House of Commons
Tuesday 15 December 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Both the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan and our energy White Paper, which we published yesterday, set out our bold ambition for the UK to be a world leader in low-carbon hydrogen. As set out in the White Paper, we are determined to make tangible progress in this important sector, including by investing £240 million through the net zero hydrogen fund and supporting industry to begin a hydrogen heating trial in an entire neighbourhood by 2023. We will publish a comprehensive hydrogen strategy early next year.
The development of hydrogen energy can lead to thousands of new jobs UK-wide, including an estimated 6,000 in my region through the HyNet project. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to help HyNet access industrial decarbonisation challenge funding to allow it to progress?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is all about jobs—high value-added jobs. He, along with other colleagues in the House, makes the case at every opportunity for the HyNet project, and it is very lucky to have him as a champion. As he will know, HyNet has already received funding through phase 1 of the industrial decarbonisation challenge, as well as £13 million of support through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy energy innovation programme. We will announce the winners of the next phase of the industrial decarbonisation challenge in spring next year.
Bacton gas terminal in my constituency harbours a significant percentage of the natural gas intake into the UK. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the potential opportunities presented for the manufacture of blue hydrogen at Bacton, creating low-carbon jobs for the east of England?
My hon. Friend again raises the issue of jobs. Of course, creating these low-carbon jobs across the country is a priority for the Government. As I have set out, in our 10-point plan and the energy White Paper we have put forward policies for the creation of a significant number of jobs. The Oil and Gas Authority is currently conducting an in-depth feasibility study into blue hydrogen at the Bacton gas terminal. I very much welcome that work, and my officials and, indeed, Ministers would be very happy to engage further with my hon. Friend on this matter.
I am pleased to see that the net zero hydrogen fund that the Secretary of State just mentioned will support, among other things, the production of hydrogen. Will he commit today to using that fund to prioritise the production of green hydrogen, as opposed to blue hydrogen, in the future?
We will have to look at what bids come in in respect of how that funding is used, but I say again—I made this point yesterday at the Dispatch Box—that it is not just public money; we are also talking about private sector money coming alongside it. The hon. Gentleman will know that Hydrogen Strategy Now, a campaign group of more than 50 companies, has said that it is ready to invest £3 billion in hydrogen projects, and that was after the publication of the 10-point plan.
Low-Carbon Industries: Employment Growth
Our 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which we set out last month, has an ambition to support 250,000 highly skilled green jobs across the UK by 2030. The plans we published yesterday in the energy White Paper will further position the UK as a global leader in the future energy industry, not least by supporting the development of jobs and green infrastructure in low-carbon energy such as hydrogen, carbon capture, usage and storage, and of course nuclear.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The scale of the opportunity for employment growth in low-carbon industries is immense. If the right approach is adopted, there can be enormous benefits to coastal communities such as Lowestoft and Waveney. How does the Secretary of State intend to transform the UK’s approach to energy skills in order to capitalise on these great opportunities?
Once again, a Conservative colleague talks about jobs, which is what the energy White Paper and the 10-point plan are all about. My hon. Friend is a tireless champion for offshore wind, and for jobs and growth, in supporting his constituency. He will know that we have set up the green jobs taskforce, which was launched in November and is led by the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). The taskforce brings together businesses and trade unions to assess how our jobs and skills should adapt to allow us to build back greener, and how the Government can support people in transitioning industries.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work as the voice of the hospitality sector in Bury and the surrounding area. The Government have provided an unprecedented package of support to hospitality businesses, including almost £10 billion in rates relief. Those under tier 3 may be eligible for a local restrictions support grant of up to £3,000 per month and the additional restrictions grant.
Hospitality businesses in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington have spent thousands of pounds to make their premises covid-secure. If Bury remains in tier 3 during the Christmas period, many of those businesses will face financial ruin. Will my hon. Friend therefore work with the Treasury to ensure that adequate financial support is given to those otherwise viable businesses? If we do not act now, these important community assets will be lost forever, with the devastating loss of thousands of jobs. Please save our pubs.
I am grateful to all the hospitality businesses across the country, including in Bury, that have done so much work to become covid-secure. I am in contact with Treasury colleagues who know that businesses need support in those higher tiers, and that is why we are giving additional support for wet-led pubs worth up to £40 million in grants.
Covid-19: Support for the Self-employed
The Government have already paid £13.5 billion through the self-employment income support scheme. In November, we announced an increase in the overall level of the SEISS grant, equivalent to an additional £7.3 billion of support to the self-employed through November to January alone. This scheme is among the most generous in the world.
As the pandemic continues, the flaws of the original self-employment income support scheme have become clear. One of my constituents lost out on thousands of pounds in a potential grant because, for the best part of the year in 2019, he was injured, unable to work and therefore could not evidence his usual income. When the pandemic started, we all appreciated the fact that these schemes were put into place very quickly to provide support, but in the months since, there has not even been recognition. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to look back at schemes to ensure that those who are excluded are supported, too?
Covid-19: Effect on Business
We know that certain areas of the economy have faced enormous challenges this year, and that is why the Government have provided an unprecedented range of support packages to help businesses precisely to continue trading.
Wet pubs in South Shields spent money making themselves covid-secure, only to have an arbitrary curfew imposed on them and then to be forced to close completely, yet there is no evidence at all that they are contributing to the spread of the virus. This was a policy, not a health decision. I heard the Minister’s earlier response, but if the Government really do not want to see our pub doors closed forever, why have they not listened to the requests from the British Beer and Pub Association and uplifted the current grants on offer?
As the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), has suggested, there is a considerable measure of support for pubs that are suffering at the moment. And as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, there is a clear medical, epidemiological reason for pursuing the policies that we have done.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the BBPA said that the so-called support for pubs and brewers in the winter plan was met with “utter dismay and incredulity” among publicans. Many hostelry businesses crucial to life in Nottingham and across the country are not going to survive the winter with what is currently on offer. When is the Minister going to come forward with proper support?
I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We are in constant dialogue with the pub industry and many people—publicans—certainly in my constituency, who have spoken to me are grateful for the measure of support. We are in constant dialogue, but they are grateful for the measure of support that has been supplied.
As conference of the parties president, I have held bilateral meetings with over 40 countries and spoken at around 50 international events over the past months. Throughout, I have called for world leaders to be as ambitious as possible with the climate action targets. The UK is showing real leadership in this area. On 4 December, we announced our new, ambitious nationally determined contribution and on 12 December, we co-hosted the Climate Ambition Summit, which saw 75 world leaders coming forward with 45 NDCs, 24 net zero commitments and 20 adaptation resilience plans.
The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow next year as the UK hosts the UN Climate Change Conference. This is a huge moment in our fight to stop climate change, so how will the UK Government engage with schools in Scotland and across the whole United Kingdom to promote this important event?
My hon. Friend is right: it is going to be a big moment for the UK in Glasgow next year and, of course, in the lead-up to it as well. I have been very encouraged and impressed by the commitment that young people are showing in tackling climate change. They have a vital part to play in ensuring that we deliver an inclusive and diverse COP26. In the run-up to the summit, we will be working closely with schools and young people, including by co-hosting the COP youth event, which will bring together 400 youth delegates from around the world to discuss a range of climate topics.
According to Climate Action Tracker, the national net zero pledges that have been put forward today could, if achieved across the board, limit global heating to around 2.1°, but in terms of actual policies, the world remains on course for catastrophic warming of over 3°. Given the gulf between what Governments, including this Government, have promised on climate action and what they are on course to achieve, does the Secretary of State agree that it is incumbent on the UK as COP26 host to demonstrate to the world that it actually has a plan to deliver net zero? If he does agree, will he assure the House that the Government will publish a comprehensive and fully costed net zero strategy well in advance of November next year?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I said that at the climate ambition summit. Leaders from around the world have come forward with ambitions, but we absolutely need to go further. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think there is consensus on it in the House. With regard to his question on a net zero strategy, of course we will publish one. I also just want to make the point that, when we were talking about clean energy and hydrogen earlier, I stated that the Hydrogen Strategy Now group made a commitment on the £3 billion after the 10-point plan, but in fact it came before that.
