afraid, will take place.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to say that the online harms Bill is being drawn up jointly with my colleagues in the Home Office to tackle exactly the areas that he suggests. The Bill also has a hugely important component on tackling disinformation, which is related to what he is talking about, albeit, I appreciate, not the same thing. It is important that we mount what we might call a full-spectrum response when it comes to these threats.

Nearly two years ago, the then Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box justifying the cancellation of the second phase of the Leveson inquiry. His rationale for that was that the harm was no longer in print media but instead all online. I asked why we could not deal with both, and he brushed me off, but now it looks as though we are in danger of the Government not yet having done either. The Minister says that he does not want to rush things, but I gently say to him that there is no danger of anyone accusing the Government of having done that. He gave lots of very welcome detail today, but has not answered the one really burning question—when will we see draft legislation?

I say gently back to the hon. Gentleman that plenty of tech companies would like us to go slower on this. I understand his point, but as I have said, no other country in the world is going faster to tackle online harms. We will submit a full Government response in the spring, and we will introduce legislation in this Session.

Does the Minister agree that we need to urge tech companies immediately to make it much easier for parents to set parental controls, to keep their children safer?

Yes, I agree that the role and responsibilities of parents are hugely important. Some social media companies have made significant progress in that area and done good work in schools, but part of our media literacy work will focus specifically on parents, to ensure that they know exactly what is the right way for children to use the internet safely.

This week saw celebrations to promote the safe and positive use of digital technology for children and young people on Safer Internet Day. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the work of the UK Safer Internet Centre, which works with more than 1,000 schools, children and businesses to make the internet a safer place for children and young people? Does he agree that the UK Government must do all they can to support that important work?

I join the hon. Lady in congratulating all the work that goes on around Safer Internet Day. The Secretary of State attended the main conference on Tuesday, and I also appeared, albeit by video link. We are committed to working with all the charities and organisations that have made Safer Internet Day such a success, but with this legislation, we also recognise that it is important to go further.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as the director of a company that provides technology solutions to help schools deal with online harms. Will the Minister applaud the work of teachers and senior leadership teams in helping young people to avoid the excesses of online harm? I encourage him to provide focus on protecting freedom of speech and prioritising the need to tackle the harm being done to our minors. May I urge him to provide clarity on the metrics and timetable for this regulation, so that the creativity of our technology companies can be put to good use as well as to profitable use?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the extreme contribution of teachers in this area. They have adapted remarkably quickly to a changing threat, and I pay tribute to them. He is right to imply that many of the solutions to challenges posed by technology will be driven by technology companies themselves, and we have already worked with companies such as SuperAwesome to ensure that that happens as much as possible. He is also right that legislation cannot come soon enough.

During the consultation period, Samaritans highlighted the need for international action to create a suicide-safer internet, in their words. What action do the Government propose to lead that international co-operation and ensure a reduction in suicides?

The hon. Lady is right that pro-suicide content online has to be a key target for this sort of legislation. She is also right that we have to think of this as a global conversation, because these are often global companies. I would be happy to meet her to talk about what she thinks is the best way forward, because that is one of the most egregious consequences of the lack of regulation online.

I very much welcome this world-leading approach, but can my hon. Friend reassure me that, in bearing down on harms to children and young people, the legislation will cover not only the promotion and glamorisation of self-harm and eating disorders but their prevalence and normalisation on social media and the internet, which ultimately has greater reach?

I know that my right hon. Friend was particularly interested in that area when he was Education Secretary, and I pay tribute to his work. The grey areas that he describes are the hardest and, in some ways, the most important to tackle, particularly around self-harm and eating disorders. Again, it is important to balance this with free speech, but there is no public good in the promotion of eating disorders, and we have to ensure that this regulation picks that up.

I note what the Minister said about watering down, but there is a suspicion abroad—not just on the Opposition Benches—that there has been a change of direction in the Government on this policy and that things such as penalties and prosecution for directors and the banning of companies that egregiously breach the new approach will be dropped in the final proposals. If that happens, it will mean that this policy is being run not from Westminster but from the west coast of America.

The hon. Member could not be more wrong. We will deliver a sanctions regime that is effective. This is a world-leading approach, and we will take a world-leading approach to sanctions as well. The response that we published yesterday mentions director liability—to take just one example—so the suggestion that it is off the table is simply not correct.

What discussions has the Minister had, particularly with social media companies, about them removing harmful online content as quickly as possible?

We talk extensively to social media companies big and small—I draw my hon. Friend’s attention, although I am sure he is aware of it already, to their welcoming of our response—and we will continue to work with them. They have done good work already, but the fact that we are introducing legislation demonstrates that we do not think they have gone far enough yet.

Five years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill that would have made it illegal for explicit private and sexual pictures to be shared online without consent. Subsequently, a ban on so-called revenge porn was introduced. Thousands of victims are now coming forward to the police yet only a handful of cases are going to court because victims cannot have anonymity and have to prove malicious intent. Will the Minister ensure this is criminalised and that these obstacles are not in place, so that victims can get their just deserts and criminals can be punished?

The hon. Member is right. Whether it is sexting or revenge porn, far too much has happened since his private Member’s Bill that has not been positive. Our proposed legislation will be one way of tackling a part of that, but other important complementary pieces of draft legislation, to be introduced via the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, will close all the loopholes with regard to the kind of behaviour he mentions.

My hon. Friend has said he will ensure that Ofcom has the right resources and powers. Can he also assure the House that it has the right skills to keep abreast of all the changes in technology and potential new harms?

