House of Commons
Thursday 10 December 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.]
Business before Questions
INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF MATERNITY SERVICES
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled Emerging Findings and Recommendations from the Independent Review of Maternity Services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, dated 10 December 2020.—(Iain Stewart.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Creative Industries: Highly Skilled Workers
We recognise the crucial role of high-skilled workers in making our creative industries world leading. The £1.57 billion culture recovery fund provides targeted support to critical cultural arts and heritage organisations during the pandemic and the £500 million film and TV production restart scheme has supported 4,500 jobs in the screen sectors to date.
SSE Audio employed 196 people in the supply chain of the events industry until March; 75 of those have already been made redundant. Last year it paid £2.45 million to freelancers as well. Its freelancers are among the excluded group who have had no financial support, the business did not qualify for the cultural recovery fund, 99% of which has gone to venues, not suppliers, and unless the furlough scheme is extended in January it will have to make the rest of its workforce redundant. Is it not the case that suppliers such as SEE Audio and its freelancers are essential to the recovery of this brilliant sector of our economy?
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about all the amazing parts of the industry that support our creative and cultural venues up and down the country. Of course this Government have just put in an incredible amount of unprecedented business support right across every sector—over £100 billion for the furloughing scheme, the self-employed income support scheme, grants, loans, VAT deferrals—and for freelancers we know the best thing we can do is get our sectors back up and running. That is what the culture recovery fund is all about.
Today, research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre has shown that in the last six months there have been 55,000 job losses in music and the performing and visual arts—all that talent, dedication and diversity of voices lost. Our creative workers are desperate to get back to doing what they do best, and we know the simplest way to get money to freelancers is to make shows, but to do that producers need a safety net. Germany has just announced an indemnity fund so event organisers can plan for the second half of 2021 without the financial risk posed by a potential covid outbreak. Industry predictions suggest a three-month indemnity here could get the sector back on its feet. I know that the Minister is receptive to this idea, so can she explain what is holding things up? Has the Chancellor again said no?
The hon. Member is absolutely right to highlight that our creative industries are a fantastic success story. They contribute more than £112 billion to our economy, more than the automotive, aerospace and life sciences sectors combined, so we do need to do everything we can to help them. The next stage of the cultural recovery fund will be announced shortly—that is another £258 million—and we are looking very carefully at the German insurance model. It has only been announced this week so the details have not been made clear. We have to be sure that it really is the only obstacle to things being able to reopen, but we very happy to have those conversations with the Treasury.
We are carefully considering the extent to which current advertising regulation is fit to tackle the challenges posed by the modern world. Next year we will be launching a public consultation on the regulation of online advertising. We are also working on more specific areas, including high fat, salt and sugar advertising, and establishing a new pro-competition regime.
I thank the Minister for that detailed answer. Local journalism is funded on the whole by local advertising, be that in local newspapers or local radio, and the structural impact of the changes in our local economies and the move online is having a significant impact on the way that local independent news is produced. Can the Minister give us more details on the steps the Government are taking to protect local journalism, which is so important to maintaining local democracy?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for local media and newspapers in his area. We recognise the vital role publications like his own Warrington Guardian play in supporting communities but also in providing reliable information. We strongly welcome the recommendations in the Competition and Markets Authority report and the setting up of a digital markets unit within the CMA to ensure fairness in regulating digital platforms. The Minister for Media and Data meets very regularly with the sector to discuss all its ongoing concerns about this.
I do not know who your secret Santa is, Mr Speaker, but I do know the Minister’s: Google and Facebook. Only, they are not buying presents—just using our data, behaviour and social contacts to tell us what to buy through their domination of online advertising, while our local retailers, who pay significant taxes and employ so many people, lose out. Can the Minister confirm that the digital markets unit’s powers have yet to be defined and that powers in the long-delayed online harms Bill are being watered down? Will she promise now to stop tech companies selling on our data, and put us back in control of our digital lives and Santa back in charge of Christmas?
I sincerely hope they are not my secret Santa. Online advertising is clearly an important driver of the UK economy. The Government are really committed to supporting the continued growth of the industry, but it needs to be fairer and better regulated. So we will launch a public consultation next year on measures to enhance how online advertising is regulated in the UK. That will build on the call for evidence we launched this year, and we will consider options to enhance the regulation of advertising content and placement online. The hon. Member asks about the online harms response. It will be published very shortly and it will not be watered down—there is my secret Santa gift for her, Mr Speaker.
Gigabit Broadband Roll-out
The Government are absolutely committed to delivering nationwide gigabit broadband as soon as possible. That is why we are investing £5 billion to support roll-out in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country. We will go as fast as we can and the only thing that will hold us up is how fast we can get the fibre into the ground. We are engaging closely with industry to support its efforts by incentivising investment and removing barriers to roll-out.
I thank my hon. Friend for his positive answer. Now that Stoke-on-Trent has a complete city-wide full-fibre network offering gigabit speeds and capability, does he agree that Stoke-on-Trent would be the perfect test bed to show how, post Brexit, smaller UK cities can more than match up to similar-sized centres of digital innovation such as Eindhoven, Karlsruhe and Aalborg? Will he commit the Government to help make my Silicon Stoke vision a reality, as part of the levelling up commitments?
My hon. Friend misses no opportunity to promote Silicon Stoke. The Government are absolutely committed to using trials and test beds to support the kind of innovation he talks about. We are interested in new ideas as part of that levelling up commitment. I look forward to continuing our conversations with Stoke and maybe even visiting one day.
Mrs Sharp, who lives in Delyn in my constituency, has just had a quote for £131,638 to install full-fibre broadband for her and her 18 neighbours. That works out at about £7,000 per property. When I queried this with Openreach, it said, “Well, she lives in a rural community. Perhaps she could dig her own trenches to reduce the cost of the groundwork.” Given that levelling up should not only be for people in towns and cities and those who happen to own heavy machinery, can my hon. Friend look into this case and others like it to come up with a better answer for Mrs Sharp than “dig your own holes”?
There are communities that have successfully dug their own trenches, but it is obviously not right to suggest that that would be right for everybody. Ofcom is looking at the universal service obligation, one of the routes to getting broadband into rural areas, but there are other methods. I encourage my hon. Friend to ask his constituents to look at the voucher schemes, particularly those supported by the Welsh Government, and other technologies. But I am happy to look into this specific case, because obviously it is not likely that everyone owns enough heavy machinery to dig every trench.
Mobile Coverage in Rural Areas
The Government have agreed a £1 billion deal with mobile network operators to deliver the shared rural network. This landmark deal will deliver 95% coverage by the end of 2025. The exact deployment plans will be managed by operators and we look forward to seeing more details of those.
The unique geography of the Peak District means that we have some of the worst mobile phone coverage blackspots anywhere in the country. I welcome the introduction of the shared rural network, but can the Minister provide further information to the House on when my constituents might see some of the benefit of this? Would he agree to meet me, so we can discuss how we can roll out better phone coverage to the whole High Peak?
The shared rural network is already benefiting some parts of the country, but my hon. Friend is right that in areas such as High Peak it cannot come soon enough. I am very happy to meet him to discuss that, and I am very happy for him to join me in continuing to encourage operators to make their plans public as quickly as possible.
Will the Minister join me in praising the often unsung work of local councils in improving rural mobile connectivity, such as the digital officers of Wrexham and Denbighshire councils in Clwyd South, who bring together local solutions to complex mobile coverage problems?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, whether it is in Wrexham and Denbighshire or up and down the country, the work of local authorities has been absolutely essential in delivering the kind of bespoke solutions that work best for local communities. I am grateful to those in Wrexham and Denbighshire who have engaged closely with my Department’s barrier-busting taskforce to make sure that his constituents get the connectivity that they deserve.
Covid-19: Sporting Fixtures and Sport Facilities
Sports and physical activity are vital for our physical and mental health and an important weapon in the fight against coronavirus. That is why I made the return of grassroots sports an immediate priority after national restrictions ended. Since 2 December, I am pleased to say that grassroots clubs, sports facilities and gyms have opened across all tiers.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, my constituency of Lincoln is home to the mighty Imps—something that my constituents and I are very proud of. While the partial resumption of fan attendance is positive news, this does not end the concern that clubs and fans have. Will he confirm his plans to see a full return of fans, and what further financial support will be provided for those clubs, which have had a very difficult 2020? Finally, has snooker now be reclassed as entertainment and not sport?
