Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Tourism Sector: Reopening
The tourism sector has been severely impacted by this crisis, and we are working closely with the sector to get it back on its feet, including developing covid-secure reopening guidance for tourism businesses. VisitBritain has introduced an industry-standard quality mark called “We’re Good to Go”, which businesses can use if they meet covid-secure guidelines, and it has had over 20,000 applications already. The new £10 million kick-start tourism package gives small businesses in tourist destinations grants of up to £5,000 to help them adapt their businesses.
Last weekend I joined several businesses in my constituency as they reopened and saw the great work they had done to reopen safely. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the tourism and hospitality businesses in Penrith and The Border and across the country for their efforts in preparing to safely reopen? Further to the welcome announcements from the Chancellor yesterday, does he agree that these sectors, which may be slower to recover, should be kept under review, with additional Government support provided if necessary to help them through to the next full season?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Tourism and hospitality businesses right across the country have invested an incredible amount of time and energy in getting ready to reopen. Tourism is vital to our economy. I, too, was delighted to see the sector take its first steps towards reopening last weekend and to hear the announcement yesterday of a cut in VAT. Earlier this week I participated in a roundtable organised by Cumbria Tourism, which I know he has been working closely with. I will continue to monitor the situation and engage closely with business.
My hon. Friend will know from his visit to the Cotswolds last Saturday how important tourism is. In particular, the arts are very important. The Barn theatre in Cirencester is a relatively new and highly innovative theatre that has done an awful lot during the covid period to keep people informed through social media about the Government guidelines. Will he ensure that that theatre and other small theatres like it get their fair share of the £1.5 billion for theatres and the arts?
I would like to thank the Barn theatre for all that it has done to help the local community during the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, I thank tourism, leisure and arts businesses across the country, and it was a pleasure to visit some of them in my hon. Friend’s constituency last weekend. I can confirm that the purpose of the £1.57 billion cultural support fund is to support organisations across the cultural sector right across the country, including those that do not have a history of receiving public funding. More information on the eligibility criteria and application process will come by the end of this month, and I encourage the Barn theatre to apply.
After staffing, the largest cost that many tourism and hospitality businesses face is their rent. One of the sector’s main asks for yesterday’s statement was help with rent. There is a moratorium on evictions until September. However, many pubs, restaurants, amusement arcades, small museums and other tourist destinations face their quarterly rent bills when they have had no income. What additional steps are the Government taking to help them and ensure that we do not see mass closures?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments and know he shares my concerns about the sector, which is why we have taken so many measures. The issue with rent has been raised at the working group. He is right that there has been a moratorium. We continue to look at further measures. The range of measures already announced are being taken advantage of by the sector, whether it is loans, grants, business rates relief or furlough. The VAT reduction yesterday was welcomed across the sector, but we will continue to engage with it and see what further assistance may be required.
Voluntary and Community Sector: Covid-19
The Government announced an unprecedented £750 million funding package supporting frontline charities to continue their vital work during the covid-19 outbreak, and we have unlocked a further £150 million from dormant bank accounts and building society accounts. In addition, there is the coronavirus job retention scheme and a host of other measures announced by the Chancellor yesterday.
The work of the voluntary sector in Northumberland and across the country has been absolutely priceless during the covid-19 pandemic. The work has been literally life-saving for many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. However, Northumberland Community Voluntary Action reports that half of the organisations that it represents have less than six months’ reserves and a third expect to lose 50% of that income because of fundraising restrictions. Will the Minister give his cast-iron assurance, first, that for these essential organisations, Government funding will be targeted at local areas rather than being funnelled into the larger national organisations and, secondly, that Government assistance and support in the post-pandemic era will focus heavily on the operational challenges that will be required to function in the nation’s new norm?
I, too, pay tribute to the extraordinary work of charities in Wansbeck and beyond. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to focus on the vital work done by so many small charities. That is precisely why the £750 million of funding is being administered in the way that it is, and we are working as hard as we possibly can to get it to those charities as quickly as possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, when the Secretary of State kindly spoke to Tom Cruise and the producers of “Mission: Impossible” on my behalf recently, he showed a real need for speed in putting together a cocktail of measures for the entertainment industry? It is our critics who cannot handle the truth that his actions were helping more than a few good men and women return to work across civil society and the entertainment industry in Leavesden in Watford. May I assure you, Mr Speaker, that this message will not self-destruct?
