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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Exports to EU: Art and Antiques

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that art and antiques can be easily exported to EU countries. (913589)

The UK has one of the world’s leading art markets and the free trade agreement we negotiated with the EU will allow it to flourish. We have taken steps to facilitate the export of cultural goods to EU countries. We have developed a new inland pre-clearance process for export licences for works of art, and we are digitising the export licensing system for cultural goods. Those steps will reduce border friction and avoid delays and security risks.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s incredibly helpful response, there are small businesses in the art and antiques market that are suffering from these teething problems, such as Dart Gallery in Dartmouth in my constituency. So what further steps are the Government going to take to ensure that there is a streamlined approach to exporting art and antiques in future years?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion the businesses in his constituency. We care deeply about supporting them. That is why the Secretary of State met representatives of the art market only earlier this month to discuss issues. We will continue to work closely with the sector to ensure that it can keep trading smoothly with the EU. We recognise that this means a period of change for business at a time when everyone has been responding to the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic, but this is an unparalleled opportunity for the UK to do business differently and prosper. We will continue to support businesses to allow them to take all the opportunities.

Gigabit Broadband

Since 2019, gigabit-capable broadband coverage has risen from 10% to now well over 30%, but with the publication this morning of Ofcom’s market review, the way is paved for the Government to lay out their thinking in much greater detail. We will be publishing Project Gigabit very soon to explain where we will be taking the best broadband connections first and how we will tackle the hardest-to-reach premises as well.

I thank the Minister—my county colleague, as the Member for Boston and Skegness—for that response and look forward to a Government announcement in the near future. We have all become more reliant on our broadband connectivity in recent months, and I look forward to the full—and it needs to be full—roll-out of gigabit broadband. I represent two district areas. City of Lincoln Council has 99.4% superfast connectivity, but North Kesteven District Council, where I represent Skellingthorpe, Bracebridge Heath and Waddington East, has only 95.3% superfast broadband, with 2.74% of households receiving less than 10 megabits per second. How will my hon. Friend ensure that the roll-out of gigabit broadband benefits all those in rural areas, including across Lincolnshire, where BT took vast amounts of easy taxpayer money but has not delivered fibre connections or access for all by a long way?

I know just how keen my hon. Friend is to tackle broadband roll-out in the rural parts of his constituency as well as in the urban. As I mentioned, Project Gigabit will lay out a nationwide plan and it will do so in a way that promotes competition so that we get the best that the whole of the market can offer, including Openreach, but also other providers.

Our Parliament, our businesses, our students, our economy and our social lives all depend on broadband. In 2019, the Prime Minister promised full fibre for all by 2025, and the 2020 Budget set aside £5 billion for that. Can the Minister confirm that only £1.2 billion of that £5 billion is planned to be spent by 2025, and that today’s decision by Ofcom to remove pricing controls will deliver greater profits for BT while allowing Openreach to charge more in rural areas that are already broadband-poorer? When will the country as a whole get the broadband infrastructure we so desperately need?

The hon. Lady knows that the Government will spend the £5 billion that has been committed as soon as possible and as quickly as the industry can get the cable into the ground. She also knows that the important balance to strike is between a competitive market that makes sure that we get everyone, from Openreach to Gigaclear to CityFibre, involved, and ensuring that those businesses can make a fair return. That is the balance that Ofcom has sought to strike today.

With the publication of Ofcom’s broadband review, does the Minister agree that the time has come to respond more fully to the key recommendations of the DCMS Select Committee report in relation to broadband roll-out, as it seems clear that the Government are set to miss their revised targets? Will he commit to give the Committee its full answers by 1 April? In addition, is the £5 billion sum for Project Gigabit reported in today’s Daily Telegraph just a repackaged announcement, or is the £5 billion now guaranteed from the Treasury?

The Ofcom report, as I say, strikes a balance between trying to get competition and trying to get a fair return. I think that is a reasonable approach. It is of course important that we lay out the plans in response to the Select Committee’s questions. Project Gigabit will, in due course, do an awful lot of that work. I look forward to responding in full to the Committee’s questions, perhaps even appearing in front of it once again.

Data Flow to and from EU

Under UK law, personal data can currently flow freely from the UK to the EU. The trade agreement also ensures the continued temporary free flow of personal data from the EU to the UK until adequacy decisions are adopted. The European Commission published positive draft adequacy decisions on 19 February and we expect the EU to complete the technical approval process soon.

