Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Creative Industries: Covid-19

What further steps he will take to support people in the creative industries who are unable to return to work as a result of covid-19 restrictions. (906484)

I recognise the huge contribution that the creative industries make both to the UK’s international reputation and to our economy, contributing over £100 billion in gross value added. The Government have provided unprecedented support to employees and businesses through the furlough scheme and the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund, and we will continue to do all we can to provide support and get the sector back up and running.

I am afraid that what has been trailed by the Treasury in the media today will not do anything to help those in the creative industries who cannot work because of covid restrictions, whether in music venues, comedy clubs or theatres, or any of the freelance workers in the sector who already receive no help at all, as we saw from the Musicians Union survey this week. When will the help that has already been promised in the package the Minister mentioned actually arrive for people in the sector, and will the new scheme be targeted to supply life support to our genuinely world-beating creative industries?

The Government’s world-class support package has included the self-employed income support scheme, and about two thirds of those in our sector have been covered by that. Then, of course, there are the very generous extensions to universal credit as well. However, we know that it is very distressing for those who have fallen between the gaps. That is why Arts Council England has made an additional £95 million of additional support available for individuals who are affected.

Equity, the performers’ union, has drawn up a four-pillar plan to save the industry: providing financial support for workers, enabling the safe opening of venues, protecting vital arts infrastructure, and eliminating gaps in representation and pay. I know that the Minister has met Equity, so are the Government prepared to back its plan and save our performing arts?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that the arts and culture sector is massively important in Canterbury, which she represents. In fact, it has received over £245,000 of emergency funding so far from the Arts Council. We have listened to the sector at every stage of this terrible pandemic. I meet its representatives on an almost weekly basis, from right across entertainment, arts, culture and creative industries. ACE is currently processing over 4,000 applications for more than £880 million of grant funding. We are doing absolutely everything we can to support the sector.

Hundreds of my constituents are highly skilled and self-employed in the creative industries, but most of them have seen their incomes plummet, with no real chance of recovery for the next six months at least. I give the Minister another opportunity to reconfirm that the previous package is not working and is not effective. Will she commit to a new package that will save their incomes and ensure that they and their families do not face poverty?

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that this package of support is not working. In his own constituency of Ealing, Southall, there has been £47,000-worth of emergency funding so far, and £500,000 in total support from Arts Council England in this financial year. We know that, more than anything, those who work in the sector just want to get back to doing what they love. The £1.5 billion cultural recovery fund will secure the future of performing arts and live events and protect jobs in the industry to allow them to do just that.

Millions in our country long for live performing arts to return, none more so than those who work in those industries. Some 70% of theatre workers are self-employed or freelance, but many are ineligible for the self-employed income support scheme and have been excluded from Government support since March, which has brought extreme hardship. They desperately need the sector to be back up and running. While we support the Government’s road map to reopening, we know that socially distanced shows are simply not viable without insurance against covid cancellations. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee agrees, warning that without a pandemic indemnity scheme,

“efforts to resume filming, touring and live performance are doomed to failure”.

What representations has the Minister made to her Treasury colleagues for insurance support similar to that for film and television so that our incredible creative workforce can get back to what they do best when it is safe to do so?

As I have already articulated, I meet the sector on a very regular basis, and actually it has been its feedback that has helped to form, to shape and to drive the cultural recovery fund as we have it today. As I have explained, there is £95 million of additional support for individuals, including freelancers. We continue to listen. We continue to talk to Treasury colleagues to make sure that we are creative, inventive and thoughtful and doing everything we can to get our sectors back up and running.

TV Licences: Over-75s Concession

The Government remain disappointed by the decision of the BBC to restrict the over-75 concession to those on pension credit. However, the responsibility for that was given to the BBC under the Digital Economy Act 2017, passed by Parliament, and it is a matter for the BBC.

For many older and vulnerable residents, losing their free TV licence means losing not only entertainment and a source of news, but companionship, which is hugely important as we go into winter and many people across the country face restrictions on movement. Will the Minister do the right thing, stop hiding behind the BBC, take another look at this policy, stick to his manifesto commitment, and keep free television licences for over-75s until 2022?