One of the best ways to support the voluntary sector is to listen to it when it calls for a policy change. For example, the petition of Age UK to keep over-75s’ TV licences free has now attracted more than 634,000 signatures, while 93% of the nearly 90,000 pensioners who responded to a survey by the charity said that television had become more important since the pandemic erupted. The BBC is cutting jobs and content to pay for the cost of the licence, which was dumped on it by the Government, and pensioners are forced to choose between eating and watching TV. Will the Government now listen to Age UK and reverse this unfair policy?
The fact is that the BBC has had a generous licence fee settlement, and it is deeply disappointing that it has chosen to go down the path that it is apparently going down. I hope, of course, that there is yet time to reconsider that, because the hon. Gentleman is right to say that television has been a vital comfort for many people in the past few months, and it is a vital part of our national economy as well.
The Government are investing £5 billion to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable broadband as soon as possible to ensure that the hardest parts of the country to reach are not left behind. We are also removing barriers to roll-out, for example by introducing legislation to make it easier for operators to connect to blocks of flats, and £1.8 billion has already been spent in making sure that 96% of the country can now access superfast broadband.
Those words from the Minister are all very well, but the A1 and the east coast main line run through my constituency, as does the National Grid with Torness and Cockenzie, yet the essential medium, as shown during this coronavirus crisis, is connectivity and broadband. Much of that remains poor and entirely inadequate. Given that the Government’s target is only 91% for geographic mobile coverage in Scotland, yet 98% in England, when can my constituents expect the broadband and mobile coverage required for this coronavirus crisis, let alone for the 21st century?
As I have said, we have an ambition to deliver gigabit-capable broadband as fast as possible, and we are working with the Scottish Government to deliver that. I look forward to another meeting with my Scottish counterpart, Paul Wheelhouse, next week, because it is vital that we work together on this. The geography of Scotland is, of course, uniquely challenging, but we should not let that serve as a barrier to our ambitions.
It is clear that post-covid society will rely even more on reliable broadband internet than it has until now. The Secretary of State’s predecessor struggled with the reserved nature of broadband and telecommunications, so will the Minister and the Secretary of State now accept that this is an area reserved to Westminster, and will he commit now to matching the level of funding for Scotland that Northern Ireland has enjoyed recently?
We have put an additional £21 million into Scottish broadband, on top of the £101 million already invested in Scotland by the UK Government. The hon. Lady is right that we need to go as far and as fast as we possibly can, which is why we are working with the Scottish Government to make sure that it is possible to increase coverage and that Scotland does not miss out on anything that it needs in this 21st-century connected environment. It is vital that we do that, and the challenging geography will not be a barrier to our ambitions.
I am concerned that the Government have gone completely silent on their 2025 roll-out target for gigabyte-capable broadband; instead, we are told that it will be delivered as soon as possible. It has been five months since the Secretary of State last pledged in the House the Government’s commitment to the Conservative manifesto promise. No statement has been made, and industry voices are growing anxious that without immediate action to address the policy barriers, there is simply no chance whatsoever of achieving the target. Meanwhile, thousands of businesses across rural Scotland continue to struggle with archaic internet speeds. For the avoidance of doubt and for the record: 2025—yes or no?
The Government have been clear that we will go as fast as we possibly can. We are removing the barriers that the hon. Gentleman discussed, but it is also right to say that it is an immensely challenging target. Going as fast as possible is the right thing to do, and we will work as hard as we possibly can to go as far as we possibly can by 2025. My ambition is absolutely to reach the number in our manifesto that the hon. Gentleman describes.