We all know how important the flow of data is for UK business, but frankly the Government have handed the powers to the EU to turn our data on and off. They have turned us into supplicants, effectively. What are the contingency plans, given that relationships are frosty, should the EU use those powers?

As I say, the EU Commission has already provided an assessment of the UK’s data protection laws, which found us to be adequate, and there is absolutely no reason why that should not be confirmed once the processes are under way. However, we have said that it is sensible for businesses to make contingency plans by putting alternative transfer mechanisms in place, just in case there comes a point at some future date, but we expect adequacy to be granted within the timescale permitted.

Culture Recovery Fund

What progress his Department has made on allocating further support to the culture and heritage sector through the Culture Recovery Fund. (913592)

Over £1 billion from the culture recovery fund has been allocated, including £800 million supporting almost 4,000 organisations and sites across the whole of England. More than 80% of grants and 85% of loans awarded in the first round of the fund have now been paid. As Members will have seen, an additional £390 million for the fund was announced in the Budget, taking dedicated support for culture and heritage during the pandemic to almost £2 billion—an unprecedented sum.

The culture recovery fund has provided a vital lifeline to many organisations in my constituency, from the Cholsey and Wallingford railway to the Oxford Philharmonic to the Didcot Railway Centre, which is a popular family attraction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that just as people have been very good at supporting their local shops during the pandemic, it would be great if, when restrictions lift, they can go and visit their local culture and heritage sites, even if they have been many times before, to help them get back on their feet?

I completely agree. The Government have been here for culture throughout the pandemic, and as we emerge from it, I know that the public will want to be there, too. As our cultural institutions reopen, we will encourage people to get out there and support them. That includes attractions in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as he referenced, such as the Didcot Railway Centre and the Cholsey and Wallingford railway, both of which have been supported through our culture recovery fund.

Live Events and Cultural Festivals: Government-backed Insurance Scheme

If he will hold discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential merits of introducing a Government-backed insurance scheme for the live events sector. (913594)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on establishing a Government-backed insurance fund to help support the return of live events and cultural festivals during the covid-19 outbreak. (913599)

The Government are aware of the concerns that have been raised about the challenge of securing indemnity cover for live events, and my officials and the rest of the team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport continue to work closely with the affected sectors to understand all the barriers to reopening, including financial support, certainty around the public health situation and the potential challenges of insurance.

Insurance providers, live music venues, promoters and artists have jointly called on the UK Government to support an insurance fund to get live cultural events back up and running, with assurance that covid flare-ups will not ruin their chance at a recovery. Will the Minister meet with representatives from the live music industry to discuss those proposals?

Yes, I meet representatives from the live music industry all the time, and the Government road map sets out a clear plan that will allow events to return quickly and safely. That is being backed up by the events research scheme, which will give the evidence to provide the how and the when. We really understand how vital it is to get people back to doing the things they love as quickly as is safely possible, and we understand the huge benefits to our economy in allowing that to happen.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s report of meetings with industry stakeholders and insurance bodies. Will she release all documents relating to those discussions, to allow proper scrutiny of the decision making around insurance for live events this summer?

Where appropriate, of course we can publish documents, but sometimes we have to have conversations behind closed doors, so that people can get off their chest how they are feeling and we can do our best to tackle it. We understand that there are a number of obstacles for our sectors at the moment, and the culture recovery fund has been fantastic at supporting them to keep going through this really difficult time. The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that her Richmond Park constituency has benefited to the tune of over £1 million from the culture recovery fund, which has supported so many incredible organisations, such as the Orange Tree theatre.

As if the Government’s refusal to underwrite live music insurance was not bad enough for the industry, the UK Government rejected a deal with the EU that would have allowed artists and their crews to tour without visas, as they did pre Brexit. At her recent Select Committee appearance, the Minister said that as far as she knew, no negotiations with individual states were taking place to resolve these arrangements, but she promised to strain “every sinew” to resolve this Brexit disaster. That was over a month ago. Have the Government finally engaged in bilateral talks over visa agreements for artists? If so, with which countries? What progress has been made? Artists are waiting to hear.

The hon. Gentleman knows that not all of what he said is 100% true. The Treasury has always said that it would look at indemnity if it was the only obstacle to events being able to take place, and in the current public health situation there is huge uncertainty, which is clearly another major obstacle. He also knows that we did not turn down an excellent visa option from the EU. He knows that the visa option that was on the table would not have permitted touring; it was just for ad hoc events and would not have supported all the support crews that necessarily go with a tour. With regard to international discussions, I met my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office only yesterday.

