Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

DCMS sectors have, of course, been particularly hard hit by coronavirus, and we have been working tirelessly with them over the past few months to support them and to help them to reopen as soon as we can in a safe way. Countless museums, theatres and heritage organisations have been able to welcome back visitors, and we have seen innovation across all our creative sectors, for example, with London fashion week returning this month. Gym and leisure centres remain open, and elite sport continues to operate behind closed doors.

But, of course, our fight against coronavirus is far from over, and unfortunately we have had to introduce carefully judged new restrictions to curb the rising number of daily infections. That does include delaying the reopening of business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events, which of course was originally planned for 1 October. I know that this will be a severe blow for the business events industry and for our sports clubs, which are of course, the linchpins of their communities, as many Members have said today. I am working urgently with the Chancellor and have met sports bodies this week to explore how we can support them through this difficult period.

By 2022, it will be very clear to all that I am the Commonwealth games No.1 fan, and so I was thrilled to hear that the games organisers, Birmingham 2022 and Spirit of 2012 had announced £600,000 of funding for three west midlands arts organisations. Does the Minister agree that the games’ cultural programme is so important to the creative and charity sectors, and what more can we do to ensure that the Commonwealth games best support my constituency and the Black Country?

We are all looking forward enormously—I certainly am—to the Commonwealth games 2022, which will form part of a wonderful year of celebrations in 2022 alongside the festival of the United Kingdom and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen’s platinum jubilee. There are exciting plans for the Commonwealth games, but they will coincide with Festival UK* 2022, and those plans are progressing well, most recently with the launch of a research and development competition earlier this month. We really want to bring together the greatest minds and the brightest talents from science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics to apply to find the 10 most creative and innovative ideas. I urge my hon. Friend and, indeed, Members from both sides of the House to encourage people from their constituencies to apply for it.

Eighteen months ago, the Government promised world-leading legislation to finally tackle online harms, promising that Britain would be the safest place in the world to be online. Last week, I met again with Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, who—as the Secretary of State will know—took her own life at the age of 14 after accessing and receiving more and more curated online content about suicide methods and self-harm online. Mr Russell and many other stakeholders told me they have real concerns, not just about the absence of the promised legislation, but that it is being watered down and will not include regulation relating to legal but harmful content like that which led to Molly’s death. Can the Secretary of State reassure them and the House that legal but harmful content will be within the scope of the Bill when it eventually appears?

Yes. The short answer is that it will; it will be covered by the duty of care. We continue to work on our full response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation and we will be publishing that this year, with a view to having the legislation at the beginning of next year. Indeed, shortly after this session in the House I will be meeting victims to discuss those proposals further.

I thank the Secretary of State for that welcome answer. Another area of legal but harmful content online is covid misinformation; conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers continue to flood social media platforms, 24/7. This morning, a University College London study reports that more than one in five of the public are unlikely to accept a vaccine, amid widespread misinformation about side effects and profiteering. With increased infection rates, new restrictions and winter approaching, people are going to be spending more time online, exposed to this harmful misinformation. His Department leads the counter-disinformation unit, but there is no information available about its resourcing, performance or impact. The public see a Government who have lost control of the virus and of public health communication, so what is he doing to reverse that?

Clearly, I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation, which is a little overblown, but she rightly raises the point about the risks associated with disinformation should we succeed in achieving the vaccine, which of course all parts of Government are working tirelessly towards. I am well aware of the challenge of misinformation about the vaccine and I have discussed it with the Health Secretary. The Minister for Digital and Culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), is working intensively at ministerial level and is engaging with social media companies to ensure we have the necessary measures in place to deal with any misinformation, should it arise at the time of a vaccine.

Retail is important, and my constituency contains the excellent new Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell and many fine shops in Crowthorne, Sandhurst and Finchampstead. Will the Secretary of State outline what is being done to preserve and enhance the high street? (906576)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of our historic high streets, which are more than just places to go to eat, shop and work; they give people a real sense of identity and pride in their communities. That is why last week I was delighted to announce £95 million to restore 68 historic high streets across all of England to their historic glory, from Hexham to Plymouth to Reading and, of course, near my hon. Friend’s constituency. The four-year programme shows that this Government are delivering on our promise to level up across the country, and it will also ensure that high streets recover more quickly from the pandemic.

Now that we have seen a rise in covid cases and a return to stricter regulations, public messaging is more important than ever. The BBC has rowed back on its decision to end covering the Scottish Government’s covid updates, but can the Minister understand the concerns of many about the BBC’s inclusion of party political punditry following the First Minister’s very important public health briefings? (906575)

Clearly the BBC is editorially independent from the Government, and I am sure the hon. Lady will want to raise this issue with Tim Davie and others.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress his Department is making on reducing Huawei’s presence in our 5G networks to zero by 2027? (906578)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Following the statement I made to this House shortly before the summer recess, we are committed to introducing the telecoms security Bill this autumn, so that it will have a clear and enforceable timetable to zero for Huawei in our 5G networks by the end of 2027. Just to update the House, let me say that alongside that we will publish our telecoms diversification strategy, and I am pleased to confirm that Lord—Ian—Livingston will be chairing a taskforce of industry experts to drive that forward.

It has come as a hammer blow for non-league clubs such as Chesterfield that are in the national league to discover that having taken on all the players, and facing all the costs that are normally associated with running its season, it will not now be able to bring fans in at the start of October. Will the Secretary of State take us through his plans to ensure that we do not lose all the national league clubs that are facing a very precarious financial position? (906577)

I am acutely aware of the impact of our decision to postpone reopening with fans and social distance from 1 October. Having engaged with the sports, I know the impact that that will have. I think there is agreement on both sides of the House that it was a necessary step, given where we are with covid. On next steps, I am working alongside the Chancellor and sports to understand their circumstances and the detail of how the situation will impact them. Throughout all this, we have moved to reopen sports, which is why we have sports behind closed doors; to ask sports to help themselves, starting with the premier league in respect of football; and to see what further support the Government can provide. That sits alongside measures such as £150 million of emergency support from Sports England.

Can I just say to both Front-Bench teams that topicals are meant to be short and punchy? We really should do better than we have done today. A lot of Members have missed out. We must move on now to oral questions to the Attorney General.