UK Internal Market Bill: Devolved Administrations
The Government have sought to engage constructively with the devolved Administrations throughout the passage of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The recent fruits of that continuing commitment include several amendments tabled by the Government strengthening a role for the devolved Administrations.
Of course, Rolls-Royce operates its own internal market in which plant is often set against plant, but more and more it relies on third-party suppliers rather than on in-house manufacture. Inchinnan has already seen some 700 jobs go, and despite favourable production stats, we now know that there will be further redundancies, with the aero shafts line closing and work being transferred to Derby, as well as other UK Rolls-Royce jobs being offshored to Spain. The Scottish Government’s Rolls-Royce working group was set up to protect jobs at Inchinnan. If the Government’s power-grabbing Bill is passed, will the Minister ensure that the Government will work with the Scottish Government to protect Scottish Rolls-Royce jobs?
The hon. Gentleman talks about grabbing powers back, but Scotland will be gaining powers in more than 100 areas that are at the moment controlled by the EU. Of course we will continue to work with important industries such as the aerospace sector and with companies such as Rolls-Royce to protect jobs.
Those of us who are paying attention will have seen that the House of Lords has passed amendments to the UKIM Bill to try to salvage what might be left of the devolution settlement, which the Government have explicitly rejected. If Members look at the Order Paper, they will see that it states:
“The Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru have each decided not to approve a Legislative Consent Motion relating to this Bill.”
How is this respecting the devolution settlement? This Government legislated to protect Sewel on statute, but now they are riding roughshod all over it.
The Sewel convention envisages situations such as this, where the UK Parliament may need to legislate without consent. We regret the fact that the Scottish Parliament has chosen to do that, but the Bill is essential for protecting businesses and citizens across Scotland, and across the whole of the UK, as the transition period ends.
Since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, Scottish productivity has rocketed by more than a third, way above the 24% for the UK as a whole. Our Parliament has been a gift to business, whether under Scottish National party or Labour and Liberal Governments. This Bill extends Westminster’s bony hand into the control of devolved spending across health, food safety, the environment and much more. Is it too late for a festive miracle, with a Tory Minister actually listening to the wise men and women across Scottish society, industry, organisations and law and in Scotland’s democratically elected Parliament and Government, and scrapping this assault on Scotland’s democracy and business productivity?
Spending powers in the UK internal market are in addition to the spending that the Scottish Government already make. These are issues that have up to now been dealt with by the EU, and we will continue to work with the devolved Administrations throughout this process.
The Minister talks about spending powers. This Bill allows UK Ministers to control spending in the devolved areas of economic development, infrastructure, cultural activities, regional development, education, water, power, gas, telecoms, railways, health, housing and justice. Given the track record of the Tories, for Scotland this really is the nightmare before Christmas. Can he see why, after 16 opinion polls in a row, Scottish people do not want his rotten gifts but instead are looking to protect their Parliament and their rights through Scotland becoming a normal independent nation?
I regret that the Scottish Government have not continued their discussions with the UK Government about an internal market Bill specifically, whereas they have continued them on the common frameworks. On the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, we have made amendments in the other place that reflect conversations with the Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland Assembly. I just wish the Scottish Government would come back with productive conversations so that we can push this through and give certainty for business.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
My Department continues to deliver a wide range of measures to support UK businesses. We have extended our loan schemes, which have already delivered more than £65 billion of finance, until the end of January.
That level of support is impressive, and I also thank the Minister for all he is doing on the vaccine roll-out. There are sections of the UK economy that are going to grow rapidly, not least the green industrial revolution, thanks to the energy White Paper announced yesterday. What steps is he taking to make sure that it is UK-based businesses that grow the workforce and benefit from the job creation as a result of the green industrial revolution?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her excellent question. The 10-point plan will build on the nearly half a million green jobs that already exist in the UK economy, supporting up to 250,000 further high-skilled jobs. The House will be interested to know that we are talking about 60,000 in offshore wind, 10,000 or more in nuclear, 50,000 in green and comfortable homes, 8,000 in hydrogen, 53,000 in carbon capture utilisation and storage and 40,000 in accelerating the shift to zero-emission vehicles.
The weekend before last, I was pleased finally to start my Christmas shopping in Botley High Street, as part of Small Business Saturday, which included visiting Wardrobe at 24 and Mermaids deli. This crucial campaign highlights the important role that businesses and entrepreneurs play. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important than ever to support our high streets and shop local this Christmas? Will he assure me that this Government will continue to stand by our town centres and high streets as we recover from covid?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; now more than ever it is vital that we continue to help our local economy by supporting our town centres and high streets. That is why we have delivered one of the most generous comprehensive packages of support, with a total financial package of £200 billion.
Does my hon. Friend agree on what a success the recent Small Business Saturday events were and on how important small businesses are to local communities across my constituency in Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield and Marlow? Does he agree that we must continue to fight for small businesses during this pandemic, so that we do not risk undermining the economic foundation of our country?
The recent Small Business Saturday event meant that the spend from the Great British public rose to £1.1 billion this year, which is a 38% rise on last year. The Government will continue to champion small businesses, through our unprecedented support schemes, as they begin to recover from the impact of covid-19. As the Secretary of State has just reminded me, the spend is not £200 billion—it is £280 billion of support for small business.
Of the £5 billion of new online spend because of the pandemic, 40% has gone to one website, Amazon. Many small businesses are afraid that they will not make it through the winter because of a lack of Government support, and they have Brexit and climate and technological change to deal with too. So I want to ask the Minister this: what is the plan for small businesses to survive covid and build back smarter and greener? I am talking not about vague promises, but about firm commitments to help businesses invest in new technologies, as Make UK has called for, or to target procurement to support net zero businesses, as the Institution of Civil Engineers proposes. Or are the Government just going to let business down again?
As a fellow engineer, the hon. Lady will know that the Made Smarter initiative has been a tremendous pilot in the north-west. We recently announced a further expansion, with £300 million—£147 million coming from the Government and the balance coming from the private sector—to support the adoption of technology into manufacturing. I hope the hon. Lady will continue to support Government initiatives such as Made Smarter.
Green Homes Grant
The Prime Minister has made it clear that energy efficiency is a top Government priority. The green homes grant provides economic stimulus, supporting more than 80,000 jobs, and through it households could save up to £600 a year on energy bills.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but will he explain what assessment his Department has made of the benefits of individual products when deciding what to include in the green homes grant scheme, and why solar thermal systems are included but not solar PV panels, which are not only more cost-effective but much better for the environment?
As my hon. Friend will know, the list of technologies currently included reflects the Department’s assessment of the best balance between economic stimulus and maximising value for householders and taxpayers. In respect of solar PV, the particular emphasis in the green homes grant was on the energy efficiency of homes and not necessarily on electrification per se or the use of electricity.
The 10-point plan set out a comprehensive package to underpin our ambition for 5 GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030. We have also announced a £240 million net zero housing fund and will publish a UK hydrogen strategy next year.
The GMB union has pointed out that one of the simple benefits of the hydrogen strategy is that there is an existing gas network with 24 million homes connected to it, and thousands of jobs can be retained without any retraining schemes. When the Minister brings forward his hydrogen strategy next year, will he bear in mind that the HyNet system in the north-west will be able to deliver 80% of the entire UK target of 5 GW by 2030? Will he resist the temptation, which I mentioned to the Secretary of State yesterday, to play one region off against another, and perhaps increase the amount of money so that we can all share in the benefits?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The whole point of a hydrogen strategy is to dovetail nicely with the levelling-up agenda. I know many of the people in the HyNet cluster, which is an excellent cluster doing great work. We hope that those benefits and that innovation can be spread throughout the country and create opportunity the width and breadth of our country.