The Conservative manifesto did say that we believed those licences should be funded by the BBC. Those who are on low incomes and are eligible for pension credit will continue to receive a free licence. I hope that all those who may be eligible make sure they receive pension credit. The Government continue to believe that the BBC needs to do more to support older people.

Culture Recovery Fund

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (906486)

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (906498)

Arts and heritage are the heart and soul of our communities across the whole nation. That is why we announced the unprecedented £1.57 billion culture recovery fund to help countless organisations to weather this covid storm. We have already saved 135 grassroots music venues from imminent collapse. Arts Council England and other DCMS arm’s length bodies are currently assessing thousands of applications from other organisations, and successful applicants will be informed from October.

Despite heroic efforts from the local community and local councils, the much-loved Stag theatre in Sevenoaks is at risk. Will my right hon. Friend wish the Stag luck in its upcoming application to the culture recovery fund? If it is successful and is saved, will he join me at the annual pantomime to mark the end of a challenging year?

Of course, I am very happy to wish it the very best of luck. The actual decision will be made by Arts Council England. Were the theatre to be successful, and indeed in any event, I would of course be delighted to join my hon. Friend at a pantomime performance. I know it is facing very difficult circumstances at the moment, particularly as a not-for-profit charity dependent on income from ticket sales. I understand that it has made its application and that it is currently being considered.

Will the Secretary of State consider utilising leftover funds from the culture recovery fund to create an emergency fund that historic house wedding venues, like many in the Derbyshire Dales constituency, will be eligible to apply to for emergency assistance in these difficult times?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our wonderful country houses are a real pillar of our cultural life. Indeed, I had a wonderful visit to Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, and I know what a central role they play not just as cultural institutions but as venues. As she will know, the Government have provided extensive support across the economy through furlough, business loans and VAT relief that will have benefited them, but of course we will continue to look at other proposals.

International Funding

What steps he is taking to help maintain access to international funding for the culture sector after the transition period. (906487)

By taking back control of our money, we are able to focus on spending that reflects the needs and ambitions of UK artists and creative professionals. This includes considering alternatives to former international funding programmes. We are committed to supporting our world-leading culture sector so it can continue to grow and flourish.

As we have already heard from Members in this Chamber this morning, the culture sector has been hit hard by the covid pandemic and many organisations are struggling simply to survive. EU membership is not a requirement of the programme, so why are the Government ending the UK’s membership of Creative Europe?

Creative Europe funds co-operation across cultural and audio-visual sectors, as the hon. Lady knows. The value of it is roughly £4 million a year. The Government decided that the UK would not continue to participate, but UK beneficiaries will continue to benefit from the programmes for the lifetime of their project, which in many cases runs beyond 2020. In the meantime, we are working in partnership with the devolved Administrations on domestic alternatives, which will be considered as part of the forthcoming spending review.

That was simply not good enough from the Minister. The preamble to the constitution of UNESCO states:

“since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”,

and that is the guiding principle of so many cross-border cultural initiatives such as Creative Europe. The decision to end our participation in the programme not only erects barriers to cultural exchange but sends a loud and clear message to our closest neighbours that Britain is closed for collaboration. With non-EU members such as Norway, Ukraine and even Tunisia participating, can the Minister explain the UK Government’s decision to withdraw from Creative Europe as anything other than narrow-minded Brexit isolationism?

I have already explained that we intend to find an alternative to the Creative Europe fund, which will be set out as part of the comprehensive spending review. I do not really like having lectures from the hon. Gentleman about what is “good enough”. This Government have worked round the clock with the sector to provide £1.57 billion of support in the form of a cultural recovery package, £97 million of which has gone to Scotland, and yet—guess what?—only £59 million of that has so far been announced for disposal. What have they done—trousered the rest of it?

Spectator Sports: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906488)

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906491)

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906494)

The Government fully understand that fans want to be back watching live sport—so do all of us—and we continue to work with the sector on solutions and innovations. Having spectators at some sporting events is still possible, but, as set out in our road map, sporting event pilots and the full return of fans to stadiums will only take place when it is safe to do so. The Government took the decision to pause test events and the other expansions planned for 1 October because of the sharp upward trajectory of covid-19 cases. We recognise that this news will be disappointing to many fans and to sport, but we have had to make difficult decisions that give us the best chance of containing the virus this winter.

