House of Commons
Thursday 9 July 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
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?
My hon. Friend rightly pays tribute to an extraordinary industry. The only thing that I would say in addition is that he clearly deserves a cameo role in that next “Mission: Impossible” film.
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.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that to succeed in life young people need good role models? Will he therefore offer his support to my role models project?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that good role models are crucial, now perhaps more than ever. I am delighted to offer my support and that of the Department to his new project, and I look forward to discussing it more with him.
I am sorry, but we now have to go to topicals.
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.
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 wholly agree with my hon. Friend. Reliable local news is an important way of tackling the rise of misinformation and disinformation.
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.
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.
Thank you, Secretary of State. We will now move on to questions to the Attorney General.
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.
Does the Solicitor General agree that on the whole the press does act responsibly and is swift to act in relation to material that may be prejudicial to court 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.
What progress has the Crown Prosecution Service made in its recruitment campaigns during the covid-19 pandemic?
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.
Can the Attorney General tell the House how many members of the CPS were off sick due to covid-19?
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.
Does the Solicitor General recognise the importance of the fact that the punishment must fit the crime, for public confidence and also for my Dudley constituents?
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.
Before the pandemic, many law firms were already struggling because of a decade of cuts to legal aid. What is the Solicitor General doing to ensure we have a functioning and fair criminal justice system when the crisis is over?
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.
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 suspending the House for three minutes.
Bahrain: Prisoners Under Sentence of Death
To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on whether he will use the UK’s constructive dialogue with the Government of Bahrain publicly to raise the cases of two prisoners who have been sentenced to death following torture, and who face a hearing this Monday when their death sentences may be confirmed.
The UK and Bahrain continue to have a close and important relationship. We benefit from an ongoing, open and genuine dialogue in which we work together on mutually beneficial issues while also raising points of significant difference with one another.
It is because of this long-standing partnership that we are able to have candid conversations about matters of importance to the UK—in particular, our human rights concerns. Our relationship allows us to raise sensitive and difficult issues, both privately and publicly, in a constructive manner in order to uphold our moral responsibility on human rights issues. We have raised and will continue to raise the cases both of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa at senior levels with the Government of Bahrain.
On 8 January, British embassy Manama officials attended the final session of the Court of Appeal for the retrial of the two men mentioned. Both individuals were convicted of terrorist charges and given the death sentence again. On 8 January, the former Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), publicly stated our deep concern that death sentences were again handed out, and the UK’s position has not changed on this matter. We continue to actively monitor these two cases as they are taken to the court of cassation for final review.
The UK’s position on the use of the death penalty is long-standing and unequivocal: we oppose its use in all circumstances and in all countries as a matter of principle. The Government of Bahrain are fully aware of our view. This was made explicitly clear by the former Minister to a senior Bahraini counterpart last year. It was then reinforced by my noble friend Lord Ahmad in the other place, who issued a public statement expressing the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty, in response to actions taken in Bahrain.
I can assure the House that our efforts to raise these cases, and also the broader issues of the use of capital punishment, with the Bahraini authorities will continue. Bahrain is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, in part due to its policy surrounding the death penalty. We continue to monitor developments on all matters that relate to human rights within the country. We remain absolutely committed to the promotion of universal freedoms and upholding human rights globally. That has been made clear only this week with the introduction of the UK’s first autonomous human rights sanctions regime.
The House will be grateful to the Minister.
I want to make it plain that the first constituency case I took was of someone who I thought had been wrongly convicted in this country, and it took five years to establish that. I am working on two long-term cases in the United States of America.
Bahrain is important to us politically, diplomatically and militarily, and we hope that it is a mutual relationship. We know that there are times when Bahrain, as a sovereign country, has paid attention to outside prompting, and we hope, with respect, that it will listen to what is said here, what was said in another place yesterday, and what was said in the three debates that have taken place in Parliament during the past year or so.
Can I ask that the views of Parliament are put to the Bahrain authorities, with our respectful greetings, and say that if either the court of cassation on Monday or a sovereign intervention would make a difference, that would be noticed and appreciated, and would affect the way Bahrain is seen? I do not need to say what would happen if that does not happen.
I wish these men well. I wish Bahrain well. I hope that the work by this House, by Amnesty International, by Reprieve and by Human Rights Watch will get the proper attention it deserves.
I know that the Bahrainis do take seriously the views of the United Kingdom and this House. As yet, we do not know what the outcome of the Court of Cassation will be. If the death penalty is handed down again, I can assure the House that our opposition to the death penalty will be restated, at both official and ministerial level, to the Government of Bahrain.
I commend the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for his question on this crucial matter.
The trial is based on evidence secured through torture, including allegations that interrogators threatened to rape the wife of Mohammed Ramadhan in front of him after a series of brutal beatings and hung Hussain Moosa from the ceiling for three days while beating his genitals with batons. Finally, they have been sentenced to death. Condemnation of the trials of these two men has been almost universal from many of the organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred. All have condemned the use of torture and all have called for their death sentences to be quashed.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see a decisive statement on this matter from the Government. Worse still, the two Bahraini security bodies that enabled the torture—the Special Investigations Unit and the ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior—were funded by this Government. The Government say that they engage with the Bahraini Government on human rights, the use of torture and the death penalty, and I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but where are the results from that engagement, given this case and many others? Since 2012, the Government have provided over £5 million of technical assistance, yet the number of executions has increased and human rights abuses have increased.
The Foreign Secretary spoke earlier this week about Magnitsky sanctions, absolutely rightly so, and the importance of human rights and opposing the death penalty and torture. In that light, will the Minister condemn the use of torture by the security forces in Bahrain in these two cases, rather than just monitoring them? Will the Prime Minister raise this matter with the King? Will the Minister raise it directly with his opposite number? Will he press the Government of Bahrain to establish an independent commission of inquiry to conduct an Istanbul protocol-compliant investigation into the torture allegations for these two men? Will he freeze assistance to the Bahraini security bodies that are potentially implicated in this case? Will he publish the human rights assessments and the assessments against the overseas security and justice assistance guidance, which the Foreign Office is supposed to use when funding such programmes to assess whether the programmes it supports are implicated in torture and the use of the death penalty.
It is one thing for the Foreign Secretary to speak of taking action against those complicit in torture and the death penalty, those who are blood-drenched, but it is another for the Government to walk the walk. Time is of the essence in this case. Will the Minister speak out? Will the Government speak out at the highest levels and do what they can to get the death sentences commuted?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he raises. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government, Her Majesty’s Government, oppose torture as well as the death penalty, and that has been communicated widely and regularly. It is well known around the world. He makes reference to the OSJA process. I can assure him that that is a robust process that ensures that when the British Government train or support other Governments around the world, that training or support is not used to facilitate human rights abuses. The process constantly reviews our relationships and I am confident that it is robust.
With regard to the oversight bodies the hon. Gentleman mentions, it should be noted that they have brought about a change in the way that Bahrain works. Police officers and prison officers have been brought to justice because of the oversight bodies that we support. The Bahraini royal family have demonstrated a desire to improve their structures and transparency, and the resilience of their governmental structures. The oversight bodies we support are a part of that. While they continue to express the desire to improve their structures and head in a positive direction, we will maintain our support to enable them to do so. As I said, Bahrain remains a human rights priority country. We wish to see improvement. Where the Bahrain Government express desire to implement that improvement, we will continue to support them to do so.
I very much welcome the urgent question by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I draw my right hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to the Foreign Affairs Committee report of 2018, in which we raised questions about this funding because of the torture of Mr Ramadhan and Mr Moosa. May I urge him to think very hard about the position of Her Majesty’s Government on this? I also urge him to write to His Majesty King Hamad and remind him that al-rahman al-rahim—the most compassionate, the most merciful—are the names that are given to God, by the Prophet, peace be upon him, and that perhaps this might be one of those moments where His Majesty could think hard about the decisions that are before him.
I thank my hon. Friend; his points are very well made. One of the advantages of having more than 200 years of relationship with the Bahraini is that we can speak candidly, clearly and at the highest levels. We are more than comfortable with reiterating our opposition to the death penalty and torture, and we are happy to restate that at the highest levels within Bahraini society.
As the SNP spokesperson on international human rights and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, I congratulate the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on securing this urgent question. The Minister and his FCO colleagues have become serial correspondents on this issue recently, as recourse to the death penalty in Bahrain has become increasingly commonplace. Since 2012, the United Kingdom has been providing Bahrain with what it calls technical assistance. That technical assistance is designed to build effective and accountable institutions, strengthen the rule of law and assist with police and judicial reform. That is clearly not happening. Given that the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has declared that the investigation of this case, carried out by the Bahrain special investigation unit, was seriously flawed, failed to meet even the minimum standards of international recognition and breached the Istanbul protocol, will the Minister now urgently review that technical assistance programme to Bahrain, and will he agree to suspend it immediately if these death sentences are carried out?
The point I made in response to the shadow Minister is that the OSJA process is robust. The process is designed to ensure that when the United Kingdom Government provide assistance to a foreign Government, it does not in any way help to facilitate human rights abuses. It is held constantly in review and we review our relationships regularly, so obviously, by definition, our relationship with Bahrain and any future technical assistance will be assessed against the criteria that we have put out. I would say, however, that a number of the oversight bodies are only in existence because of the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Government of Bahrain. Where those bodies are seeking to improve and to become more transparent and robust, we will seek to help them to do so. If we were to disengage, I do not believe that that would be conducive to improving the human rights situation in Bahrain.
I thank the Minister for his comments on this case. Building on that engagement, what action are the Government taking to ensure that Bahrain is meeting its human rights obligations and, wider still, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to continue to position the UK at the forefront of promoting human rights, to ensure that rights really are respected in Bahrain and across the world?
The UK Government remain committed to promoting universal freedoms and human rights around the world. That is and will remain at the heart of our foreign policy, to ensure that the UK remains a force for good. Being able to promote human rights cannot just be done in the abstract, although it is easy to do so from these green Benches. To be a real, meaningful champion of human rights, we have to have influence on Governments. Bahrain is a human rights priority country, and through our close relationship with Bahrain, we seek to persuade and support it on a journey to improve its human rights situation. That is how effective Governments operate.
With only five days to save their lives, and in the light of the UK’s assistance to the bodies that enabled their torture and death sentences, can the Minister confirm that the Government will make effective representations in the cases of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa before the Court of Cassation’s final decision on Monday?
I thank the hon. Lady for the point that she has raised. As I have said, it is the strength of the relationship between the UK and Bahrain that allows us to have frank, candid and regular conversations at senior official, ministerial and Head of State level about a whole range of things. I assure her that if the death penalties are upheld through the Court of Cassation process, the UK will publicly and loudly remind Bahrain of our opposition to the death penalty, and we will continue to seek to have it set aside.
Listening to the excellent Minister, I am wondering whether, to get the result that everyone wants, the comments should be made to Bahrain in private rather than necessarily in public. Can I ask him about freedom of the press in Bahrain? A free press helps to guarantee human rights. What efforts are being made to ensure that there is freedom of the press in Bahrain?