Rural Gigabit Connectivity Programme
The programme to deliver rural gigabit connectivity is making excellent progress, with nearly 500 rural primary schools—200 more than planned—having an arrangement to fund a gigabit-broadband upgrade. We continue to connect other rural hub sites, including health sites, and issue vouchers to rural residents and small and medium-sized enterprises. We will work with devolved Administrations, local authorities and other Government Departments to ensure that as many public sector sites as possible can be included in the programme.
The Staffordshire superfast programme team has done a considerable amount of work to bring superfast broadband services to my constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter, having reached more than 96% of east Staffordshire this year. However, I am concerned for those who live rurally, who are struggling to access connections of even 1 megabit per second. The community of Leigh, for example, has been quoted around £50,000 per household for a connection. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we might get affordable connections to our rural communities?
I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the work that she is doing to champion this vital utility in the 21st century. Some of the geography of Leigh is challenging—a number of properties are a long way from exchanges—but that is no excuse, which is why we are exploring all avenues. I look forward to discussing them with my hon. Friend.
Cultural Sector: Reopening
Arts and culture define our nation and form a vital part of the ecosystem that makes us a creative-industry superpower. At a time when the nation is crying out for comfort, they enrich our soul, which is why I was delighted this week to announce an unprecedented £1.57 billion package to help theatres, museums, live music venues and galleries to weather the ongoing storm. I want to see these institutions open their doors as soon as it is safe for them to do so. I am working extensively with the sector on how to achieve this and will be publishing further roadmap timings for further steps imminently.
When it comes to live music and festivals, Britain probably leads the way. As the Secretary of State says, that success is built on an incredible ecosystem of British performers, technicians, sound engineers and many other freelancers. Will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about how he intends the major package of funding that he announced on Monday to be used to support this important sector, which has taken a real battering over the past three months?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to highlight the value of live music venues. I have engaged extensively with those in the sector, including hosting roundtables with them. I was determined that the package should include support for them, so it will cover areas such as grassroots music venues, concert halls and indoor arenas. We are defining live music venues, basically, as those wholly or mainly used for the performance of live music for the purposes of entertaining an audience.
In Cornwall, we have warmly welcomed the recent announcements from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State, particularly in support of the arts, culture and heritage. In Truro and Falmouth, we are blessed to have a fantastic theatre on the brink of completion—namely, the Hall for Cornwall—which will serve the whole of Cornwall and act as a beacon for the arts in a whole county. What support can my right hon. Friend provide for organisations such as these, which are an integral part of our community?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I have been very clear right from the start in designing this package that it is intended to achieve two principal outcomes: first, to protect the crown jewels, our nationally and internationally significant institutions; and secondly, equally vitally, to help cultural institutions up and down the country where their loss would deprive communities of essential cultural experiences. We will be publishing the full criteria and processes shortly, and of course that will include, for example, demonstrating that they have exhausted all available funds. I know that my hon. Friend will be tirelessly making the case for Cornwall and, indeed, I hope the Minack theatre will soon be able to open as well.
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for all the hard work, including putting up with me bothering him relentlessly, to achieve the remarkable result of the £1.57 billion for the arts and culture sector. Will he now agree to meet me and the all-party parliamentary group on theatre to discuss some policy changes, including the possible reduction in business rates, to help the theatre sector truly flourish as it begins to reopen?
My hon. Friend is too modest to admit it on the Floor of the House, but I thank him too for his vital work in helping to shape this important package and to support this vital sector. I would of course be delighted to meet the APPG. In fact, the only thing that would give me more pleasure would be to go on a visit with the APPG to a theatre that was performing, which I hope will happen soon.
Covid-19: Creative Industries and Freelancers
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to start by sending the very best wishes of the House to the former DCMS Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who starts her treatment for breast cancer today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Some of those in our creative sector, such as the film, TV and music industry, are already back up and running. We recognise the challenges the creative industries face because of covid-19. That is why, in addition to the unprecedented package of support for businesses, jobs and the workforce, the Government have announced an extra £1.57 billion cultural rescue package.
My constituency is home to excellent theatres, live music venues, and museums and galleries. I would like to put it on record that I was pleased to join the trustee board of the Albany theatre earlier this week. It is in part thanks to this vibrant cultural sector that Coventry was awarded city of culture 2021. The measures announced earlier this week are vital to ensuring that these organisations survive through the crisis, so will the Minister meet me to ensure that the support package finds its way to Coventry and keeps those organisations afloat?