Fourth National Lottery Licence

The national lottery is a national treasure that enhances the cultural and sporting lives of millions of people across the UK, and it has funded over £1 billion in projects supporting the response to covid-19. The Gambling Commission is running the competition for the next licence and is following best practice from across the public sector for competitions of this nature.

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is vital that the national lottery competition is not just open and transparent but seen to be open and transparent by everyone involved. One of the biggest funds that the national lottery supports is grassroots sport. This week, Consett AFC heard that its FA Vase final will have to be played without any supporters at it, despite the FA cup final just a couple of weeks later being played with supporters. May I urge the Minister to speak to colleagues and the FA to see whether there is any possibility that this vital final—the first time Consett has been to Wembley in over 120 years—might be played with fans?

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a huge fan of Consett AFC, and of course he and his fellow fans are very excited about this historic match, which is due to take place in Wembley. We are working to try to get spectators back into stadiums as soon as possible. I fully understand his disappointment that it does not look as if it will be possible in time for the match, but I have no doubt that he and thousands of others will be cheering on his team from their sofas.

I will ask a question more directly to do with the national lottery. The national lottery helps to fund many charities, cultural organisations and heritage sites, and whoever is awarded the new licence must be beyond reproach. Conservative party donor Richard Desmond—who persuaded the Prime Minister to raise the jackpot limit to benefit his own lottery and then successfully lobbied the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government over the controversial Westferry development, saving himself £40 million, resulting in an unlawful planning decision that was followed soon after by another donation to the Conservative party—wants to run our national lottery. Does the Minister believe that Mr Desmond is a fit and proper person to do this?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the national lottery. Indeed, I point out that his constituency has received over £6 million in funding over the last five years. Which applicant should take on the franchise is determined by the Gambling Commission, and of course it will want to be satisfied that the successful applicant meets the highest standards of probity and integrity, but it is a matter for the Gambling Commission.

Covid-19: Elite Sport

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of elite sport as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (913596)

The continuation of elite sport was an early priority for the Government during the pandemic. Behind-closed-doors matches have enabled vital broadcast revenue to continue to flow into elite sport, as well as to bring joy to millions of fans at a time when it is sorely needed. Travel exemptions have allowed international elite sports competitions to continue safely during the pandemic. We also provided a £300 million winter sport survival package, giving lifelines to sports organisations impacted by restrictions on spectators. Of course, a further £300 million was announced recently by the Chancellor to continue this support to elite sports while restrictions remain in place.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that in Burnley our local economies rely on the football club that fills hotels, restaurants and bars. While we know that getting all that back will need to be done cautiously and in line with the Prime Minister’s road map, may I urge him to look at whether Burnley football club can be included in the trials taking place to get more fans back using things like testing, so that more and more fans from Burnley can get back to the turf?

My hon. Friend is a worthy champion of football, and in particular of Burnley FC. In fact, I do not think I have ever had a conversation with him without the words “Burnley FC” featuring very strongly, so I am sure his constituents are very grateful for that. I know he shares my view that sport is not the same without fans in stadiums. Officials from the Department will have heard his offer. He will understand I cannot give him a guarantee today, but I do appreciate his lobbying today.

It is of course vital that we again get fans back in stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so. The events research programme will be used to provide key scientific data as to how small and large events could be permitted to reopen safely in line with the Prime Minister’s road map out of lockdown. Government Departments are working very closely together on a range of options to support commercially viable ways to reopen businesses and leisure venues, and further details will be released in due course.

Covid-19: Culture and Entertainment Industries

What steps his Department is taking to support the reopening of the culture and entertainment industries as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (913598)

What steps his Department is taking to support the reopening of the culture and entertainment industries as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (913602)

The Government’s road map provides a step-by-step plan to safely reopen culture, entertainment and sport. This includes an events research programme, which will consider how restrictions can be lifted at step 4 through piloting major events such as the FA cup final and the world snooker championships. Funding announced at the Budget, including a further £390 million for culture and £300 million for sport, will support these industries as they reopen.

Southend is home to a number of brilliant local festivals, such as Leigh Folk festival, Village Green and the Leigh regatta. Sadly, it has been announced that Southend carnival has been cancelled for a second year in a row due to uncertainty surrounding any ongoing restrictions in the summer. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that events planned for later in the year will be given plenty of notice of whether they will be allowed to go ahead?