Football’s coming home—or so we thought. While it is extremely heartening to see the return of cricket, rugby, football and other sporting fixtures to our national life, such as Bury AFC, Prestwich Heys FC and Radcliffe FC in my constituency, we must also be mindful of the rate of infection. Can my hon. Friend provide an update on the plan to continue reopening these activities, given the risks posed by covid?

I know that my hon. Friend is a huge sports fan; we have spoken about the sector on many occasions. I agree that it has been fantastic to see so many sports return at both professional and grassroots level, and I pay tribute to the work that sporting bodies have done with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make that possible. Sport is hugely important to the nation’s physical and mental wellbeing, and although yesterday’s announcements mean that adult indoor team sport cannot take place from tomorrow, organised outdoor team sport, outdoor and indoor exercise classes and outdoor licensed physical activity are still exempt from the rule of six and can continue to take place in larger numbers. As the chief medical officer, chief scientific adviser and others have advised, covid cases are on a sharp upward trajectory, and we are introducing measures to attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Match day revenue and getting people through the turnstiles is vital to clubs like Accrington Stanley in my area, which has worked tirelessly towards bringing fans back safely. As the Minister can imagine, the announcement was a devastating blow to clubs like mine. Can he assure me that he is working towards a road map to bring fans back safely, and that further financial support is being considered for local clubs?

My hon. Friend is right that football clubs at all levels are the bedrock of our local communities. We have seen that during coronavirus more than ever. I spoke to the Football Supporters’ Association yesterday and reiterated our thanks. Of course, grassroots football will continue, and, as she may know, non-elite football is covered by the recreational team sport framework guidance, which does permit spectators. The Football Association’s definition of non-elite football means that leagues below national leagues north and south level 6 can continue with spectators. We will continue to work closely with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and sporting bodies to support the safe return of spectators to stadiums more widely when the public health situation allows. I can confirm that we are in discussions with football governing bodies about further support measures.

As its honorary vice-president, I know that, like other non-league clubs, Havant and Waterlooville Football Club relies on match-day income for its financial sustainability. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to allow non-league football fans safely back into stadiums as soon as possible, and what action is there to help them financially in the meantime?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this area. In the many conversations we have had about football and other sports, he has shown that he is a great advocate not only for sport, but indeed for Havant and his constituents. As I have said previously, spectators are allowed at non-elite football events, but the Football Association’s definition of “elite” extends to the national league south, in which my hon. Friend’s club competes, and therefore does not allow for fans at the moment. We understand that the restrictions that have been put in place will cause financial difficulties for clubs, as they rely so much on match-day income. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I truly understand the seriousness of this, and we are working closely with sporting bodies to see how we can support them further.

The Government’s failures on track and trace have consequences for football clubs, as we have heard from Conservative Members of Parliament this morning. We all want to know what the plan is to save the game we love. Suppose that, as has been indicated in the media, the premier league is not prepared to underwrite the rest of football, who then will be to blame when clubs collapse? Will it be the premier league, or will it be Conservative Ministers, speaking from this Dispatch Box?

I share the hon. Member’s passion for sport and football, and I recognise and acknowledge the Opposition’s support for the measures that we announced this week. I can assure her that we are having detailed conversations with representatives of sport, including football. We appreciate that this latest announcement will have economic consequences for sport, and we had been hoping for the return of spectators that bring in so much income. Where they can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways in which sport can support itself with the Government focusing on those most in need.

I thank the Minister for his engagement on this issue and for his commitment and hard work. Obviously, the progress of this virus is a body blow to sectors facing what is in no small terms a potential extinction event. Does he agree with my Committee, which said in its letter to the Secretary of State early today that lessons can be learned from this aborted attempt to reopen sport and live entertainment, such as the issuing of a “no earlier than” date with three months’ notice, better, wider testing, and funds specifically targeted at allowing adaptations to be made for safer reopening?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and very much appreciate the work that he and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee have done. I would be more than happy to discuss his proposals further, and thank him for his involvement so far. I wish that I could stand here and give definitive timescales for what we will be able to do, but, as we live in such uncertain times, I am unable to do so. I can assure him that we will endeavour to give as much guidance and notice as possible, and I look forward to working with him further.

