Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
I know how hard my right hon. and learned Friend worked on online harms during his time as Secretary of State, and I pay tribute to him for the work he did. I can reassure him and all hon. Members that I remain committed to introducing this important Bill, which will enable us to have world-leading regulation that protects users while not imposing excessive burdens on business. We will publish a full Government response to the White Paper later this year and will be ready for the Bill to be introduced later in this Session.
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said. Given that we have all been spending more time online recently, especially the most vulnerable among us, he will accept that the case for sensible, balanced regulation of online harms, centred on a duty of care for online platforms, is as strong as ever. I am grateful, too, for what he says about the timetable, but can I urge him to bring forward legislation as soon as possible so that the House can consider it? Also, what action do the Government intend to take in relation to the draft age appropriate design code and when?
I can reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that almost as we speak, and on pretty much a daily basis, I am taking the decisions necessary to ensure we bring forward the response to the White Paper and then the Bill itself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is seeking to intervene from a sedentary position. I can reassure her and other Members: it will be in this Session, as we have said consistently. On the age appropriate design code, I am taking the necessary steps to lay the code, as required by statute. I recognise concerns raised by businesses and indeed hon. Members, however, which is why I have asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to produce an assessment of its economic impact, and I will be including frequently asked questions for the news media sector in the code’s explanatory memorandum when I lay it.
With the exception of Parliament, we are all of us online now: grandparents and schoolchildren, businesses and book clubs, theatres and tea parties, scammers and paedophiles. Online fraud has risen 400%, and the former Home Secretary and Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), described the pandemic as a perfect storm for child abuse, yet the Government refuse to introduce any draft legislation—neither the online harms Bill nor the age appropriate design code—although they have been discussed and announced, including in manifestos. The Secretary of State talks about bringing it forward in this Session, but we do not even know how long this Session will last. Parents, the NSPCC and three Select Committees all say we need legislation now. The tech giants say it would be burdensome. Whose side is he on? Can he give me dates for the code and the Bill?
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, as she knows, but I fear she did not listen to my answer to the previous question. I am on the side of young people—I have a daughter myself who is just entering adolescence—and of course I understand completely the need for stringent regulation. That is why, as I said in my answer to the previous question—I am happy to reassure her again—that the age appropriate design code will be laid imminently, and as I have said repeatedly we will respond to the online harms White Paper and introduce legislation in this Session.
Can the Secretary of State say with any certainty whether online harms legislation will be delivered in the next 12 months, and will its scope reflect the lessons from our experiences of disinformation in this covid-19 pandemic? Also, does he agree that online harms are a much broader and more substantive issue that speaks to the functioning of our society, rather than solely a matter of child protection, however important that is?
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can see that the House is trying to nail me down to an exact date for a Bill that will be introduced in this Session. I can assure him that it will be introduced within the year. As all hon. Members will appreciate, there are usual channels to go through to introduce the Bill, but I think I have given a clear assurance on that, as I did to the Select Committee. On his question about lessons learnt, I would restate the point about younger people. It is really important that we have robust protections for young people online but also that we hold social media companies to their own terms and conditions. That is an important part of the online harms legislation.
What action are the Government taking to prevent a rise in harmful online gambling during the emergency?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point. That is why my hon. Friend the tourism and sports Minister has engaged extensively with gambling companies on measures they can take and why the Government have already introduced a ban on using credit cards for gambling and will be issuing a call for evidence on loot boxes, which are also a way gambling can take place online.
Covid-19: Civil Society and Charities
Charities and civil society are playing a pivotal role in the response to coronavirus, and in April the Government announced a package of support worth some £750 million to ensure the continuation of this vital work. That is in addition to the business support measures that are available to the sector, including paying no business rates for their shops this year and furloughing staff where possible. It is a comprehensive package that will prevent immediate unnecessary closures, keeping vital services open and providing a basis to continue their contribution to the national effort, and we will keep it closely under our eye.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I want to take this opportunity to thank a number of charities in Wimbledon that have done so much during this crisis, including the food bank, the Dons Local Action Group, Old Ruts and Old Wimbledonians. My hon. Friend is right that there is an impressive package. However, a number of local and national arts charities are experiencing real problems. Will he look again at charities that specifically promote the arts, and particularly local arts, such as Wimbledon BookFest, because they keep culture going in our communities?
My hon. Friend is right that now, more than ever, arts and culture are vital to our society as a whole, and these are immensely challenging times. The £160 million emergency funding package announced by Arts Council England is an important part of that, but we are working closely with the Arts Council to consider what additional support may be needed for the long-term recovery of the sector in the future.