I share my hon. Friend’s regret that Southend carnival is not going ahead. The Government will of course give as much notice as we can, and we have already set out a clear plan that will allow events such as that to return quickly and safely. We are working closely with our stakeholders to give them as much notice as we can and to guide them through each step. I can assure my hon. Friend that I am committed to getting people back to doing the things that they love as soon as we possibly can.

The past year has had a huge impact on our young people, and I know we all share the ambition to do as much as possible to support them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as restrictions are eased and many organisations reopen, it is vital that children’s sport is prioritised?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all of course in this House know how important sport is for young people’s physical and mental health. That is why all outdoor sports can resume from 29 March, and I would note that that is the first significant easing after schools. In addition, the Education Secretary and I are working closely with sports’ national governing bodies and Sport England on an extensive offer of activities in schools over the summer period.

Fibre Spine Infrastructure: West Dorset

My hon. Friend leaves no stone unturned in advocating for his constituents to get better broadband, because we all know how important it is in rural areas. Superfast broadband coverage in Dorset is now up to 96%; that is progress, but the Government have more work to do, and Project Gigabit is a crucial part of delivering that.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Dorset Council has worked incredibly hard to gather two thirds of the money that it needs for the Dorset fibre spine. The Chancellor gave a stonking budget of £5 billion to my hon. and right hon. Friends, and I am just asking if the Minister would make 0.05% of that £5 billion pound Budget available to West Dorset so we can sort out the fibre spine.

I do not want to preannounce anything that is in Project Gigabit, but I can certainly say to my hon. Friend that the project he mentions is on the radar of DCMS officials, and I look forward to continuing those conversations so that we can deliver the improvements that I know are so valuable to his constituents.

Work Permit-free Travel: Musicians and Performers

What assessment he has made of the effect of the removal of work permit-free travel between the UK and EU for musicians and performers on the UK's creative industries. (913603)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on work permit-free travel for musicians and other performers to and from the EU. (913610)

The Government recognise the importance of international touring for our creative and cultural sectors. The DCMS-led working group on creative and cultural touring, which involves sector representatives and other key Government Departments, is working through the issues to ensure that the sector gets both the clarity and the support that it needs.

Musicians are eager to get back to work when restrictions allow, but for those who would normally tour Europe that will require a mountain of paperwork to be negotiated both for themselves and their instruments. This is increasingly urgent as we approach the lifting of lockdown restrictions, with little time left to negotiate bilateral agreements. Can the Minister confirm that Ministers are talking to their EU counterparts about securing visa waivers to allow our musicians to tour Europe freely when restrictions are lifted?

The hon. Lady is right: the end of freedom of movement has inevitably had some consequences for touring artists. We want our cultural and creative professionals to be able to work easily across Europe, in the same way that EU creatives are able to work flexibly in the UK, and we are working very closely with the sector to consider all the available options. I have said right from the start that our door will always be open if the EU is willing to reconsider its position, but we are also working with colleagues across Government and members of our working group on our engagement with different member states. I met FCDO colleagues only yesterday once again to discuss this, and we want to ensure that touring can resume as easy as possible for UK artists.

My constituent George Jackson is a conductor. He has told me that in order to be able to fill last-minute jobs in the EU he would previously have needed just to get on a plane or train and been ready to be with the orchestra the next day, but he says that now he faces expensive and time-consuming paperwork just to achieve the same as before. It seems that the Government have managed to unite artists and creatives across the country in wanting to see the Government sort this out. Even Sir Elton John was urging the Government to fix this mess, so in that spirit can the Minister commit to keeping our creative industries standing rather than letting the sun go down on them?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and we understand the strength of feeling on this. The Secretary of State met Sir Elton John recently as well to discuss the issue. We care passionately about finding a solution to this, which is why we set up the DCMS-led working group on creative and cultural touring. It involves representatives from across the creative and cultural touring sectors and all the key Government Departments that have a handle on this, and we are working through all the issues and all the options to help the sectors resume touring as easily as possible when it is safe to do so, but, as the hon. Lady said, the priority is getting touring performers the information and support they need to tour, and, crucially, working bilaterally to ensure the process is as smooth and seamless as possible when they are able to do so.