Local Newspapers: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to support local, independent newspapers during the covid-19 outbreak. (906489)

The Government recognise the vital importance of local and regional newspapers, particularly during this pandemic. That is why we designated journalists as key workers and ran a £35 million public information campaign to carry covid messaging in more than 600 titles.

We in Slough are fortunate to have two brilliant local newspapers, the Slough Express and the Slough Observer, which play a vital role in our local democracy, ensuring that the good people of Slough are well informed with reliable and accurate news reporting, but, like many of its counterparts across our country, our local journalism is under threat. The trade body, the News Media Association, has repeatedly called for business rates relief, but those calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The National Union of Journalists has proposed a detailed news recovery plan to ensure the survival of excellent journalism, which is there for all of us. Can the Minister advise us, before we lose even more valued local newspapers, when the Government will finally listen to and support this important sector?

I have no doubt that the newspapers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are doing an excellent job, and I have had a number of conversations with the News Media Association and other publishing organisations. The Government have extended £1,500 annual business rates relief to local newspaper offices, but we will obviously continue to look at what additional measures we can take to support newspapers.

Rural Mobile Coverage

The Government have agreed a £1 billion deal with mobile network operators to deliver the shared rural network, and this landmark deal will see operators collectively increase mobile phone coverage throughout the UK to 95% by the end of 2025, with legally binding coverage commitments. The exact site deployments will be managed by the operators, but I am pleased to say that the shared masts have already gone live in Wales, the Peak district and elsewhere.

I very much welcome the introduction and now the roll-out of the shared rural network, but the end of 2025 is still a long way off for many of my constituents, who have atrocious mobile coverage compared with better-served urban users, yet pay the same price. Can my hon. Friend give me some reassurance that the roll-out will be done as quickly as possible, particularly in the hardest hit areas, such as Eddisbury, so that they can get the reliable, equitable 4G network they need?

My hon. Friend is right that far too much of the country does not yet have the mobile coverage it needs and deserves, and that is why the shared rural network exists. As I said in my answer, it is already being rolled out, and its positive effects will be felt well before 2025. I look forward, with my hon. Friend and others, to engaging with the mobile networks to make sure that those plans come forward as quickly as possible.

BBC News and Political Coverage

What recent discussions he has had with Ofcom on the BBC's compliance with its statutory duties on local and regional news and political coverage for the English regions. (906493)

The BBC charter requires the BBC to serve audiences across all the UK nations and regions. How it does so is a matter for the BBC, but I share the concern about the recently announced cuts, and I welcome Ofcom’s intention to examine this.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I assume that he agrees that local and regional news coverage and political coverage are a vital aspect of the BBC’s public sector obligation. My concern—this has been raised by the National Union of Journalists—is that the number of staff who currently work on the award-winning investigative programme “Inside Out” will be put at risk of redundancy if the BBC reduces the number of regional production centres from 11 to six. I am pleased by what the Minister said, but is he asking Ofcom to investigate the BBC’s compliance with the public sector broadcaster obligation?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that local and regional news coverage by the BBC is one of the core public purposes of the BBC. I have spoken to the new director-general, and I am pleased that he remains absolutely committed to that. Whether the recent cuts reduce the ability of the BBC to carry out its obligation is a matter that Ofcom is looking at, and it decided to do so without our having even spoken to it.

Sports and Music: Covid-19 Restrictions

What steps he has taken to ensure parity in the application of covid-19 restrictions to sports and music groups. (906497)

In the light of the recent upsurge in covid-19 cases, indoor sport and music groups must follow the rule of six. However, outdoor team sport and exercise are largely exempted from the rules, and, of course, these restrictions will be regularly reviewed.

Brass bands and choirs are a core part of our cultural identity. The guidance in terms of brass bands and choirs rehearsing and performing together again has been unclear, confusing and, at times, even contradictory. Will the Minister today please provide clarity on the guidance for rehearsals and clear support for these groups, because the only thing full of hot air at the moment seems to be this Government?

I completely understand the hon. Lady’s frustration; it has been really difficult to bring back choirs and orchestras at an amateur level, because it has been difficult to establish the risks. However, we do know that non-professional performing art groups, including choirs, orchestras and drama groups, can continue to rehearse and perform together in a covid-secure venue, where that is a planned activity and they can carry it out in a way that ensures there is no interaction between groups of six at any one time.