Yes. The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, and I am very excited to spend more time in Coventry when it celebrates being the city of culture in 2021. She is right to draw attention to some of the incredible theatres and other cultural assets that her city has, and I would be very keen to meet her to discuss that further.
As you know, Mr Speaker, Manchester really is one of the creative industry hubs of the UK. It is made up not just of its institutions, but of a wealth of talented, highly skilled individuals and small and micro-organisations. Can the Minister tell them and me how the self-employed and those who are directors of limited companies will support themselves to stay in this industry in the coming months, when all their work has dried up and they have no extra support?
We know that the creative industries are not the venues, the organisations or the studios, but the people—the skilled artists, the craftsmen, the designers, the performers, the technicians. They are the ones who make us world-class in the sector, and we know that they include many freelancers and self-employed people. Some 2.7 million people have benefited from the self-employed income support scheme, and 95% of people who receive the majority of their income from self-employment have been eligible. The next round of that scheme will open in August.
One of my constituents, Jim Sutherland, is a composer and music producer who has worked on the music of films such as “Brave” and “Outlaw King”. A freelancer under PAYE, he and many like him are the backbone of our creative industries, demonstrating exactly the type of entrepreneurial spirit that this Government say they want to encourage as we recover. But yet again, in a week in which 200 MPs joined the all-party group on ExcludedUK, the Government have failed to support our self-employed people. What reassurance can the Minister give Jim and other freelancers in the industry that there will be support for them?
The hon. Lady is rightly proud of her constituent and all the creative people in her area. We recognise the crucial role that individuals play in making our creative industries world leading. The £1.57 billion cultural package, which includes £97 million for Scotland, announced this week will allow more businesses to survive and more creative activity to restart, ensuring employment opportunities for freelancers. At the end of the day, that is what our freelancers want to do—they want to get back to work.
With Pinewood Studios on our doorstep, Slough is a major cultural hub, but many of my constituents who work in the creative industries have contacted me to express grave concerns. I am sure the Minister agrees that the work they do is invaluable to our culture and economy, but due to the limits of social distancing, many planned film and television shoots have not taken place, and local theatres are in a serious predicament. What measures will the Government put in place to ensure that in the coming months those industries will not suffer further as a result of covid-19 and will continue to be supported?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion and I know he is a great supporter of the cultural industries and arts in his area. We have already made available £160 million through Arts Council England to support individuals and organisations—£20 million of that has gone to individuals and £50 million to the non-portfolio organisations the council would normally support—but the package announced this week is unprecedented. The £1.57 billion package is world-leading and will make a huge difference to struggling cultural industries up and down the country.
The BBC calls them old classics; the rest of us call them repeats, and we are going to see a lot more of them due to our world-leading television and film production companies being shut down. What are the Government doing to ensure that this highly profitable, high-growth creative sector is brought back fully? How are they tackling the issue of reinsurance? After all, one can only watch so many episodes of “Dad’s Army” and “Bread”.
The same can be said about my hon. Friend’s jokes, but he is absolutely right to champion the sector. Our television and film production companies lead the world. That is why I have been meeting weekly with the sector to set up the guidance needed to get them back up and running, and I am pleased that so many are now able to start work. We are concerned about the insurance issue, and talks are ongoing to see whether we can help to resolve it.
This Government are committed to investing in young people’s futures and ensuring that their voices are heard. The £500 million youth investment fund launching this year will fund new, refurbished and mobile youth centres, alongside investment in positive activities and youth workers across the country. DCMS launched a new online tool earlier this month to involve young people in policy making, and has supported the National Youth Agency to produce guidance for youth organisations on operating safely during covid-19.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Attorney General was asked—
Crown Prosecution Service: Case Backlog
I share the concern about the growing backlog in the courts. Covid has presented an unprecedented challenge for our justice system, and the UK is a global leader when it comes to the Crown courts. Jury trials restarted in May. Digital tools have been harnessed in more than 10,000 cases, and all courts will reopen by mid-July. I am proud that prosecutors have continued to fulfil their responsibilities despite the pandemic, both remotely and physically, and the CPS has been actively involved in cross-government discussions to continue progressing work through the courts.