Small Modular Nuclear Reactors
My hon. Friend will know that small modular reactor technology is very much at the centre of what the Prime Minister outlined in the 10-point plan; in fact, the nuclear segment of that plan was the third item on the agenda and is extremely important. SMRs will certainly play a part in our nuclear future.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister rightly says, small modular nuclear reactors can be developed quickly and provide green energy at very low costs. They can also be located at a range of sites throughout the UK to enable easy connection to the national grid. Will my right hon. Friend bring forward proposals to accelerate the roll-out of this exciting new opportunity to provide clean energy and create more employment in the UK, putting us ahead of the rest of the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that SMRs represent a huge opportunity for precisely the reasons he gives: they are flexible and one can operate them in lots of geographical areas. Next year, we will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the siting requirements for SMRs and advanced modular reactors so that we can develop this exciting technology.
Covid-19: Green Economic Recovery
We are delivering on our ambitious commitment to build back greener from covid-19. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution will be instrumental, creating long-term advantages for the UK in low-carbon industries and supporting up to a quarter of a million green jobs while continuing to drive down our emissions.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I know that, in the long term, the green element of this plan will be hugely important for our whole country, but in the short term, in the current economic climate, I know that many of my constituents will be focused on job creation and employment. Can she assure me that these investments will create opportunities for the most left behind parts of this country, and tell me how my constituents in Mansfield will directly benefit from that investment?
The 10-point plan is crucial to a part of the Prime Minister’s mission to level up the country and to revitalise the towns and regions of places such as the east midlands, from where my hon. Friend and I hail, and which is also the birthplace of the first industrial revolution. I can tell him that green recovery will support highly skilled jobs in towns such as Mansfield across a range of green industries from electric vehicle technicians to those installing low-carbon heating to make our homes warmer and fitter for the future.
Renewable Energy: Capacity
The UK is a world leader in offshore wind and proud to be the home of the world’s largest offshore wind farm. That is why we have increased our target to deliver 40 GW of offshore wind, quadrupling capacity by 2030, and announced £160 million to support ports and infrastructure enabling the sector to support up to 60,000 jobs.
Off the Sussex coast, the Rampion wind farm has plans to triple its output. It is already powering local homes, but it could also be key to developing green hydrogen to power heavy transport, including buses. Does my hon. Friend agree that this technology needs to be scaled up and at pace, and what support is being given by her Department to bring partners together to deliver this green hydrogen fuel across the network so that places such as my home town of Eastbourne can see an improvement in its air quality and meet its 2030 carbon neutral ambition?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Green hydrogen, coupled with our abundant offshore wind resources, could play a vital role in decarbonising crucial parts of the economy, including heavy transport. The energy White Paper sets out our ambition for 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030. The £23 million hydrogen for transport programme has already helped grow the number of publicly accessible hydrogen refuelling stations across the UK.
The tidal energy industry has a hugely important role to play in meeting increased demand for electricity and achieving net zero carbon emissions. The Mersey tidal project has the potential to transform Merseyside, generating enough power for 1 million homes across the north-west, while creating thousands of jobs and positioning our region as a world leader in tidal energy. What practical steps are the Government taking in the immediate term to support the development of this much needed project?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. The Government have funded the north-west energy hub to develop renewable opportunities in the region and are open to considering well-developed proposals with strongly demonstratable value for money and for the environment. He will also know that our officials have been in communication with the Mersey tidal power team, and I ask that they continue their engagement.
Employers: Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics
The Government appreciate the difficulties that many people are currently facing and are sympathetic to those who are worried about their jobs. We are clear that using threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is unacceptable. However, businesses in real financial difficulty need flexibility to offer new terms and conditions in order to save as many jobs as they can.
First it was British Airways, and now British Gas/Centrica has threatened thousands of employees with fire and rehire tactics, including a number of my constituents, such as Wayne and Paul. These people have many decades of experience working for these British companies and our society. Will the Minister join me in condemning the company’s actions? What action is the Department taking to ensure that these deplorable approaches are dealt with? Write to them.
It is not acceptable for employers to use unacceptable negotiating tactics, including fire and rehire. I understand that it is a difficult situation for employees to find themselves in. There are commercial matters between employers and employees, but we expect employers to treat their staff in the spirit of partnership. In the vast majority of cases—unlike the ones that have just been outlined—employers do want to do the right thing, and there are processes in place to prevent abuse.
Heathrow, British Airways and British Gas—all flagship companies—have used abusive fire and rehire tactics to cut the pay and conditions of their loyal work forces. Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick is home of the jet engine and the battle of Britain aircraft. Hundreds of staff there are being made redundant and their jobs offshored to Singapore, Spain and Japan. These iconic companies have received billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash, so why did the Government not make retaining jobs a condition of this financial help? Does the Minister recognise that by providing no-strings-attached support, the Government have facilitated UK jobs being either downgraded or moved out of the country at the taxpayers’ expense?
We have worked with and supported the aviation sector in a number of different ways. We have also made it really clear that when companies want to make redundancies, they should follow the correct consultation process. It is important that we get the balance right to protect jobs for those companies.
We have engaged with businesses to understand their needs at this challenging time. We are providing an unprecedented support package, including an extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme until 31 March 2021, grants, loans, rates relief and a VAT cut.
Many plumbers, electricians and other self-employed people, including sole traders, have been left out of Government support. What can the Minister say to people who have worked hard all their lives and paid their taxes, and have seen their businesses collapse through no fault of their own? This includes the hospitality sector. Can the Government commit to providing further support, as local publicans in my area say that the tiny grant they got does not even get close to covering their overheads?
I was self-employed, running companies, for most of the 25 years that I was working before I was elected to this place; there but for the grace of God go I. I will continue to reflect the views of the self-employed in conversations with the Treasury. I also speak to the hospitality sector every single week and will be doing so later today. We have allocated £40 million extra to wet-led pubs, in addition to extending the moratorium on rent evictions and legal processes facing tenants, the VAT cut and the business rates relief.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Imports and Exports
The Government publish estimates of consumption emissions every year. The latest figures show that UK emissions on a consumption basis fell by nearly 25% between 2007 and last year.
When emissions from the production of imports, and from sea and air transport are included—minus those of exports—the UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 0.6% a year, not the 1.5% that the Government quote for territorial emissions alone. This country depends on imports, including the emissions that they produce. Ministers can kid themselves all they like, but is it not the case that unless the UK cuts the emissions that we are responsible for around the world, we are not going to make the contribution that we need to in order to deal with the climate emergency?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we do have to take into account the carbon emissions that we are responsible for through trade, but he will also recognise that this is part of an international movement. There is no country in the world, in the EU as well, that is properly accounting for carbon emissions in this way. I point out to him that we were the first G20 country to mandate disclosures under the TCFD—Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures—framework across the economy, and we are leaders in terms of carbon accounting.
Review of Alcohol Duty
We are in regular contact with the Chancellor on measures to support hospitality businesses. The alcohol duty review aims to improve the current system to make it simpler, more economically rational, and less administratively burdensome on businesses and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
We looked at the curfew, for example, when there were stories coming back to us about people coming out of pubs and going straight into supermarkets to buy more drinks. That was an unintended consequence, so it is good that we reviewed that and changed it. The alcohol duty review will take into account the balance between supermarkets and hospitality.
Covid-19: Support for Business
Businesses in tier 2 that are required to close can access payments of up to £1,500 per 14 days of closure. We are giving additional financial support of £1.1 billion to local authorities to support other businesses severely affected by restrictions even though open.
May I gently suggest to the Minister that one of the best ways he will be able to support small businesses in my constituency of West Dorset is to use his influence in discussions within Government tomorrow to reduce West Dorset from tier 2 to tier 1? In the event of that not being possible, could he outline more specifically what the Government will be doing to support the 97% of businesses that are small or micro-sized?
I recognise that the winter months will continue to be extremely tough on many businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am confident that the grant programme that we have in place, alongside other measures like the job retention scheme and the support for the self-employed that have been so widely discussed this morning, will continue to deliver that support. An estimated 90% of small and medium-sized business premises in closed retail, hospitality and leisure sectors should, broadly, have their monthly rent covered by the business grant programme.