I have been heartened by two particular charities in my constituency: Wakefield Hospice and Penny Appeal. Their work and that of many in the area forms the gold and silver threads that run through Wakefield’s rich tapestry. Both those charities, like many others, face significant funding deficits. Since they are prevented from fundraising through traditional measures at this time of national emergency, what steps are being taken to ensure that their work can continue?
There is significant support available for hospices in particular, with £200 million of the £750 million ring-fenced specifically for hospices, and I pay tribute to the work that they have done. Local charities can access the £200 million coronavirus community support fund. Crucially, as we go forward, reopening the broader economy and allowing charity shops, for example, to reopen from 15 June with social distancing measures in place will allow fundraising to start to get back to normal, so that the vital work that hospices and other charities do can get back to normal.
Voluntary and community organisations are desperately financially fragile, caused by loss of revenue, fundraising and all other forms of income, with many not qualifying for grants and loans but still having significant outgoings, while demand on them escalates. They face a precipice, demanding cuts to vital research, services and support or closure. They are beyond the point of warm words or pennies dropped in the tin. They desperately need a full charity rescue package. When billions are being spent elsewhere, charities are the poor relation. They need further guarantees now. What will the Minister do?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the vital work that charities do and to say that they face immensely challenging times. That is precisely why we have announced a £750 million package. It is precisely why we continue to work with the Arts Council and other organisations in a host of areas to ensure that we can continue to support the ongoing recovery. I understand the point she makes, and that is why we continue to work closely with a whole host of sectors.
The treatment of the volunteers who came forward to make the 2012 Olympics a big success is nothing short of a scandal—the Government wasted all that good will. What is being done to harness the good will of the people who have volunteered during this crisis and ask them what they would like to contribute towards the voluntary sector going forward? That could be a vital part of getting many voluntary organisations up and running when we come out of this crisis.
In the course of this extraordinary pandemic, an additional 4 million people or thereabouts have volunteered in some form or other, with 750,000 people coming forward for the GoodSAM app to help the health service. Harnessing that good will and ensuring that it persists is a key focus of my noble friend Baroness Barran as Minister in the Lords. We will ensure that we do not let that ball get dropped.
Broadband Providers: Competition
The Government are committed to encouraging greater network competition between broadband providers by removing as many barriers to commercial roll-out as we possibly can. We have legislated to help the deployment of broadband in blocks of flats and our efforts are already making a significant impact. More than 80 network operators are now deploying fibre across the UK; that competition is good for consumers and good for businesses as well.
There is, no doubt, resilience in the data networks, but more people are homeworking in Shropshire and throughout the United Kingdom, and we have seen mobile phone networks such as EE, Vodafone and O2 fail spectacularly. What are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen again, given that people are losing money and losing connectivity with their families at a time when we all need to be connected?
In the main, the resilience of internet connectivity, both mobile and fixed, over the course of the coronavirus crisis has allowed people to work from home in a way that they would not have been able to just a few years ago. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the vital work of the networks to make sure that they continue to function. I speak regularly to the chief executives of the organisations that he mentions and know they are absolutely committed, through initiatives such as the shared rural network, which we announced in the course of the pandemic, to making sure that connectivity only continues to improve, because we now know that it is more vital than ever.
Covid-19: Online Fraud
The Government are concerned about online fraud and are very much aware that criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit the concern around covid-19. My officials have been working closely with the Home Office, as well as with the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency, throughout the covid-19 outbreak. We have published official Government advice to help the public to stay safe and secure online, and we launched the new Cyber Aware campaign in April, offering the public online security advice.
Pre-covid, local councillors in Tettenhall Regis in Wolverhampton launched online and social media training for over-65s. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to upskill those with little or no online skills?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the councillors in Tettenhall Regis on that initiative. It is absolutely right that during this crisis, more and more people have been carrying out tasks such as shopping, banking and keeping in touch online. We are very much aware that it has now become all the more essential to tackle the digital divide that already existed. The Government are funding the future digital inclusion programme to give people the skills that they need to participate in this increasingly digital world. Since 2014, the programme has supported more than 1.4 million adult learners to develop their basic skills. We have also delivered a £400,000 digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people.