Topical Questions

This month’s Budget provided further support to sports, arts, tourism, heritage and creative industries, including an extra £700 million to help cultural and sports venues reopen their doors when restrictions ease, and an extension to our hugely successful film and TV production restart scheme. The Budget also included several measures to put tech and digital connectivity at the heart of our recovery, including half a billion pounds for the Help to Grow scheme, and last week I published our 10 tech priorities for the coming year.

As we move from rescue to recovery, we have announced a number of pilots to help get people back, including at the FA cup final. I met the events research programme again on Tuesday; as a first step, I look forward to the return of grassroots sports on 29 March.

As highlighted earlier by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the FA vase final between Hebburn Town and Consett AFC has been rescheduled to take place behind closed doors at Wembley stadium on 3 May. This is the biggest match in Hebburn Town FC’s history, so I want to add my support on this issue. Will the Secretary of State work with the FA to make the final a pilot event for allowing the safe return of spectators to such sporting events?

I share the hon. Lady’s desire to get sports fans back in stadiums as quickly as we can, as has been highlighted by my colleagues on the Government Benches. We have already set out a road map, and I think it is important to people that we stick to that road map, which would see fans returning socially distanced from 17 May.

We have already set out a pilot for the FA cup final. It is important to understand what these pilots are about. They are about testing fans coming into and out of stadiums; they are not windows to allow extra events to happen. We will of course keep this under review, and if there were a possibility, of course I would grab it.

Despite warm words from mobile phone operators and promises to Government, communities such as Broughton in my constituency are still waiting for companies such as O2 to make good on their promises to give us halfway decent mobile phone coverage. What more can the Government do to push the mobile phone companies to make sure that we get the service we are paying for up here? (913550)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for speed. As he will know, the shared rural network will see the Government and industry jointly investing over £1 billion to increase 4G coverage throughout the UK. On 5G, over 200 towns and cities already have 5G, and our ambition is for the vast majority to have it by 2027. In addition, as my hon. Friend has outlined, building on today’s welcome announcement from Ofcom, I will shortly be providing further details on our plans to make the UK giga-fit.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen an outpouring of grief over the death of Sarah Everard, and we have read and heard numerous accounts of women made to feel unsafe in their daily lives. The Secretary of State will know that words online often translate into actions offline. Last June, he said at the Dispatch Box that the online harms Bill, which was supposed to follow the White Paper published two years ago next month, would be introduced before the end of this parliamentary Session. We are still waiting. Does he accept that the continuing delay has left women and girls at risk for too long, and does he commit to measures to protect them online when he finally publishes the Bill?

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Lady back to her rightful place in the Chamber? She is absolutely right to highlight the issue of online abuse of women. That is why our internet safety Bill will bring forward measures to help protect women online, including measures to enable them to better report abuse, and will also ensure that they should get appropriate responses from platforms. That could include, for example, the removal of harmful content, sanctions against offending users, or changes to processes and policies to support better protection. This is a real priority. We will bring forward the draft legislation at the beginning of the new parliamentary Session, and by the end of the year the full Bill will be before the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his words. I know that he has a very well-publicised interest in the nation’s heritage, particularly in statues, telling museums and gallery experts how to do their jobs through the policy of “retain and explain”, so perhaps he can explain today what input his Department had into the Government’s legislation this week that provides for longer sentences for hitting statues than those that have been given for raping women.

I really wish that Members in this House would take a more temperate approach towards this. The hon. Lady knows full well that the most serious violent and sexual offences, including grievous bodily harm with intent to rape, already carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The purpose of what we are introducing in respect of statues is to help protect statues that have tremendous emotional value—for example, the Cenotaph and others—but that may have quite low financial value.

If it is now the Labour party’s position to oppose “retain and explain”—that may be the case; I have heard from the Leader of the Opposition that he thinks that some statues may need to come down—perhaps she could explain which statues she thinks should be removed from this country’s glorious heritage.

What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to support the recovery of towns with large hospitality and tourism economies from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic? (913553)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I know of his passionate concern about this. The Government have introduced a range of targeted measures to support hospitality and tourism through covid-19, including business rates relief and the new restart support grants, as well as the 5% VAT rate. He will know that his Southport constituency is receiving £37.5 million from the £1 billion towns fund, and that will support the development of new projects there, including a new waterfront conference centre.