It is essential that the local restrictions support grant is available promptly to businesses and is not subject to a prolonged application process. In anticipation of some areas—hopefully my own in the north-east—moving into tier 2 this week, will the Secretary of State ensure that grants are paid quickly to businesses, including the retrospective grants, particularly to pubs?
The local restrictions support grants, additional restriction grants and Christmas support payments are all available now for businesses through their local authority. I know that the Secretary of State takes these businesses very seriously. Throughout this whole process, since back in March, he made sure that all his Ministers talked to local government to make sure that we do get those payments out promptly.
Life Sciences Sector
The Government have invested approximately £1 billion through two life sciences sector deals, helping to generate significant industry investment in the UK. Last year the industry had a turnover in the UK of £80.7 billion.
The life sciences sector is a truly international endeavour, as can be so clearly seen with the recent vaccine research efforts. With worries in the sector about our ongoing relationship with European countries and the European Union, would my hon. Friend confirm that the concerns of the life sciences sector are of paramount importance in the ongoing negotiations?
Clearly, the UK’s relationship with the EU is subject to ongoing negotiations, but as we leave the EU the life sciences sector will be supported through the life sciences sector deals that I mentioned, and a new, innovative regulatory framework. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has proven itself globally to be one of the finest regulators in the world, and new international regulatory collaborations are on the way too.
Green Deal Loans: Mis-selling
The hon. Lady will be aware that too many people have suffered from mis-selling by a small number of green deal providers. We are doing all we can to provide redress where appropriate, as enabled by the green deal regulations.
If someone is mis-sold something, there is a six-year time bar to get redress, unless they were not aware of it at the time, in which case they have three more years from when they became aware. There is a significant number of victims of green deal mis-selling, many of whom were very elderly and thought they must have misunderstood, but they did not; they were duped. Why are they, after all they have been through, being denied that extra three-year rule and access to justice?
It is correct that a complaint must be made within six years of the date of the breach, as we would expect mis-selling to become evident within six years, but we have to take everything, as the hon. Lady knows, on a case-by-case basis. We will explore the relevant facts of each case, and then we can work out whether an eligible complaint can be made within the relevant timeframe. I am very happy to meet her individually to discuss cases as they arise, because we have to take each on a case-by-case basis.
At this last Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy oral questions of the year, I take this opportunity to thank my brilliant ministerial team, our brilliant Parliamentary Private Secretaries, our fabulous Whip and the outstanding civil servants for the huge effort they have made this year to support business and procure 357 million doses of the most promising vaccine candidates.
Since the previous oral questions last month, the Department has led on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, which is our blueprint for a green industrial revolution, and the energy White Paper. We have also been central in setting the UK’s ambitious nationally determined contribution, as well as helping to organise the climate ambition summit on 12 December. The pace and energy of delivery will continue in the new year, because our businesses and people across the United Kingdom deserve no less at this challenging time.
Rate relief for hospitality venues is welcome, but many are racking up huge rent debts while they are closed and getting only a third of the support they got earlier in the year. Have the Government had any discussions about a model of sharing the rental debt burden among tenants, landlords, banks and the Government, because without more help, many of these businesses will close?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and of course we have dialogues with landlords and tenants. As he will have heard, the rent moratorium has been extended to 31 March, and he will also know that because the rates holiday continues, that is money that does not have to go out, which can be used for other purposes.
My hon. Friend and I have had a number of conversations about the green industrial revolution. I am very excited about the opportunities in her wonderful county, and I look forward to visiting, when restrictions permit me, some of these wonderful projects.
Businesses face a double whammy from the ongoing economic crisis and potential Brexit disruption. They want the Business Secretary to stand up for them. Some 61% of the country will be in tier 3 from tomorrow, and the situation for many pubs, restaurants and bars is catastrophic, as this morning’s record redundancy figures show. Will the Secretary of State now finally recognise what he has been told repeatedly by Members across the House—and again today—and by industry that support for the hospitality sector is hopelessly inadequate if many of these businesses are to survive through the winter?
I completely accept that it is a very difficult time for lots of businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector right now, but as the right hon. Gentleman will know, support is being provided. Businesses that are required to be closed can get grants of up to £3,000 a month. I also point him in the direction of the International Monetary Fund, which said that the support the UK Government are providing is
“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.
I am afraid that the Secretary of State is failing to stand up for the hospitality sector. Let us talk about the 150,000 businesses that, even with a trade deal, will have to fill in customs forms for the first time from 1 January. The ports are struggling, the IT systems are not ready, the customs agents are not in place, and businesses still do not know the rules that will exist in just 16 days’ time. Are these firms not entitled to conclude that they are being badly let down by a Government who have left them totally in the lurch and a Business Secretary who seems asleep at the wheel?
I will refrain from coming back on that jibe. As a Government, we have been working incredibly hard to support businesses. I know that it is very difficult. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the end of the transition period. Of course, there are a lot of changes that businesses can already put in place and, as he knows, we are communicating with businesses to ensure that that happens. I think that businesses do want us to continue talking to the European Union, and that is precisely what we are doing.
As my hon. Friend knows, we are providing support. It is difficult for a lot of businesses right now. The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of March, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with the sector, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).
We are in regular dialogue with Royal Mail and others. I am happy to take up the point that the hon. Gentleman raised separately, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is responsible for Royal Mail, will be happy to follow up with him.
My hon. Friend is right to say that renewable energy manufacturing of all sizes has huge potential, not least in his constituency. At this stage, our initial focus is to establish a first-of-its-kind, large-scale manufacturing site of over 200 hectares, and after we have established that, we can look at strengthening the supply chain.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is a big champion for his local pubs, for which I know there will be a lot of competition. Yes, the review will be in the next couple of days, and I hope we will see a number of pubs being able to open at that point, because that is what they want. Government support has been welcomed, but customers coming back through the doors, especially in the busiest months, is what we all want to see.
I would just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, on support for businesses, what we have done is to look at the requirements and increase that support. As he will have heard, the level of support is now £280 billion. We have extended furlough and we have extended the self-employment scheme, and businesses that are now required to be closed because of restrictions can get up to £3,000 a month.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has raised the issue about weddings and events with me on a number of occasions. We continue to work with the Treasury to see what more we can do to support the hospitality sector as a whole. I am really looking forward to working with the weddings taskforce, which has been set up by the sector itself, to see what a covid-19 secure wedding looks like and how we can introduce that when the health science allows.
I know the hospitality business in York has been affected, as it has around the country. Yes, we will continue to look at this and, when the data allows, we will move York and other areas into more forgiving tiers. For the hospitality sector—as I say, it welcomes Government support, largely, but wants customers—this is what is going to help the pubs, bars and restaurants in York and beyond to be able to survive and thrive.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, a whole range of support is available. I completely accept that not everyone will feel they have got precisely the amount of support that they would have liked, but a significant amount of support is available and, of course, all of this is always kept under review.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary is working very hard to help NHS trusts return to pre-covid levels of elective care as soon as possible. I have been really quite impressed over the past months throughout this pandemic at how businesses, both within the medical field and outside, have come together to support the NHS.
I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to ensuring that whistleblowers enjoy high standards of protection under UK law. The international standard to which she refers is for employers wanting to introduce their own whistleblowing policies, which is already encouraged by our code of practice.
The furlough scheme is really important for young workers—for young people—but when the scheme ends many are worried that we will see large-scale youth unemployment, so what is the Department’s input into the kickstart scheme and exactly how many jobs will be created by March next year to help young people?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the kickstart scheme is a Government initiative, and the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have led on this. I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the issue, and of course we want to make sure we continue to support young people at this crucial time. We know that when unemployment is going up, it is new workers who find it particularly difficult to get jobs.
On Thursday, I had the pleasure of taking my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), the Minister for science, research and innovation, to Greencore’s Springfield Meadow development in my constituency, where it is building not just net-zero homes but carbon-positive homes and selling them to Sovereign Housing at precisely the same cost as for any other kind of home. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Greencore on this innovation and does he agree that it is exactly the sort of thing we need more of to hit our 2050 goal?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I am delighted to report that our joint hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) had a very successful visit and thoroughly enjoyed her trip to Greencore Construction, and we obviously heartily welcome Greencore’s excellent work in sustainable construction.