One of the first events that I took part in on being appointed as Minister was when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted journalists from north Africa and the middle east to support media freedom. Media freedom remains a priority for the UK Government. Legislation is planned in Bahrain to provide additional protection to journalists, but the timing and detail around that legislation remains vague. We continue to engage at senior level to push for that legislation to be brought forward, and for the enhancement of the protection of journalists in Bahrain.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, I wrote to the FCO, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), on Monday to request an urgent meeting about the cases of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa. With less than one week to save their lives, and in the light of the UK’s assistance to the special investigations unit that enabled their torture and imminent death sentences, will the Minister meet us to discuss those cases before the Court of Cassation’s final decision on Monday?
I am always happy to meet parliamentary colleagues about important issues such as this. The likely timing of the Court of Cassation judgment may make it difficult to do so before Monday, but I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to make every effort to prevent the death penalty, whether it be in Bahrain or more widely. I assure her that even if the death penalty is upheld by the Court of Cassation, that will not be the end of our efforts to prevent the death penalty in Bahrain. As I say, I am more than happy to facilitate a meeting with her and with parliamentary colleagues.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could tell the House what wider measures his Department is taking to ensure political reform and democratic accountability in Bahrain.
Bahrain remains one of only two countries in the Gulf with an elected Parliament. UK support has strengthened the institutional capacity of the Bahraini Parliament’s secretariat, and we have enhanced the skills of staff to support MPs in their oversight of the Government. In addition, we have helped local NGOs to raise Bahraini youth awareness of democracy and parliamentary work, and we will continue to pursue those things.
I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, among others, and the Minister will know that when it comes to engaging with countries in the Gulf, I preach a sermon of pragmatism and humility. But surely we can only encourage progress if we see it actually happening—expressing desire for change is not good enough. The OSJA process on which the Minister relies has been criticised by the Home Affairs Committee as being not fit for purpose. If he is going to rely on that process, will he publish the assessment carried out under it in relation to this assistance, and will he promote within Government an overhaul of that whole process?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the points that he made. It was a Conservative Foreign Secretary who brought in the OSJA process, and as I have said, it is, by definition, constantly under review, and we seek always to improve it. The oversight bodies that have been criticised in the Chamber today only recently came into existence, and their existence is, in significant part, because of the work that the UK Government have done with the Bahrainis. There is a desire to see these organisations and their processes improve, and our technical assistance is part of that improvement programme. It would be entirely counter- productive for these organisations to be dispensed with, because I cannot see how that would increase or improve the oversight of the human rights situation. The aim surely should be to improve them, and it is through our close working relationship that we seek to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government have taken to ensure that Bahrain is clear about the UK’s position on human rights?
The best way of ensuring that Bahrain understands our position is to say it loudly, regularly and directly. As I say, we have had a relationship of over two centuries with the Bahrainis, which perhaps gives us a unique ability to speak candidly and frankly at the highest levels. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so.
When the Foreign Secretary announced earlier this week the imposition of Magnitsky-style powers to sanction those complicit in human rights violations and abuses, he said that this country makes it
“crystal clear to those who abuse their power to inflict unimaginable suffering that we will not look the other way.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 664.]
Will the Minister therefore confirm that the UK Government will impose a human rights sanction on both individuals and organisations in the Bahraini authorities who have been complicit in the torture of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa?
I was incredibly proud when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the UK’s independent sanctions regime and demonstrated to both the House and the world that the United Kingdom takes human rights abuses seriously and will deal with them. While we were a member of the European Union’s human rights sanctions regime, we had a convention where we did not discuss potential future sanctions, and that remains the convention under our domestic sanctions regime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Father of the House on bringing forward this urgent question in such a timely manner. Does the Minister agree that cutting our modest and highly monitored technical assistance to Bahrain, particularly the special investigations unit and the ombudsman, would likely make matters worse? Will he use the influence that he has with Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure that the judiciary is distanced from the Executive and that sentencing discretion is reduced in those two countries, since it too often produces perverse and unpredictable outcomes?
My right hon. Friend and predecessor knows better than many the nature of our relationship. I commend him for his work on this issue directly with the Bahrainis. As I have found in many cases, both public and private, I can commend the work that he has done and agree wholeheartedly with it. It is the strength of our relationship—the long-standing, strong and powerful relationship between the Government of the UK and the Government of Bahrain—that allows us to support improvements when they are put in place and to ensure that oversight bodies improve their independence and effectiveness. We will continue to push for that improvement.
I thank the Minister for his statement arising from this urgent question. The situation is now very serious, given that both Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa are at risk of imminent execution should their sentence, which is based on a torture-obtained confession, be upheld in five days’ time, so will the Minister ask our ambassador to Bahrain urgently to attend their trial in Bahrain as an international observer?
One by-product of the strength of our relationship is the ability of Her Majesty’s ambassador to attend trials of this nature in Bahrain. I have spoken to Her Majesty’s ambassador to Bahrain on a number of occasions about this very issue, most recently this morning. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain fully engaged and that the ambassador and his team are fully engaged in the country. If the Court of Cassation hands down a death sentence again, we will not stop at that point but will continue to dissuade the Bahrainis from utilising the death penalty.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments so far. It is clear that our relationship with Bahrain is not just strong and deep diplomatically, but exists across a range of areas, from business to the armed forces. Will he reassure the House that we will use that range of channels to encourage diplomatic, human rights and political reform in Bahrain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the strength of our relationship with Bahrain stretches across a number of areas, including commercial, military, security and social. I have said it a number of times, but it is worth repeating that it is because of the strength of our long-standing relationship that we are able to have difficult conversations with the Bahrainis on issues such as press freedom and human rights.
There are 24 prisoners on death row in Bahrain, of whom 10 are in imminent danger of execution. Those 10 include Zuhair Abdullah and Husain Rashid, whose cases I raised with the Foreign Secretary when he gave his statement on human rights abusers on Monday. His reply that the designation of abusers will be blind to ulterior considerations was somewhat undermined by the decision the next day by the Secretary of State for International Trade to resume the arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister look again at the responsibility of individuals in the Bahraini regime, and in particular Prince Nasser bin Hamad, the son of the King, who is alleged to have an involvement in torture going back to the Arab spring and whose diplomatic immunity was removed by the High Court here?
The hon. Gentleman conflates two fundamentally different issues when he talks about the export licences and our sanctions regime. The sanctions regime that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary put forward this week highlights the huge importance that Her Majesty’s Government put on enhancing and protecting human rights. Individuals were sanctioned, and I am proud of the fact that we were able to put those sanctions into force. We will continue to protect human rights and we will continue to encourage Governments around the world, including in the Gulf, to improve their record on human rights. We will do so both publicly and privately and in the most effective way, whatever that is.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right to a fair trial is enshrined in the constitution of Bahrain, so we must encourage the Government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bahraini Government have demonstrated a desire to improve. They want to have a free and robust judicial system, and we want to help them to do that. Through technical assistance, we will help to encourage improvements in the core institutions of Bahraini society.
Under Bahrain and Britain’s integrated activity fund, the special investigation unit in Bahrain has received UK taxpayer-funded training through the College of Policing, but that institution has now been shown to be complicit in the whitewashed investigation that led to these men’s death sentences being reimposed. Will the right hon. Gentleman now halt any support for the Bahraini oversight institutions, which have demonstrated that they do no more than facilitate the whitewashing of human rights abuses and allow an escalation in the usage of the death penalty?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not currently provide funding or training to the Bahraini Royal Academy of Policing. The UK has been providing a range of technical and practical assistance to the Government of Bahrain since 2013 to bring about improvements in the robustness of their oversight bodies. Where abuses have taken place, public servants have been brought to justice, and my understanding is that 97 police officers or prison officers have been brought to justice due in significant part to the oversight bodies that the UK Government have helped to strengthen and improve.
I understand—nobody has mentioned this so far—that both men were convicted on one confession and on forensic evidence and victim and witness testimony, including mobile phone records and text messages that co-ordinated the attack that lured police officers into a deadly trap. One policeman was killed and others, including civilians, were badly hurt. I visited Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight body, and I was impressed by its independence and its reports—it can go anywhere. I do not support the death penalty, and I hope that if the sentences are upheld on Monday, His Majesty the King of Bahrain will commute them. However, does the Minister agree that Bahrain’s judicial system is pretty fair and very open to scrutiny, especially when looking around the rest of the middle east?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend. I am not in a position to go into the details of all the evidence that was put forward in the trial of the two men, but the oversight bodies that the UK Government support, including the Court of Cassation, have been able to conduct oversight of the process. We want to support the judiciary in Bahrain to continue to improve. Indeed, we are pleased, following work with the Bahrainis, that they are now moving to alternative sentencing to reduce the number of people in incarceration and are learning from the UK about reducing the prison population and overcrowding in prisons. We want to continue to support the Bahrainis as they move in the right direction when it comes to their criminal justice system.
The vast majority of residents in Kensington want to see the end of the death penalty across the world. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to achieve that end?
My hon. Friend is right; the UK, both in society and in government, is opposed to the death penalty across the world. We make that point clearly and regularly to our friends around the world, and we will continue to push for that in general. Indeed, in the instance of these two individuals, if the Court of Cassation upholds the death sentence—the decision has not yet been made—we will continue to lobby the Bahrainis for it not to be imposed in this case.
The United Kingdom and the kingdom of Bahrain enjoy a close and enduring relationship born out of friendship and marked by genuine affection and mutual respect. British values, not race or religion, characterise our people and we place the sanctity of human rights above all considerations. That being indisputable, will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that human rights remain at the heart of every policy of Her Majesty’s Government, including foreign policy, and that that is exemplified by their designation of Bahrain as a human rights priority country?
My hon. Friend is right; human rights are absolutely at the heart of this Government’s foreign policy. They are a topic that I discuss regularly with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who leads for Her Majesty’s Government on human rights. We will continue to push for improvements on human rights around the world with all our friends and partners internationally. I assure him and the House that that will remain absolutely at the heart of foreign policy. It is a point on which the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are rightly proud.
Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the UK’s College of Policing continued to provide training to the ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Bahraini special investigation unit in 2019. Will the Minister inform the House what the College of Policing’s training covers on the treatment of prisoners, the use of torture and the threat of the death penalty against prisoners?
As I have said on a number of occasions, the United Kingdom strongly opposes the use of the death penalty and the use of torture. Our technical assistance to those oversight bodies is to ensure that they improve their effectiveness and transparency. That is what the work of the UK Government, in conjunction with the Bahraini Government, is seeking to achieve, and we will continue to push for the improved accountability, transparency and effectiveness of such oversight bodies.
I begin by thanking the constituents of mine who raised this issue with me. It serves as a reminder to the Bahraini Government of how badly these cases affect their reputation among residents of the world, including in Crewe and Nantwich. We have covered the importance of judicial reform and political reform. Will my right hon. Friend update us on what progress we have made in discussing freedom of religion with the Bahraini royal family?
Freedom of religion is also a cornerstone of our force for good in UK foreign policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) works with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on protection for religious freedom; he will take an interest in my hon. Friend’s point. We very much impress upon our friends around the world the importance of religious freedom, and we will do so with regard to Bahrain as well.
If their death sentences are confirmed, Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa will have exhausted all their legal remedies and will face imminent execution. What is the Minister’s assessment of the efficacy of the Government’s encouragement of Bahrain to follow due process and meet its international human rights obligations?