I join the Attorney General in commending the work of CPS staff and many others, including jurors, to keep our justice system running during the pandemic. Will she assure the House that measures taken to help reduce the backlog will not include judge-only-led trials?
The Lord Chancellor and I discuss a range of criminal justice issues on a regular basis. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Ministry of Justice is leading the court recovery plan, which it published last week. That plan includes a suite of measures, both legislative and non-legislative. The point is that nothing is decided, but I can reassure him that I am deeply committed to the right to jury trial.
I think that all members of the Select Committee on Justice would welcome that last comment about the importance of jury trials, as I do. On the court recovery plan, the Lord Chancellor told the Justice Committee that he would make all resource that was necessary available to seek to clear the backlog, including the Nightingale courts, which we have heard about, and sitting courts to maximum capacity. Will the Attorney General ensure that the CPS has the resources, in terms of not only money, but personnel—in-house lawyers, solicitor advocates and instructing independent members of the Bar, when necessary—to make sure that a competent qualified prosecutor is always available to prosecute cases wherever they are needed, to make sure that this backlog is dealt with?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The CPS is not immune to the impact of the backlog. I am pleased that throughout this pandemic it has coped remarkably well, despite the challenges. The recent inspectorate report published at the end of last month sets out in a lot of detail how well the CPS has responded to the difficulties. It is currently receiving 1.8 cases for every one that can be completed in the court. I should note that it has also successfully maintained its recruitment plans despite the pandemic, and we now have more than 300 new prosecutors within the CPS.
The recent HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate report found that it could take 10 years to clear the criminal case backlog, with 41,000 outstanding cases, in a criminal justice system on its knees. While Labour has been calling for Nightingale and covid-safe courts for the past four months, the Government have been discussing scrapping jury trials. So can the Attorney General confirm today when the Nightingale courts will be up and running, and how many victims of sexual violence are still waiting for their case to get to court?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has mentioned the recent inspectorate report, which I think gives a strong commendation to the CPS for its response to this pandemic. In comparative terms, there is a strong vote of confidence in the CPS’s resilience, digital capability and planning for difficulties such as these. She is right to mention the court recovery plan. As I have mentioned, the Lord Chancellor has published a detailed plan. Many measures are under consideration. There is a strong commitment to the right to jury trial, but no decisions have been made yet.
Contempt of Court: Media Reporting
Reporting by the press or on social media may sometimes present a risk of prejudice to criminal proceedings. It is important to protect due process and the right to a fair trial. In my role as guardian of the public interest, I can and have issued media advisory notices. This is important in order to inform responsible reporting to avoid prejudice to ongoing criminal proceedings.
My hon. Friend is right, and it is right to acknowledge that the press is on the whole very responsible in its reporting of court proceedings, which is why issuing a media advisory notice is an exceptional course of action. In the past 12 months, I have only done that twice. However, it remains an important power, which will be used if necessary.
Journalists get training, but the average person does not know about contempt of court and we get contempt of court through social media, so what can the Solicitor General’s Department do to try to educate people when they might be doing just that inadvertently?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is quite right and he makes an important point about social media and the risk of contempt of court. My office has prepared and promoted materials available online to inform the general public, including slides and web pages, and I entirely agree that an emphasis on education is important to ensure that members of the public do not inadvertently publish prejudicial material online, because doing so can have serious consequences.
Crown Prosecution Service: Covid-19
First, I thank the CPS for its hard work during this difficult time. It has had to adapt to significant changes to its normal working practices, and despite the challenges has maintained a high quality of service within our criminal justice system and for victims. The inspectorate report published on 30 June sets out an analysis of its response to the pandemic. It commends the organisation’s digital capability, strategic planning and foresight in upgrading its capabilities, which meant that prosecutors were able to continue their vital work with minimum disruption. I was very pleased to virtually visit the CPS in the south-west, where I was able to see at first hand the impressive way in which it has transitioned to this new way of working.