After 10 years of this Government, before covid, constituents of mine were averaging £100 a week less in earnings than the average for the rest of the country; now a third of them are on furlough, which means a further £100 less per week—£10,000 a year less than the average. Will the Minister understand that when the Government talk about levelling up, in an area like mine people will say it is time that Ministers got out of their privileged bubbles and did something for communities all over this country, where millions of people are living very precarious lives?
I know it is a very difficult time for very many families, and that they will feel that particularly acutely as we get to Christmas. I would just say that across the country we have protected 9 million jobs—households up and down our country, who have been supported by the measures that the Government have put forward; and that that will extend until the end of March, as well as the other support that has been provided.
Given that we have now come to the end of questions, Mr Speaker, I thank you and your staff for all the support that you have provided to all Members in a very challenging year. I thank all Members—including the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—for all their support, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to get some rest over the festive period.
May I just say thank you to the Secretary of State for completing the list? In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Mr Speaker, I am utterly mortified by the events of last week when my heckling interrupted proceedings during Prime Minister’s questions and when I challenged the authority of the Chair. I entered into an altercation with the Chair and I did not treat the Chair with due respect. That is unacceptable. I apologise unreservedly to the House and to you personally, Mr Speaker. I really wish none of this had ever occurred and I fully accept that my conduct was unacceptable.
Business of the House
I should like to make a short business statement.
Wednesday 16 December—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords message, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of board members to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
The business for Thursday remains unchanged and as previously announced. I shall provide a further update to the House regarding future business on Thursday. For hon. Members wishing to participate in tomorrow’s debate on the Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill, Mr Speaker has made arrangements for the call list to remain open until 3 o’clock today.
I want to ask just a couple of short questions. It is absolutely wonderful to see that the Trade Bill is still alive; this is a small part of it. Can the Leader of the House confirm that it is coming back to the House and, if so, when?
Yes, the Trade Bill is with their lordships and is on Report in the other place. It will come back when it has completed consideration in their lordships’ House. The bit that we are bringing forward tomorrow has already passed through this House unamended.
I just wonder if this is what the Leader of the House has campaigned for all these years and if this is what parliamentary sovereignty and taking back control are supposed to look like—legislative chaos and bouncing stuff through the House without any notice whatever. The Government are supposed to have a majority of 80, yet they cannot get their business done.
When the Leader of the House tables the orders for tomorrow, he has to include the restoration of the right of all Members of the House to take part in business remotely. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stood at the Dispatch Box yesterday and said that there was a new strain of covid and that people should not travel to tier 3 areas, to a room full of people who had done exactly that. If there is any possibility of the House sitting next week or being recalled over Christmas, there has to be virtual participation for everyone because it is not safe to travel. Given that the east coast main line will be closed, it will not be possible for most people to travel either.
One of the most remarkable things about this House is that the most charming Members on the SNP Benches are always the most furious whenever they appear before the House. I must say, as we get near to the spirit of Christmas, I begin to think that the fury is somewhat confected.
In terms of the legislative programme, we are ensuring that the legislation is brought through. I warned hon. Members last Thursday, as I thought it only fair to do, that we might have to act flexibly in response to developments in what was going on. These clauses could have been introduced in the Trade Bill that we might need if we get a deal with the European Union, but the late stage of that means that it is necessary to bring that forward early. This is exactly what one would expect, given the deadline of 31 December for the negotiations with the European Union, of a trade Bill.
Regarding remote participation, we have discussed that at length in the House. We provided more than two hours of Government time to debate people’s ability to appear remotely, but regrettably the measure was talked out by Opposition Members, making it impossible for the extremely clinically vulnerable to appear remotely. I think that is a great shame.
Online Harms Consultation
Mr Speaker, we now conduct a huge proportion of our lives online. People in the UK spend an average of four hours and two minutes on the internet every day, and we know that for children it is even longer. That technology has improved our lives in countless ways but, as hon. Members on both sides of the House know, too many people are still exposed to the worst elements of the web: illegal content, racist and misogynistic abuse, and dangerous disinformation.
Those interactions may be virtual, but they are causing real harm. More than three quarters of UK adults express concerns about logging on, while a declining number of parents believe the benefits for their children of being online outweigh the risks. Trust in tech is falling. That is bad for the public and bad for the tech companies, so today the Government are taking decisive action to protect people online.
Through our full response to the online harms White Paper, we are proposing groundbreaking regulations that will make tech companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users. That world-leading regime will rebuild public trust and restore public confidence in the tech that has not only powered us through the pandemic, but will power us into the recovery.
I know that this legislation is highly anticipated on both sides of the House. I want to reassure hon. Members that, when drafting our proposals, I sought to strike a very important balance between shielding people, particularly children, from harm and ensuring a proportionate regime that preserves one of the cornerstones of our democracy—freedom of expression. I am confident that our response strikes that balance.
Under our proposals, online companies will face a new and binding duty of care to their users, overseen by Ofcom. If those platforms fail in that duty of care, they will face steep fines of up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover. A number of people, including Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, have expressed concerns about that point; I want to reassure him and Members of this House that the maximum fine will be the higher of those two numbers, and platforms will no longer be able to mark their own homework.
To hold major platforms to their responsibilities, I can also announce to the House that they will be required to publish annual transparency reports to track their progress, which could include the number of reports of harmful content received and the action taken as a result. This will be a robust regime, requiring those at the top to take responsibility. I can therefore confirm that we will legislate to introduce criminal sanctions for senior managers, with Parliament taking the final decision on whether to introduce that. Of course, we hope not to use those powers, and for tech companies to engineer the harm out of their platforms from the outset, but people should have no doubt that they remain an option and we will use them if we need to.
Together, those measures make this the toughest and most comprehensive online safety regime in the world. They will have a clear and immediate effect: a 13-year-old should no longer be able to access pornographic images on Twitter; YouTube will not be allowed to recommend videos promoting terrorist ideologies; and antisemitic hate crime will need to be removed without delay. Those are just a few examples, but the House will take a keen interest in the details of the legislation, so I shall lay out a few key areas of action.
Our first focus is on illegal content, including child sexual abuse, terrorism and posts that incite violence and hatred. Sadly, many Members present today have been the target of online abuse, some of which might have been illegal, such as threats of violence. Unfortunately, that is particularly true for female Members of the House. This is not a problem suffered only by people in the public eye; close to half of adults in the United Kingdom say that they have been exposed to hateful content online in the past year.
Under the new laws, all companies in scope will need to take swift and effective action to remove criminal posts—if it is illegal offline, it is illegal online. Users will be better able to report this abhorrent content and can expect to receive more support from platforms. Crucially, the duty of care will apply even when communications are end-to-end encrypted. Encryption cannot serve as a protection blanket for criminals. Given the severity of certain threats, Ofcom will also be given powers to require companies to use technology proactively to identify and remove illegal content involving child sexual abuse or terrorism—that is a power of last resort.
Of course, not all harmful content is illegal. Every day, people are exposed to posts, images and videos that do not break any laws, but still cause a significant amount of harm. We all know that cyber-bullying can ruin a child’s life, but I want first to address one particularly horrific form of legal content. Sadly, too many Members present will be aware of cases in which children are drawn into watching videos that can encourage self-harm. Some find themselves bombarded with that content, sometimes ending ultimately in tragedy. It is unforgivable that that sort of content should be circulating unchecked on social media. Given the severity of its consequences, I believe that there is a strong case for making it illegal.
I can therefore announce that the Government have asked the Law Commission to examine how the criminal law will address the encouragement or assistance of self-harm. This is an incredibly sensitive area. We need to take careful steps to ensure that we do not inadvertently punish vulnerable people, but we need to act now to prevent future tragedies.