When the Public Accounts Committee last looked at online fraud, we raised serious concerns about what happens when fraud is reported and the inaction on most of the cases that are reported. The Minister has given us some warm words, but in the middle of a pandemic, with a lot of communication from Government to the people, how will he make sure that the key players, such as the banks, are sharing real-time information with each other and making sure that we catch the scammers before they raid our constituents’ bank accounts?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that online fraud is an increasing problem and there needs to be much more co-ordinated action to tackle it. However, a great deal has been done. A persistent stream of coronavirus frauds has been reported to Action Fraud—2,057 have been reported in the past few months, making up around 3% of all fraud reports. The National Cyber Security Centre has launched a major campaign called Cyber Aware to provide practical advice to the public, and has also launched a groundbreaking suspicious-email-reporting service, which allows members of the public to forward any suspicious emails to Cyber Aware to be analysed, and if they are found to be fraudulent, the harmful sites will be taken down—
Order. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but he cannot take all this time reading the full- length answers. I am sure his officials can shorten the briefing papers.
I am delighted to be back. Loneliness is a very real issue, and I know that some people are finding things particularly tough during this pandemic, when we have asked people to self-isolate and socially distance to fight this disease. That is why I launched a new plan to tackle loneliness linked to this crisis. That includes £5 million for loneliness charities, a public campaign to raise awareness and new guidance for those who feel lonely or want help.
Age UK Teesside is giving amazing support to those elderly people isolating alone through its telephone befriending service. What are the Government doing to support charities and voluntary organisations on the frontline in the fight against loneliness? Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging people to flick through their phonebooks and drop a call to their Auntie Ethel, their Uncle Norman or anyone else who might be isolating alone at this time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Yes, I would of course urge people to do that. This is a really important time for people to catch up with one another. Actually, that was one of the great things that I and many people were able to do during the VE-day celebrations—to get in touch with relatives who had experienced VE-day.
Many people enjoy coming together at fairs and showgrounds, but I spoke to the Showmen’s Guild yesterday and it says that it has not been included in the taskforce for leisure. Will the Minister tell me why the Showmen’s Guild was not involved? Can it be involved in the future, to secure the recovery?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am very keen, as we have done throughout this crisis so far, to engage constructively with the devolved nations. I am very happy to look into that point and come back to him on it.
Covid:19: Tourism Sector
The tourism sector is hugely important to the economy, which is why we are meeting regularly with the industry. I have established a cultural renewal taskforce and, within that, a specific visitor economy working group to prepare guidance to help the tourism business reopen safely. As the Prime Minister has said, we have set a very ambitious target to try to get the sector back by 4 July, so long as it is safe to do so, and I am working to make that a reality. Of course, once tourism reopens, I will vigorously champion British holidays.
Figures last month showed that workers in seaside towns were being laid off at the fastest rate of any area in the UK, so will the Secretary of State look at greater flexibilities to allow the hospitality industry to open up sooner, particularly with outside premises; will he lobby the Chancellor to reduce the VAT rate on tourism to 5%; and will he ensure that our great British seaside towns can start to recover by making staycations a practical option? He is very welcome to visit the delights of Worthing for a staycation at any time.
I thank my hon. Friend for that; I would be delighted to visit Worthing. Indeed, I much prefer British holidays to holidays overseas, so I would be delighted to visit his constituency and others. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of support for the sector. That is why, for example, we have had extensive support with the job retention scheme. I am working closely with my colleague the Chancellor, and we will be looking at further measures. Of course, once the sector is ready to go, I will be at the forefront of championing a campaign for British tourism.
Residents in Truro and Falmouth understand how hugely important the tourism sector is to Cornwall. It supports one in five jobs in our county. I thank the Government for the £444 million they have put into Cornwall so far to help us through this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, when it is safe to do so, the Government will join me in promoting Cornwall as a world-class tourist destination and ensure that our businesses can get back on their feet as soon as possible?
I know that Cornwall is a world-class tourist destination. I spent many happy holidays there as a child and, indeed, have taken my own children there on many occasions. As I said, we are hoping to get tourism back as rapidly as possible, and when it is back we will invest extensively in ensuring that we have a major campaign to encourage British people to take British staycations.
Tourism agency VisitBritain has proposed a bank holiday this October to help the tourism industry. It has been estimated that that could raise £500 million for the economy. Will the Minister seriously consider that proposal?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. That is an excellent proposal. One of the challenges we will have is getting the sector up and running as strongly as possible in the summer and extending it for as long as we can. This is a matter that I am discussing with my colleague, the Business Secretary.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, who warns that the tourism industry, which is already deprived of vital foreign workers due to visa restrictions and which supports more than 200,000 jobs and contributes over £7 billion to the Scottish economy, now faces the double whammy of a no-deal Brexit combined with the ongoing impact of covid-19? Does this not justify a further extension of the job retention scheme to support the sector, and an extension of the transition period to avoid a deeply damaging no-deal scenario, compounding the horrendous coronavirus circumstances?