As I have said, the existence of the oversight bodies is in part because of the work that the UK has done with Bahrain. We will seek to continue to improve the effectiveness and transparency of those oversight bodies. That will be an enduring function of our relationship with the Bahrainis.
My right hon. Friend has already referred to this in answer to a previous question, but given the key importance that a truly free press has in ensuring human rights, will he provide further assurances to the House that the Government will take every possible step to safeguard press freedoms in Bahrain?
As I have said, we do have concerns about the diversity of the press in Bahrain. It is part of the reason why Bahrain remains a human rights priority country for the UK. We know that there is proposed legislation, and we will encourage the Bahrainis to bring this forward swiftly.
It seems to be the case—I want to understand why—that the FCO has defended the Bahraini ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit, which it seems to want to improve, in its clearly flawed and heavily influenced investigations into the extraction of so-called confessions by torture from Mohammed and Hussain. If we are to have any continuing measure of international legitimacy, we must not be seen to be supporting regimes, and agencies within regimes, that whitewash allegations of torture, resulting in totally disgraceful death sentences on bogus charges simply for voicing dissent. There is no time to monitor a journey by Bahrain on human rights. I appeal to the Minister not to rest for a second on this issue as it is a matter of justice and of life and death.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have raised these oversight bodies. It is important that there is oversight of the process, so oversight bodies need to exist. It is important that those oversight bodies improve, and we are seeking to improve them. The Government of Bahrain desire to improve those oversight bodies and we are helping them to do so. Where a country with which we have had relations for more than two centuries explicitly seeks to improve the transparency, effectiveness and resilience of its institutions, we will seek to help it provide that improvement.
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 three minutes.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing Monday 13 July will include:
Monday 13 July—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill, followed by consideration of a procedural motion, followed by all stages of the Stamp Duty Land Tax (Temporary Relief) Bill, followed by motion relating to the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Tuesday 14 July—Remaining stages of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.
Wednesday 15 July—Opposition day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party, subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism.
Thursday 16 July—Second reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill, followed by general debate on restoration and renewal.
Friday 17 July—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business next week and for arranging the statement later today on Baroness Cumberlege’s report, “First Do No Harm”. I acknowledge the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who started asking questions in 2011 and has managed to lobby three Prime Ministers, as a result of which we have an excellent report and the survivors will finally get justice.
The shadow Chancellor said, “Thanks for the meal deal, but we were promised a new deal.” We do not appear to have had that new deal. We are encouraged to eat out, and I wonder whether, in the autumn statement, there will be vouchers for the gym.
The Chancellor was right that there is a nobility of work. Where is the nobility of work for the 12,000 staff at British Airways? Where is the nobility of work for the 3,000 Rolls-Royce staff, or the nobility of work for our manufacturing sector, with over 1,000 jobs being lost at JLR in the west midland? Our hard-pressed health workers have no pay rise, and the retail sector was again left out. There was nothing for local newspapers, which have said they would like a further business rate holiday. The News Media Association says that since the start of the pandemic advertising revenue has declined by 80%. Could that be inserted in next week’s debate?
The Prime Minister will not apologise. Will the Leader of the House give us a mea culpa? On 30 April, I received this from the manager of a residential care home in my constituency:
“We have only just had our number of deaths declared which is appalling. We alone lost eight residents…(our little family). We have let families see them when they are near to the end of their lives. We have had lots of sad moments and has a thought had been given to us? NO. We are the forgotten ones. Many sleepless nights have been done thinking of our beloved residents (family). WE WOULD JUST LIKE SOME EQUALITY TO THE NHS. We deserve a national badge like the NHS.”
Carers have left their homes to stay in residential homes to look after the residents there. The Prime Minister has said that too many care homes do not follow procedures, but does he really know about procedures? Is it following procedures to go to Durham for an eye test, or to a holiday home in Greece? If he will not apologise, perhaps he could cover the cost of TV licences for the over-70s. Age UK says that nine in 10 respondents said that TV was more important to them since the pandemic. Could coverage of that social policy be inserted into the package next week?
There is no business for the third week after this. Could the Leader of the House schedule time for a debate on early-day motion 593?
[That this House recognises the life-changing injustices experienced by subpostmasters throughout the Horizon scandal; notes with the deepest sadness that subpostmasters have served custodial sentences and suffered bankruptcy for offences they did not commit; recognises the role of the Government in prolonging this crisis through not fulfilling their role of shareholder representation on the board of Post Office Limited; expresses concern at the scope and formation of the inquiry currently outlined by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and strongly urges the Government to institute a judge-led public inquiry into this matter at the earliest opportunity.]
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), said in the House that there would be an independent review on the Horizon IT scandal. It is now a month since he made that statement. The Government website said that the review would come “shortly”. The EDM is calling for a judge-led independent inquiry. People have served custodial sentences and gone bankrupt, and they were totally innocent. This is what the judge said when he gave judgment:
“the Post Office…has resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation”.
That means that the Post Office was dragging it out so that the victims did not get any recompense or as much as they should have done—it was all tied up in legal fees. This was a terrible injustice and we need to learn the lessons.
May we have clarification on the statement on the £1.57 billion for the arts, because it does not contain clear guidelines on funding scope, timing or eligibility? The statement says that the guidelines will be made “shortly”. May we have a statement on exactly what the guidelines are and when “shortly” is?
I am a bit upset because the Leader of the House does not appear to be answering my questions on Nazanin, Anousheh, Kylie and, of course, Luke Symons. May we have an update, as we have had Foreign Office questions and even a statement by the Foreign Secretary on global human rights? Finally, may we have an urgent debate on our borders and smuggling, as it seems there might be some dispute within Cabinet?
Let me answer straight away the right hon. Lady’s question on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, because, as I promised last week, I have taken this up with the Foreign Office. I have spoken to a Minister at the Foreign Office and I can give her the reassurance, which I hope will provide some comfort, that this is absolutely top of their list of priorities and they are continuing to work to secure Nazanin’s release. The matter is taken seriously by the Foreign Office, as it should be.
I share the right hon. Lady’ wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on the terrific work she did, which led ultimately to the Cumberlege report. I was a member of her all-party group on Primodos, and I think the work done there is of fundamental importance. I am pleased with and welcome the Cumberlege report, which the Government are of course looking into before responding to fully. This is an example of how this place can be used to make things happen and to make things change using procedures within Parliament. That is always welcome.
I am not sure whether the right hon. Lady welcomed the new deal or not. She was just a little grudging about this incredible support being provided to businesses up and down the country. The record is remarkable: 9.3 million jobs on the furlough scheme, costing the taxpayer £25.5 billion; and 2.6 million self-employed people being supported, at a cost of £7.7 billion. If that does not show that the Government understand the nobility of work, I do not know what does. The Government have put taxpayers’ money where their mouth is to ensure that jobs are protected and kept, and that the structure of the economy is maintained. The next package is a £30 billion one. It is really important to understand the fundamentally different nature of this crisis from the one that hit in 2008. Then, we were facing a crisis of over-expenditure, bad management of the economy and fundamental failings, whereas now we face a collapse in demand created by a pandemic and the right response is fundamentally different from the one we had in 2010, which has very successfully left us in a position where we can afford these extraordinary but necessary measures.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the concerns about care homes. The work done by people in care homes has been remarkable, in the most difficult circumstances, and the Government have done everything they can to support them. That has partly been through the funds sent to local authorities, with the £600 million infection control fund to ensure that the money is there to help care homes; through the overhaul of the way personal protective equipment is delivered, to ensure that that is available to people in care homes; and through ensuring that the workforce is expanded through a new recruitment campaign, so that people are there to help where they are needed. But I share her view that the work done in care homes is of fundamental importance, and I would dispute her conclusion that they have been forgotten—they have not been forgotten and they are very much valued.
On TV licences, I think the right hon. Lady’s message will be heard by the BBC and let us say to Auntie, “Come on, let’s be nice to the over-75s as they are some of your most loyal viewers and listeners, and it would be right to allow them to continue to watch television for free.”
On EDM 593 and the Horizon scandal, there is no worse scandal than imprisoning people or unjustly taking away their livelihoods when they are accused of crimes that they did not commit. The seriousness of what the right hon. Lady has raised is well known, and again it shows how the procedures of this House may be used to right wrongs—our historical role of redress of grievance.
We had an urgent question on the money going to the arts, and amazingly, for once, a Government package was actually welcomed by everybody. I think it was a great triumph generally for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, who managed to put together an amazing package supporting some of our most valued institutions, and that is extraordinarily welcome.
Finally, the borders issues will be sorted out—things are working, and there is a deadline set for July of next year—and we will always emphasise the unity of the United Kingdom.
The Chancellor’s eat out to help out voucher scheme for August is an absolute lifeline for the local economy in Eastbourne, and it will—I hope—promote wellbeing in bringing people together. With the ministerial team working so hard at present to bring back gyms, leisure centres and pools, might we consider, as complementary to that scheme, access to those places so that we can equally promote the physical wellbeing and get the nation up and running?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I cannot claim to be a native gym-goer personally. I did have to go occasionally in my childhood, and I have never quite recovered from the experience. However, many people up and down the country will be very keen to get back to sports centres, gymnasiums and swimming pools to get themselves into peak physical performance—and they can then compensate by eating out to get back the calories that they have just burned off in the gymnasium. The voucher scheme is time-limited to boost hospitality businesses and encourage people to unleash the latent demand that has been pent up over the past few months in a particularly vulnerable sector employing millions of people. I hope she understands that we are not able to offer such support to all sectors of the economy, but I am sure that my right hon Friend the Chancellor will look to support some industries that come under acute pressures in the coming months.
The Chancellor must be peeved that his grand announcement yesterday received such a mixed response, with many industry bodies saying it is insufficient. When we debate these plans on Monday, will the Leader of the House try to persuade his right hon. Friend to listen to others and seek consensus? It is increasingly bizarre that the Chancellor insists on a one-size-fits-all approach to business support, when everyone else knows that different sectors are affected differently. The fact is that, come the autumn, there will be many businesses which would in normal circumstances be perfectly viable that cannot trade because of public health restrictions. As the chief strategist of J. P. Morgan said yesterday:
“Removing the furlough scheme before activity has recovered is like building three quarters of a bridge and not finishing it because it is becoming expensive”.
Secondly, I want to ask again for a debate on the financial straitjacket under which the devolved Administrations are forced to operate. Every time I ask about devolution powers, the Leader of the House gives me an answer about money. I am not sure if he is evading the question or he does not understand it. The fiscal framework of devolution was not designed to respond to a global pandemic, and it needs to be changed. To give this week’s example, the arts rescue package announced on Monday includes repurposing capital spending in England, so why will the Government not allow the Scottish Government to do the same? We hear from many Cabinet members that Scotland’s salvation is due to the strong arms of the Union, implying that only big countries can deal with the pandemic, but that is not true. In fact, many small countries have proven more agile and effective, but if the Leader of the House does believe this, can he explain why support for Scotland becoming an independent country is now running at 54%, an all-time historical high?