I know that my hon. Friend is not impish in his devotion to Lincoln City, and it is good to see them doing so well this season. First, I am pleased about the deal that has been reached between the Premier League and the English Football League for £250 million, which I am confident will secure the game through to the end of the season. Of course, we want it to reopen as rapidly as possible. The first important step for somewhere such as Lincolnshire is to get out of tier 3 into tier 2, and then into tier 1, and we will see more fans able to attend as we go through that process.
In relation to snooker, the professional game has returned, but some recreational snooker and leagues may not be happening in higher tiers due to the risk of spreading. We will keep this under review.
Blyth Valley is currently under tier 3 restrictions, with gyms and sports facilities open for individual exercise. Increased ventilation, enhanced cleaning of sports equipment and a constant supply of hand sanitiser are just some of the measures required to ensure that facilities can operate in a covid-19-secure way. The implementation of such measures is adding significant cost to an industry that has had a terrible year. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will engage with the industry and find a way to help it to remain open in a safe and covid-secure way?
Sport is of course a force for good in all our communities, and I made it a priority to open sports facilities and gyms in all tiers as part of this reopening. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the incredible efforts made by venues to ensure that this could happen. I know the difficult financial situation many of them find themselves in. We have already provided over £2 billion to sport, including, for example, the £300 million sport rescue fund, money for local leisure centres and support from Sport England, but of course I will continue to work with sports over the weeks and months ahead to support them.
Workington Reds are under the new chairmanship of David Bowden, and I would like to send him my best wishes for taking over at such a difficult time. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what support has been made available to clubs such as Workington Reds?
I of course join my hon. Friend in giving my very best wishes to the new chairman, David Bowden, at Workington Reds. We know the value of these clubs. That is precisely why we included £25 million of funding for national league clubs in the sports winter survival package. That is, of course, on top of the unique lottery deal, which has provided £10 million for the national league’s top two tiers to get them playing this season. Of course, we will continue to work with the sport.
Covid-19: Live Music
In addition to more than £100 billion of general business support, our unprecedented investment of £1.57 billion in the culture recovery fund has seen more than £500 million handed out to organisations across England to date, a fifth of which has gone to the music sector. Those funds are providing valuable protection to live music venues and festivals, and to all the valuable jobs that rely on them.
I know the whole sector is very grateful for the support it has received from the Government, but if we are going to get music festivals and major events on again from the spring and summer, businesses need to be signing contracts and spending money now. Will the Minister give serious consideration to Government support for an indemnity or insurance scheme so that they can make those decisions in the confidence that, if there is a third wave, their losses will be mitigated?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I am well aware of the concerns about and the challenges of securing insurance for live music events. It is something we are looking at very carefully, but the key is for the industry to build an evidence base that demonstrates that insurance coverage is the only barrier to events being able to take place. That is what we managed to prove with the film and TV production restart scheme. In the meantime, the remaining £258 million of the culture recovery fund will very shortly be made available to provide extra support.
On a similar theme, the UK is the world leader in music and arts festivals. The sector is worth £12 billion and supports many thousands of highly skilled jobs, as well as being the financial lifeblood of the nation’s musicians. However, there will be no festival season next year unless insurance is underwritten in case of covid disruption. First, will the Minister meet with me and MPs from across the House to see how that reinsurance can be put in place? Secondly, noting her answer to the previous question, does she recognise that with a minimum lead time of six months, the reinsurance needs to be in place now before the likes of Glastonbury can commit and, if it is not, those festivals effectively cannot be put in place? We need them to be able to sign those contracts today, rather than to wait several months and then have an insurance scheme in place.
I know this is something that my hon. Friend cares deeply about and that he met the Secretary of State recently to discuss it. Festivals are a vibrant and integral part of our creative community and our economy, and I am well aware that many will take decisions very soon about whether they can go ahead next year, so this is an urgent situation. There is a sub-group of my entertainment and events working group looking specifically at how we can get festivals reopened. I have met in the past few weeks with representatives from festivals in Edinburgh, and only yesterday with representatives from festivals on the Isle of Wight.
Covid-19 Tiers: Performing Arts
Following the recent introduction of regional tiers, venues in tiers 1 and 2 are open to audiences, subject to social distancing and caps on capacity. Venues in tier 3 are adapting their performances to broadcast without audiences. The Government continue to work with the performing arts sector to assess the impact of the tiers and to develop proposals for how venues can open with fuller audiences when it is safe to do so.
The culture recovery fund, which the Minister mentioned earlier, has of course been welcomed by our award-winning Sheffield theatres, along with others across the sector. However, she knows that the performing arts depend on an army of freelancers. They make up some 70% of the theatre workforce alone, not only actors and performers, but more working in lighting, set design, stage management and other areas. She also knows that they have been shut out of the business support that she talked about earlier—more than 200,000 people, part of the 3 million excluded across all sectors—so will she recognise the problem for freelancers and press the Treasury to provide the support they need?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the culture recovery fund has been a lifeline for cultural and artistic institutions up and down our country. Sheffield Central has received over £7 million in funding in 2020-21. The whole thing about supporting freelancers is getting things up and running. For example, the Crucible theatre in Sheffield is in tier 3, but it is continuing to rehearse its panto with the aim of performing it live if restrictions are lifted in time, but whatever happens, it will record its work and stream it into hospitals, schools and, hopefully, to audiences. That is how we get our freelancers back to work—by continuing to produce the high-quality cultural content that audiences are so desperate for.
Data Protection: GDPR and Other EU Regulations
The general data protection regulation regime will be retained in domestic law after the transition period through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The UK remains committed to maintaining high data protection standards now and in the future.
The EU has been a world leader when it comes to the protection of citizens’ digital rights. This is evidenced by the large number of countries, such as South Korea, Japan and Brazil, that sought to emulate its groundbreaking GDPR policy. As the end of the transition period looms, how will the UK Government ensure that digital rights law not only lives up to the EU’s high standards but exceeds them?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the GDPR has ensured that we have high standards and, as I say, we are absolutely committed to maintaining them. We have no intention of diverging substantially from GDPR, but obviously we will be looking to see whether there are ways in which we can improve our regime while maintaining those high standards.
The independent Information Commissioner recently revealed that the Conservative party had racially and religiously profiled 10 million voters at the last election. I was shocked to learn that it did this by buying data that
“identified a person’s…ethnic origin and religion based on their first and last name.”
Can the Minister explain to the House why his party does this?
Misinformation and Disinformation Online.
The Government take the issue of misinformation and disinformation very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle it. As this can be particularly harmful during the pandemic, we stood up the counter-disinformation unit to bring together cross-Government monitoring and analysis capabilities. We are working closely with social media platforms to help them to identify and remove incorrect claims about the virus and to promote authoritative information.
Online misinformation is a great harm to us all. It can make people refuse life-saving medicines, it can make people believe that the so-called leader of the free world has been cheated out of an election, and in the last of the 16 days of action on gender-based violence against women and girls, it is important to note that 52% of young women and girls have been abused online and that 87% think the problem is getting worse. When will we finally see the online harms Bill, given that the social media and tech companies are doing nowhere near enough to protect individuals and society at large?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this. We know that the vast majority of misinformation is harmful but legal. It is really important that we develop a comprehensive piece of legislation, working closely with civil society and the tech platforms, so that where disinformation is illegal or encourages illegal behaviours it can be dealt with, and so that we can address false narratives online and try to root out the content that is legal but harmful, particularly to children. With that in mind, we will be publishing the online harms response very shortly, and we plan to bring forward the legislation early next year.
Like many other Members, I have been sharing information about the excellent developments on the vaccines with my constituents on social media, but I have been deeply worried by some of the anti-vax nonsense I have seen in response. What is the Minister’s advice to my constituents when they see this information online? Should they simply report it to the social media companies and expect them to remove it—they have a pretty poor track record of doing that—or is there some way of feeding into the disinformation unit that she has described?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. Anti-vaccination propaganda can be really harmful and can deter people from getting treatment that could save their life or the life of a loved one. That is why it is really important to bring it to the attention of the social media companies themselves. Last month, my colleague the Secretary of State, alongside the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, met the social media companies, which agreed to reduce the spread of harmful and misleading narratives, particularly around the potential covid-19 vaccine. We are holding them to account for this; it is vital that they get it right and that their work is transparent and effective.