We have already extended the job retention scheme through to October. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about a further extension of the transition period, I think the British people have been pretty clear about this. They just want us to get on and leave, and we will not be extending again.
Theatres, art galleries, music venues and concert halls are all really struggling, and without culture, we are nothing; our life is nothing and we are not an attraction for international visitors. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the amount of money that has so far been made available is at least doubled? Otherwise, we are simply not going to keep some of these major institutions, whether it is the Parc and Dare Theatre in Treorchy, the Royal Academy in London or the Old Vic. Will he seriously consider the idea of a 5% VAT rate for all arts organisations?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the rich value of culture both to individuals and to our wider economy in the creative industries. I have been engaging extensively with arts organisations and others. That is why I have appointed Neil Mendoza as a cultural renewal commissioner to come up with proposals in this area. I am absolutely determined that, as we go through this crisis, we ensure that we retain the huge strength we have in this nation in the cultural sector.
My constituents, Stuart and Laura McKay, sank their life savings into a holiday let in East Sussex. It was running successfully for a year, then coronavirus arrived. They are on zero income at the moment, and they do not qualify for any of the schemes because they are trading too newly. They ask whether the Government could introduce something to allow holiday lets for homes, to restart the sector, if we are all going to staycation? They say that, because of Dominic Cummings, they are not hopeful, but maybe the Secretary of State can prove them wrong.
As I have said, I am keen that we get the tourism sector going as rapidly as possible. We have set the ambitious target of 4 July, and if we can do it consistent with public health, we will do so. Self-contained accommodation has a lower risk than other areas, so I would hope that that will be at the front of the queue.
At this time of national crisis, accurate information is of course more important than ever. The cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit was stood up in March this year, and it provides a comprehensive picture of disinformation on covid-19 and works with partners to ensure that appropriate action is taken.
I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that, while a number of national broadcasters and newspapers have undermined the coronavirus measures by constant reporting of rumours and opinions rather than fact, it is small local outlets such as the Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent that have been invaluable in informing communities and ensuring that people are aware of the support available in their areas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Local broadcasters and newspapers such as the excellent Stoke Sentinel have played a key role during this crisis, sharing accurate information but also offering vital support to individuals and bringing communities together. That is why I am really pleased that they have been eligible to access most of the Government’s package of business support schemes.
Covid-19: Sporting Sector
Covid-19 has significantly impacted sport at all levels right across the country. To fully understand the issues faced by the sector, I chair a fortnightly meeting with more than 25 sporting organisations representing millions of people who participate in sport. Sporting organisations have been supported by the Government through their job retention scheme, business loan scheme, business rates relief and business grants. In addition, Sport England has announced £210 million of funding to help sport and physical activity organisations with the effects of coronavirus.
With all these Ministers running in and out, it is less like a Westminster farce and more like a Whitehall farce, but I hope that the Minister will appreciate my tone slightly more than the Home Secretary did yesterday, because I want to congratulate him on his efforts in getting live sport back, which is not only a huge boost to morale across the country, but a major provider of jobs. To take one example, racing alone supports more than 80,000 jobs, but in addition, the betting industry supports 100,000 jobs and pays £3.2 billion in tax each year to the Treasury. Will he ensure an early return for a properly regulated, job-providing, successful, British-based gambling industry?
I do appreciate the right hon. Member’s tone, and I agree with him. Indeed, we are very relieved. Millions of people across the country were very pleased to see racing back this week, and other sports are coming as well. It was great to see Newcastle races on Monday. We have Newmarket today. I would like to thank everybody involved in making sure that we are able to get sport back safely.
Sport England’s research tells us that one positive aspect of the lockdown is the increase in people doing physical activity, but, as we might expect, its data shows that the trend is not so strong for people who have limited access to outside space. What specific and permanent change will the Secretary of State make so that we can tackle that health inequality?
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. She shares my passion to make sure that we get sport and physical activity really high on the agenda. There are all sorts of things we can do. At the young people’s level, we will be revising the sport and activity action plan so that we can get young people engaged in 60 minutes of sporting activity and we will be looking again at the sport strategy, and I look forward to her comments in developing that as well.