Finally, can the Leader of the House confirm whether, in next week’s debate about restoration and renewal, the Government will bring forward their own, revised plans? In particular, does he believe that the decision to build a complete replica of the House of Commons Chamber for a temporary decant is profligate and ought to be reviewed?
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Chancellor is peeved, but as his own happy countenance looks down upon us, we know that he himself, in his cheerful, jolly and bonhomous way, would never be peeved—it is hard to think of a less peevish person.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the furlough scheme, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is absolutely right: the furlough scheme cannot go on forever. It has been an amazing effort by the taxpayer to ensure that the structure of the economy is maintained and, therefore, that we can have a V-shaped recovery. However, the Government—the taxpayer—cannot afford indefinitely to provide this level of support. Therefore, October seems to me to be about the right date.
The hon. Gentleman complains that he does not like the answer I gave him on the fiscal settlement for Scotland, but I have good news for him: the figure I gave him last week is lower than the figure I shall give him this week. Owing to the strength of the United Kingdom, the Barnett consequentials have led to £4.6 billion being available to be spent in Scotland. That shows the success of the economic management of the United Kingdom over 10 years of coalition and Conservative Government. The ability to answer the challenges of 2008 and to ensure that the public sector finances got back into proper shape so that we could afford to deal with a fundamentally different crisis, which required a different response and the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, is a tribute to the strength of the United Kingdom. Where would Scotland be had it gone for independence in 2014, with its revenue dependent on the oil price, which has subsequently collapsed? It would be bankrupt. The hon. Gentleman calls for bankruptcy; Her Majesty’s Government have provided solvency and support for the people of the whole United Kingdom.
In regard to restoration and renewal, we will debate that next week.
Buckinghamshire has more microbusinesses than any other county in the country and, consequently, a large number of directors of very small companies. Many of those directors pay themselves primarily through dividends, to reflect the variations in their cash flow. Sadly, they have not been able to benefit directly from the Government’s extremely generous support schemes for salaried workers and the self-employed. Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the value that small company directors bring to our economy, with their spirit of entrepreneurship, their willingness to take risks and the employment opportunities that they bring to others?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the crucial matter of the value that small company directors bring to our economy—or rather the directors of small companies; they themselves are not necessarily small. Many excellent small businesses exist in his constituency, and I am sure they will be grateful to him for bringing our attention to them today and, indeed, in yesterday’s general debate on the economy following the Chancellor’s announcement. It is absolutely fundamental that small businesses are supported, which is why so much has been done. The lifeblood of the economy flows from small businesses; they are the ones who generate our wealth and who allow us to pay for the public services that we need, so it is crucial that the self-employed are helped, as they are being by the Chancellor’s comprehensive plans.
Given that we have another scheduled general debate in Government time next Thursday, can I again appeal to the Leader of the House for time for Backbench Business Committee debates? I know that these are exceptional circumstances, but we have had only one day and 90 minutes’ worth of debate since the general election. This week, there are two days of estimates debates, and although the subjects were determined by the Committee, we do that work on behalf of the Liaison Committee, whose time it really is. The first estimates day, on Tuesday, was not afforded any measure of protected time, resulting in three 80-minute debates, severely restricted speaking time and some Members missing out.
We are also getting requests for time from Select Committee Chairs who want to make report launch statements, but we cannot facilitate them. We know we do not have time next week, so if the Leader of the House, in the course of today’s exchanges, refers Members to the Backbench Business Committee, given that more than 20 debates are waiting to be held, that suggestion will lack a measure of legitimacy. I suggest to Members that, if the Leader of the House does refer them to the Backbench Business Committee, they look at him wistfully—and possibly disapprovingly—while shaking their finger, because it will be a response, given the record, that currently lacks validity.
The Backbench Business Committee does very important work in ensuring that issues that Back Benchers are concerned about are brought to the wider attention of the British people. There were a number of Backbench Business debates facilitated by the Government, as general debates, before the Backbench Business Committee was established, and we did our best to ensure that the general debates early in this Session were of interest to the Backbench Business Committee, but the hon. Gentleman rightly points out the pressures on parliamentary time. Members want urgent questions answered and statements delivered, and that inevitably pressurises the timetable. We have also given time to the Petitions Committee, because without Westminster Hall, it does not have its general slot, so I think the overall record of delivering time for Back-Bench debates has been generous, even if it has not specifically benefited the hon. Gentleman’s Committee.
In the light of the 1,400 redundancies announced at Airbus in Broughton this week, which will seriously impact on my constituency, will my right hon. Friend find time for my fellow north Wales blue wall MPs and I to have a debate on Government support for the aviation and aerospace sector to see what more could be done over and above the £6 billion of sectoral support that has been provided to date?
Six billion pounds is an important amount of support, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the work being done by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and HM Treasury over the past week to support local jobs in his constituency. Aviation and aerospace companies are vital to the economy, which is why the support has already been there, including time to pay, support for employees and loans. These are designed to ensure that companies of any size receive the help that they need to get through this difficult time—airports, airlines and the wider supply chain. We will continue to work closely with the companies affected and we are open to offering further support, so long as all other Government schemes and commercial options have been exhausted, including raising capital from existing investors. We will consult on what we can do on aviation taxes. The Chancellor will say more on that in due course.
I welcome the answer that the Leader of the House has just given, because aviation, aerospace and our local airports are all struggling and need help. I hope that there will be time for a full and proper debate, but was the Leader of the House as shocked as I was by the Northern Ireland Health Minister, who proposed to close air links between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of his public health strategy? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is completely and totally unacceptable, and will he ensure and make a commitment from the Dispatch Box that links with Northern Ireland will remain open as a priority?
I am as astonished as the hon. Gentleman, and I was even more astonished when I discovered that the comment was made by a Unionist. It sounded more like Nicola Sturgeon’s famous wall that she metaphorically wishes to build, and I am sorry that a Unionist would ever take that view. We are one United Kingdom and we must maintain all our links.
The business community in Padstow has highlighted an anomaly with me today around street trading. We currently have henna tattooists and braiders working from the quay while our beauty salons and tattoo parlours are closed. Will the Leader of the House bring forward some time to discuss this loophole, to see how we can help legitimate businesses in Padstow that are paying business rates, rather than those that pay no rates and are currently using the system?
We will inevitably discuss these issues. My hon. Friend is championing his constituency interest in the way he always does—in a noble way—for which he deserves great credit. Obviously, businesses are opening up at a different pace and it is a question about spreading the risk to ensure that more and more businesses can open safely, but Her Majesty’s Government are keen that all businesses should be able to open safely.
Does the Leader of the House share my disappointment that, nearly 24 hours on from yesterday’s summer economic update, the Scottish Government have yet to have the full extent of the Barnett consequentials of that announcement confirmed? It is not an uncommon situation for the Scottish Government to have to wait several days for that detail to feed through, which makes the UK Government look rather incompetent and discourteous. As somebody who clearly takes great care to be neither of those things, will the Leader of the House be good enough to arrange for a relevant Minister to come to the House to make a statement on behalf of the Treasury to explain why these problems appear to be a built-in feature of the Treasury’s approach to such matters, rather than just an occasional glitch in the system?
I am glad to say that the Barnett consequentials so far are £4.6 billion, so there is a substantial amount of money, thanks to the strength of the United Kingdom, going to the Scottish Government. The Barnett consequentials relate to a well-established formula. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, a very distinguished Labour figure, established the formula, I think in the prime ministership of Harold Wilson—it was either Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan—and it has been the way in which money has been distributed ever since. That money flows, and that is the important thing.
Last month at Great Western Park and in the Ladygrove area of my constituency, we had unauthorised Traveller encampments descend. Local residents were subjected to noise, mess, vandalism and other antisocial behaviour for close to a week. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are developing proposals to actively tackle that, so that our constituents do not have to deal with it for so long, and that those proposals will be brought to this House as soon as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and commend him for the work he is doing to champion the concerns of the people of Wantage, which is the birthplace, of course, of Alfred the Great. Although the majority of Travellers obey the law, we recognise that unauthorised encampments can cause significant distress to local residents with antisocial or criminal behaviour. The Government consulted on measures to enable the police to tackle unauthorised encampments more effectively and will publish a response to the consultation in due course. As the then Housing Minister, now the Foreign Secretary, said when launching the consultation:
“We must promote a tolerant society and make sure there are legal sites available for Travellers, but equally the rule of law must be applied to everyone.”
Please may we have a debate on what the Government can do to support our steel industry? Today, Community union and others are launching a campaign to highlight how we need our steel. A debate would give hon. Members an opportunity to press Ministers to commit to using Britain’s steel as we rebuild, and to getting all Departments signed up to the steel charter.
The hon. Lady is a great champion of the steel industry and has been for a long time, and the Government are very keen to help all industry. That is why the plans that have been put in place are to help the whole of the British economy, and that seems to be working well. It seems to be helping keep people in work, which is absolutely essential. As regards a specific debate, quite often before the start of a recess there is an Adjournment debate that allows a wide range of topics to be debated. I would not like to give away what I am going to say next week, but it may be possible that such a debate will be facilitated.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the live export of animals? I was horrified to learn that yet again we will have more consultation on the subject. All Members are being inundated with emails about the import and export of real fur. Exporting live animals is cruel and needs to stop. We do not need any more consultation.
My hon. Friend makes his case as always with passion and energy. One of the manifold advantages of leaving the European Union is that we will be able to make these types of laws for ourselves, and we will not have to give way to a higher power. His energetic championing of these issues in Parliament will have its consequences.
On 12 May, I told the Chancellor about Ranjith Chandrapala, a bus driver from Hanwell in my constituency who died of covid-19. I asked the Chancellor to extend the Government’s covid-19 life assurance scheme for health and care workers’ families to others, including the families of bus drivers such as Ranjith. The Chancellor did not answer directly and his team said I should ask the Transport Secretary. I have now received a response from the Minister responsible for buses saying that support provided to key workers on the frontline will continue to be reviewed across Government. Will the Leader of the House invite the Transport Secretary to make a statement before recess explaining once and for all whether and when the Government will do the right thing and extend the life assurance scheme to the families of transport workers like Ranjith who have died during the outbreak?
The hon. Gentleman raises a sad and important case and an issue that should concern us all. I will happily undertake what he has asked me to do and raise this issue with the Secretary of State for Transport to try to ensure that he gets a complete answer.
I am privileged to be the honorary president of the Buckinghamshire Campaign to Protect Rural England, and its latest report, which is called “Greener, better, faster”, makes great reading. It sets out how the countryside itself can provide many of the solutions to tackling climate breakdown. Can the Leader of the House encourage his colleagues to hold a debate on this report in Government time to give us the opportunity to highlight further the ways in which we can support the transformational change needed across society to reach net zero emissions and at the same time preserving our landscapes, habitats and the wildlife living in them? I understand that Ministers have responded positively to the recommendations, and such a debate would enable them to put on record their support for the CPRE’s sterling work, which benefits us all.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. I have not yet read the report that she refers to, but I hope she will agree that the Government want to ensure that our economic recovery is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Many of the measures announced by the Chancellor yesterday will ensure that that is the case. We are already championing innovative and eco-friendly technologies, and our ambitious Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills will enable us to protect our precious natural environment and diverse ecosystems for years to come, in line with the legal commitment for a net zero economy by 2050. Along with my right hon. Friend, I and many others representing rural constituencies want to see the country’s rural economy coming firmly back to life in the next few months. Our countryside is far more than an attraction to preserve in aspic; it is made by the millions of people who live and work there, and I believe the Government must do all they can to support rural lives and livelihoods throughout this recovery.