Many Members are particularly concerned about the effect online harm has on children. We have reserved our strongest and toughest protections for them. All companies will need to consider seriously the risks their platforms may pose to children and to take action. They will no longer be able to abdicate responsibility by claiming that children do not use their services when that is manifestly untrue—we all know examples of that—and we also expect them to prevent children from accessing services that pose the highest risk of harm, including online pornography. Cutting-edge age assurance or verification technologies will be a vital part of keeping children safe online.
At the same time, we are going further than any other country to tackle other categories of legal but harmful content accessed by adults. Major platforms will face additional obligations to enforce their own terms and conditions against things such as dangerous vaccine misinformation and cyber-bullying. Where the platforms fall short, they will face the legal consequences.
I know that some hon. Members are worried that the regulations may impose undue burdens on smaller, low-risk companies, so I can reassure them that we have included exemptions for such companies. As a result, less than 3% of UK businesses will fall within the scope of the legislation.
In this House we have always ardently championed freedom of expression. Robust and free debate is what gives our democracy its historic strength. So let me be clear: the purpose of the proposed regime is not to stop adults accessing content with which they disagree. It is not our job to protect people against being offended. I will not allow this legislation to become a weapon against free debate. Therefore, we will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content. Companies will not be able arbitrarily to remove controversial viewpoints, and users will be able to seek redress if they feel that content has been removed unfairly.
Nor will I allow this legislation to stifle media freedoms or become a charter to impose our world view and suppress that of others. I can confirm that news publishers’ own content on their sites is not in scope, nor are the comments of users on that content. This legislation is targeted exactly where it needs to be and tightly focused on delivering our core manifesto pledge to empower adult users to stay safe online while ensuring that children are protected.
We have engaged extensively to get to this point and this process is by no means over. We want all parliamentarians to feed into this significant piece of work and will continue to listen to their concerns as we go through pre-legislative scrutiny and beyond. However, I am confident that today’s measures mark a significant step in the continual evolution of our approach to life online, and it is fitting that this should be a step that our country takes. The world wide web was, of course, invented by a Brit, and now the UK is setting a safety standard for the rest of the world to follow. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Let me start by saying that the Opposition welcome any moves to protect children and the vulnerable online. There are plenty of questions about gaps in the Government’s response relating to protecting children online, but the emphasis on children in this statement is very welcome.
We have been calling on the Government to introduce this legislation for almost two years. The publication of the online harms White Paper seems almost a lifetime ago. The legislation is long overdue, and I would like the Secretary of State to tell us when in 2021 the House can expect to see the Bill, because until it is on the statute book, the real harm that he just described, which has been able to flourish online through a lack of regulation, will continue. Ireland has already published its legislation. France has produced legislation dealing with hate speech. Germany has had legislation in place since 2018, and the European Commission is expected to publish its proposed Digital Services Act today.
The Secretary of State has said that the UK will lead the way with this legislation, but I am afraid that the response today is lacking in ambition. It feels like a missed opportunity. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to legislate for the kind of internet we want to see that keeps both children and adult citizens safe and allows people to control what kind of content they see online. Instead, the Government have been timid, or maybe the Secretary of State was persuaded by Sheryl Sandberg and Nick Clegg in his meeting with them last month to water down the original proposals. Social media platforms have failed for years to self-regulate. The Secretary of State knows that, everyone in this House knows that, and the public know that.
On legal but harmful material, why are companies being left to set their own terms and conditions and then judged on their own enforcement of those terms and conditions? It is exactly the wrong incentive. It will actively encourage less strict terms and conditions, so the platforms can more easily say that they are being properly enforced. When the Secretary of State says that companies will no longer be marking their own homework, I am afraid that he is wrong, because that is exactly what they will be doing.
The financial penalties described are welcome, but the Government have given in to big tech lobbying on criminal liability for senior executives for repeated breaches being properly built into the forthcoming legislation and implemented straight away. Rather, that will be left hanging to a possible future date through additional secondary legislation. Ireland’s legislation will include criminal sanctions rather than the vague threat that the Secretary of State has decided on. Will he explain what is to be gained by waiting? Never mind one last chance—repeat offenders have had chance after chance after chance.
The Secretary of State has referred to the novel concept of age assurance. Is that the same as age verification—the age verification that has been accepted by both the platforms and users as being unenforceable—or is it something different?
We know that online harms can easily become real harm. Encouragement and assistance of self-harm is one example, as the Secretary of State has mentioned. Harmful anti-vaccination disinformation impacting on public health is another. The Government have said today that they are asking the Law Commission to examine how criminal law will address the issue of encouragement or assistance of self-harm, but the Government could have asked the Law Commission to do that nearly two years ago when the White Paper was published. They have not done the hard work of deciding what should perhaps be illegal, which would have made their response today a better one.
There are also other notable absences from the response, including those on financial harm and online scams. This is a growing area of concern for millions of people across the United Kingdom, so why has this been ignored in the response? The Secretary of State has referred to failing public trust in tech. He says that he wants to rebuild it, but, sadly, today’s statement does not live up to that aspiration.
I am rather sorry that the hon. Lady seems intent on seeing the negative in everything. This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation. Let me go through some of the points that she raises. She talks about our being timid in the face of tech lobbying. First of all, I can assure her that, although I have discussed end-to-end encryption in respect of national security issues, I have not discussed with Sheryl Sandberg or Nick Clegg any online harm provisions. That is simply not the case. Indeed I think that she will find from the reaction of some tech firms that they are struck by the scale of the fines that we are proposing. These would be some of the largest fines ever imposed. It is up to 10% of the global revenue of a company such as Facebook, which shows how enormous the maximum fine could be.
On criminal liability, I want tech firms to comply with this, and if they do not do so, they will face steep fines. If they still do not comply, Members should be in no doubt that their senior managers will face criminal sanction. We will take the power in this Bill—we will not have to come back to the House for primary legislation—and enact it through secondary legislation.
The hon. Lady asks about what we have been doing so far. We have taken many steps already to protect people online. For example, just a couple of months ago, the Information Commissioner’s age appropriate design code was put before Parliament. Today, alongside this full response to the White Paper, we are publishing, through the Home Office, an interim code of practice on online child sexual exploitation and abuse, and we will do so similarly in relation to terrorist content and activity online. We will expect tech firms to start complying with that now. It is clear what the Government’s intent is and if those firms fail to do so, we will have the powers through this legislation to ensure that that happens.
The hon. Lady asks about letting tech firms mark their own homework. We are empowering Ofcom to hold these tech firms to account. First of all, we will make sure that the terms and conditions are robust, and if they are not, those firms will face consequences. If they do not enforce those terms and conditions, they will face consequences, and this House will set out what those legal but harmful things are through secondary legislation. We will propose the sort of harms that those tech firms should guard against. Members of this House will be able to vote on them, and those firms will have to take action appropriately. I believe that this marks a significant step forward, and Opposition Members should welcome this important step in protecting children, particularly online.
It has been two long years since the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on fake news, and it is welcome that, at long last, the Government have moved to appoint a regulator, to impose a duty of care and to put in place a substantial fines regime. However, there are still areas of concern. Can the Secretary of State outline his thinking on these? Does he accept that the number of priority categories defined as online harm needs to be broadened from what is currently envisaged to include things such as misinformation? The Secretary of State rightly focused on children, but this is about more than children; it is about the very status of our society and about looking after adults.
The Secretary of State also mentioned transparency reports. How can we ensure that these transparency reports do not become another exercise in public relations for the tech firms? Will there be independent outside academic oversight? When it comes to news publishing exemptions, will that also apply to video sharing?
Finally, does the Secretary of State also recognise that a system of dynamic, ongoing enforcement through a financial services style compliance regime in tier 1 social media companies provides a good belt and braces for retrospective enforcement action on what prelegislative scrutiny is planned?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee asks about the involvement of the Committee; we will of course seek to involve the Committee extensively in the prelegislative scrutiny. He has already made an important suggestion about dynamic monitoring, which we will of course consider as we firm up the legislation.
My hon. Friend talks about a video sharing; the exemption for news publishers to protect freedom of speech will apply to all their output and will include that.