Last week, I chaired the CPS ministerial board, at which I was pleased to hear that the CPS’s recruitment programme has continued at pace throughout the pandemic, utilising digital tools, including video interviews. The CPS is recruiting 390 new staff as a result of the Government’s £85 million investment in it. Two hundred and twenty-five lawyers have started and a further 76 have been offered roles and will be starting in the near future. The most recent campaign closed on 17 June and resulted in a record number of applications—901.
The CPS has been monitoring the absence level of both lawyer and support staff throughout the pandemic. Where necessary, the CPS has virtually redeployed staff between different CPS areas to ensure that workloads were effectively managed. Court closures and the significant reduction in court sittings resulted in the release of some staff to undertake different tasks and work. This increased the amount of legal and administrative resources available for casework.
West Midlands police recorded over 4,000 cases of domestic violence in the first month of lockdown, yet only 3% of those cases have resulted in criminal charges. Between 2015 and 2019, despite domestic violence cases rising by 77%, charging fell by 18% and convictions by 20%. I ask the Attorney General again: how many victims of sexual violence are still waiting for their case to get to court, and what is she doing to ensure that domestic abuse does not go unpunished?
It is essential that perpetrators, victims and their families know and understand that the criminal justice system remains open and operational during the covid outbreak, and the CPS and I are working closely with colleagues across Government and the criminal justice system to ensure that those horrendous offences continue to be brought to justice. Priority must be given to the most serious cases to make sure that dangerous offenders are dealt with quickly. That is why the CPS has worked with police colleagues to introduce an interim charging protocol with clear guidance on its use. All non-custody domestic abuse cases were categorised as high priority and will be dealt with accordingly.
First, I want to say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a tragic case, and my thoughts remain with Belly Mujinga’s family and friends. On 5 June, British Transport police asked the Crown Prosecution Service to give its independent opinion on the available evidence and the prospect of it meeting the general principles of prosecution outlined in the code for Crown prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service has requested that the British Transport police pursue further lines of inquiry, and once that has been completed the CPS will be able to finalise the review.
I am grateful for that response, which is very helpful. I am sure the whole House agrees with the comments made by the Attorney General. This was a very high-profile case and everyone was rightly shocked when they heard the description of the alleged assault on Belly Mujinga. There was evidence from a colleague who was there at the time, so I was surprised that there was not sufficient evidence for a charge of assault, even if it was not possible to prove that it was the source of the covid-19 that eventually took her life. I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer, but can she give an assurance that she will continue to pursue the CPS and the British Transport police to bring this very important issue to a conclusion: whether it is charges or insufficient evidence, the people who are concerned about this really need to know the outcome?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to justice for Belly Mujinga and her family here. The matter is still being considered, and the Crown Prosecution Service has requested that the British Transport police obtain further information on further lines of inquiry. As the review is still ongoing, I am unable to provide further information at this stage, but I am sure there will be an announcement in due course.
Domestic Abuse Prosecutions
The Government take cases of domestic abuse extremely seriously. Despite the challenges generated by the covid-19 pandemic, the CPS has shown its determination to bring perpetrators to justice and provide victims with the greatest possible protection from repeat offending. I have to say those cases are among the highest priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and the highest priority being dealt with by the criminal justice system.
May I take this opportunity to commend the superb work of the Duchess of Cornwall on the issue of domestic abuse and her leadership in this area?
There has been an 83% increase in domestic abuse related crimes in Wales since 2015. The £85 million promised by Government to the CPS will go nowhere near the £225 million cuts made by the Government. What assurances can the Attorney General and Ministers give victims that the resourcing is sufficient for their cases to be dealt with effectively?
I thank the hon. Lady for that important question. The Government have recently announced a number of funding packages that are linked to domestic abuse post covid, including £16.6 million announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to go to 75 local authority projects for delivery of support to victims of domestic abuse and their children; £3.1 million from the Home Office for specialist services for children who have been directly and indirectly affected; and £28 million for a package of support for survivors of domestic abuse and their children from a fund from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A lot of money is, rightly, being directed to that area.