People living with phenylketonuria—PKU— which is a genetic condition that means they cannot process proteins well, have been waiting for a drug called Kuvan for many years. It has been available for 11 years, and it is long overdue for them to be able to access that therapy. Will the Leader of the House schedule a debate in Government time to look at how we can ensure that people are able to access Kuvan for the benefit of their health and their lives?
When each and every one of us as constituency MPs has a case where there is a drug available and there is a constituent who cannot get access to that drug, it is one of the issues we always pursue with the most single-minded vigour, and that is absolutely the right thing to do. I have had representations made to me by my constituents about PKU, and I therefore have great sympathy with what the hon. Lady says. I would encourage her to continue making that case, and the hint I gave about the Adjournment debate may also be useful to her.
Laughing gas or nitrous oxide, as it is also known, is becoming the cigarette butt of our time. I am sure Members across the House are seeing an increasing number of those toxic silver cannisters piling up across their neighbourhoods, as in Bolton. This is a scourge on our society and no parent wants their child exposed to that sea of silver. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are in need of a new debate on how to put an end to what is no laughing matter?
My hon. Friend is getting into the bad pun territory that I thought was the preserve of the Leader of the House.
I understand the seriousness of this issue, and I sympathise with the point that he is making. It is very unpleasant to see this type of litter and he is right to understand the concerns that parents have. It is an offence to supply nitrous oxide if the vendor knows or is insufficiently aware of the fact that it would be used for psychoactive effect. Concerns about the supply of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects can be reported to the police and problems caused by the consumption of intoxicating substances in public places can and should be reported to local authorities. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to put his views directly to Ministers during the Adjournment debate on tackling the misuse of nitrous oxide on Tuesday 21 July.
Today the Leader of the House will receive a letter from me and other MPs setting out why it was illegal to pass a rule that said that 250 MPs should be excluded from parliamentary debate, that Parliament is in fact not empowered to remove the source of its own legitimacy, and that the vote itself was illegal because it excluded those 250 MPs. Will he undertake to ensure that he responds to this letter within seven days, with a view to resuming hybrid operations in this Parliament, or else at least sets out in full the counter-arguments to these arguments? Will he make arrangements for a full debate on this matter that includes all those people who have been excluded, without personal risk, in order that we can all get back to full operational work in this place, using the technology available, and do not have to resort to the courts?
I have not yet received the hon. Gentleman’s letter, although I look forward to doing so with bated breath—the excitement that awaits me at the end of this session is almost overwhelming. However, this House made its decision. It made its decision in a legitimate vote. We have exclusive cognisance of our affairs. We made the right decision. We are back to work. We are legislating effectively. The Government are being held to account. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and the hon. Gentleman, when he feels that he is well enough to come back, will be enormously welcome. [Interruption.]
I do not think that is quite acceptable from the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and I hope he will be sending an apology to the Leader of the House.
Local bus services have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus, but this decline is nothing new: we are seeing a third fewer bus journeys in Stoke-on-Trent than a decade ago. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate in Government time to consider how we might reverse this trend and aid our recovery?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising a matter that is of great importance to all our constituents, as I am sure that his constituents in Stoke-on-Trent would agree. Buses are a lifeline for people who need to travel for work or to buy food, and for all the other purposes where public transport is needed. The Government have committed over £650 million to keep buses running and increase services for those who need them, while also allowing for social distancing while travelling. We have announced a £5 billion package to improve local bus services, as well as a new national bus strategy, which will include Britain’s first-ever all-electric bus town and new low-fare, high-frequency super-bus networks. Bus services received £2.1 billion last year, and since 2010 annual support from the public sector has been 16% higher in real terms than it was under the last Labour Government.
Again the Prime Minister’s special adviser is in the news. As well as regularly sharing his many views on our nation’s defence on his very public blog, he is now going to be visiting sensitive MOD sites in the middle of a defence review. Could the Leader of the House find some parliamentary time so that the Minister for the Cabinet Office can share with us what changes have been made to the code of conduct for special advisers?
It is quite right that those who advise the Prime Minister are able to get access to information, acting on the Prime Minister’s behalf. It is entirely proper and a normal thing to happen.
Tomorrow I shall be visiting a beauty salon in Cleethorpes. I hasten to add that this will not be for treatment, although I am sure that hon. Members would say I am probably in need of it. In answer to an earlier question, my right hon. Friend said that businesses must open safely. I think that beauty salons deserve an explanation as to what is needed in order to open safely. They are frustrated and angry. Could he arrange for a statement on Monday to explain the situation?
I cannot understand why the Adonis of Cleethorpes could possibly need to visit a beauty salon. Indeed, the people of Cleethorpes are renowned for their beauty across the nation. [Interruption.] Of course, except Somerset. The beauty sector is an important one, and it holds a key to our communities’ economic recovery. I understand the anxiety of those who own or work in such establishments and commend their keenness to return to work. My hon. Friend will be aware that non-essential retail can open, provided that they have been made covid-secure. Pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, as well as museums and places of worship, are now able to reopen, provided they are covid-secure. Our hope is to reopen gyms and leisure facilities in mid-July. Other close-contact services and tattoo and nail parlours will follow as soon as possible. The Government have been clear that they want to reopen the economy carefully and gradually, which is why some businesses that involve less sustained contact between people have opened before others.
I shall be heading to the gym next week, by the sounds of it, rather than the beauty salon.
As of December, the amount of Child Maintenance Service arrears in my constituency was £599,000—a staggering amount being denied to hard-pressed families. That situation is now exacerbated by shortfalls in payments due to paying parents’ loss of income during the covid-19 emergency. Can we have a debate in Government time on the operation of the Child Maintenance Service and how this vital family income can be protected?
It is obviously important that child maintenance is paid and that families have access to the funds they need. Universal credit has been working extremely well in helping families. Increased advances of up to 100% of a monthly payment and cutting the taper rate so that people keep more of their money are helping families in need, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about maintenance payments.
Can we have a debate on building standards for homes? Across our country, many more homes are being built, but more could be done to improve the standards to which they are built, particularly on the environment and digital connectivity. There are examples of new homes being finished very poorly. Constituents have contacted me to highlight disturbing quality problems and poor levels of customer service from some house builders in putting things right. If we have a debate, we will be able to address both issues.
I am very sympathetic to what my hon. Friend says. I think all of us have had constituents come to us who have bought new homes that have not been up to standard. I have one constituent whose home was actually unsafe in the way that it was delivered to him. It is important that we build more homes, and we need to be Macmillanesque in our ambition, but they need to be good-quality homes. They need to be safe, comfortable and energy-efficient but also beautiful, in the hope that they will survive through the generations in the way that some of the houses we have in this country have survived. Those living in new build homes must feel confident that their property is safe and of high quality. We will ensure that a new houses ombudsman is established and legislate to require developers to belong to it. That will offer better protection for homebuyers, resolve disputes and improve quality. The Government have taken bold steps to reopen the housing market safely in recent weeks following the crisis, and we are taking a number of legislative measures to make construction easier and quicker and to bring forward transactions by suspending stamp duty for house sales under £500,000 until next March.
I, too, welcome many of the measures announced yesterday, particularly the further support for the hospitality sector. The Leader of the House has just said that the Government’s intention is for gyms to reopen in mid-July if those leisure facilities are deemed to be covid-safe. The Prime Minister said last week that a statement on their future was imminent. Can we have an indication from the Leader of the House of when that statement will happen, so that our gyms, pools and leisure centres—and, for that matter, remaining retail businesses such as beauticians—can begin to plan for the new normal?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome of what is being done for the hospitality sector; I am grateful for this level of cross-party support. Imminent is imminent. I cannot do more than reiterate the Prime Minister’s words, although perhaps we should consult the great dictionary of Dr Johnson—not an ancestor, I believe—to see what “imminent” means.
Education is meant to be something where science, technology, history and philosophy come together and where diversity of thought is debated and explored—where children are taught how to think, not what to think. Sadly, that seems to be less often the case. Several students came to me yesterday and said, “We no longer feel that we are allowed to share our opinions if they are contrary to that of the pervasive world view within the school and integrated curriculum.” Can we have a debate in Government time on the importance of protecting free speech and diversity of opinion in education? Like the BBC’s remit, why should schools not be required to present multiple sides of political, historical and philosophical debate?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Freedom of speech is fundamental to how our society operates. Democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the rights of property are the four pillars on which our constitution is built—a constitution that has thrived through the centuries. If we take away freedom of speech, we undermine all the other pillars that have supported our constitution.
It is a requirement in state-funded schools to teach a broad and balanced curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at schools, and that must be done in a way that encourages freedom of speech. The key to that is that we all have to accept the right of people to express views not only that we do not like but that, on occasions, we even find offensive. If we accept only views that we like and find unchallenging, there is no freedom of speech.
There are 16 Members still trying to catch my eye. I would like to get you all in, but succinct questions and answers, please.
Earlier this week, I chaired a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health. We heard about a worrying rise in urgent mental health referrals and a similarly worrying reduction in routine referrals, flagging up a probable pent-up demand on mental health services. May we have a debate on how the NHS can be helped to deal with the mental health consequences of the pandemic?
This is a matter of concern to everybody across the House and has become a major priority. Mental health funding increased to £12.5 billion in 2018-19, and that will go up by £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24 to support an extra 380,000 adults and 345,000 children. There has been £9.2 million of additional funding to mental health charities during this crisis. This is an issue that the Government take really seriously, as do Members across the House.
May I say how delighted I am that the Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is coming forward? As co-chair of the APPG on local democracy, I know that town and parish councils across the country have had to pay huge amounts over the last few years to try to keep public toilets open, and that many have faced huge financial pressures that have forced them to close toilets. The Bill will be a lifeline to many of them, especially with the extra covid costs they have faced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, alongside the many other recent measures we have introduced to help local councils, this will be a major additional boost, ensuring that public toilets remain available and are not closed, and helping our high streets and those with hidden disabilities?
The taxation of toilets has been an issue since the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, who famously said “pecunia non olet”—“money does not stink”. He thought it was quite reasonable to tax lavatorial facilities. Her Majesty’s Government take the opposite view and are keen to remove these taxes, and I hope it will be a relief to one and all.
On 26 June, The Telegraph’s news site announced that half of the UK’s imported covid-19 infections are from Pakistan. That had no basis in fact and no reference to expert evidence, but it was followed by The Sun, MailOnline and, soon afterwards, far-right groups stoking anti-Muslim propaganda. This was nothing short of hate speech, and I know that just by raising it I will be targeted by those on the right. Will the Leader of the House condemn The Telegraph and other media outlets for this irresponsible, offensive and racist reporting; will he report this incident to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, as I have done; and will he contact all media owners, including those in social media, to demand a stop to this hate propaganda?
