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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020

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.

Digital Advertising

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

What steps his Department is taking to permit the (a) resumption of grassroots sporting fixtures and (b) reopening of sport facilities during the covid-19 outbreak. (910108)

What steps his Department is taking to permit the (a) resumption of grassroots sporting fixtures and (b) reopening of sport facilities. (910110)

What steps his Department is taking to permit the (a) resumption of grassroots sporting fixtures and (b) reopening of sport facilities. (910113)

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

What steps he is taking to help the live music sector respond to the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak. (910109)

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

What assessment he has made of the effect of the tiered system of covid-19 restrictions on the performing arts. (910115)

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

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the retention of (a) the GDPR and (b) other EU regulations on data protection after the transition period. (910119)

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?

As I recall, the Information Commissioner examined the practices of all political parties and made comments against all of them. However, it did not find that any breaches of the law had occurred.

Misinformation and Disinformation Online.

What recent steps his Department has taken to tackle the proliferation of (a) misinformation and (b) disinformation online. (910124)

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

What plans he has to support the creative industries to work in the EU when the transitional arrangements with the EU come to an end. (910129)

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.

Topical Questions

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.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about the importance of appropriate training, education and professional practices across the performing arts, which will be championed by the new all-party parliamentary group on performing arts, education and training, which I hope to chair, starting early in the new year? (910069)

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.

Scotland is making good progress in tackling alcohol abuse, but exposure to alcohol marketing makes children more likely to drink at a younger age and to consume more. Advertising is reserved to Westminster. As the Government have rightly announced a consultation on the total restriction of the online advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt, will the Secretary of State do likewise for alcohol? The harm is just as great. (910065)

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.

I am sure you will not mind, Mr Speaker, if I put on record my thanks for the support that the Government have given to rugby league clubs across the north of England, including my local team Warrington Wolves. Will my right hon. Friend look into what support the Government can provide in terms of insurance and indemnity so that planning can continue for the rugby league world cup, which is due to take place across the north of England next year? There are of course concerns because of covid and the risk that such an important tournament might not be able to take place. Will he look carefully at what support the Government can give? (910070)

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 Secretary of State will know that millions of people—both children and adults—with speech and language difficulties have had a very difficult time in the pandemic through lack of physical and digital support. Will he meet me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists to discuss how to improve digital support for those with speech and language difficulties at this very difficult time? (910066)

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.

My local newspaper, the Cornish Times, was concerned about planning changes, which could mean the loss in advertising revenue. What long-term Government revenue streams can local papers take advantage of so as to secure their future? (910072)

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.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Covid-19: Backlog of Cases

What steps she is taking with (a) the CPS and (b) partner agencies in the criminal justice system to help reduce the backlog of cases as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (910024)

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.

I now call shadow Attorney General, Ellie Reeves, to whom I send birthday greetings. Happy birthday.

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

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS’s policy on the prosecution of immigration offences. (910025)

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

What plans the CPS has to deliver improvements to services in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England from the additional funding announced in the Spending Review 2020. (910026)

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

What steps she has taken to increase the number of prosecutions relating to rape and sexual assault. (910027)

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

What discussions she has had Cabinet colleagues on providing financial support for publicly-funded barristers. (910028)

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

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of CPS resources to tackle domestic abuse prosecutions arising from the covid-19 lockdown. (910029)

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 Solicitor General will be aware of the 88% increase in case load and the 23% drop in resources to deal with that. What urgency can he inject to deal with this burning issue?

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.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the purposes of sentencing include public protection as well as punishment, and that is important for the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

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.

In order to allow the safe exit of Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.