My hon. Friend is right to imply that this is partly new for Ofcom. We will not only give it the resources it needs in the immediate future but make sure that it has a genuine plan to keep pace with technology so that we are no longer in the position we are in now, to some extent, of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

There is currently a divide between online gaming and online gambling, and this is resulting in children being groomed as the next generation of gamblers via the likes of loot boxes and skins. What are the UK Government doing to protect those children online?

This came up earlier in DCMS oral questions, and we are looking at gambling through the review of the Gambling Act 2005, but the hon. Member is right that, in terms of gambling and gaming, the duty of care that we will introduce through our proposed legislation will range widely and will make sure that children in particular are protected online.

Can my hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the regulatory regime that he proposes will be fair and proportionate and will expect the most out of those with the capacity, resources and market share to take substantive action to tackle online harms on their platforms?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to make sure that the companies themselves step up to the plate, which they have not yet done enough, but the fact that we are doing this through legislation is an important indicator that we do not think it is simply down to the companies; the Government have to act.

I wondered if it would be me or the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister take the opportunity of the regrettable delay in bringing forward draft legislation to consider adopting a rebuttable principle that anything deemed illegal offline, whether the sale of guns, child pornography or whatever, should be similarly illegal online? Will he consider that principle in the legislation?

The principle that the hon. Member describes is one that has long been at the heart of the thinking of Governments of all colours. What we are doing now is not only making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online in theory, but through this legislation making sure that that is also the case in practice in terms of enforcement. I absolutely agree with what she is seeking to achieve.

My hon. Friend will know that the online space is crucial for SME incubation. Does it remain the Minister’s estimation that a very small percentage of UK businesses will be affected by our new online harms proposals, and that the vast majority of small firms will not need to worry about adapting to this new legal framework?

Yes, the figure we have talked about in the consultation is that no more than 5% of UK businesses will be affected by this legislation. We are mindful of the challenges presented by technology, but this is a profoundly pro-tech Government. We see those opportunities, and we will make sure that businesses, small and large, can seize them in a way that is safe for all our citizens.

Will the Minister in particular underline the fact that there is a duty of care for digital users that extends not simply to monetary impropriety but to ensuring that digital forums are not seen as a mechanism for bullying under the freedom of expression banner. Will the duty of care be enshrined in law and enforced vigorously?

Yes, is the short answer. The duty of care is a central part of this piece of legislation. It is the way in which we protect children and vulnerable people from exactly the kind of disgraceful behaviour that the hon. Member describes.

Maternity Services: East Kent

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the provision and safety of maternity services in East Kent.

I will set out the situation concerning East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust in line with the written statement laid in Parliament this morning. In fact, I took steps to inform Parliament of this matter before the UQ was requested, and I hope that reflects the importance I place on this issue. Before I begin, I would like to express my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies for the patients and families who have been affected.

I made a statement on 28 January on concerns about maternity services in East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, and I would now like to update the House based on the reports from the independent Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch and the Care Quality Commission. I requested that both HSIB and the CQC report back to me within 14 days when I instructed them to go into East Kent trust two weeks ago, and they reported to me on Monday.

HSIB has already conducted a number of maternity investigations at the trust as part of its national maternity investigation programme. These identified a number of safety concerns, including the availability of skilled staff—particularly out of hours—access to neonatal resuscitation equipment and the speed with which patients’ concerns are escalated up to senior clinicians and obstetricians, along with failings in leadership and governance.

As requested, the CQC carried out an unannounced inspection of the trust’s maternity services between 22 January and 5 February. It has written to the trust with an oversight of its findings, and the full inspection report will be published in due course. The CQC received additional information from the trust this week, following its request for further assurances on triage, day care and medical staffing. The CQC is considering this information. It is important that everyone is aware that the CQC is in regular contact with the trust and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

From the findings provided to me by HSIB and the CQC, it is clear that the challenges at East Kent point to a range of issues, including having the right staff with the right skills in the right place, effective multidisciplinary working, clear collaborative working between midwives and doctors, good communication and effective leadership support, but it would be wrong to speculate that there is indeed one single cause.

NHS England and NHS Improvement are working closely with the trust and have taken some immediate actions. First, the regional director and regional chief nurse are providing support to the trust, and the medical director will address concerns surrounding appropriate senior medical oversight. Secondly, the regional chief nurse is providing support to the director of nursing and head of midwifery, to prioritise and focus their local maternity improvement plans and address identified safety concerns. They will also review the effectiveness of clinical governance and executive leadership support. That will include ensuring that the trust learns from all historical cases, and disseminates that learning throughout the trust.

The Chief Midwifery Officer, Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, has sent an independent clinical support team to the trust to provide assurances that all possible measures are being taken. That expert team includes a director of midwifery services from an outstanding trust, two consultant obstetricians, and a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist. She has placed the very best at the heart of the trust, on the wards, and at the bedsides of patients, with fresh eyes to oversee the care currently being delivered. The independent team is working with trust staff to deliver immediate improvements to care, and to put in place robust and comprehensive processes to support improvements in standards over the long term. Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent has personally visited the trust to assess the changes being put in place, and to ensure that improvements are moving at pace.

Jenny Hughes, chief midwife for the south-east region, is working with the trust directly, and regional and national teams from NHS England and NHS Improvement will continue to work with the trust. The trust is taking the issue seriously and is working closely with NHS England and NHS Improvement. It has created and filled several specialist midwife posts. Safety huddles, where safety issues are regularly and frequently discussed, have been embedded on both sites to anticipate problems before they occur, and multidisciplinary teams are working collaboratively.

Order. The Minister is supposed to speak for three minutes, but we are now at five minutes plus. I realise that she has been given a lot of notes, and I think officials ought to take on board the time. I am not looking to you, but I am looking to others to help in the future. I am sure we will be coming to the end of the remarks, as there are lots of questions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think in defence of my officials, because this is such a sensitive issue—