The hon. Lady is right to report things that she thinks are inaccurate to IPSO; that is the purpose of the body. The press is self-regulated, and that is quite right. The Government should not intervene in the regulation of the press—if they seek to do that, they risk undermining freedom of speech—but equally, those protections are there. IPSO is there, and the hon. Lady is right to use it.
In recent decades, unfortunately, the environmentally important Sussex coast kelp forest has been seriously degraded. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment on the proposed signing of a byelaw to ensure that that kelp forest is protected for the future?
My hon. Friend always raises important points in this House. This, I understand, has been passed through the normal processes and a formal application is awaited by the relevant ministry. However, I will try to find him more information on the details of the subject.
It was good to hear from the Leader of the House about the motion on terrorism on Wednesday. I hope that that is to ban one of the extreme right-wing organisations that a number of us have been campaigning on, such as the Order of Nine Angles, which should not be operating in this country. I have heard that there are significant delays proposed to the online harms Bill, which comes on the back of the “Online Harms” White Paper. Will he explain what the Government’s plans are to bring that forward? As we heard in a group meeting with the all-party group against antisemitism this week, many extreme right-wing organisations that have antisemitic, racist, Islamophobic and homophobic ideology are organising, recruiting and grooming new followers online.
There is a full legislative programme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and Bills are being brought forward and processed rapidly by the House. We are doing well at achieving our constitutional obligations. In relation to the online harms Bill, the absence of the Bill does not remove the responsibility from the providers of these services to ensure that they are run and provided properly and that antisemitic material has no place on any properly run website.
Nail bars, beauty therapists, masseurs and tattoo artists, along with similar businesses, are an important part of our high streets, while dance studios, gyms, small outdoor festivals and swimming pools are an important part of our cultural life. All are very keen to get back to work and reopen. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to make themselves covid-safe, yet they have not yet opened. May I echo the call for an urgent statement on the specific reasons why certain sectors cannot open, what the barriers to opening are and how those barriers could be addressed?
Indeed. What is being done is ensuring that things open up in a progressed way so that the lowest risk activities open first and the higher risk ones open later to ensure that it is safe to do so. The programme being followed is being followed very safely and seems to be working. I said earlier that some further openings will happen in mid-July and that is now not very far off, so there is good news coming. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to be championing those businesses. They want to get back to business. The Government want them to be able to get back to business, but it has to be safe.
Feasgar math, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is good to see you. UK productivity is at the best of times 15.1% lower than the G7 average. When methods of improving productivity are found, it is always foolish to go backwards. Parliament should surely set an example to businesses and workers, so instead of me taking two flights to London to a Chamber which, as we can see behind the Leader of the House, has pandemic restrictions, we should continue with a safer, inclusive and more productive hybrid Parliament where votes can happen on an island Hebridean croft with exemplar efficiency compared with the overseas Westminster conga lines.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar makes his own argument for bringing Parliament back. May I say how much we miss him? Normally, we have some entertainment and forthright debate. We have the people of Na h-Eileanan an Iar beautifully and brilliantly represented. Whether the subject has anything to do with the hon. Gentleman or not, there is always a cat call or a few words of wisdom coming forth. Now, what do we have? We have some silent mutterings. He is on mute and we miss his dulcet tones. We want him back. He is the great argument for Parliament coming back physically.
Professional football clubs such as Blackpool FC are at the heart of their local communities, but many of them, especially those in leagues one and two, are suffering considerable financial difficulties because of the lack of matchday revenue. With no imminent prospect of gates returning any time soon, the fear is that over the summer successive football league clubs will enter administration because of covid-19. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be in order to have a debate in this place about sustainable finances for football league clubs and the steps that the Government can take to support them?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. Football clubs play a key role in the health and joy of communities throughout the country, especially in many of the northern towns and cities, like those in his constituency. Those clubs are not just sporting institutions, but vital for many local economies and livelihoods. I appreciate that the return of broadcast competitive sport behind closed doors does not really touch the joy and excitement of a full stadium of fans, whether we are talking about football, cricket or rugby—cricket is slightly more commonplace in my constituency. Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions took place only this morning, and I advise my hon. Friend to take the matter up further with that Department.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) about job losses at Airbus, I was pleased to hear the suggestion from the Leader of the House that help might now be available to prevent them. I am surprised, because when I asked the Chancellor about it yesterday, he was very clear that no more support was forthcoming. Although this U-turn is welcome, it is important that we get the Chancellor back to give another statement and confirm whether there will, in fact, be an aviation sector deal to prevent us from losing these highly skilled jobs, which we cannot afford to let go.
I will reiterate what I have said, because this has been Government policy for some time. We will continue to work closely with the companies affected and we are open to offering further support, so long as all other Government schemes and commercial options have been exhausted, including raising capital from existing investors. I think it was on the news this morning that a major company is at least keeping that option open. It is not all for the Government to do; existing investors have a responsibility as well. The position is that so long as all other Government schemes and commercial options have been exhausted, the Government are open to offering further support. That has been the position for some months.
Crime and antisocial behaviour continue to blight my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. I have been inundated by communications from residents of Tividale who have had to organise themselves into a street watch to combat crime and antisocial behaviour. Mr Speaker kindly granted me an Adjournment debate earlier this year, and I have raised this issue with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who came to my constituency and met my constituents. What advice would the Leader of the House give me and my constituents in Tividale about how to ensure that this issue is not brushed under the carpet and that they finally, after 20 years of broken promises, get their voices heard?
My hon. Friend does not need any advice from me. He clearly knows how to use parliamentary procedures to raise an important issue that affects his constituency. It is our duty as MPs to help to ensure that our communities are safe and secure, and that their law-abiding members feel confidence as they go about their business. The Government are doing the right things. We have already taken on an extra 3,000 new police officers, which is part of the aim to employ another 20,000 in total. I commend my hon. Friend for what he has done so far and encourage him to carry on badgering us all until he is satisfied.
The Ministry of Defence owes Iran more than £400 million and has said that it wants to pay that debt, but the Government have fought paying that debt for more than 20 years in the international courts. In 2017, the Iranian ambassador put on social media that the money was about to be sent. Can we please have a debate in Government time about the delay in settling our debt to Iran?
Iran is not necessarily the most friendly regime to the United Kingdom, and we have to look at our relationship with Iran in the round, but I will happily take up the hon. Lady’s point with the Foreign Office.
According to reports, an estimated 40 million people across the world are victims of modern slavery. In the UK we have first-rate legislation to combat modern slavery, but we have recently heard the stories of what has occurred in Leicester, where victims of modern slavery are also becoming victims of covid-19. Can we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the measures the Government are taking to combat modern slavery and bring to justice the evil perpetrators so that they suffer for the crime that they are committing against humanity?
My hon. Friend is so right to raise this point. The evil of modern-day slavery should not be underestimated. We were the first country to publish a Government statement on modern slavery setting out the steps we have taken to identify and prevent modern slavery in supply chains, and that was one of the great achievements of the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). The Home Office has launched a new single competent authority to handle cases of modern slavery and a new digital system, making it easier for those on the frontline to refer victims for support, and that has allowed us to identify more victims than ever before.
Last year, over 10,000 potential victims were referred—52% higher than 2018—and it is worrying in itself that there should be such a high number. A high number is an indication that we are introducing policies that help, but it cannot be an indication of success, because if there is any modern-day slavery, that is in and of itself not a success. Some 1,600 police operations are ongoing, which is not far off tenfold the number only four years ago, but we have to go further. Modern-day slavery is an evil, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight it.
I realise that the Chancellor had a lot on his plate yesterday, but unfortunately there seemed to be no announcements regarding the green potential of hydrogen. The UK is well placed to leap forwards both in hydrogen production, especially from wind farms, but also vehicle manufacture, notably buses from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire and construction vehicles and trucks. May we have an early debate to stimulate not just discussion, but some urgent decisions?
Thanks to the Chancellor’s innovative scheme, we will all have a lot on our plate on some days in August—more on our plate than we might have been anticipating. As regards hydrogen, the right hon. Gentleman rightly raises an important point about an environmentally friendly source of energy. Yesterday’s statement was 20 minutes long and inevitably could not cover everything. As I said, there may possibly be a debate on matters to be considered before the forthcoming Adjournment, which will be an opportunity to raise the subject, but the right hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian and knows better than I do how to get things raised in this House.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has just started a full investigation into the Electoral Commission to see whether it complies with the seven pillars of standards in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is clear to me that the Electoral Commission complies with none of them following its political pursuit of leave campaigners after the EU referendum. May we have a debate on the Electoral Commission? Such a request would normally be for Westminster Hall, so is there any chance that we can get back to Westminster Hall and have a debate on the Electoral Commission?
My hon. Friend raises some serious concerns. The Electoral Commission should clearly be like Caesar’s wife: it should be above suspicion, and there should be no stain on it or fear of partiality of any kind. If there is any question, it is right that it is raised in this House in the way that he has done. Time for a full-length Government debate will be difficult to provide. However, any appointments made to the Election Commission do come before this House, so there are occasions when we are able to consider matters relating to the commission.
As the Leader of the House will know, Nottingham is home to two internationally renowned universities, and usually many thousands of students, but as the country went into lockdown, many students returned to their family homes. As university campuses reopen and students return to our city, local residents are understandably anxious about the impact on social distancing in local shops and on services, and the potential risk to public health. Students and their parents are also concerned about safety, and particularly about wellbeing and mental health, especially in halls of residence. May we have a statement from the Minister for Universities to set out what she is doing to support our institutions to address some of those issues?
As always, the hon. Lady raises an important and interesting point. Inevitably, before universities reopen, there will need to be reassurance, both to the communities in which they sit and to the people going back to university—the students themselves—that it is safe for them to do so. That will tie in with the return of schools at the beginning of September. Usually, universities go back a little bit later, so there is a little more time to allow for them to go back. The hon. Lady is also right to raise the issue of mental health; I mentioned earlier the figures relating to mental health, and it is an issue taken seriously throughout the House.
The Department for Transport has been absolutely right to empower local councils such as Southampton City Council to introduce temporary cycle lanes and bus lanes during the pandemic, to see how they work, but does my right hon. Friend agree that before any such temporary measures become permanent, there should be a requirement for there to be a full public consultation among residents? Will he ask the Department for Transport to make a statement?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good and important point. As a motorist, there is nothing more frustrating than when one sees a bus lane that is meant to be in operation and one has not seen a bus go down it for weeks, let alone that day. It is important that bus lanes are put in the right places and that the interests of motorists and communities are not overlooked.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Before we move on, the House is suspended for three minutes.
Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the independent medicines and medical devices review. This review was announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) in February 2018, in response to public concern about the safety of medicines and medical devices used by the NHS. It focused on three areas. The first is Primodos, a hormone-based pregnancy test that is claimed to have led to miscarriages and birth defects during the 1960s and ’70s. It was prescribed to more than 1.5 million women before it was withdrawn from use in 1978. The second is sodium valproate, an anti-epilepsy drug that has been definitively linked to autism and learning disabilities in children when taken during pregnancy. The third is the vaginal mesh implants used in the treatment of pelvic organ prolapse and stress urinary incontinence, which have been linked to crippling, life-changing side-effects.