Creative Industries: Support to Work in the EU
The Government continue to engage with creative sectors so that they know how to prepare for changes at the end of the transition period. We are seeking a reciprocal arrangement with the EU that would allow UK citizens to undertake some business activities in the EU without a work permit on a short-term basis. We cannot comment on the details of those arrangements at the moment, as the negotiations are still ongoing.
As the least musically talented member ever of the Musicians Union, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am sort of pleased that the Minister gave that answer, although it does mean that I am slightly floundering as to what question to ask her now, because that was what I was going to ask. Musicians really need that reciprocal exemption. I know she says that what is important is that they are ready and prepared for when they can resume touring again, but it is really late in the day to leave this, and Ministers told the Musicians Union that it would be quite an easy thing to do. Is it possible to get some reassurance to them now, rather than later?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady; she may not have musical talent, but she has some of the best musical taste in this House. The cultural and creative sectors are, as she knows, some of the UK’s greatest success stories and produce talent that is recognised the world over. Being outside the EU will not change that, but it does mean that we need practical changes on both sides of the channel. That will not come as a big surprise; DCMS has been engaging for very long time with the relevant trade and membership bodies, which cover a membership of approximately 150,000 businesses and freelancers. We have also had “Get ready for Brexit” and “Check. Change. Go.” public information campaigns, so we have been keeping people updated every step of the way.
We continue to protect our sectors through the covid crisis. In the past month alone, we have announced a £300 million winter survival package for sports clubs, seen a £250 million deal between the English Football League and the Premier League and announced £100 million in emergency funding for leisure centres. At the same time, we continue to deliver on our non-covid priorities, for example, the Telecommunications (Security) Bill and telecoms diversification strategy, the review of the Gambling Act 2005, the response to the Competition and Markets Authority and, of course, plans for Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
Britannia has just been voted the UK’s worst hotel chain for the 8th year in a row. This is doing untold damage to resort constituencies such as mine in Southport, which have Britannia Hotels and Pontins campsites. What does my right hon. Friend have to say about this truly appalling record?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise concerns about the management and cleanliness practices of sites owned by Britannia Hotels, and he has also raised them with me privately. I know that in November the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) met them, and he was again in contact with them yesterday to raise those concerns. Of course, local authorities have appropriate powers to deal with this, but it is something I am taking a very close interest in.
This week, we learnt that a former Conservative DCMS Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, had to promise to be positive towards Mark Zuckerberg and his monopolistic company before Mr Zuckerberg would even agree to meet him in 2018. Has the current Secretary of State adopted the same approach in his meetings with Facebook executives during his tenure?
I do not know what information the hon. Lady has been reading; if she is referring to the information released in the freedom of information request, that was certainly not how I read it. We have been taking a robust approach to social media companies. I have already met with Nick Clegg and Sheryl Sandberg about encryption, with the Home Secretary, and we continue to develop robust proposals for online harms, which we will announce very shortly.
I am pleased to hear that we will finally get the much-delayed online harms Bill to ensure that the regulator has the strength to tackle online child abuse comprehensively and ensure trust and transparency from online platforms—including, of course, Facebook; Instagram, which is owned by Facebook; and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook—as standard, as the Secretary of State has promised. However, we have heard this week that the Bill has been watered down and will not include criminal penalties for senior tech executives after multiple breaches. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will not put his relationship with powerful tech companies ahead of the safety of children and that criminal penalties will be included in the Bill?
I gently advise the hon. Lady that as much as I respect our newspapers and have done a great deal to support them, she should not believe everything that she reads in newspapers; wait to see the response. There is talk of things being watered down but people should wait and see what is in the Bill. I am confident that we will have a robust and effective regime that achieves two outcomes: first, we will ensure that people are safe online, and secondly, the legislation will at the same time be proportionate to ensure that we have a vibrant tech sector in this country.
I do not want to interfere in the election of the chairman of that APPG, but my hon. Friend will make an excellent candidate for that position. We of course remain committed to ensuring that all children and young people have a broad and balanced curriculum, of which creative education is a key part. We will work with the Department for Education and other valued education partners to deliver high-quality education and training across all disciplines in the arts.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue. We have opened the consultation on products high in fat, salt and sugar and continue to keep all advertising restrictions under review. It is vital that the drinks industry does not undertake advertising that in any way encourages young people to drink or people to engage in excessive drinking.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I should mention again, for your benefit, Mr Speaker, that not only did we provide £16 million of support to protect rugby league earlier this year, but we announced a further £12 million last month. The Halliwell Jones stadium in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be a terrific host of the rugby league world cup next year—
Just outside—very close to his constituency. [Laughter.] I stand corrected, Mr Speaker. I assure you that it is an excellent stadium wherever in the United Kingdom it is located. We are very much looking forward to the rugby league world cup as the main event of 2021 and we are of course working very closely indeed with those involved. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the risks around covid; I very much hope that by that point we will be able to have the full return of fans to stadiums, but we will of course ensure that contingencies are in place.
Finally, I should say how grateful I am to Ralph Rimmer at the Rugby Football League and the rugby league world cup team for all their excellent efforts.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of digital exclusion across the board. My Department is working closely to address that, and of course I would be very happy for either me or one of my ministerial colleagues to meet him and that group to discuss those ideas further.
We are very committed to ensuring that we have vibrant local newspapers. They are a cornerstone of our democracy. We have already extended business rates relief on local newspaper offices, fast-tracked zero-rating of VAT on e-publications and will continue to explore further options for support. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the important role of statutory notices and the role that they play in newspapers’ revenue and we are working closely to ensure that we protect that.
The Attorney General was asked—
Covid-19: Backlog of Cases
Morning, Mr Speaker. The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been truly collaborative, and I thank all frontline staff for their incredibly hard work. The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with partner agencies to reduce the backlog of cases in courts. That includes introducing internal measures to manage larger, live caseloads and working to ensure maximum throughput of cases at court. I am pleased to say to the hon. Lady that Newport and Cwmbran magistrates court is now listing cases in line with pre-covid timescales.
The backlog of cases has meant a serious delay in the ability to access justice. As the Law Society has pointed out:
“Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation will ensure judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.”
What is the Attorney General doing with the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid and early advice are funded properly to help tackle the backlog?
I am grateful for the question from the hon. Lady. I am working with the Lord Chancellor and with all Government Departments to support publicly funded lawyers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the CPS, for which I am mainly responsible, made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. In August, the Government invested a further £51 million into the criminal legal aid fee scheme to better reflect the important work that publicly funded barristers provide.
I and members of the Justice Committee join the Attorney General in paying tribute to all those in the justice system who have worked very hard to deal with the extra pressures of the covid pandemic. Recognising that, she will know of course that the Lord Chief Justice has recently observed that a significant number of multi-handed large-scale organised crime cases are likely to be coming into the Crown court system in the coming year. That will add to pressure because of the social distancing arrangements required in Crown courts, and given that we are listing, at the moment, some cases up to 2022, that is clearly not desirable. How is she proposing that the CPS deals specifically with those pressures given also the comments by the inspectorate around disclosure still needing to be improved as that can cause delays at trials?
Again, my hon. Friend raises an important point, because, in order to tackle the backlog and ensure that court activity continues where possible, the CPS has moved over its Crown advocates to increase its resources in reviewing cases and has offered secondments to the Bar. That is something that has been welcomed by the Bar and by the profession. That move to bring CPS advocates in-house to deal with charging and case progression—matters that my hon. Friend raises—ensures that the CPS is in the best place to be ready for trials and to support the courts recovery plan to deal with the backlog and, in particular, those multi-handed trials, which are of concern when it comes to bearing down on this backlog.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the Attorney General on her happy news.
The CPS case backlog is up 55% since March; victims of domestic violence are being told by police to pursue civil action rather than criminal prosecutions because the courts are so overwhelmed; and the latest figures show that domestic abuse prosecutions are down by 19%. On the final day of 16 days of action against gender-based violence, it is clear that the Government are letting down victims on every front. What exactly is the Attorney General doing about this?