Football Clubs: Covid-19 Restrictions

Football clubs are at the heart of our local communities, and many have made their towns globally famous. The Government have provided an unprecedented package of support to businesses throughout this period, and many football clubs have benefited from those measures. We recognise the impact that the decisions this week to delay the reopening of stadiums over the winter will have on sport, and the Government now will work at pace with sports to understand the issues faced by organisations facing the most challenging circumstances and assess what further support may be required. Where it can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways in which they can support themselves, with Government focusing on those most in need.

As the Minister knows, many football clubs, particularly in the Football League, face financial ruin now that there is no prospect of the imminent return of fans and match-day revenue. The Government have offered £1.5 billion to help arts organisations in the community, recognising their cultural value. What guarantee can the Minister give today to clubs in the Football League in particular that the Government will be prepared to offer public money to stop those clubs facing financial ruin?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments: he has great expertise in this area. I mentioned earlier that we are in discussions with major sports, including football bodies. Yesterday, I wrote to the governing bodies of all major spectator sports to formally begin discussions and provide them with a contact point in DCMS. I also asked the governing bodies to provide me with details of any member clubs or associations under imminent financial threat, and will be providing more information in due course.

Topical Questions

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.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Vulnerable Victim Support

The needs and sensitivities of vulnerable victims are at the centre of Crown Prosecution Service casework. Prosecutors apply for special measures to ensure that vulnerable victims are supported to give their best evidence, and the CPS is engaged closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service, the police and other partners to facilitate the rapid roll-out of pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable victims and witnesses. The CPS regularly engages with stakeholders and works with national and local partners to continuously inform and improve its service, including to vulnerable victims and witnesses.

The sad reality is that there was an increase in domestic violence during the months of lockdown earlier this year. We know that it takes enormous courage for victims to come forward. How can I reassure my constituents in Burnley who are vulnerable victims of this awful crime that they will be protected and supported by the CPS and the Government when they come forward?

My hon. Friend is right. The Domestic Abuse Bill is a landmark Bill, and it contains many measures that I know he will welcome to support and protect victims. They include the introduction of domestic abuse protection orders, protections for victims to prevent them from being cross-examined by their abusers in family and civil courts, and the introduction of the first statutory definition of domestic abuse. He may be interested to know that in recent months, an increase in the number of domestic abuse cases moving through the system has been seen in CPS data for the county of Lancashire, and that is good news.

Crime rates in Carshalton and Wallington are, thankfully, below the national and London averages. However, worryingly, domestic abuse in the London Borough of Sutton is higher, on average, than in the rest of London, with covid restrictions only exacerbating the problem. What actions can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses of domestic violence are supported and protected from intimidation during trials?

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime. It is a high priority for the CPS in my hon. Friend’s area of Sutton and everywhere in this country. It is vital that we bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Prosecutors apply for special measures, and that will help to ensure that vulnerable victims are supported to give their best evidence in difficult circumstances, and that they are protected from contact with the perpetrator of their abuse.

Serious Fraud Office: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906445)

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906459)

The Serious Fraud Office responded quickly to the disruption caused by covid, and it has continued to progress casework during this period. Notably, it has achieved a conclusion of the prosecutions in the Unaoil case, reached a deferred prosecution agreement with G4S, laid charges in the GPT case and obtained asset confiscation orders in other cases. The SFO’s ability to maintain operational effectiveness during covid was recognised in the report on its response to the pandemic that was published by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend please explain what steps the Serious Fraud Office has taken to minimise any delays to its investigations caused by covid-19?

The chief investigator of the SFO led a taskforce in relation to covid, to assess all operational activity that was initially halted by the pandemic as part of the office’s wider recovery planning. In addition, general counsel for the Serious Fraud Office introduced virtual systems for reviewing cases and virtual processes. We have been monitoring the SFO closely and it has been performing well in very difficult circumstances.

Thank you, ground control.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answers thus far. Will he go a bit further on the recent deferred prosecution agreements, including those with G4S and with Airbus? What assessment has he made of the benefits of DPAs as a tool for prosecuting those accused of such offences?