The current advice has hit many sectors covered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport the hardest. That is why, in addition to schemes announced by the Chancellor, we have provided specific support for charities, newspapers, tech start-ups and rugby league, and support to tackle loneliness. As we start to ease lockdown restrictions, through the cultural renewal taskforce we are working to support and guide people to safely resume activity. That has included the resumption of live sport behind closed doors and getting cameras rolling again on films and TV programmes. We are working intensively with culture, heritage, arts and tourism to support them resuming as soon as it is safe to do so.
As it is national Volunteers’ Week, I would like to commend the many volunteers in the third sector who have shown dedication throughout the covid-19 crisis, such as the Kingfisher food bank, which demonstrated relentless dedication to serving the local community throughout the lockdown, as I saw when I visited them. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on his support for the third sector? Will he consider launching a third sector covid recognition scheme to celebrate the heroic volunteers who have sacrificed so much to help us throughout this difficult period?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight the huge role played by volunteers and, indeed, the wider third and voluntary sector, and I join him in marking Volunteers’ Week. One of the big things we have done is provide £750 million to support charities and, indeed, just a couple of weeks ago I announced the start of the coronavirus community support fund, which provides £200 million for small and medium-sized charities. That went live on 22 May.
Our valuable cultural sector is starting to collapse. It will be one of the last to reopen, and its desperate pleas for Government support have been ignored. Tens of thousands of workers excluded from the job retention scheme and the self-employed scheme have been completely ignored, but we then had a tiny glimmer of hope just over two weeks ago, when the commission for cultural recovery and renewal was announced, but since that date there has been silence. There is no information about participants in the working groups, no terms of reference, nothing on what has been or is being discussed and considered to help the sector, no timescales—nothing. This is yet another example of poor communication adding to the plummeting levels of trust and confidence in the Government. So, I ask the Secretary of State: why the complete lack of transparency?
I do not really recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation. First, we have announced the members of the overall cultural renewal taskforce, but the important thing is the groups that sit underneath it, which provide the specific guidance. I am happy to run through all those groups and write to the hon. Lady subsequently, but just to give her a flavour, they include one on recreation and leisure, one on tourism, one on sport and one on library services. The point of each of those is to provide the guidance to help us open as rapidly as possible, consistent with the public health guidance. That is why I was delighted that at the beginning of this week, we announced that high-end film and TV could resume. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the need to support the cultural sector. I have engaged extensively with people from across the cultural sector and we are working to see what we can do to support them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the important role that local radio plays. During this time of crisis, reliable news is more important than ever and local radio stations provide that. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Media and Data has been working with them very closely, looking at issues such as the RAJAR rebate. We are determined to support them through this period.
The short answer is yes. That is why we have provided a £750 million package and announced £200 million being administered by the national lottery to go specifically to small and medium-sized charities. The charity in the hon. Lady’s constituency and others are very welcome to bid for that.
I know how much my hon. Friend cares about this subject. I have taken great note of his letter on this and I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further. The most important first step is to get sport going behind closed doors because that helps secure revenue, so we have got the premier league and then the championship. I look to sports first to look after themselves and I am meeting extensively with the EFL, the premier league and the Football Association, but of course we will continue to work on that.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that sector. In my constituency, I have Elstree film studios and BBC Elstree where indeed I saw the hon. Lady for “Strictly Come Dancing” when it was filming. The most important thing is to get the sector going again. That is why I was delighted that at the beginning of this week, we published guidance to allow high-end film and TV to resume production. Of course, I continue to engage with the Chancellor and others about wider support.
Does the Secretary of State agree that ahead of the post-covid-19 recovery, now is a prime opportunity to look at investing in arts and culture facilities for some of our left-behind communities, which have deep and rich cultural back- grounds, such as the colliery and performing arts heritage of Dinnington College and the town and surrounding mining communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of supporting the whole of the United Kingdom. Culture is an important part of levelling up. I saw that at, for example, Walsall art gallery, which is a fantastic institution. Levelling up will be central to any proposal that we bring forward to support the sector.
At this time of year, my constituency is normally preparing for the Royal Highland show, which brings £65 million to the economy. We then have the Edinburgh festival in August, and there is also Edinburgh zoo. We have already lost the six nations championship. Communities like mine depend on the cultural and sporting events throughout the year which we have lost. Many workers are on short-term contracts and self-employed. Will the Government look at a way of supporting those communities post-covid-19 and how to re-establish those fundamentally important cultural events?