Yesterday, the Government announced that superfast broadband coverage was going to be 97%. That is great: well done, Her Majesty’s Government! In my constituency, the coverage is—can you believe it, Mr Speaker?—78% and yesterday Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister responsible, announced that we would not achieve the full figure until 2026, having already promised delivery by this year. My plea is very simple: please will Her Majesty’s Government step in and sort this out? (913551)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The UK Government have provided over £100 million to deliver broadband in Scotland and it really is deeply disappointing to see that the Scottish Government are still failing to deliver the R100 programme effectively. The Scottish National party, I believe, promised 100% superfast coverage by 2021—yet another broken promise. We have already announced that central Scotland will be the very first part of the UK to benefit from our £5 billion investment in Project Gigabit, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be a stronger role for the UK Government in delivering this programme going forward.

The Department has done great work in bringing superfast and gigabit broadband to much of my constituency, but there are still blackspots. Will my right hon. Friend consider asking Ofcom and Building Digital UK to reconsider their decision to exclude properties in the RG20 and RG17 postcodes from the gigabit batches? (913555)

As my hon. Friend will know, we are on a national mission to transform our digital infrastructure, spanning the length and breadth of the UK, and our plans to invest £5 billion in connecting hard-to-reach communities include many rural properties in the RG17 and RG20 postcodes. We will shortly be announcing Project Gigabit, our plan to make the UK giga-fit, and I look forward to updating the House on details.

The chair of the BBC has a responsibility to ensure the independence of the corporation and to uphold its values, so what was it about the CV of a multimillionaire Conservative party donor and close associate of the Chancellor, Richard Sharp, that first attracted the Government to appoint him as chair of the corporation? And do the Government consider the fact that he once managed a firm that funded a property company described by a Conservative MP as creating “modern ghettos for the vulnerable” to be consistent with the values that the corporation ought to be upholding? (913552)

I think that an excellent choice has been made in the choice of the new chair of the BBC. He is a person with considerable financial and commercial experience who is deeply committed to the BBC, and it would be better if the hon. Gentleman refrained from making such slurs against him.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

We now come to questions to the Attorney General, and I congratulate Michael Ellis on his appointment.

CPS Complex Casework Units

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Crown Prosecution Service complex casework units undertake some of the most complex and serious casework handled by the CPS. A recent report published by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has found that CPS complex casework units are staffed by highly dedicated, skilled and professional teams who deliver high-quality casework, often in demanding circumstances and at short notice.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer. What is the Crown Prosecution Service doing to tackle serious crimes such as drug dealing in my Derbyshire constituency?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The CPS East Midlands complex casework unit recently worked on an operation called Operation Trent, which concerned prosecutions against a criminal gang for drug-related activities during 2017 and 2018. A total of 26 people were convicted, and the two main defendants were sentenced in February this year. They got sentences of 20 years and 19 years, and the majority of the other defendants in that big case received custodial sentences of between 13 years and five years.

I welcome the Attorney General to his place. The recent inspectorate report on complex case units highlighted that CCU heads are often also responsible for rape and serious sexual offence units, despite the report five years ago stating that the expectation was that RASSO units would be staffed with rape specialist prosecutors. Rape prosecution levels are at an all-time low and urgent action is needed, so will the Attorney General back our survivors support plan calling for rape to be a clear named permanent specialism within the CPS?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she knows, and as we heard from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, we are always willing to discuss these matters and look at these issues. I am pleased that she mentions the CPS complex case units, because the CCUs are effective and efficient, and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate found that they were managing their casework very well. While the report that she alludes to does identify some areas for improvement, that should not detract from the fact that the inspector found that there was an overall high standard of work during his inspection, and the report read very well.

I have heard what the Attorney General has said, but I am not sure that he grasps the scale of the issue. Last year, the police recorded over 55,000 rapes, but there were only 2,100 prosecutions and 1,400 convictions. The Government announced their end-to-end rape review over two years ago and we are still waiting for it, so I ask the Attorney General again: will he make rape a dedicated specialism within the CPS and will he back Labour’s survivors support plan for rape victims—or will he sit back and watch the effective decriminalisation of rape?

I do not think the emotive language that the hon. Lady uses is appropriate at all, and I have to say that that is not the case. The reality of the matter is that we have said we will always look at any ideas and suggestions. She talks about 55,000 cases, but only about 5,000 of those were actually referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS works very hard to prosecute and charge all the cases that are referred to it, and the statistics for that have gone up. Now, 65% of all rape cases that are referred to the CPS result in a charge. I suggest that she looks carefully at the CPSI report, which indicates good work in this area, although I very much acknowledge that more needs to be done.