I wish the hon. Lady a happy birthday and thank her for her kind wishes, but I have to disagree with the premise of her question.
Of course, the Government take very seriously the challenges faced by vulnerable victims, particularly at this difficult time, and we acknowledge there are challenges and strains in the court system. That is why, earlier this year, the CPS introduced the interim charging protocol with the police, which prioritised high-harm cases, including those with victims of domestic abuse or serious violence. That has enabled a slower decrease or fall in the prosecutions of those cases.
We have also seen the roll-out of section 28 in 18 courts since February, and, as of 23 November, throughout 82 Crown courts. That is a real benefit for vulnerable victims who are going through the traumatic experience of giving evidence in domestic abuse cases and on sexual violence matters.
Immigration Offences: Prosecution
The CPS is committed to prosecuting immigration crime to protect UK borders, and, in particular, to bring to justice those who exploit and facilitate the entry of illegal migrants. The CPS has clear and published policy guidance on the prosecution of immigration offences that reflects the memorandum of understanding agreed between the CPS and Home Office Immigration Enforcement.
The offence of facilitating unlawful immigration has previously been used, quite rightly, to tackle smuggling gangs and traffickers, but in recent months the Crown Prosecution Service has started prosecuting refugees crossing the channel simply because they were the unlucky ones forced to steer the boat. As the chief inspector of borders has made clear, these people are victims of the gangs—they are not gang members—so why are they being prosecuted and put in prison, contrary to the spirit of UN protocols and the published CPS guidance?
The CPS has not changed its policy on prosecuting immigration offences. The joint approach between the CPS and Immigration Enforcement is to consider prosecution for anyone who has been involved in organising and planning these journeys—I emphasise, the organising and planning—together with those responsible for controlling the vessels. As always, every case has to be considered on its merits and on the facts, and decisions must be in line with the code in the usual way. Prosecutors have to be satisfied about that, and prosecutors understand their obligations.
The Solicitor General referred to prosecuting the people who control the vessels, but they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said, the victims of these gangs—not members of the gangs—so there has been a change in CPS policy and practice. If he wants to prove me wrong on that, will he publish the new note or guidance on this offence that I understand was issued to CPS lawyers last month, and will he also publish details of any representations made by the Home Office in the last 18 months in relation to this offence?
As I say, the policy is clear on prosecutors’ obligations. They have obligations—the obligations that we have under article 31 of the refugee convention—and it is well to point out that those obligations are actually enshrined in our domestic legislation, here in this honourable House. The domestic legislation in section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is quite clear in this area. Those who facilitate, control and engineer these offences are subject to prosecution.
Spending Review 2020 Additional Funding
The Government are investing across the justice system, with a further £23 million for the CPS, on top of £85 million invested over the past two years. That investment will enable the CPS to respond effectively to the increase in caseload that we expect; we are recruiting 20,000 new police officers. That will strengthen our response to things like rape and serious sexual offences.
Investing in the CPS demonstrates this Government’s commitment to securing justice for victims of crime. I am pleased to say that funding will support the recruitment of new roles across England and Wales, including in CPS East Midlands, which covers Northamptonshire—both my county and my hon. Friend’s county.
Advocates for defendants at Northampton Crown court are regularly using the fact that their client has waited so long for justice during the pandemic as mitigation when seeking a lesser sentence from the judge. How is the Crown Prosecution Service countering such pleas so that convicted criminals receive the tougher sentences that the public want to see?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Northampton Crown court, at which I appeared for many years, both prosecuting and defending. Sentencing is a matter for the courts. The CPS prosecutors will assist the courts when it comes to sentencing to ensure that all relevant factors are brought to the court’s attention when considering a sentence.
Courts do have to have regard to guidance that the Sentencing Council publishes on sentencing principles, including during the covid pandemic. That includes advice that each case must be considered on its own facts. The court has an obligation—my hon. Friend is right to raise this—to protect the public and victims of crime, and sentencing by our judiciary is actually very robust. It is right, though, that judges hear mitigating features as well as aggravating features. They do that, and they sentence accordingly.
The Government should be commended for bringing down the number of outstanding Crown court cases, prior to covid, to a 10-year low, but of course the social distancing requirements of covid have changed the situation. Is the Crown court system now keeping up with the current inflow of cases? If not, how are the Government going to get a handle on the backlog?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which is well made. We have unlocked vital capacity by opening 16 so-called Nightingale courts to provide 29 extra courtrooms, 10 of which are being used for non-custodial types of cases and jury trials. We are continuing to open more Nightingale courts. We are spending £110 million on a range of emergency measures to help courts to tackle the impact of covid-19. We have recruited 1,600 additional staff, who are using the cloud video platform, and that continues to increase: virtual hearings are taking place more than ever. That has now been rolled out to over 150 magistrates courts and about 70 Crown courts. A lot of work is being done to increase capacity, but my hon. Friend is very right to raise this.
Rape and Sexual Assault: Prosecutions
Tackling rape is a priority for this Government, and £3 million has been awarded to the CPS in this year’s spending review specifically for rape and serious sexual offence work. This year the CPS published its own rape strategy, “Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) 2025”, and has updated rape legal guidance and training for specialist prosecutors. The CPS is also engaging stakeholders on a joint action plan on rape, with the police, aimed at improving joint working, launching in 2021.
I can rehearse the figures, as indeed the Attorney General can, on declining rates of prosecution for rape and sexual violence. The Victims Commissioner, Vera Baird, found that only one in seven victims believes they will get any form of justice through our criminal justice system. Does the Attorney General agree that if rape is not to be a de facto matter of impunity for the attacker, we must have the rape review published as soon as possible, and that we have to see urgent action to begin to bring these catastrophic and scandalous numbers down and to give confidence to victims that they will actually get justice?
The hon. Gentleman is, with respect, wrong to suggest that perpetrators of rape can behave with immunity—I think that was the word he used. There is a real priority shared throughout Government to bear down on the low rates of prosecutions and convictions in this area. Following the publishing of the shadow rape review, the Government have decided to delay publication of the end-to-end rape review until 2021, so that we can ensure proper engagement with the views and perspectives of stakeholders. That will allow us to assess other recently published findings, including the survey of victims of rape undertaken by the Victims’ Commissioner. That is important work, and we want to get it right.
Rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record, and the recent survey of survivors found that just 14% believed they would receive justice by reporting the crime. Does the Attorney General agree that violence against women is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights, and does she therefore think that instead of announcing unnecessary consultations on the Human Rights Act 1998, which is there to protect victims and the public, the Government should instead focus on addressing the complete and systematic failures of the current criminal justice system?
The decline in criminal justice outcomes for rape is a cause of deep concern for us all, and although the increased charge rates in 2019-20 and in quarter 1 of 2020-21 have led to increases in the volume of cases proceeding to prosecution following charge, there is clearly more to be done.
The decline in this issue is complex and cross-system. It is why the Government have commissioned an end-to-end rape review, which, as I said, is due to publish next year. The CPS is proactive in making improvements, including the publication of its strategy, which deals head-on with trying to support victims and to address the concerns expressed in the 2019 inspectorate report. It has also published updated rape legal guidance for public consultation. That is the way to get it right, so that we can inject long-term benefits and change in the system.
Publicly Funded Barristers
Criminal defence lawyers play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, and the Government greatly value the work that they do. In my meetings with the Bar Council, the Criminal Bar Association and with circuit leaders, support for the publicly funded Bar is always high on the agenda.
There are three things here. First, at the beginning of the pandemic, the CPS made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to support them at that difficult time. Secondly, the Government made it easier for barristers to claim hardship payments for Crown court work. Thirdly, in August, the Government invested an extra £51 million into the criminal legal aid fee scheme to better reflect the important work that criminal barristers do.
It was extremely disappointing to see no further funding for legal aid practitioners announced in the Chancellor’s spending review. There has not been a rise in legal aid payments for 25 years, and a decade of Government cuts to legal aid have left thousands of practitioners facing the prospect of going out of business, even before coronavirus. Does the Attorney General agree that legal aid practitioners should have been included in the spending review?