I have great affection for the Edinburgh Festival. I took a show up there myself in my younger years. We provide an awful lot of support, for example, to the self-employed. The No.1 thing that we can do, though, is to get these activities back up and running again, because every time I speak to artists and others the thing that they want to do is to start performing again. As they start performing, we will look at how we can support them transitioning through this period of social distancing.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). When the FA took the decision to null the season for lower-league clubs it financially impacted clubs such as Redcar Athletic in my constituency. What is the Department doing to support these clubs and ensure that grassroots football remains in our communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that grassroots football is central to local identity, and I am determined that we work with the EFL to ensure that money flows to those clubs. It is also worth noting that Sport England has brought forward £195 million, which will be able to support those clubs.
In Volunteers’ Week, I wish to say a huge thank you to all the volunteers working in charities and organisations in my community, including Age UK Gateshead, the Rowlands Gill Live At Home Scheme and the Winlaton Centre. What will the Minister do to ensure that we can capture the learning and the enthusiasm from this sector in the future?
I am delighted to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to all those volunteers, and I think that the NHS volunteers responders has been a marvellous way of people volunteering and showing their support. Over time, we are getting more and more charities to sign up to that, so that people can volunteer. I hope that we can continue that spirit of volunteering, and I will be working closely with wider civil society to see how we can continue that post-covid.
Local media outlets, such as the South London Press, are essential in providing up-to-date and accurate information to communities across the country. They struggle at the best of times, but this pandemic has posed unprecedented risks to their survival. What are the Government doing to ensure they are receiving the support that they so desperately need?
Local newspapers are absolutely vital in bringing forward trusted information and our free press is a cornerstone of our liberties. That is why I have worked extensively with local newspapers—for example, to resolve issues around ad blocking, so they can get more ad revenue. The Cabinet Office has provided a lot of Government advertising, which has helped some of the shortfall in income for those charities, and we have looked at other issues such as business rate reliefs.
I shall now suspend the House for one minute while we have the changeover, so people can leave carefully and safely.
The Attorney General was asked—
Covid-19: Emergency Worker Assault Cases
A disappointing feature of this pandemic is the number of assaults on emergency workers, but I am reassured by the robust approach that the Crown Prosecution Service has taken. During the first month of lockdown, the CPS prosecuted more than 300 cases of assaults against emergency workers. It is clear that, when an individual threatens to infect an emergency worker by deliberately coughing or spitting, it will be treated extremely seriously by prosecutors.
The scenes experienced here in London yesterday show us at first hand the total disregard that some people have for our emergency workers, not least by flouting the social distancing rules and showing a total disregard of the safety of our frontline officers. What is just as disturbing is that one of our own colleagues allegedly decided to disregard social distancing yesterday and put all the House staff at risk, not to mention his own colleagues. Can my right hon. Friend say what changes have been made to our CPS arrangements for charging offences against emergency workers?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know people out there are feeling pain and anger. They must know that their lives matter—all lives matter—but violence and aggression are not the way forward. We are living through an unprecedented pandemic. The police are doing a heroic job in difficult circumstances and I urge people to follow the social distancing guidelines so that lives are saved. The Crown Prosecution Service issued an interim charging protocol earlier this year, which made it clear that covid-related offences are to be prioritised with an immediate charging decision, and I am glad that we have seen some robust approaches to such offences.
My constituents are extremely concerned about the increase in instances of assault against emergency workers and, after last night’s disturbing scenes outside this building, it is no wonder why. Does the Minister agree that an effective method of tackling these crimes once the individual has served their custodial sentence would be restorative justice, whereby the CPS works locally with the police to ensure they use restorative justice? For minor crimes that do not carry a custodial sentence, out of court disposals could be used.
My hon. Friend is right that those scenes of people attacking our heroic police officers were frankly sickening. It is obviously a matter for operationally independent police forces to use their flexibility and discretion as they see fit. My hon. Friend is right that out of court disposals can allow police to deal with low-level offending and first-time offending swiftly and efficiently. Whether that would be appropriate in those cases, I am not so sure personally: assaults on emergency workers are particularly callous. They are heroic men and women who are sacrificing their own health and safety in the service of others. It will always depend on the individual facts of the case and will always be a decision ultimately for the independent police force.
Can the Attorney General confirm that in assault cases, as in all other covid-related offences, the law should apply equally to all, and that as superintendent of the CPS by tweeting her support for Dominic Cummings, she undermined the impartiality of her role and the rule of law?