I, too, welcome the Attorney General to his place and the Solicitor General in returning to her role as well. I know that the Committee will look forward to constructive engagement with both of them.

The Attorney General will know that there is particular concern about the backlog that exists in complex cases because of the difficulty in finding courtrooms, in the current circumstances, that have the capacity to try multi-handed, lengthy cases, particularly where people are in custody. Most of those are complex matters, and they are likely to grow. What discussions is he having with the Lord Chancellor, and with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the judiciary more broadly, to find means by which capacity can be expanded and cases of this important kind can be brought to trial more swiftly, as much as is practically possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for the work he does as Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. I am pleased that the CPS is doing all it can, as it should, along with all the other parts of the criminal justice system, to clear the backlog, which has accumulated, in large part, as a consequence of this pandemic. More staff have been hired by the CPS, thanks to an £85 million cash injection in 2019 from the Government and another £23 million last year from the Government also to support the CPS. However, he is right to highlight this point. I regularly meet people from across the criminal justice system to work on this issue of clearing the backlog as effectively and efficiently as possible.

International Law on Rights of Refugees: Government Compliance

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department in helping to ensure the Government’s compliance with international law on the rights of refugees. (913655)

Any request for my advice is subject to the Law Officers’ convention, but I must make it clear that the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and that it discharges its international obligations in good faith. I also point out that the Solicitor General, whom I very much welcome to her place, attends the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, which scrutinises all the Government’s legislation before it reaches Parliament.

All are equal before the eyes of the law, and that includes those coming here seeking asylum. Why then are we using military camps, which are entirely unacceptable at the best of times and most certainly during a pandemic? Rather than seeking to copy Australia and transport asylum seekers abroad, is it not time that this Government accepted that refugees have rights and that the Attorney General took action to ensure that the Government adhered to their responsibilities?

Frankly, as the Home Office has made quite clear, the UK is a world leader in resettlement, so I do not recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If one looks at the actual figures, one sees that we have resettled nearly 30,000 people in the past five years, which is more than any other country in Europe. As for the use of former military barracks, if Her Majesty’s armed forces personnel can be housed appropriately in those barracks, there is no reason why anyone else cannot be. We adhere to our international and national obligations. This country is extremely open and generous in these matters. As I have said, we are the most open in Europe in terms of resettlement.

Reports in the press this morning indicate that the Home Secretary plans to send asylum seekers coming across the channel offshore, thousands of miles away, to have their claims processed. May I welcome the Attorney General to his place and ask him whether he has been consulted on the legality of these proposals yet? Can he reveal which countries his Government are doing this reprehensible deal with, given that this would be relevant to the legality of the proposals?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that I cannot discuss what advice I give in other Departments and I cannot comment on legislation that the Government have not presented to Parliament. What I can say is this: the Government’s position is that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country in which they find themselves. That is an international understanding, and European countries through which they have travelled to board boats to the UK, such as France, are of course manifestly safe.

County Lines Drug Dealing

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences relating to county lines drug dealing. (913656)

The Crown Prosecution Service and the police are working closely throughout the country to protect against the threats of county lines drug dealing and safeguard vulnerable victims in Norfolk. CPS East of England successfully prosecuted 26 cases between November 2019 and September 2020, securing sentences of up to seven years, and specialist training is offered to CPS prosecutors who undertake county lines work and prosecutions. The Government’s serious violence strategy details the range of actions being taken to tackle the impact of county lines.

I am grateful to the Attorney General for his response. My local police force in Norfolk has one of the best and most robust responses to tackling county lines drug dealing in the country and has made thousands of arrests to deal with the problem over the years. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the message is clear: “Come to Norfolk to deal drugs and you will be targeted, arrested and jailed”?

I commend my hon. Friend for making that point, and he is absolutely right. I thank him for his support for the prosecution of these odious offenders and offences. My hon. Friend clearly recognises, on behalf of his constituents, the challenges of county lines investigations, which can be complicated and onerous. The CPS intends to carry out a review of its ongoing work, including its effectiveness in prosecuting county lines offending this year. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the work in Norfolk, as I did a moment ago, and I reiterate my thanks for his support.

Modern Slavery

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to work with police and law enforcement agencies to prosecute modern slavery cases. Early engagement among prosecutors and investigators is central to a successful prosecution. When requested, the CPS will provide early investigative advice in such challenging cases to enable robust cases to be built. I should point out that the CPS now charges more than 75% of cases referred to it by the police.