Burglary: Prosecution Rates
Burglary is a terrible crime that can have a long-lasting impact on victims. The CPS is committed to bringing robust prosecutions against offenders who commit burglary and ruin lives by doing so. The CPS will work with the police to ensure that the strongest possible evidence is put before the court. My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that the latest CPS data shows that of those prosecuted for burglary, 87.9% are convicted.
I thank the Solicitor General for his answer. Many of my constituents in Chipping Barnet are really worried about burglary. May I urge him to urge the police and the CPS to take this very seriously? Too often, they seem to know who the burglars are, but charges, arrests and prosecutions just do not seem to follow.
My right hon. Friend is quite right to focus on this point, and I know that she has a track record of supporting her constituents in this area. The CPS is committed to bringing charges in all cases where the code test is met. If there is the evidence, if it meets the requisite standards, people will be prosecuted for burglary.
Human Rights Act 1998
I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor on many matters, including manifesto commitments. The Government committed to looking at the broader aspects of our constitution, including the balance between rights of individuals and effective government, and to updating the Human Rights Act. I can assure the hon. Member that any implications for the devolved Administrations will be closely monitored.
I am grateful to the Attorney General. Last month, the Lord Chancellor referred to an independent review of the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Attorney General clarify whether that is different from the constitution, democracy and rights commission? What role will devolved institutions have in any such review, given how important the HRA is to the devolved settlements?
The Government are ensuring that the impact of any reforms on devolved jurisdictions is well considered. Any consideration by the panel of UK-wide judicial review issues will take into account the distinctive nature and context of each of the UK’s jurisdictions. Where appropriate, the panel will put forward bespoke options to take into account those differences, rather than proposing a one-size-fits-all approach.
I very much regret that the Attorney General does not seem to share my enthusiasm for the Human Rights Act. She knows as well as anyone that messing about with it endangers future justice and security co-operation, as well as trade, with the EU, so why do the Government not put our safety, security and prosperity first and ditch the Tory party’s Human Rights Act obsession?
I share, I hope, the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to law enforcement and criminal justice work throughout our nations, and I believe deeply in our co-operation on criminal justice matters with our neighbours. What I object to, however, is any submission to the European Court of Justice, and I am committed to our manifesto commitment to looking at the Human Rights Act and updating it.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
The scheme has had a number of recent successes. I am pleased to inform the House of two in particular. A recent case dealt with horrific offending concerning streaming child sexual abuse images online. The offender’s sentence was increased from one year and eight months’ imprisonment to four years’ imprisonment after I referred it. That was the first increase since that particular offence was brought within the scheme. In addition, I personally went to court to present the first controlling and coercive unduly lenient sentence. The sentence was increased from a two-year community order to three years’ immediate imprisonment.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for his constituents in Dudley on this matter. Public confidence in sentencing is crucial, and I am delighted to say that the general public do have and should have confidence in sentencing. The reality is that a very tiny fraction—far less than 1%—has to be referred to the Court of Appeal for a review of sentence for undue leniency. In his area, he might be interested to know of a case where a sentence of two and a half years for possession of a sawn-off shotgun and other material was increased to five years when it was referred by me for a review.
Support for Law Firms: Covid-19
The CPS has made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time, adjusted to ensure payment for work performed, even where a normal invoice trigger point has not been reached. The Ministry of Justice is also working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19 on them. The Legal Aid Agency has streamlined the process for interim payments and hardship payments, including lowering the threshold for when such claims can be made.
Prosecuting advocates play an essential role in our criminal justice system, and the Government support them, as can be seen with the recent influx of money from the Treasury to the Crown Prosecution Service. On 30 March, the CPS announced measures enabling interim invoices to be raised. That is just one mechanism by which we are supporting criminal practitioners working on Crown Court cases. They are now able to claim hardship payments, for example, which have been expedited. Millions of pounds in extra funding is being provided for not-for-profit providers. We are supporting the legal community across the board in what I accept are very difficult times.