It is plain for any reasonable observer to see that there was no question whatever of my having provided any public legal view on the matter to which the hon. Lady refers. To suggest that that was somehow a legal opinion is simply absurd. She should know that I have no role whatever to play in the day-to-day decisions on individual cases. I respect and have full confidence in the operational independence of the CPS and the police, and I would gently encourage her to share my support and share my confidence in them.
This is the first time I have had the chance in the Chamber to welcome the Attorney General to her post. I hope that she will take up the invitation to appear before the Justice Committee before the summer recess.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has rightly detailed to the Committee the way that charging protocols and priorities work, but there has been concern that when we drop below the serious cases of assaults on emergency workers, covid-related charges were made by the police in other cases without reference to the CPS at the initial point of charge, and people were charged under the wrong section or when the evidential test was not made. Will she ensure that CPS advice is made available to the police for all charging decisions for all covid-related cases under the regulations or otherwise, to ensure that we do not get a repetition of that unfortunate state of affairs?
My hon. Friend makes me an invitation I simply cannot refuse, and I look forward to appearing before his Committee in due course. He will know that the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the associated regulations were brand new pieces of legislation introduced at pace and at a challenging time. The CPS has committed to reviewing all of its prosecutions brought under that legislation to ensure that the new laws are being applied correctly and appropriately in all cases. It has carried out a review and in a relatively small number of cases there was some confusion. The police and CPS have committed to instilling new guidance to ensure that mistakes do not get made again.
Transport workers also provide essential services and on 22 March, while on duty at Victoria station, Belly Mujinga was spat at by a man who said that he was infected with covid-19. Eleven days later, she was dead from coronavirus. British Transport police have decided not to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution—not even for common assault—so can the Attorney General demand the investigation be reopened and demand swift action, so that there can be justice for Belly Mujinga’s family?
This was a tragic incident and it was appalling, frankly, that Belly Mujinga was abused for doing her job at Victoria station. My thoughts are with her friends and her family. British Transport police did conduct an investigation following reports that a man claiming to have covid-19 coughed and spat at Ms Mujinga and a colleague. Their investigation found no evidence that an offence had occurred of that type.
Covid-19: Virtual Hearings
Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, CPS lawyers had participated in only a handful of audio and video hearings. I am now pleased to say that since 2 April, CPS prosecutors have appeared in over 4,000 virtual hearings across magistrates and Crown courts.
I am grateful for the response from my right hon. and learned Friend and I know that he will share my commitment to ensuring that all members of society can have equal access to justice and virtual hearings. In that regard, what steps is he taking to ensure that victims with hearing impairments are able to participate in remote hearings?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The CPS is working closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service and interpreters to ensure that victims, witnesses and defendants with hearing impairments of any sort can properly participate in virtual proceedings. It is important, and virtual hearings with hearing-impaired defendants have already taken place effectively. We will continue to monitor the situation.
What learning can the justice system take from this period and will virtual hearings continue in future?
The CPS will and needs to engage in evaluation exercises on this subject with partners as part of its future working programme to assess the impact of video hearings. There is a lot to learn and we can identify benefits and learn lessons. Where there are advantages for all court users going forward, we would want to see those in place.
Justice delayed is often justice denied. What discussions has my right hon. and learned Friend had with the Lord Chancellor in order to deal with the backlog of cases in the system?
My hon. Friend is right to ask about the backlog and I am concerned about it. It is inevitable that there will be a backlog. Almost everything has been disrupted by this awful pandemic and the courts are no exception, but work is ongoing with the CPS, cross-Government partners and stakeholders to contribute to planning on recovery and clearing the backlog. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands—his region—has been working closely with the judiciary, the courts service and other key partners to get the Crown court in his area up and running as soon as possible. We need to focus on dealing with the backlog and I can assure the House and him that every effort will be made to do that.
One of the challenges of moving virtually is that it can act as a barrier to certain groups, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would agree that justice needs to be fair, open and available to all. What measures are in place to support people with vulnerabilities—such as people living with disabilities and people with health and mental health issues—in navigating the criminal justice system?
Vulnerable witnesses are entitled to a range of special measures already, which are being utilised and are still in operation during this outbreak, including screens to prevent the defendant from seeing a witness, live links, remote links, giving evidence in private, the prerecording of evidence and the removal of wigs and gowns. Measures are in place and are still in operation to make it easier for vulnerable witnesses and defendants, but I accept that there are challenges.