My hon. Friend asks about disinformation; if disinformation—for example, anti-vax content—causes harm to individuals, it will be covered by the legislation, and I very much expect to set that out as one of the priority areas that would have to be addressed in secondary legislation.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his speech, much of which we SNP Members agree with.
At a time when anti-vax disinformation floods social media, when hate is spouted at minority groups under the cowardly veil of anonymity, often without consequence for the perpetrators, and when more children than ever before are using the internet and need to be shielded from harmful content, the proposed online harms Bill is welcome.
We welcome, too, the requirement that companies must accept a duty of care, and the fact that Ofcom will be the independent regulator—but it must be a regulator with teeth. As Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s boss, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee a short while ago, Ofcom needs much-enhanced powers to be effective; what additional powers will she have?
To enjoy maximum support in the House, the Bill must, while balancing the right to free expression, tackle illegal content as well as content that is potentially harmful but not illegal. In particular, companies must protect all children from harm, and the Government are right to recognise that.
The covid epidemic and lockdown have seen a surge in homophobia and transphobia online. The TIE—Time for Inclusive Education—campaign reports a 72% rise in attacks on and cyber-bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, with organisations such as the so-called LGB Alliance leading the onslaught. In that context, surely there is a case for looking again at social media anonymity. Noms de plume are fine, but we believe that users’ identities should be known to the social media publishers—they should not be completely anonymous in all circumstances. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?
Social media disinformation has been especially pernicious during the covid pandemic. Experts tell us that the disinformation during this crisis is unparalleled in the internet era, and the consequences of online harm can be catastrophic, undermining public trust, faith in health officials and acceptance of the value of the vaccine now being rolled out.
In principle, we welcome much in the proposals. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating—exactly how tough the Government are prepared to be in reality, how hard they will be on the social media companies, and whether they will enforce some of the proposals—but we welcome it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the legislation. He raised some important points. On anonymity, we have not taken powers to remove anonymity because it is very important for some people—for example, victims fleeing domestic violence and children who have questions about their sexuality that they do not want their families to know they are exploring. There are many reasons to protect that anonymity.
The hon. Gentleman talks about Ofcom; over the years, we have seen Ofcom rise to the challenge of increased responsibilities and I am confident that it will continue to do so. We will of course look to Ofcom to bring in independent expertise to help it in that process. It will clearly require a step change from Ofcom, but Dame Melanie Dawes and others are very much alert to that.
The hon. Gentleman talks about misinformation and disinformation. There are three things that we have to do to address those. First, we have to rely on trusted sources. We are so fortunate in this country to have well-established newspapers and broadcasters that are committed to public service information. We have seen that through the covid crisis, which is why we have supported them through this period. Secondly, we have to rebut false information. Through the Cabinet Office, we are working 24/7 to do that. Finally, we have to work with the tech companies themselves. For example, the Health Secretary and I have recently secured commitments to remove misinformation and disinformation within 48 hours and, crucially, not to profit from it. To the hon. Gentleman’s central concern, I think these measures really do mark a step change in our approach to tech firms. The old certainties are changing, and we are taking decisive action.
I welcome the progress that the Government are making in this area, and my right hon. Friend’s personal commitment and determination to deliver it, but, as he said, there is further progress to be made. That progress will only really be made when we see legislation, which I urge him again to introduce as soon as possible. In the meantime, I understand the Government’s focus on the larger platforms where the greatest harms are likely to be concentrated, but may I urge him, in the design and architecture of the regulatory system that he is putting in place, to ensure that it can deal with smaller platforms that grow fast or that host particularly damaging material, and, of course, that it can deal with the ever-changing nature of the harms themselves?
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend and other former Culture Secretaries represented in the House, all of whom have played a decisive role in helping to shape this important legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend rightly raises the point about smaller platforms. What we have sought to do with these proposals is to exclude very small enterprises—for example, a cheese retailer that allows its customers to leave comments on its site. Strictly speaking, that is user-generated material, but I think we would all agree that we would not want that to be within scope. However, at the same time, some smaller sites can be used as a back route— for example, for paedophiles to exchange information. We will design the legislation proportionately so that we can upscale the regulation in those sorts of cases.
I welcome the legislation as far as it goes, and agree with the Secretary of State that it is landmark legislation, rather like the Gambling Act 2005, which was put through the House by the previous Labour Government. I remind him that it was largely the things that were not covered by that legislation that came back to be the most challenging issues to confront us all. Given that, let me ask the Secretary of State about the scope of the legislation: will it cover online harms such as the targeted advertising of gambling at young people, gambling through social media or even loot boxes in online gaming, whereby young people are asked to pay for boxes of which they do not know the content?
As the hon. Gentleman may know, we have already issued a call for evidence in respect of loot boxes, and will take appropriate action in response. Many of the issues that he has raised are covered by our call for evidence on gambling. The scope of this legislation will cover any platform that allows self-generated content to be on it; to the extent that gambling websites have user-generated content on them, they will fall within the scope of this legislation, potentially.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. He has said that at the heart of these measures is the protection of our children—something with which the whole House will agree. He may know that I am leading an investigation with the Centre for Social Justice on the epidemic of child sexual abuse and exploitation that is taking place in our country. I therefore particularly welcome what he said today about the publication of the interim code of conduct on online child sexual abuse. But for it to have any effect, it must have teeth; it must be legally binding. Will he assure the House that when the online safety Bill becomes an Act, this code will be a statutory obligation?
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon Friend is doing, both on this and through the important work of the Centre for Social Justice. Yes, I can certainly give him that assurance. As I said, I would expect tech firms to abide by these codes of practice now—they have been published in interim form—because it is in the interests of tech firms to clean up their act, and this gives them a way of doing so. That has been the point across our approach. Of course, if they fail to do so, we will take the power in legislation to make it binding regardless, but I hope that the firms will abide by the codes of practice and I do not have to use those powers.
Clearly, regulations alone will not be strong enough to tackle the challenges of the internet. I am sure every single one of us in this place regards the safety of our children as absolutely paramount, so may I suggest to the Secretary of State that the education of our children might empower them to take down or zap harmful stuff online? What consideration is he giving to improving the education of children to give them that ability? Will he also have discussions with his colleague the Secretary of State for Education to that end, and might he further extend those discussions to the equivalent Ministers in the devolved Administrations?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and of course I will be happy to extend that discussion. I am already doing so with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary, but I would happy to do so with representatives of the devolved Governments. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the importance of education, and that applies not just to children but to parents. The more that parents, particularly those who have not grown up with the internet, understand the risks involved for their children, the better equipped they are to take action. Probably the single most important thing that parents can do is better understand the risks. That is why, in respect of children, we will be publishing the online media literacy strategy in the spring to address exactly that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his important and long-awaited statement on this piece of legislation. I have a few questions, though. He mentioned that social media companies would be required to produce transparency reports on their effectiveness in dealing with harmful content. Will Ofcom be able to audit those reports and request data and information from the companies? Otherwise, those reports will not be very transparent at all. He also said that there would be a carve-out exemption for news providers. I agree with that, but how is he defining a news provider? Some of the most egregious spreaders of disinformation pretend to be new providers but are actually fake news websites. It is important that we know that. He also said that if companies’ terms and conditions did not come up to standard and they did not meet their duty of care obligations, they would “face the legal consequences”. Can he say what those consequences will be?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises some very pertinent questions. On the powers for Ofcom, it will be able to interrogate data and equipment. The question around the definition of news publishers is a challenging one, for the reasons that he sets out. Essentially, we want to avoid the situation whereby a harmful source of information sets up as if it were a news publisher. That will be an important part of our engagement with Members of the House through the pre-legislative scrutiny, so I hope I will be able to reassure him on those points.
I welcome today’s announcement and trust that it represents progress towards making the internet a safer place for my constituents. In protecting our children, the vulnerable and wider society online, there can be no half measures. In that regard, I have a number of areas of concern. The Secretary of State made reference to cutting-edge age assurance or verification technologies. Can he explain what exactly is meant by age assurance and the practicalities of that process? How does it differ from age verification? What evidence is there that it is more effective in protecting children from harmful content? Does he also agree that the prevalence of online scams—and the thousands of lives across the UK impacted by such scams—makes their omission from the Government’s response significant? Will he outline how the Government will address this increasingly widespread online harm?