As I have already mentioned, the £51 million of additional funding through the criminal legal aid review has been allocated specifically for those publicly funded barristers and lawyers of whom the hon. Gentleman speaks. The next phase of CLAR will involve an independently led review that will ensure the market meets demands, provides value for money for the taxpayer and provides for defendants to continue to receive high-quality advice from a diverse range of practitioners, protecting access to justice now and into the future.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Domestic Abuse Prosecutions
The CPS is determined to bring perpetrators of domestic abuse to justice and provide protection for victims in spite of the pandemic. I have personally presented cases in the Court of Appeal where I have felt that sentences were too low in this area of law. Following the £85 million uplift awarded last year, CPS recruitment has continued to boost our resources and ensure that cases progress through the courts.
The hon. Member is right: it is a burning issue and a very important one. Domestic abuse cases are among our highest priorities in the court system, being dealt with by the criminal justice system. They continued to be afforded a higher priority as social distancing restrictions were eased. That was reinforced in guidance for judges about listing in magistrates courts issued by the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, and the CPS is working across Government. We are at one on this. We recognise it as a priority. Domestic abuse cases are appalling, and they remain among our highest priorities.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that up to 30% of domestic violence starts during pregnancy, so can he tell me what the CPS is doing to protect vulnerable babies from that toxic environment, which has such a profoundly damaging impact on their lifelong potential?
I am full of admiration for the work that my right hon. Friend does in this area. She is a powerful and committed advocate for this cause. She is undertaking some work for the Prime Minister, which I know the Government are eagerly awaiting. Tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims is a key priority for this Government, now more than ever. The Domestic Abuse Bill and the wider action plan will help to protect and support victims and their children. All NHS staff must undertake mandatory safeguarding training nowadays, which includes a focus on domestic abuse, so that they can pick it up. The new “Working Together to Safeguard Children” arrangements help to strengthen the multi-agency approach of partnership and collaborative working.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
The Court of Appeal has this month increased sentences referred by me for a range of offending. Those have included the supply of drugs in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, the possession of firearms, and the rape of a victim who was asleep combined with the making of indecent images and recordings.
My hon. Friend is entirely right about public protection. It is one reason why, exceptionally, I will refer a case involving a dangerous offender, for example. In two separate cases this year—one involving a stabbing, and the other involving rape, where both the victims were lone females—the offenders had their original sentences extended following my reference to the Court of Appeal to properly reflect the dangerousness of their offending. She is quite right to highlight this point, and that work will continue.
Future Relationship with the EU
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House again on the progress of our negotiations with the European Union. The Prime Minister met the Commission President yesterday evening in Brussels. They, along with the chief negotiators, Lord Frost and Michel Barnier, discussed the significant obstacles that still remain in the negotiations. It is clear that we remain far apart on the so-called level playing field, fisheries and governance. However, they agreed that talks should resume in Brussels today to see whether the gaps can be bridged. They also agreed that a decision should be taken by Sunday regarding the future of the talks.
We are working tirelessly to get a deal, but we cannot accept one at any cost. We cannot accept a deal that would compromise the control of our money, laws, borders and fish. The only deal that is possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, trade and waters. As the Prime Minister said, whether we agree trading arrangements resembling those of Australia or Canada, the United Kingdom will prosper as an independent nation. We will continue to keep the House updated as we seek to secure a future relationship with our EU friends that respects our status as a sovereign, equal and independent country.
The country was hoping for a breakthrough last night, yet there was none. There is a sense of huge dismay, as we all wanted to hear significant progress, but we heard more about the Prime Minister’s meal than we did about his deal. In fact, we have not heard from the Prime Minister at all, even though he was supposed to be taking charge of these negotiations.
On Sunday, we will have just 18 days to go until the end of the transition period. How has it come to this? Businesses desperately trying to plan need to know what on earth is going on. If talks break down and the Government pursue no deal, what happens next? Will the Government look to swiftly restart negotiations, or do the Government believe there should be no talks next year or even for the rest of this Parliament? Or have the Government not thought that far ahead?
I want to focus in my question today on the security implications of no deal. The political declaration, signed by the Prime Minister, stated that there should be a
“broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership.”
Yet despite numerous questions from the Opposition, and indeed from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), Ministers have been unable to tell us how border officers and police will be able to access security data. The Government’s “No-Deal Readiness Report” admitted that, without a deal on security and data, the UK would lose access to key law enforcement tools such as SIS II—the second-generation Schengen information system—Europol and the European arrest warrant. These databases help us to fight organised crime and terrorism. Can the Minister guarantee that the security of the British people will be in no way undermined in the event of no security agreement?
The Labour party believes that the security of our country and our people are crucial. The Government will not be forgiven for undermining those. So for our economic prosperity and for our country’s security, will the Government do the responsible thing and bring back the deal?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. First, let me assure her of the Prime Minister’s resolve, efforts and determination to secure a deal. It is one reason why she is having to endure me today and not others. We are going to do everything we can to secure a deal. The best outcome is a Canada-style arrangement, and we are going to leave no stone unturned. We will carry on in talks and carry on negotiating until there is no hope of that happening, but at the moment there is hope of that happening, even though things do appear gloomy.
I appreciate also that Members are very concerned about these matters. Ministers are always happy to come and answer questions and update as much as we can on these issues, but I would say to all colleagues, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, that calling for urgent questions or asking other questions on the Floor of the House with the express mission of trying to undermine our negotiating position by pretending we are not ready for any outcome that these negotiations might yield is not helping to secure the outcome we all want, and it is certainly not in the interests of the country. These are serious times and none of us should be doing anything that may undermine the possibility of us getting the deal we all want.
Let me turn to the issues the hon. Lady raises. We have been clear that the end of the transition period will bring both opportunities but also challenges. We have been making extensive preparations for a wide range of scenarios at the end of the year, including whether it is an Australian-style outcome, and we are ready to seize those opportunities of being outside the single market and the customs union. This includes investing over £700 million in jobs, technology and infrastructure at the border and providing £84 million in grants to boost the customs intermediary sector, alongside implementing border controls in stages and ensuring that we have the necessary time to prepare.
We will not compromise on security. This has been an absolutely key part of our preparations on any outcome, and it is one of the reasons why, even in these gloomy times, I still am optimistic that a deal can be secured, because I do not believe that any European Union member state would wish to affect or compromise the security of its own citizens. But if we leave on an Australian-style outcome, we have measures in place to ensure that our citizens will be safe, and that we will be able to share intelligence and the other things we need to do to ensure our security arrangements are as they should be. I urge all colleagues, whatever their political hue or imperative, to put our nation first over the next few days, to support our negotiating team, to demonstrate our readiness under any scenario and our resolve, and to help us get a deal.
It was interesting that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who speaks for the Opposition, did not address the central question at the root of these issues, which is about the ability of this House of Commons to make decisions about our rules without the European Union being able to override it. That is the central question and on that question I would like the Government to hold firm. My constituents voted to leave the European Union and to take back control of making our laws. Will my right hon. Friend take a message to the Prime Minister that, whatever decision he takes on Sunday—I am glad we are still talking, which shows that there is still opportunity—to secure the ability of this House to make our laws, he has the support of this side of the House? Perhaps the other side of the House should reflect that their approach is why they have lost the last two general elections and are probably going to lose a third.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. It is helpful for the negotiating team that we are facing across the table to hear the resolve of Members in this House and that they are representing the views of their constituents. We have had many years of wrangling over this, but the Government have a clear mandate to deliver on the referendum result. We will do that and we will hold to our promises.
Here we are again—yet another deadline. October was a deadline, then it was November, then 1 December, then Friday, then Monday, then it was the last supper and now it is Sunday. God knows what it will be after that. I remember the good old days when Brexit was concluded and this was the easiest deal in history. The easiest deal in history now has more cliffhangers than “EastEnders” and we are just 21 days away from a likely no-deal Brexit—a no deal that will bring chaos, disruption and ruin for many.
The only policy in the negotiation position that the Government seem to have left is the forlorn hope that the EU will back down to their demands and concede that the British are right. The Government have made themselves hostage to their own Brexit right wing—any compromise will now be interpreted as a sell-out by that right wing. They have only themselves to blame, with the appalling language that they have used against the EU and their demonisation of the EU as some sort of cartoon villains. The EU are not going to back down, this Government are not going to compromise, so what is going to change in the next few days?