Whether proceedings are virtual or otherwise, the Crown Prosecution Service must discharge its functions without fear or favour, and so must the Law Officers, given their responsibility for oversight of the CPS. Does the Solicitor General agree therefore that the Law Officers should in future refrain from joining in the sort of orchestrated political tweeting we saw about Mr Cummings’s cross-country travels, given that such tweets may have the potential to prejudice any subsequent police investigation or prosecution?
I do not agree with the premise of the hon. and learned Lady’s question. The fact of the matter is that she is seeking herself to politicise the situation. This is not a partisan issue; we all recognise, respect and cherish the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service, and that is a long tradition in this country.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on her first physical appearance at the Dispatch Box as our shadow Attorney General?
There were 394 assaults on police officers in just the Thames Valley and Kent police force areas between March and April—more than the total number of prosecutions nationally. Given that assaults across the country must run into thousands, how is the CPS, bereft of resources, going to prosecute all those cases, virtual or otherwise?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am pleased to say that the CPS is not bereft of resources. In fact, £85 million was sent to the CPS before this crisis broke out, which was 100% of its request for funds. Assaults against police officers and all emergency workers are taken extremely seriously by the courts. They are given priority by the Crown Prosecution Service, and we are dealing with those matters. The system is dealing with those matters robustly, and I think the evidence will show that.
The Solicitor General has just said that he realises that there are concerns about virtual hearings. Can he be a bit clearer about what steps the Government are now taking to ensure that vulnerable witnesses and vulnerable defendants in particular are properly protected during this period? Beyond accepting that there is an issue, what is being done to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done in virtual proceedings?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point, which applies, as she says, to vulnerable defendants as well as witnesses—to all participants in these proceedings. Each individual court—each tribunal—is responsible for ensuring the best possible course of action in each individual case. A virtual hearing will not be appropriate in every case. Where there are particularly vulnerable persons involved, perhaps a virtual hearing will not be appropriate, but we do not micromanage that. We ask each individual judge to have that in mind when making decisions about virtual hearings, but where they take place, we want and expect them to do so in the confines of a situation where everyone feels comfortable and able to perform the functions required of them.
The CPS has done sterling work to ensure that offenders can still be brought to justice in the current crisis, but can my right hon. and learned Friend give me more details about how it has ensured that the best interests of victims, many of whom may never have experienced the courtroom system before, are being served?
Sometimes alternative mechanisms are in place. For example, remote hearings can take place using more than one courtroom, and it is sometimes possible for hearings to take place via technology from the home of various individuals. However, each individual circumstance will have to be looked at in assessing each individual, appropriate measure in each case. Caution is being exercised, but 4,000 virtual hearings have already taken place in the magistrates and Crown courts, and we expect to see more of them.
Covid-19: Government Support for Law Firms
The hon. Lady asks an important question about support for law firms during the outbreak, and the CPS has made changes to its systems for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. I joined a virtual meeting of the Bar Council, and the Bar is conscious of and content with the work that the Government have done—of course, there is always more that can be done—to relieve financial pressure. I see, and we are grateful for the fact, that the Inns of Court have been supporting junior barristers financially with ongoing funds. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19, and streamlining the process for financial payments.
One of the biggest problems we have in bringing prosecutions against those who assault our emergency services is a lack of evidence. Could the Solicitor General set out what steps are being taken to make sure that the CPS has access to such evidence, including making sure that our emergency services have better access to body cameras?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and we will certainly take on board what he says. Body cameras are of course an increasingly used piece of evidence. This does, in effect, often add a workload burden on the court system because there is so much video evidence—so much more virtual evidence—now coming into play. However, the Crown Prosecution Service has seen a dramatic increase in its funding from Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be making sure that payment for members of the legal profession is expedited where we can do so.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequalities facing the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and the legal sector has proved no exception: 55% of BAME barristers earn more than half of their income from legal aid, and 84% cannot survive a year without support. What urgent action will the Solicitor General take to reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and to restore funds to legal aid?
We are supporting the legal aid system, as we always have done. The reality is that we are expediting outstanding fee schemes where payments need to be made more quickly than normal; we have reduced the stage lengths before payments are made in the cases that are ongoing; and we have concluded main hearings and ongoing cases and made payment before hearings have been concluded. A multiple series of measures is being made to assist everyone at the Bar and, in fact, in all branches of the legal profession, including payments of up-front fixed fees of £500 for covid-19 matters. Every measure is being taken to support the legal profession, but I accept that there are challenges, as there are in many professions during this crisis.
Order. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.