Baroness Cumberlege was asked to conduct a review into what happened in each of those three cases, including whether the processes that were followed were sufficient when patients’ concerns were raised. She was also asked to make some recommendations for the future, such as: how to consider the right balance between the criteria or threshold for a legitimate concern; how best to support patients where there might not be a scientific basis for their complaint, but where they have still suffered; how we can enhance the existing patient safety landscape; and how we can be more open to the insights that close attention to patient experience can bring.
The report has now been published, and a copy has been deposited in the Library of the House. It makes for harrowing reading. Every page makes clear the pain and suffering that has been felt by so many patients and their families. As Baroness Cumberlege herself said, they suffered “avoidable harm”. She said that she had listened to the heart-wrenching stories of acute suffering, of families fractured, of children harmed and so much more.
On behalf of the health and care sector, I would like to make an apology to those women, their children and their families for the time the system took to listen and respond. I would also like to thank every single person who has contributed to the review. I know that some of them wanted to be here in the House today. They felt as though their voices would never be heard, but now they have been, and their brave testimony will help patients in the future. I have watched and read some of their testimonies. They left me shocked, but also incredibly angry and most of all determined to make the changes that are needed to protect women in the future. It is right and proper that the victims were the first people to see this report. As a Government, we have now received its findings and, as hon. Members will understand, we are taking time to absorb them before we respond. That is the least that the report deserves. We will update the House at the very earliest opportunity.
I would like to thank Baroness Cumberlege, who has carried out her work with thoroughness and compassion. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that patients and their families have been heard, and I would like to pay tribute to her and her team. I know that the patients’ stories that they have heard have been harrowing and, at times, frankly beyond belief. She has done us all a great service by highlighting them, along with the suffering of so many women and their families. I know that there will be strong feelings across the House about the report, and that hon. Members will be eager to hear a fuller response. However, it is imperative for the sake of those who have suffered so greatly that we give the review the full consideration that is absolutely deserves.
It is clear, as I am sure the whole House will concur, that the response to these issues from those in positions of authority has not always been good enough. The task now is to establish a quicker and more compassionate way to address issues of patient harm when they arise. We must ensure that the system as a whole is vigilant in spotting safety concerns, and that we rapidly get to grips with the concerns identified by the report. We must make sure that different voices are invited to the table and that patients and their families have a clear pathway to get their answers and a resolution. The issues tackled in this report are, from one perspective, complex—matters of regulation, clinical decision making and scientific judgment—but there is one simple core theme that runs through all of this, and it goes to the heart of our work on patient safety. It comprises just two words: listening and humility. So much of the frustration and anger from patients and families stem from what they see as an unwillingness to listen—for us to listen and for them to be heard. We need to make listening a much stronger part of clinical practice and to make the relationship between patients and clinicians a true and equal partnership.
While the review has been progressing, the Government and the NHS have taken a number of steps relating to the concerns it has raised. However, there is always more that we can do, and it is clear that change is needed. We owe it to the victims and their families to get this right. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to make this statement today and for providing advance sight of it.
“Ignored”, “belittled”, “derided”, “gaslit”—those who have campaigned to highlight the harm caused by Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh have been called every name under the sun, but today they are one thing alone: proven right. I thank the noble Baroness Cumberlege for overseeing a piece of work that will make a huge difference to so many people, both today and in the future. It is hard to read, but it is vital that we do, and that we understand it and learn from it. It is really important to note that campaigners have universally said how well the review team treated them.
The review’s report thoroughly investigates what happened in respect of each of the three areas that I mentioned. Although, on the surface, they are separate, they have an awful lot in common, not least that they were all taken and used by women, and in two cases, pregnant women. This is clearly no coincidence and I was glad to see that the Minister referenced that the healthcare system must do better to protect women, because these cases reek of misogyny from top to bottom— and ageism and ableism as well. They also share the reaction of the healthcare system, which, according to the report, failed to monitor the use of these medicines and medical devices, then failed to identify and acknowledge that things had gone wrong, and then failed to work in a joined-up fashion to improve. The healthcare system failed to protect these people. As the review says, it has taken the act of having a review to shine a light on these systemic failings. I share with everybody else the love affair that we, as a nation, have with our health system, but we cannot be blind to its faults, and it is time that we act on them.
We would not be here without the campaigners. Without their tireless activism—for many decades in some cases—this would have been ignored. I want to take the opportunity to highlight a few of the groups that have done such tremendous work. That is a dangerous game, I know, and I can only apologise to those whom I do not have time to mention. Marie Lyon has led the way in bringing to attention the damage that hormone pregnancy tests, including Primodos tablets, can do. This report has finally proven her to have been right all along, stating that opportunities were missed to remove them from the market. She is right, too, that the Department for Work and Pensions has mugged campaigners over the condition insight report. I hope the Minister will commit to righting that wrong, too. Janet Williams and Emma Murphy, who founded the Independent Fetal Anti-Convulsant Trust—In-FACT—have fought so long to be believed and for action to be taken regarding sodium valproate, the risks associated with which far too many expectant mothers were unaware of. Kath Sansom, who founded Sling the Mesh, has provided so much support for so many people living in incredible pain because of pelvic mesh. This is a sombre day for those people, but I hope that they can take some satisfaction that their efforts have paid off in this way.
I would not often say this, but this is a day for parliamentarians, too. It was not clinicians or regulators who brought this to the surface. It was right hon. and hon. Members who listened to and believed campaigners and fought for them, too. Again, there are too many to name, but I will mention my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and my predecessor as shadow Public Health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson).
There is not time for me to cover all the recommendations, but I want to highlight a few. Recommendation 1 calls for a fulsome apology. It was right that the Minister did that, and it will be greatly appreciated. Recommendation 3 of the report calls for a new independent redress agency for those harmed by medicines and medical devices, to create a new way of delivering redress in the future. It suggests that manufacturers and the state could share the costs. I would be interested in the Minister’s reflections on that. When does she think that could be implemented by?
Recommendation 4 suggests separate schemes for each intervention—HPTs, valproate and pelvic mesh—to meet the cost of providing additional care and support to all those who have experienced avoidable harm. That is the ethical responsibility of the state and manufacturers. Will the Minister today commit to that recommendation —to providing some redress for those who have suffered avoidable psychological, physical and neurodevelopmental harm? Will she commit, critically, to work on that with these people? For too long, they have had things done to them and they are owed the opportunity to shape their futures.
On recommendation 6, regarding the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, I said at every stage of the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill that the timing for that Bill was challenging, although that was inevitable as we had to get on with it, because the report would have profound implications for the MHRA—and, boy, does it. I would like the Minister to commit to amendments in the other place to make sure that the MHRA regulatory regime is as strong as possible.
Finally, and absolutely critically, recommendation 9 calls for the immediate creation of a taskforce to implement the recommendations. Will the Minister commit to that? It was right for her to say that she needed time for reflection, but I would be keen to have a definition of how long she feels the Government will need to reflect.
This is a sombre moment. It is incredibly hard to read the report, but it is vital that we do so. Campaigners and those affected have got justice today; now they need action. We will not let the report gather dust on a shelf. We will be fighting every day to get the recommendations implemented and to meet the needs and the expectations of those who have fought for so long.
That was a long list of asks. I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we received the report yesterday, and it is a detailed, in-depth and complex report. He is pushing on an open door, with almost everything he asks—patients absolutely have to be at the heart of this. The report is titled, “First Do No Harm”. Our response has to be to do good. We are listening; I am in listening mode. I have listened to what he has said. I will listen to what everybody here has to say today, and to what all the groups have to say, to the details of the report. We will take it away.
The hon. Gentleman asks how long; I am sure he appreciates that work needs to be done to formulate a response. The response will come as soon as possible, as soon as the work has been done. He is quite right about the role of women, which he referred to at the start of his comments. Whether it is Shipman or Paterson or maternity issues or the Cumberlege report, more often than not women are at the heart of these—for want of a better word—scandals. He is absolutely right and I feel very passionately about making sure we come back with a really positive and robust response to this report as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister for the compassion and the anger in her response. She is a fantastic champion of patient safety. I also thank the many hon. Members, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who persuaded me to commission the report. I, too, would like to thank the brave campaigners who have not stopped until they got justice. I particularly thank Baroness Cumberlege, Sir Cyril Chantler and their team, who did a painstaking amount of work to get to where we are today.
I commissioned this report because I knew that many lives had been ruined because we did not act quickly enough to deal with problems in these three areas, but the results are far more shocking and disturbing than I ever imagined at the time. Thousands of lives have been blighted by what went wrong in the most terrible way. Does the Minister agree that the central issue is not about the three areas alone, but about all medicines and devices where there is no one for patients and people who are suffering to go to with the confidence that they will be listened to? That is why the suggestion of a patient safety commissioner is so important. It is not a tsar or a quango; they would be a person who would listen to people whose voices were not heard. I hope the Government take that recommendation seriously.
Will my hon. Friend give a commitment that the Government will come back to this House before the end of September with their recommendations? We completely understand her tremendous commitment to patient safety, but does she agree that the gravity of this issue is such that it should be the Health Secretary, who made a very important apology yesterday, who comes back before the end of September and tells the House what the Government are going to do?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who commissioned the review in 2018. Thank goodness he did, because without it, these voices would still be struggling to be heard.
On my right hon. Friend’s question about the patient safety commissioner, as that is a recommendation, it will be considered, as will every other recommendation. It is important to mention that we have Aiden Fowler, whom my right hon. Friend appointed to NHS Improvement to take on the head of patient safety role on behalf of NHS England. That does not mean that we will not consider the recommendation thoroughly; we will do so.
Obviously, I cannot speak for the Secretary of State, but I am sure he is aware of my right hon. Friend’s comments. I cannot commit to coming back by the end of September; what I can give the House is my absolute assurance that I will chase this daily. The work commenced when the report became available to us, and a huge amount of work has been done overnight on assessing the recommendations made in the report. I or the Secretary of State will be back here as soon as possible with our recommendations.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. Of course, her apology is very welcome.
“We have found that the healthcare system—in which I include the NHS, private providers, the regulators and professional bodies, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers, and policymakers—is disjointed, siloed, unresponsive and defensive.”
Those words in “First Do No Harm”, the report published yesterday on the Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh scandals, are a hugely powerful indication of the abject failings that must be addressed by the Government. Credit must go to Baroness Cumberlege and her team for all their work.
Yesterday was a landmark day for victims and survivors of those scandals, and we pay tribute to all the campaigners who fought so hard for so long, including Primodos campaigner Marie Lyon and my constituent Wilma Ord, whose daughter Kirsteen was affected by Primodos. Their fight must now be our fight.
Justice is not served until the recommendations are fully implemented. I understand the desire and the need to reflect on what is needed, but a full commitment to the implementation of all the recommendations is vital. In particular, will the Minister ensure that the taskforce to guide the recommendations is set up at speed and as soon as possible? Will she also commit to vigorous pressure being exerted on companies such as Bayer, which, to be frank, have got away with murder? They are responsible for Primodos and need to pay proper compensation to victims.
Will the Minister ensure that the recommendation of a patient safety commissioner is implemented and the post established as quickly as possible? In the words of Branwen Mann, a young person affected by sodium valproate,
“I know that the full harm done by sodium valproate is barely understood, or even recognised by anyone other than the family that live it.”