I am going to miss these exchanges with the hon. Gentleman, but my experience of my involvement on the Joint Committee under the withdrawal agreement and all aspects of these negotiations is that they have been done constructively and that there has been good rapport. The critical factor, however, in this is the EU recognising that the United Kingdom is a sovereign equal in these negotiations. That can be laid on the table in a charming way, but that is the bottom line, the cold hard facts of this situation. I appeal to the EU not only to recognise that fact, but to put the interests of the citizens and businesses in their own member states first, above any political project and above the political imperatives of the Commission. That is what we should all be doing. The negotiating position of the United Kingdom is one that creates that mutual beneficial outcome and I am hopeful that the EU will recognise that before the time runs out.
We all want a deal, but UK businesses—let us be frank—are looking at the prospect of no deal with utter dismay. In the political declaration, the Government signed up to common high standards
“commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship”
and agreed to robust level playing field commitments to
“prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages.”
What proposals has the UK made in the negotiations to maintain common high standards in the years ahead, given that it is inevitable that these standards may change on both sides of the relationship?
We have always given that commitment. Clearly, there have been discussions in recent days focused on that precise issue, but right back even when we set out our opening positions, the UK position made those commitments. This Government and future Governments would not want to roll back on those standards, so we did not hesitate in giving those guarantees. The sticking point is our ability to control our own destiny. The EU has got to recognise that it cannot keep us within its own orbit, and that is something we will not compromise on.
Many on the Opposition Benches see that the biggest failure would be for there to be no deal, but does my right hon. Friend agree with me that actually the biggest failure would be to capitulate and to accept a deal that would not fully respect a sovereign Britain leaving the EU? Also, does she agree with me that it is not a great look for the Opposition Benches when it comes to this negotiation—and, of course, it does take two to tango—to incessantly, all the time, be seeing reasonableness in the EU and unreasonableness in our own Government? For a party supposedly looking to reconnect with some of its patriotic voters, this is hardly a good look.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. I would say that we have compromised on a great deal. We have not been intransigent in these negotiations. We have compromised on all sorts of things, including accepting an overarching framework to the agreement. We are going to be as creative and as determined as we possibly can be in the next few days in order to try to secure that deal, but he is right: we will not compromise on those fundamental issues.
Can I assure the right hon. Lady that no one, as far as I am aware, on this side of the House in any way wants to undermine the negotiating position of this Government in Europe, because so much about the future of this country hangs on successful negotiations with the European Union? But in the rollercoaster of emotions that we have been through in the past few days—there is going to be a deal, there is not going to be a deal—and at the end of four years of a rollercoaster, would she accept that what we need is some reassurance that if, by Sunday, there is not an agreement, the Government will not give up on trying to reach a trade deal with the European Union that does not see us crash out on 1 January, with all the catastrophic effect that could have for our local businesses and for the economy?
We are already out, I would just remind the hon. Lady, but clearly we have prepared for every eventuality. We have a phased approach to the border. We have many pots of work going on into the new year to ensure that there are not those cliff edges that she refers to. We have thought long and hard, and there has been a huge effort by the civil service to ensure that, whatever the outcome, it will be as smooth as possible for our businesses and our citizens. I thank the hon. Lady, who has been consistent in helping us secure a deal, and I urge all Members of this House to follow her example. I think that all Members can, from whichever seat they sit in in this Chamber, help us, and I would ask that everyone does that in the coming days.
One of the concessions the Government made this week is on clause 45 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which would have allowed the UK Government to apply UK state aid rules in Northern Ireland. Given that the UK Government feel comfortable conceding on this clause, will the Minister now also look at deleting clause 50, which reserves the power to Westminster to apply state aid rules in Scotland and Wales?
The Government have already published an economic impact assessment of no deal. Will the Minister ensure that they publish an economic assessment of any EU deal on offer, so if any deal is rejected we will all know at what cost?
At the moment efforts are on securing a deal, and the deal that is there—the component parts of it—is in the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom and in the best interests of the citizens and businesses in the member states of the European Union. That is very clear and that is what we are all hoping for and all working towards. The question is: will the EU accept that?
We end 2020 with Britain as the first country in the world to be protecting its citizens against covid with a properly authorised vaccine. For millions of workers in the manufacturing sectors—automotive, aerospace, food and drink, pharmaceuticals, chemicals—to end 2020 with a free trade agreement will be a huge relief and boost to confidence, so can my right hon. Friend reinforce with the Prime Minister the opportunity for 2021 to be a very much better year for Britain than we might have expected a few months ago, and to use all his personal efforts, energy and creativity to secure a deal in the remaining days ahead?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that and assure him again of the Prime Minister’s resolve to leave no stone unturned to get the Canada-style arrangements that we would all hope for. I would say to him that, as well as a boost for our own manufacturers and scientists and everyone else in the United Kingdom, securing such a deal would be a boost for the world economy and I hope that that focuses minds over the next few days.
In terms of the internal market Bill, we all remember Scottish Tory MPs in this House voting against amendments from the other place that would have forced the Government to seek the consent of the people of Scotland, and time and again we have witnessed the utter violation of not only the devolution settlement but potentially Scotland’s entire constitutional existence. We in Scotland did not vote for this Brexit, or indeed any Brexit, and we will not watch idly as our work and relations with our European friends and neighbours is unravelled. We will make our voice heard at next May’s Holyrood elections, but the truth is that the people of Scotland have had enough now. So I ask the Minister: come May, will she accept our democratic intent, or will we in Scotland always come a distant second to such reckless Tory ideology?
I would ask the hon. Gentleman if he thinks his constituents and the people of Scotland would benefit from us securing the deal that we seek. Would they benefit from us being able to take back control of our waters and not cede that to European partners? If he thinks that is the case, and I understand that is his position, he might like in the coming days to add his voice to those of Scottish MPs on these Benches who are supporting our negotiating team.
I am sure it was absolutely no coincidence that the Prime Minister dined on scallops and turbot last night. I represent a coastal community. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this is not about the fact that fishing is a necessarily small part of our GDP at the moment; it is about what the future can be for our coastal communities? It is so important to return sovereignty and that those coastal communities have a fishing future that includes my constituency of North Norfolk.
My hon. Friend understands these issues very well and makes those points very well. He will also understand the Prime Minister’s resolve on this issue. I can reassure him that, with the exception of the scallops and that very fine piece of turbot, fish was not on the table last night.
I get on well with the Minister, but I must tell her this morning that it is our duty to hold this Government to account at this crucial time for all our constituents. That being said, being creative and determined is all very well, and I have been impressed by the negotiating skills of the two men leading this over these weeks, as I sit on the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, but this is about leadership. As soon as the Prime Minister gets his sweaty hands on this issue, there is failure—failure of leadership, failure of determination and failure really to deliver this Government’s message. I hope the Minister comes back on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind remarks that he makes about our negotiating team. They have done an incredible job. It is an incredibly technical job, with many details to work through, and their respective teams have done an incredible job. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude, whatever the outcome of these negotiations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it is the job of Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account. We will always be here, whether it is on an urgent question or other matters. Again, I should plug that I am available at 10 am every day to take calls from Members of Parliament on any issue, whether it is Brexit or covid-related. But I would just say to him: please do not misinterpret the Prime Minister’s determination on sticking to these fundamental principles as somehow a negative in these negotiations. The only way we are going to get any arrangement that will enable our country to thrive is if he sticks to his guns, and he is going to stick to his guns.
A free trade agreement is manifestly, overwhelmingly to the advantage of both sides, and it should be pressed for to the very last opportunity. However, does my right hon. Friend also recognise that security issues are critical to the welfare of this country, and so is civil justice co-operation? Those do not depend on a free trade agreement as such. The data adequacy agreement would certainly be of great advantage in sharing intelligence information. Now that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has reached an agreement in relation to the Joint Committee and it is not necessary for us to deal with certain potentially controversial clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, it would be greatly to the advantage of both sides if the EU Commission were to withdraw its objection to the UK joining the Lugano convention on civil justice co-operation in its own right. That would benefit both sides too, regardless of whatever else is decided.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are many things that we could agree to and could do that would be beneficial to both parties. Of course, what lies behind the politics and the negotiations are decades of relationships between law enforcement and all the agencies, services and forces that work together and will continue to work together in the interests of all our citizens.