I thank my hon. Friend. DPAs are very important. They are extremely powerful tools that hold companies to account, and the SFO remains committed to using them. Since 2014, the SFO has agreed eight DPAs, five of which were for overseas corruption offences. The total value to the Treasury of all eight DPAs was around £1.58 billion, so I do hope that Her Majesty’s Treasury is listening; they bring large sums of money into the Exchequer.

UK Internal Market Bill: Northern Ireland

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (906446)

I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss important issues of common interest. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is an essential and landmark piece of legislation, which will safeguard and enrich our precious Union. The Bill is a prudent step to create a legal safety net and to take powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process.

Consideration of and voting for this Bill do not constitute a breach of the law. However, there are powers in the Bill which, if and when exercised, will operate to disapply treaty obligations at the international law level—in particular, article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, and articles 5 and 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Parliamentary supremacy means that it is entirely constitutional and proper for Parliament to enact legislation, even if it breaches international treaty obligations. I am glad that my right hon. Friend voted in support of section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which made it clear that parliamentary supremacy will prevail over international law.

The last five former UK Prime Ministers have all shared their concern about the Government’s intention to break international law through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The Northern Ireland Secretary said that the Government anticipated breaking the law in a “specific and limited way”. Even the Attorney General’s own predecessor has said that the Government’s intention to break the law is “unconscionable” and will greatly damage Britain’s international reputation. So I ask the Attorney General: are they all wrong?

The question of whether in law the Government can act in this way is very simply answered: yes, they can. The question of whether they should is one for political debate, not legal argument. The hon. Lady may not like that answer, but it is one that is founded on a robust legal footing by the supremacy of Parliament, elucidated by Dicey and confirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court in Miller.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said and I do not think that she has really answered the question. As a barrister, she knows full well the role of the Government Law Officers; they must uphold the rule of law without fear or favour. As her political hero, Margaret Thatcher, once said:

“In order to be considered truly free, countries must…have…an abiding respect for the rule of law.”

Yet there is a universal view among those who look to the Attorney General to defend the rule of law that she has betrayed them, so could she tell the House what she has done to defend the rule of law in the face of the Government’s breach?

I prefer to take a less emotional approach than the hon. Lady. I am extremely proud to be supporting this Bill. It protects our country and it safeguards the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The leader of the hon. Lady’s party called for patriotism this week, but its members’ opposition to this Bill is anything but patriotic. That she can call herself an MP who sits in the United Kingdom Parliament and at the same time vote against a Bill that defends the unity of our country, maintains peace in Northern Ireland and enables the United Kingdom—our country, her country—to thrive is not only illogical, but does a grave disservice to the nation’s interests.

The Attorney General has just clearly illustrated that she is in office because, unlike Jonathan Jones and Lord Keen, she is putting her political loyalties—her Brexit fanaticism—ahead of her loyalty to the rule of law, when it should be the other way around. That is why she should resign. But does not this whole episode also illustrate why future Attorneys General should be lawyers and not party politicians? It is all right for her to trash her own reputation, but not the reputation of the office of Attorney General.

The legal basis for the Government’s proposals was set out in the statements of 10 and 17 September. Those made it clear that it is entirely proper, entirely constitutional and lawful in domestic law to enact legislation that may operate in breach of international law or treaty obligations. It is a pretty basic principle of law, and if the hon. Gentleman is having trouble understanding, I would be very happy to sit down and explain it to him.

Criminal Justice Disclosure Practices

I am committed to improving the disclosure process in criminal proceedings and upholding public trust in the criminal justice system. Following a public consultation during which I hosted several online engagement sessions with defence practitioners, prosecutors and professionals from the victims sector, I will shortly be publishing my revised guidelines on disclosure. Those will address the need for a culture change and provide up-to-date and clear guidance on how all parties in the criminal justice system can improve disclosure performance.

It is a hackneyed cliché that justice delayed is justice denied—denied for the victim, for witnesses and for the accused, many of whom may be innocent. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the leadership and the departmental focus are in place to ensure that disclosure—particularly electronic disclosure—is undertaken in full and in a timely manner? Is this being measured? If so, are the targets currently being met?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important point. There has been an unprecedented focus over the last few years on ensuring that investigators and prosecutors are properly equipped to deal with large volumes of electronic evidence. The proliferation of technology and digital devices has put pressure on the disclosure process and notably increased the resources required. That does present a challenge for our investigators and prosecutors. There is not a silver bullet that will solve it, but I can assure my hon. Friend that this issue is not being left to languish. The Crown Prosecution Service, in particular, is investing in tools and working closely with its policing colleagues to meet these challenges.