That cannot continue.
Finally, will the Minister ensure that the central patient identifiable database is created by collecting details on the implantation of all devices at the time of operation? So many patients affected by surgical mesh and other devices have never had their devices tracked or registered, which in the age of advanced technology is, I am sure she agrees, frankly ridiculous.
Again, that is a list of asks, and as I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), we will take on board all the requests made and come back in time with a full report.
On the hon. Lady’s last ask, about the database, we have begun working with NHSX on establishing a database of those women who have had the vaginal mesh. We are looking at how those meshes can be safety removed, with their consent and with all the details explained to them. Getting that database together, both historically and moving forward, is work in progress. On the rest of the hon. Lady’s asks, we will be back with a full report, in which all of her points will have been considered.
The three scandals we have heard about are terrible, but can I ask the excellent Minister about the future? I piloted through Parliament the Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Act 2020, which should allow us to get more data on problems that arise in the NHS. What further steps will the Minister take so that a future Minister does not have to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement like the one she has just had to make?
In the Department of Health and Social Care, we work daily and continually on improving patient safety to make our NHS the safest healthcare system in the world. Procedures such as the national guardian scheme, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and others that have been put in place all work towards that goal. This report, as tragic and harrowing as the stories in it are, will go a long way towards enabling us to develop systems that enable the patient’s voice to be heard earlier.
That is the core issue. The thread that runs through is how long it takes somebody who has a complaint to have their voice heard and their complaint acted on. That is something that we need to resolve. If we can do that—if patients’ complaints can be heard and can be resolved as soon as they are raised—no Minister will, hopefully, ever have to come to the Dispatch Box in the future, because situations will have been dealt with effectively and promptly, and lessons will have been learned.
My hon. Friend will also be aware that we have introduced the Health Service Safety Investigations Body, and there are other measures that will help us to take the learning from incidents and move forward. Work therefore happens daily on improving patient safety and getting to the place he outlined, where a Minister will never have to come here and apologise again.
I thank the Minister for her statement today. First, may I express my sincere gratitude to Baroness Cumberlege and the review team, who have shown such empathy and understanding to patients, their families and campaigners who have campaigned tirelessly on these issues for years? My mam is one of the thousands of patients who had her life and her health ruined because of this quick fix with a bit of tape. She was never warned of the damage that this plastic mesh could cause her body.
The review recommends setting up a network of specialist centres to provide comprehensive treatment, care and advice for those affected by implanted mesh, and that is to be welcomed. Does the Minister agree, however, that it would be abhorrent for any of those centres to be led by any of the surgeons who promoted mesh or put it into women, knowing it damaged them? For some women, it has caused the most unimaginable pain and life-changing damage.
I thank my hon. Friend—I do regard her as a friend because she is such a principled campaigner on issues such as this. I hope she does not mind my saying that I know that her mother gave evidence to the review and went along to one of the hearings. I thank her for that, because it was a very brave step to take. This is not an easy thing to talk about, so that was incredibly brave of her. We owe her for her bravery in coming forward, and I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning that.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I cannot comment on the specific point about individual doctors with expertise because work has to go forward on removals of meshes and on where we go in the future. However, on specialist centres—I think she is aware of this—NHS England is assessing bids from NHS providers to become specialist centres and to provide treatment for women with complications from mesh inserted for urinary incontinence and vaginal prolapse. Following the covid-19 pandemic, during which some of this work has unfortunately been halted, every effort is now being made to finalise the centres quickly. Stakeholders will be kept up to date with progress, but we do want to see more of that work.
In October 2017, I stood in this very spot with the report in my hand, and it was a whitewash. It was disgusting to the victims—we have not heard that word yet today, but they are victims—of what has gone on in these three terrible cases. In particular, the Primodos victims were shown no compassion in the report and were in many ways blamed for what had happened to their children.
The new report is completely different. I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who was the Secretary of State, because I was critical of the three problems being put to Baroness Cumberlege in one inquiry; I thought it would be much better if each was looked at individually. I apologise to Baroness Cumberlege, because I said that to her as well as to the then Secretary of State, and I was wrong. This report is probably the best report on what has gone wrong inside the NHS that I have ever seen.
The NHS does wonderful things, but it gets things wrong. We all praise the NHS. We stood outside last weekend—I hope people did—and praised the NHS on its 72nd anniversary. But when it gets it wrong, it gets it seriously wrong. In 1967, it knew that Primodos was a danger: the company knew and the NHS knew. Young women went to their GP, and said, “I think I might be pregnant”. Very often, no prescription was issued. There were no warnings and no concept of what could happen to their foetus if they were pregnant. The drawer was opened and the tablets were given to them. Those tablets were given by the drug company to the GP, who in many cases did not even issue a prescription.
Today, we have the report, with nine recommendations, but how are we going to compensate those families? It is not just for the women, but for their families, including the men who have stood next to them, such as Marie Lyon’s husband, who has been with her all the way through. How are we going to compensate those who lost their baby, who were told to abort their baby or who had a stillbirth? How are we going to compensate and help those families when the loved ones, the mums and dads of the survivors—they have terrible disfigurements, and they did brilliantly well to give evidence for the report—are no longer with us and the survivors need such support afterwards? While we must make sure this never happens again, we must also make sure that we look after those families and that the drug companies pay for what they did to those families.
My right hon. Friend makes an impassioned and compassionate contribution, and he should be recognised for his long-term campaigning and his advocacy of the people he mentions who have suffered as a result of what has happened. I cannot comment on the individual points he has raised, particularly on Primodos, because there is legal action pending, but I hear everything he said and others will hear his comments too.
I thank Baroness Cumberlege profusely for her review’s welcome conclusions on Primodos, and I praise the Sky journalists who have worked on this, and Marie Lyon and all the other campaigners. However, can I tell the Minister that I see this just as the beginning of the end, because we have not yet got justice for the women involved or their adult children? We want to see the conclusions implemented as soon as possible, and we want to see compensation for the women and their adult children. But I also want to see criminal charges brought against the real perpetrators of this scandal for the cover-up, the suppression of the evidence of harm, and the marketing and sale of a drug that Schering and Bayer knew was dangerous and would result in miscarriages and birth defects. I am grateful for the way that the Minister has produced her statement today. Will she ensure that her Department, the Department for Work and Pensions and the rest of Government know that we will not stop campaigning until full justice is given to these women and their adult children?
I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his compassion and for his commitment to campaigning on this. I just have to repeat what I said in my previous answer. I have every—every—sympathy with every parent, mother and family who have been affected, but due to pending legal action I cannot make a statement.
Today is a day of strongly mixed emotions—one of joy that we have such a comprehensive and thorough report recognising what many women and others have been through, and of course one of absolute sadness and anger that it ever had to come to this. I first raised the issue of sodium valproate in 2013 or 2104, and vaginal mesh in October 2017. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) for putting the inquiry in place, and to my hon. Friend the Minister for the way that she has handled today’s statement.
The Government, as my hon. Friend said, are now going to take note of what happened. I would like two particular areas to be looked at. First, we need to make sure that the complaints commissioner is thoroughly independent of the healthcare sector, because we cannot again ask people to mark their own homework. Secondly, there is the issue of powers of redress and ex gratia payments. One of my constituents has had to borrow tens of thousands of pounds to correct her mesh implant through private surgery. This operation was done and recommended by the NHS. If we can speedily get these recommendations in place and compensate women who have had to take on their own financial burden to correct this surgery caused by the NHS, that would be most welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for his campaigning. It is the campaigning of Members of this House on behalf of their constituents that has got us to the position where we are today. It demonstrates how this place works at its best when MPs represent their constituents in campaigning on issues such as this. On his specific question, I would like him to write to me, because I am not quite sure why, if the operation was undertaken by the NHS, his constituent had to pay tens of thousands of pounds. If he would like to write to me and let me know the details, I will give him a more detailed response.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on valproate and other anti-epileptic drugs in pregnancy, I would like to put on the record my and the group’s thanks to Baroness Cumberlege for her work on this. We welcome the report. I believe that its recommendations should be implemented in full as quickly as possible, because it is 268 pages about four decades of women being let down and lied to. When those women have campaigned for justice, Members of this House have told them that they are bored housewives and they are being hysterical. We cannot allow these women to be denied justice any longer. I would like to invite the Minister to join a meeting of our all-party group so that we can talk about the recommendations in more detail in a way that we cannot do on the Floor of the House.
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more. As I said earlier, whether it is Shipman, Paterson, Cumberlege or a maternity incident, women so often struggle to get their voices heard when they are at the heart of issues like this. I would be happy to talk to the all-party group, particularly on sodium valproate, where a huge amount of work is being done. We are seeing the number of users of sodium valproate in pregnancy declining, but there is more work to be done. I would be particularly interested in talking to the hon. Lady about how we get the message out about the dangers of sodium valproate, because there are women who suffer from epilepsy for whom sodium valproate is the only treatment that works effectively. That is the heart of the problem that we need to keep discussing and work through further. I am happy to meet and talk to her.
The NHS collects a wealth of data in different clinical settings, but often computers and systems do not talk to one another; they are silent. What is on a GP’s computer may not be on a hospital computer or a health visitor’s computer, and this report highlights the critical need for registries and data that are systematically collected. Can the Minister assure me that another registry or dataset will not end up isolated and silenced, as many of the victims were before this report?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I had a thought while I was listening to him, which is that I did not mention Sir Cyril Chantler in my statement, the doctor who contributed hugely to the report, along with Baroness Cumberlege. I thank both of them. They worked as a team—even though it is the Cumberlege report, they worked together, and Sir Cyril deserves recognition and thanks for his work.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Because of the many reports a number of regulatory bodies have been established, but it is in their talking to each other and the bridges between them that we have problems. We recognise that this is a complex area. However, we have already gone beyond the development of the database. The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill was amended in the House, with cross-party support, to create a power to establish a medical devices information system. That will respond to Baroness Cumberlege’s recommendations in full, including ensuring that private providers that do not operate under the NHS contract can be required to provide data to that information system. NHS Digital is leading work with system partners and the devolved Administrations to ensure that this comprehensive database can be used to support clinicians and the MHRA. My hon. Friend is right to say that in the development of the database, all the organisations and regulatory bodies need to work together and support one another.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hormone pregnancy tests, I am proud to have campaigned with Marie Lyon for the Primodos families for almost a decade. I welcome the recommendations in the Cumberlege review, and I pay tribute to Baroness Cumberlege and her colleagues for their integrity and unflinching courage, but campaigners like Marie should not have had to give up their entire lives to pursue truth and justice. This is a scandal that should never have happened, and it is one of the greatest medical frauds of the 20th century. When I first raised this with Ministers in 2012, and several times with Prime Ministers since then, I was dismissed. I was met with constant denial, and doors were slammed shut at every turn. Can the Minister assure the House that enough is enough and that the Cumberlege review is a turning point for the Primodos families?
I thank the hon. Lady for her ardent campaigning on this issue. I can only say again that I have absolute sympathy with the families on whose behalf she has been campaigning, but once again I refer to my earlier answer: owing to pending legal action I cannot comment on Primodos.