On Monday, the Paymaster General had no opinion as to whether a 20% average tariff on food imports would be “modest” for poor people. With the prospect of a no-deal resolution now greater than ever, does she think that an export tariff of 48% on lamb and 84% on beef would be modest for Welsh farmers?
Clearly, the information on tariffs has been published. It is on gov.uk, but I stress to the hon. Gentleman that we are working to secure a deal that is in the best interests of our farmers, our hauliers, our businesses and our citizens, and we will continue to do that until all hope is exhausted.
Would my right hon. Friend accept that even if a deal is done now, it will be very late for businesses to have a chance to understand and interpret it? Will she therefore urge the EU to go further than in the announcement that it made this morning and mirror our proposals not to impose the full import formalities for a period of six months to give a period of time for business to understand and get used to the new rules?
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I think it is in everyone’s interests if a pragmatic stance is taken on all these issues. That has, by and large, been the case to date. We should continue to do that as we go into the new year, no matter what the outcome of the future relationship.
The Minister will be aware of my party’s support for a deal, and we wish the Prime Minister well in his continued negotiations. She will also be aware of my party’s views on the Northern Ireland protocol and our opposition to it. In light of the announcement yesterday, will the Minister outline what actions she and the Government plan to take at the end of the six-month derogation on chilled meats moving from GB to Northern Ireland, so that businesses do not look elsewhere for those supplies? Will she commit to take unilateral action where necessary if all these new arrangements are seen to be detrimental to Northern Ireland’s economic wellbeing?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that throughout all this we have sought to provide not just the practical support that Northern Ireland businesses need, but also the confidence in the environment that businesses need to continue to make investments. She will be aware that this morning the Northern Ireland Office announced a further £400 million, which has been committed to assisting businesses and boost economic growth, and to support throughout the transition. She has my assurance that the success and some new opportunities that will come with this if we get it right for Northern Ireland are there to be seized.
My right hon. Friend and I both campaigned for leave in the referendum, but more importantly 70% of voters in Dudley South and a majority nationwide decided to take back control over our laws, our borders and our trade. Does she agree that an agreement is only going to be possible if it respects that decision and ensures that laws are made here in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this comes to the heart of it. I cannot, I am afraid, give him any guarantees as to whether the EU will reconcile itself with those facts, and I cannot say what the outcome will be. All I can assure him of is that the Government will stick to those principles and are absolutely determined within that to do everything we can to secure a deal.
I would like to press the Minister further on the issue of policing, justice and security co-operation. This is, of course, of huge importance to the whole of the UK, but particularly so for us in Northern Ireland given our problems with organised crime and terrorism, and the existence of a land border. Given that the UK is facing a cliff edge at the end of the month in this regard, can she tell us what will be happening specifically on matters such as extradition, data sharing and data adequacy?
Of all people, I know the importance of these matters to every part of the UK. We will be gaining access to new information via safety and security declarations. These will be required by the middle of next year. For every issue the hon. Gentleman raises, there are clear plans for how we can ensure a smooth transition to new arrangements. However, I would also just emphasise the fundamental principle that I do not think anyone—a member state, in the Commission and certainly not in this Government—is going to compromise on matters of security.
Whether it is a Canada or an Australia deal, the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, 72% of whom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, are rightly proud that this Government are sticking up for the United Kingdom’s interests, something the Labour party desperately needs to learn if it wishes to regain the red wall in the future. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that no matter what comes out of these negotiations, the fine world-leading potteries have an exciting future in global Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend for that upbeat question. He is absolutely right to say that we have taken care of the challenges in any scenario, and again great credit goes to the civil service for preparing for that. There are also opportunities, which is why the people of this country voted to extract themselves from the EU. We would be doing them a disservice if we did not create the conditions for us to be able to seize those opportunities, and that is what we will do in the coming days.
Last October, in preparation for a possible no deal, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told us that stockpiles had been built up of essential medicines, including asthma inhalers, antibiotics, paracetamol and ibuprofen. That was just as well, given that they were needed in the coronavirus pandemic. Have stockpiles of those things been returned to the levels they were at in October 2019?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the efforts the civil service went to in order to prepare for a no-deal scenario last year stood us in much better stead for what then happened with regard to the pandemic. That is not an argument for Brexit; it is simply a fact that this nation was much more resilient because of the no-deal planning scenario. I cannot give him drug by drug, line by line details on the stocks, as he will appreciate, but I am sure the Department of Health and Social Care can. I can, however, reassure him on those matters. A huge amount of work has done, in a multi-layered approach, asking suppliers of medicines, medical products and other medical devices to help us replenish those stocks, while making sure that they themselves are trader-ready, so that their businesses are not interrupted. [Interruption.] No, I am saying that he should have reassurance on the points he has raised, and I will be happy to follow up with him with further detail regarding paracetamol and the other items he mentioned.
Financial services are crucial for not only London but Scotland and many of our regional cities. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that financial services, and indeed the service sector as a whole, will be at the forefront of our minds in the next few days, given the importance of services to our economy?
I can give my hon. Friend those assurances. Services were one area where we were very poorly served by our membership of the EU. As well as the negotiations, the Department for International Trade has been doing fantastic work in signing roll-over trade agreements and new agreements with many nations. There are fantastic opportunities for our service economy in those nations.
Investing in green industries and our transport infrastructure will be key to building back better after the pandemic and transitioning to net zero. With Government support, the automotive sector, including Vauxhall in my constituency, could move more quickly to producing more electric vehicles and councils could move to implementing the required green infrastructure to support them. Will the Minister outline whether a position on what is considered state aid has been reached, and whether any agreement will enable Government to invest in and subsidise green sectors?
There were certainly elements of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s statement earlier in the week that touched on that, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we want to be able to secure opportunities to set the conditions for our economy to thrive. Clearly, we have very challenging environmental goals that we wish to reach. Those are the freedoms we are working and fighting for.
The end of the transition period will present both opportunities and significant challenges for those involved in the agriculture and food production sector. Will my right hon. Friend reassure those in that sector in Penrith and The Border, Cumbria and the wider UK that sufficient provisions are in place for veterinary and certification work at borders? Will she reassure farmers in sectors that may face severe challenges in tariffs, such as the sheep and beef sectors, that the Government are prepared to step in and provide support?
My hon. Friend raises two important points. I can assure him that a great deal of thought has gone into ensuring that we have the supplies and enough personnel to meet the requirements on the veterinary side of things. We have always stood by any sector or part of the UK that is facing tough times, and we will continue to do so.
England and Wales were due to qualify for BSE negligible risk status next year, but due to the diversion of Government resources and staff to work on Brexit and covid, the Government missed the OIE—the World Organisation for Animal Health—submission deadline. Will the Minister apologise to my constituent in Bedford who runs Dunbia Cardington, who, despite his attempts to send out a message in a post-Brexit world that he is open for business and has the highest food standards in the world, will have to wait at least another year for his meat to qualify for this world-class status because of her Government’s failure?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if we cannot find suitable compromises with our European friends on the remaining issues of the level playing field, governance and fisheries, we will be fully prepared to leave the transition period on Australian terms on 1 January?
Yesterday the Prime Minister said that Scotland “will benefit” even if the UK crashes out of the EU single market without a trade deal with the EU, despite the fact that no deal will mean higher food prices, additional costs for businesses and job losses. As we stare down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit, can the Minister explain to what extent she believes Brexit is turning into the titanic success that the Prime Minister predicted it would be?
I say to the hon. Lady, as I have said to her colleagues, that if she does not want that scenario—and I get that impression from the tone of her question—she ought to be helping this Government to secure the deal that would be in the interests of her constituents. I urge her, even at this late hour, to consider that.
I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will achieve a good trade deal for this country if there is one to be achieved. However, when I was in business and negotiating international trade deals with Governments, I found that they could only be concluded if there was a firm deadline, or they would continue to be pushed back. Given that, could the excellent Minister confirm that Sunday is the absolute deadline, which will make people focus on the negotiations and come to a conclusion?