On age assurance, we are looking at the sort of emerging technology whereby, for example, one can look at how children type and use artificial intelligence to see that it is a child rather than an adult. Just yesterday, I was at a company called SafeToNet, which is doing fantastic work—for example, building into social media platforms through the electronic device that a child is using, whether that is an iPad or a phone, safety features that would block pornographic images and so on. The hon. Lady also asked me about further powers that we are taking. Forgive me; I have temporarily forgotten the point that she raised, but I am happy to write to her on that point.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Large tech platforms build incredibly complicated models to track our every move, profile us and suggest products that we might want to buy. They even now read our messages and suggest how we might like to reply, and yet when it comes to removing harmful content, they suggest that it is too difficult for them. Does he agree that what he is setting out is well within their capabilities, as long as they have the will?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Too often, tech firms say that they cannot do such things, but strangely, when it is in their commercial interest to do so, they find a way of doing it. This legislation is setting a clear direction of travel from Government, so that they know that we will be willing to take that action to force them to take measures in the public interest.
First Steps Nutrition Trust has launched a study this month which shows the impact of online marketing of infant formula. I am all for impartial information, but that is not what is happening. Baby clubs, carelines and online influencers have free rein, and they are undermining breastfeeding and pushing parents to buy more expensive formula than they can afford. Will the Secretary of State protect our youngest citizens and prohibit all infant formula advertising online?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The purpose of this legislation is to deal with user-generated content. If that sort of thing is being promoted by users, which we can all see is a popular marketing device, it will fall within scope. It is similar to the point raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) about fraud. If fraud is being promoted through user generation, that is a harm that can be addressed, but it does not extend to the whole scale of advertising, which is beyond the intent of the legislation.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Earlier this year, Staffordshire police, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Staffordshire County Council launched an operation to crack down on gangs exploiting children through county lines, drug dealing and other criminality. These children are often groomed and recruited on online platforms and messaging services. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, under the rules outlined in the online harms consultation, technology firms will be required to build technology into their platforms that can prevent that sort of activity?
Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend exactly that assurance. Companies must tackle illegal content on their platforms and protect children from harmful content and activity online. They really do need to build the right systems. As I said in answer to a previous question, I have seen the technology; there is no excuse anymore not to use it.
I want to ask the Secretary of State two questions on the issue of how we understand what is harmful but perhaps legal. First, will Ofcom be given the powers that it already has for other regulated sectors to demand access to information about how a service is being used and what content is on it? Secondly, why has the Secretary of State abandoned age verification?
On age verification, we are moving it from what we previously had, which was not dealing with user-generated content. Most pornography that children access is on sites that have user-generated content. Usually, that is the way that children stumble across it by mistake. It is really important that we broaden the scope of what we are doing, and that is precisely what we are addressing through this legislation.
Earlier this year, we witnessed the Wiley scandal, which saw an antisemitic rant over numerous posts. It took 72 hours and a mass boycott of social media by the Jewish community and its supporters before any action was taken by the platforms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the law should apply online as it does offline and that online platforms must do more to stop the spread of hate speech and illegal content?
Sadly that will not be addressed by this legislation, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Not that I could—I believe that is a matter for the House.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about antisemitic abuse. I have met organisations about that in framing the legislation. Most antisemitism is illegal and should be addressed through the provisions made for illegality. Beyond that, we will be setting out, as a priority, harms to be addressed through this legislation.
I, too, welcome this statement. In the past two months, Community Security Trust has identified 90,000 posts mentioning me. Most were hostile, antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist. Many were anonymous and, through disinformation, aimed to undermine my credibility and so silence me. I would ask the Secretary of State to think again. Does he not agree that anonymity on social media can no longer be universally protected, although it should be protected for groups such as whistleblowers and victims of domestic violence? Will he not agree that where users post illegal content or harmful abuse, social media companies should be required to collect and pass on information on the identity of the user to regulatory bodies and to the police?
The right hon. Lady raises a very important point. As a Member of Parliament who proudly represents a very large Jewish community, I know the challenges of antisemitism, and that has been at the front of my mind in framing this legislation. It is a challenging area, this point about anonymity. Of course, if there is criminal conduct that the police and law enforcement agencies are investigating, they have ways of dealing with that anonymity in order to bring criminal cases. The reluctance I have had, and the Government have had, to introduce provision across the board is about how we lift the veil of anonymity while at the same time protecting some very vulnerable people who rely on it. But of course we will continue to keep it under review.
I fear that we on the Government Benches feel a little like the ghost of Secretaries of State past for my right hon. Friend. I welcome this statement and the moves that the Government have made. Taking him back to the issue of age assurance and age verification, I am pleased to hear that he is looking at different types of technology to protect children, but will he please not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and do something around age verification as soon as possible?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I should pay tribute to all her work in this area. Of course we will not allow the best to be the enemy of the good. We will not be mandating the use of specific technological approaches. We know that those technological approaches are available, and Ofcom will be holding tech companies to account to make sure that they take advantage of them in order to provide protection for children.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, Wikipedia, while not a social network, is edited by its users. It includes highly dangerous instructional information on suicide generated by those users. How will that be covered by the forthcoming legislation, and how will he deal with the international aspect of preventing harm online?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question; she raises an important point. We are looking to legislate to make self-harm illegal—to push it into that category. On international engagement, there is a coalition of nations around the world that are now moving in this direction, including the US. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) mentioned steps taken in Ireland and elsewhere. We have constantly led this debate. We started this debate with these proposals and we are delivering them at a faster pace than other countries around the world.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. However, we have to be very clear that the duty of care and the regulator that he is proposing will not look at or resolve individual complaints. What is more, we are already seeing some of the smart movers in the online world starting to change their practices so that they will evade the regulation that he is talking about. So, to be really effective this Bill has to sit alongside stronger and clearer laws that protect the individual from dreadful online abuse, such as image-based abuse which the Secretary of State and I have talked about, and which I know he cares as deeply as I do about resolving. He cannot introduce one without the other, so can he give me an assurance today that he will put reforms, particularly with regard to online image-based abuse, on the same time-footing as the Bill he is talking about today?
My right hon Friend, another former Culture Secretary, makes an important point. She and I have discussed this at length. It is absolutely essential that, alongside the duties of care, we specifically outlaw certain things: she has made important points around deep fakes, cyber-flashing and so on. I can confirm that, working with the Law Commission, we will be looking through this legislation specifically to outlaw that kind of activity and make it illegal.
As the Secretary of State will undoubtedly be aware, I really welcome this Bill; I honestly believe that it is well intended, but fear it is rather muddled and jumbled. I would like to know when the Bill is coming to the Floor of the House—not pre-legislative scrutiny, as the Secretary of State has mentioned in answer to several other Members, but when the Bill is coming—because we have been waiting two years for just this statement. I would also like to know why delay culpability has been delayed; self-governance has not worked for 15 years, so why delay it? Finally, why not deal with the issues around economic crime? That is increasing, and I believe it is a mistake not to deal with the problems of economic crime in society through platforms.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s overall support. On when this will be coming, the legislation will be brought before the House in 2021. He asked about economic crime, and other Members also raised that. [Interruption.] Well, to the extent that this comes from user-generated content, of course it will fall within scope, but if we seek to make this Bill deal with every harm on the internet, it will quickly become very unwieldy. Most fraud comes as a result of activities such as online advertising. We must try to have some sort of a scope around this.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we are delaying taking powers. We are not delaying taking powers: from the get-go, these enormous fines of up to 10% of global turnover will be imposed. If that is still not effective, we will have taken the power to use criminal sanctions for senior managers, and it will simply be a case of passing secondary legislation to bring that into force. As it is such a big step to have criminal liability, if we can avoid criminal liability I would like to do so. I believe the fines will be sufficient, but if they are not, then we will have taken those powers.