Domestic and International Law Compliance

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her role in ensuring compliance with (a) domestic and (b) international law. (906448)

On 10 September, I wrote to Select Committee Chairs to set out the Government’s legal position on the withdrawal agreement and the provisions in the UKIM Bill, and that position has not changed. We will ask Parliament to support the use of clauses 42, 43 and 45 of the UKIM Bill, and any similar subsequent provisions, only in the case of the EU being engaged in a breach of its legal obligations and thereby undermining the Northern Ireland protocol and its fundamental purpose. This creates a legal safety net and takes powers in reserve whereby Ministers can act to guarantee the integrity of the United Kingdom and protect the peace process. We are very clear that we are acting in full accordance with UK law and the UK’s constitutional norms.

The Attorney General has justified her support for the Bill by reference to the domestic legal principle of parliamentary supremacy and the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Miller. But in that case, the UK Supreme Court also said, at paragraph 55, that “treaties between sovereign states”, such as the withdrawal agreement,

“have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state.”

The Supreme Court was quite clear that such treaties

“are binding on the United Kingdom in international law”.

Why did the Attorney General omit reference to that part of the Supreme Court’s judgment? Did she not learn the rule against selective citation when she was at law school?

On the principle, the dualist nature of our constitution makes it clear that international law and international treaty obligations do not become binding in the UK until and unless Parliament says they do. That is a reflection of the supremacy of Parliament and of how, effectively, international law gives way to domestic law.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for several reasons. The first is her intervention in the Miller litigation. That intervention allowed the Supreme Court to find unanimously, and hold on this point, for the sovereignty of Parliament when it comes to international law. Secondly, she has allowed me to give examples of where domestic legislatures have acted in breach of international obligations. She will be familiar with the controversial “named persons” legislation that was introduced by the SNP at Holyrood. It was ruled by the Supreme Court to be in breach of international law, namely article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Finally, I thank the hon. and learned Lady for allowing me to refer to her point about breaching the rules and the rule of law. May I gently suggest that she direct her anger closer to home: towards her SNP colleagues and those who sit on the National Executive Committee, who, as we speak, appear to be changing the rules to prevent her exclusively from standing as an MSP? Breaking the rules—the SNP could write the textbook on it!

I am not quite sure that we have responsibility for the SNP conference at the moment. I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

The Attorney General referred to the letter that she sent to me and other Select Committee Chairs on 10 September, which included a statement of the Government’s legal position on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. What support, input and advice did she receive from any legal officials in her Department, or from Treasury counsel, in drawing up that statement of the Government’s legal position?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware of the Law Officers’ convention, which forbids me from confirming the fact of legal advice or the content of it, so I will not divulge any details about who may have assisted me in the drafting of legal advice. However, I am grateful to him for his contribution in finding a resolution, and particularly for his support on the Government amendments tabled earlier this week, which introduce a “break glass” clause. That upholds the supremacy of Parliament, giving it an extra check and opportunity to look closely at and examine the case for taking this action. I believe that is lawful and constitutional.

Criminal Justice Backlog

Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge to the criminal justice system, and significant cross-system working has been under way to keep cases moving through the system throughout the pandemic. Prosecutors and front-line CPS staff have continued to cover open courts throughout the outbreak. I pay tribute, and put on record my sincere thanks, to all the staff at the Crown Prosecution Service for continuing to support the justice system, and to the independent Bar and solicitors as well.

Following the comments of Judge Raynor, who accused the Government of systemic failure for not conducting trials in a reasonable time, what steps is the Attorney General taking with the Lord Chancellor to increase the number of safe and effective jury trials?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Actually, in the Crown court we safely resumed jury trials in England and Wales before any comparable jurisdiction in the world. With the full support of Public Health England and Public Health Wales, we were quicker off the mark to restart jury trials than our neighbouring countries. More than 900 jury trials have been listed since they recommenced on 18 May. I thank the Lord Chief Justice for his leadership in that area.