I can give my hon. Friend greater assurance than that, because there is a very firm deadline, which is that at the end of this year, we and others have to legislate. Time is running out. We will carry on negotiating until there is no hope left, and the statement made yesterday would indicate that, unless progress is made, Sunday may well be that deadline.
On Tuesday, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation said that his members could not agree export sales for next year with any certainty as they cannot be sure what tariffs may apply, what delays they may face or how much they will get paid for their goods. He also said that there is a shortage of general ambient warehousing space and cold chain storage. Businesses are trying to stockpile against the shocks and offset increased costs, but how can they do that if there is not facility for that stockpiling? What are the Government going to do about that, and why on earth have they not thought this through sooner than just three weeks before exit day?
These are serious issues and, partly because of the stresses that global trade is under with regard to the pandemic, there are other issues—for example, containers being at the wrong end of the globe to enable particular trade to continue—to contend with in addition to the ones the hon. Lady mentions. For each of these issues, the relevant Department has a mitigation plan that it is carrying out. I understand that this situation is very difficult for business, but we are here to provide both the practical and the financial support, as we have done through the investments we have made in infrastructure, technology and people. Where specific issues affect particular sectors, the relevant Departments are doing all that they can to rectify those situations.
I know that my right hon. Friend agrees that it is good that the negotiations continue—we all want a good trade deal—but will she convey to the Prime Minister that if the EU refuses to recognise or accept British sovereignty, which was at the very heart of the 2016 vote, and there is no deal, he has the party’s full support? After all, both the UK and the EU trade very profitably with much of the world, including the United States, China, India and Australia, on no-deal terms.
In acknowledging its importance yesterday, the Minister for the Cabinet Office told me that he could “see no reason why” a data adequacy agreement with the EU should not be in place by the end of the month. Will the Minister confirm that one has actually been applied for? When is a decision expected? Does she recognise that, in the national interest, we must have one?
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the lead Department on that issue; I will ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to update the right hon. Gentleman on the precise timetable that the Department is working to. The right hon. Gentleman is right at the heart of what he says: there is no logical reason why all sorts of things cannot be agreed to—they are in the interests of all parties and I hope that that is the conclusion that the EU negotiating team come to in the coming days.
Does the Minister accept that even the sovereign United States believes that trade disputes can be resolved through internationalised mechanisms such as the World Trade Organisation and others? In that context, is not the concern of business about a crash-out no deal limited by the fact that it is not so much the Prime Minister’s guns that he is sticking to but the guns of those siren voices behind him who want that no-deal Brexit?
No, I think the Prime Minister has been very clear about what the optimum outcome is. We are not crashing out; what is being decided over the next few days is which set of rules will be taken forward for our future relationship with our European friends. There are plans and support in place for every scenario and I think what business really wants is the certainty of what that will look like. We are talking about an incredibly resilient group of organisations and people who can prepare for any scenario; what has been a strain is preparing for every scenario. They will get certainty in the coming days.
I am clear that most of my constituents in Bracknell, and those beyond, really want a free trade deal, but given the ongoing inability of the bully boys in Brussels to accept that we are now a sovereign nation, does the Minister agree that there may be a point in time at which a clean break is the only option, with a view, perhaps, to returning to the table in 2021, as a sovereign nation, to secure a deal that other sovereign nations have already achieved?
If we have to go on those terms then that is what will happen and we will prosper, but it is clearly not our first choice. The key factor in this is whether the EU is going to place above its own political interests, the interests of the citizens and businesses in its member states. Fundamentally, that is what is at the heart of this, and if the EU does not do that, that will be a very serious mistake.
The EU is the source of 26% of the UK’s food. The next highest country of origin for food imports to the UK provides only 4%. Considering that we are not acceding to any new markets on 1 January, never mind that we are leaving one with which we have unfettered access, will the Minister finally come clean with consumers and shoppers that no deal will mean increased costs for putting food on the table and that it is the actions of this Government that are directly responsible for this?
Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, because of the agreement reached by the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol and regardless of the outcome of our negotiations with the EU, there will be no new customs infrastructure required in Northern Ireland?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We accept our responsibilities with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, as does the EU, and, again, I put on record my thanks and congratulations to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on all the work that he has done to secure that.
I spent yesterday in meetings listening to businesses small and large, locally and nationally, including the aerospace industry, farming, hospitality, tourism, finance and manufacturing. They had two things in common. Thing one was that they spent the past nine months completely battling all they could to protect their workers and to keep their heads above water during the covid crisis. The other thing they have in common was complete and total frustration and dismay that we are three weeks off a new arrangement of one kind or another and whatever great contingency plans the Minister speaks of, she has not shared them with them. Will she allow businesses in this country to do the best for our country by giving them an adjustment period after whatever happens on 1 January, so that they are not clobbered by changes for which they are not prepared?
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is called the phased approach to the border. The civil service and the experts that we have on all these matters relating to the border, whether they sit in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or elsewhere, have spoken to tens of thousands of businesses at literally thousands of events and on webinars. When colleagues in this House request access to that expertise, those meetings are set up by my office. We will do everything we can to give them the right advice and support. Colleagues can help in this, too. I do not know whether he has seen in his inbox the pack that we put together for his caseworkers.
Good. Please use it. There is contact information in there if there are technical questions that he needs to follow up on. We know that this is really hard for businesses, and that our businesses have been amazing in dealing with everything that they have had to in the past year. We will do all we can to support them, both practically and in the information that we will give them, so please do use the services that are there.
My right hon. Friend will know that, throughout this process, some have tried to suggest that the Government actively want to trade only on WTO terms, but does she agree that the huge amount of time and effort spent on the negotiations in these months shows that the Government do want a good trade deal, but, rightly, not at any cost?
Absolutely. As someone who has been very close to this whole process and sits on the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, I can say that that is our prime effort. It is the focus of the Prime Minister, but he is, as my hon. Friend says, not prepared to compromise on those issues that would affect our ability to capitalise on our new-found freedoms. That is what, I think, the people of this country understand and expect.
I, too, thank the Minister for her hard work and for her positive responses to the urgent question. Will she outline the steps that are being taken with regard to the beef, sheep and pork industries and the vegetable sector—particularly the potato sector—to secure tax-free, hassle-free and EU bureaucracy-free transport between Northern Ireland and the other nations of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the very large amount of work that DEFRA and other parts of Government have undertaken to get the best possible outcome and smooth the path for businesses, whatever the destination of their products. I mentioned the announcement today of £400 million of new money from the Northern Ireland Office; that is obviously on top of the £650 million UK investment announced in August, to deliver the trader support service and our contribution to the PEACE PLUS programme.
In the four years since the referendum, the Opposition have wanted to be in, to be out, to shake it all about. Does my right hon. Friend agree that their failure to support any deal that we deliver means that they have learned nothing from last year’s general election and that they cannot be trusted to deliver on the will of the British people?
Second only to the outcome of the negotiations is what Labour’s position on Brexit will be. We all need to focus on the first job, which is to secure a good deal for this nation. I hope all Members of this House, whatever their political hue, will recognise the seriousness of this moment and will support the Government in securing that objective.
The only thing that those on the Labour Benches want is a decent deal that serves the people of this country well and supports business. There are just 18 days left for businesses to prepare, and they certainly do not have the tools to understand, digest and implement a new deal. What additional resources will the Minister bring forward for businesses across my community and others to ensure that they can be helped not only to the end of the year but beyond 1 January?
Most of the things that businesses will have to do are not contingent on these final negotiations. As I mentioned, there has been a huge amount of investment in people, technology and infrastructure, and there will be a phased approach next year. We are giving businesses, colleagues and other intermediaries who will be working with those businesses the information they need to prepare well; that includes the hon. Lady’s casework team, who will have had the pack that I mentioned earlier. If there are outstanding issues, specifics or technical matters that you need help on—I am sorry, Mr Speaker: I mean “the hon. Lady needs help on”, or indeed you, Mr Speaker—we are available to assist. Please do make use of those services.
This Saturday, it will be a whole year since I was elected on a manifesto pledge to get Brexit done. Two thirds of people in my community voted to leave the EU and take back control of our laws, borders, fishing waters and money. Will the Minister confirm that we will not sell out on any of those priorities, and that no trade deal remains better than a bad trade deal?