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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 9 July 2020

This week, we announced the £1.57 billion package to help arts, heritage and cultural institutions weather the storm of covid. As I said, this is the largest ever one-off investment in UK culture and a testament to the Government’s commitment to the arts.

Alongside that, we have been working flat out to get our sectors back up and running. Elite sports events are back on, with a third of premier league games free to air. Recreational cricket is back this weekend. Cameras are rolling on British-made blockbusters. Hotels, bed and breakfasts and campsites are back welcoming guests.

We have more to do, and there will be further announcements on restarts imminently, but the best way to secure jobs and revive our sectors is to reopen them safely, and I will not stop until we have achieved that for all DCMS sectors.

Physical exercise is important for not just physical wellbeing but mental health. With that in mind, when will the Secretary of State update the guidance so that we can soon see the safe reopening of gyms and fitness centres?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned tirelessly on this point and raised it frequently with me. I also pay tribute to the gyms themselves, which have engaged very constructively with us to overcome some of the hurdles, and I hope to be able to make an announcement imminently on this issue. As I have said previously, the aim has always been to get gyms back by mid-July.

The Chancellor rightly focused on jobs in his statement yesterday, but according to the Creative Industries Federation, freelancers make up 47% of the workforce. As the House has heard this morning from a number of hon. Members, millions of freelancers have been excluded from Government schemes and left without support for four long months, and they face the prospect of many more months without income. Will any of the money that the Secretary of State announced on Monday go to freelancers? If so, exactly when will they receive it?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of freelancers. That is why, alongside the job retention scheme—the furlough scheme—there were also announcements for the self-employed, and tens of thousands of the self-employed have been able to access it.

In respect of the scheme I announced earlier this week, I would have hoped that the hon. Lady, having campaigned on this issue so tirelessly, would have started by welcoming this package and, indeed, joined the dozens of organisations that have welcomed it, and I am happy to share a dossier on that. The key thing for freelancers is to protect those institutions so that they can return as those reopen in the future. That is what this package achieves.

I will take that as a no, then.

The Government’s failure to create a fully functioning test, track and isolate system has damaged public confidence, and the last thing the country needs now is another public health crisis. Earlier this week, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate published a report exposing how big tech companies such as Facebook and Google have profited from an anti-vaccination industry that has grown to 58 million followers during the covid crisis. Polling by YouGov showed that 31% of Britons polled do not plan to have a covid vaccination when one becomes available and that social media use and vaccine refusal are linked. When is the Secretary of State going to put public health and safety before the interests of the big tech companies profiting on the back of a global pandemic and publish the online harms Bill?

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but that is a gross mischaracterisation of the Government’s priorities, given that we were the first Government to commit to bringing forward online harms legislation, and I have set out the timetable for doing that. However, she is absolutely right to highlight the concerns around anti-vax. Not only have we stood up the counter-disinformation unit, but I am working with ministerial colleagues in the Department and across Government to co-ordinate our work on anti-vax, in preparation for the situation where, I hope, we will have a vaccine available.

South Cambridgeshire is the biomedical capital of Europe, with dozens of organisations working to develop treatments, cures and vaccines for the coronavirus. It is one of the most economically productive areas of Britain, but it is very rural, and many people working from home are frustrated by poor mobile phone coverage. I recently met my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital to discuss the matter, but will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commit to working with me and the mobile phone industry to improve coverage in South Cambridgeshire, so that we can help to develop those cures and vaccines? (904490)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue, and I am determined to ensure that no part of this country is left behind when it comes to mobile connectivity. As he may know, we have already struck a deal with mobile operators to create a shared rural network that will make patchy coverage a thing of the past. Operators are developing roll-out plans, and I encourage my hon. Friend’s constituents to engage with that process to ensure that they get the digital connectivity they deserve.

Now that Northumberland is to benefit from Government funding to boost the county’s digital connectivity, does the Minister have a plan or timescale for the roll-out of fibre to the premises to facilitate job creation in North Tyneside and across the rest of the northern powerhouse? (904495)

That is exactly why our manifesto contained the ambitious target of rolling out full fibre to the premises by 2025. We are making rapid progress, with numbers roughly doubling in the past year, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital Infrastructure and I are working tirelessly to drive us towards that target.

Beautiful Hastings and Rye has an amazing cultural and arts sector that has unfortunately largely missed out on the remarkable economic packages provided by this Government. Bearing in mind the success of F. D. Roosevelt’s public works of art project, what measures is my right hon. Friend considering to put rocket boosters under our performing arts sector and live music venues to enhance their contribution towards turbo charging our economy? (904491)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the central role of the arts in our creative industries, which help to make us a powerhouse. That is why we are working to ensure their reopening as rapidly as possible, and announcements on that will come shortly. It is also why I welcomed the Chancellor’s tremendous announcement yesterday; those VAT cuts will apply to almost all the sectors that my hon. Friend highlights.

Throughout the current coronavirus crisis, communities around the country have relied on their local radio stations, both BBC and commercial. In Aylesbury, Mix 96 has been a vital and valuable source of information, building on its 40-year commitment to the town. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when big media groups such as Bauer buy up small stations like Mix, it is important to balance commercial imperatives alongside a genuine commitment to serve communities with locally produced content, local news and jobs for local people? (904492)

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. Reliable local news is an important way of tackling the rise of misinformation and disinformation.

The support packages are welcome and better late than never, but the Secretary of State is still not answering questions about how self-employed creators will be supported through this crisis in the long term. The creative sector is literally the life and soul of my constituency, so if this Government cannot guarantee the support that creators need, will he devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that Scotland can support its artists in all their different shapes and forms? (904508)

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that this package gives £96 million to Scotland under the Barnett consequentials, so I trust that he will ensure that that goes to those industries, rather than to the other priorities of the Scottish Government.

With the domestic hospitality and tourism sectors raring to rebound following the recent disruption, what is the Department doing to encourage the British public to support these efforts and visit our coastal tourist attractions and resorts, in particular the gem that is the Fylde coast? (904493)

I share my hon. Friend’s love of the Fylde coast, and I used to enjoy taking a dip in the sea in October when we had party conferences in Blackpool. It is precisely for such reasons that we have announced a massive VAT cut to help restart the tourism sector.