We have seen reports of some trials being listed for 2023, and in some cases court dates are not being given indefinitely. Does the Solicitor General agree with me that justice delayed is justice denied, and what work is he doing to make sure that safe jury trials can be brought forward?

This is clearly a very important issue. We are performing better than comparable Commonwealth countries, but there is always more to do, and the hon. Member is right that we want to avoid delays as much as possible. For example, 128 rooms suitable for jury trials are currently available, and this will rise to 250 by the end of October. We are doing everything we can. The Crown Prosecution Service is now eating into its backlog—so the backlog is no longer increasing; it is decreasing—and will continue to do more. The Ministry of Justice has responsibility in this area.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: Rule of Law

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill for her role in promoting the rule of law. (906455)

I speak regularly to my Cabinet colleagues on various matters relating to Government business. In tabling the UKIM Bill, the Government are clear that we are acting in full accordance with UK law and the UK’s constitutional norms.

Our system of international law has been over 400 years in the making. How would the UK feel if other countries around the world were routinely putting “notwithstanding” clauses into their domestic legislation?

The reality and challenges of being a sovereign nation state are that there are times when tensions and conflicts arise between domestic legislatures and international obligations. There are countless examples of where states with democratically elected Governments, many of whom we held in high regard and including many with whom we deal and have agreements, have resolved those tensions through legislation to depart from, derogate from or even break international law. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but that is an important context that sets a perspective for the action this Government are proposing. We are a member of the international rules-based system, and I know that our enviable reputation will stand us in good stead.

Domestic Abuse Prosecutions: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of CPS resources to pursue domestic abuse prosecutions arising from the covid-19 lockdown. (906458)

In spite of covid-19, the Crown Prosecution Service is determined to bring domestic abuse perpetrators to justice. We had an £85 million uplift from the Treasury last year. The target to recruit 390 more prosecutors has been met.

But CPS statistics show that domestic abuse complaints have rocketed during the lockdown—that also applies in the Northumbria area, where I am from—yet there are also hidden domestic abuse cases. What measures will the Solicitor General be taking to ensure that these cases are dealt with quickly?

The hon. Member is right to ask this question. It is important for Northumbria and around the country. Domestic abuse cases continue to be afforded a higher priority than other types of offences by our criminal justice system. This was reinforced, for example, in the guidance for judges about listings in the magistrates courts that has been issued by the senior presiding judge for England and Wales. It is a priority for the Crown Prosecution Service too, and we are going to keep a focus on this important area.

Covid-19 Restrictions

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the legal framework governing covid-19 restrictions. (906462)

I speak frequently to Cabinet colleagues on various matters relating to Government business, including measures taken on covid. Everyone has made huge sacrifices this year to protect the NHS and save lives, and most people are still following the rules and doing their bit to control the virus, but we do need to act now to stop the virus spreading.

But does the Attorney General not agree that greater parliamentary scrutiny would prevent some of the wrong convictions and charges, and enable the police to better enforce the law?

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was put before Parliament and went through every stage that a Bill is expected to go through. Any regulations made under it are also subject to parliamentary approval. There is a sunset provision in the Coronavirus Act, which means it will expire automatically after two years, if not extended. There is a parliamentary review every six months, which will give Parliament the chance—for example, this coming Wednesday—to vote on a motion stating that the Act should not end.

It does. In her response to me a few moments ago, the Attorney General said that I intervened in the case of Miller v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I did not intervene in that case, and perhaps if the Attorney General had read the case more closely, particularly paragraph 55, to which I referred her, she would know that I was not a party or an intervener in that case. I think she is getting it mixed up with the case of Cherry v. Advocate General for Scotland, in which a year ago today, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that her Government’s action in proroguing Parliament was unlawful. I was not an intervener in that case; I was the lead litigant, and it is great to get an opportunity to mention it on the Floor of the House today and to celebrate that great victory for the rule of law, made in Scotland.

In fairness, I wanted to give the hon. and learned Lady the opportunity to make her point of order. That has been corrected, and I am sure that the Attorney General will accept what she has said. It is not a point of order for me, but the correction has now been made.

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.

Sitting suspended.