Shockingly, more than 19,000 human trafficking and slavery crimes have been left unsolved since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, with suspects having faced action in fewer than one in 20 cases. Even though the volume of offences has increased every single year since 2015, under this Conservative Government the prosecution levels for modern slavery charges have fallen abysmally. Will the Attorney General tell us how he intends to reverse this worrying trend, which has happened under this Government’s watch?

Actually, it was this Conservative Government—under the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—who passed the Modern Slavery Act. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have rightly focused enormous efforts on tackling this problem. The Crown Prosecution Service, for which I have superintendence responsibilities, prosecutes all cases that meet its appropriate guidelines, once the police have referred them to the CPS. All CPS areas have an appointed a modern slavery lead, who is dedicated to this matter and attends regular meetings with their local police force lead to try to work through the issue, secure safeguarding board involvement and review performance data. In other words, there is cross-work among the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others to secure as many prosecutions and charges for this odious offence as possible.

The Government have been buying personal protective equipment from Brightway Holding, a company that is being investigated by the Malaysian Government for engaging in modern slavery. Workers are forced to live in squalid conditions and have to work 12 hours a day for up to 29 days without a rest. I heard what the Attorney General said about his commitment to enforcing the Modern Slavery Act in respect of supply chains in the private sector; will he now confirm that the Government will set an example and eradicate modern slavery, including the appalling example that I just described, from their own procurement practices?

I do not recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. What he ought to do, if I may respectfully suggest it, is to look at what this Government have done. It is on the record that the Government are achieving those issues that we have been discussing, namely: an increase in available criminal offences; an increase in the means by which to prosecute; and more resources to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in order to achieve the prosecutions. The Government are highly focused on that. If he wishes to write to me about the contract, we will refer it to the appropriate place.

Covid-19: CPS Engagement with Local Communities and External Stakeholders

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of CPS engagement with (a) local communities and (b) external stakeholders during the covid-19 outbreak. (913658)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I know that the Crown Prosecution Service liaised with external stakeholders through the pandemic, because I spoke to the Director of Public Prosecutions in my role as a former Justice Minister. I am aware that the CPS continued to engage proactively with local communities throughout the pandemic. This engagement assists the CPS in improving its policies and practices. For example, feedback from the CPS’s external consultation groups has helped to develop a joined-up criminal justice system approach to domestic abuse cases.

I welcome the Solicitor General to her new position.

Many of my constituents in Meriden are deeply concerned about recent events and violence against women and girls. Can my hon. and learned Friend please tell me how the CPS is working locally to better understand these issues and to respond to violence against women and girls?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this vital and important issue. The CPS works with victims groups through the Violence Against Women and Girls external consultation group and it also regularly engages with people at a local level. Last month, the CPS West Midlands chaired a meeting with independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advocates to discuss these issues. That forum meets four times a year to discuss casework with victims’ groups and specialist services.

Domestic Violence

The need to effectively tackle violence against women and girls has been brought into sharp relief, as the hon. Lady and this House knows, in recent days. I would like to reassure her that this Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice in this area, working to protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes.

In 2020, domestic abuse-related crime surged by 9%, but referrals to the CPS fell by 19%. We know that the CPS is under enormous pressure to clear the backlog caused by covid-19. Will the Attorney General commit to provide the necessary resources to ensure that all victims who report domestic abuse crimes receive the justice they deserve as swiftly as possible?

We will do everything we can to facilitate that. The reality, of course, is that the CPS can only deal with cases that are referred to it. That is an issue that needs to be addressed by the hon. Lady, but, as I have said, the Government have already introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, which is a landmark and generationally important. That is a signal, just one of many signals, of how important we consider this area to be, and the Crown Prosecution Service will continue to focus on it.

We know that domestic abuse complaints have rocketed during lockdown while prosecutions have collapsed. My constituents are concerned about that and are taking action with Charlotte Gerada and Kirsty Mellor, encouraging Portsmouth City Council to commit to the white ribbon pledge. What specific actions is the Attorney General taking to ensure that domestic abuse prosecutions do not follow the disastrous collapse of CPS rape prosecutions that we have seen in recent years?

I again point out that the number of rape prosecutions by the CPS has increased to 65% of all of those rape cases referred to it. That number is an increase on just under 50% some time ago. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point about domestic abuse. The Government are working on this area, as I have alluded to, with the Domestic Abuse Bill. There is also a call for evidence, which will inform our upcoming Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. That call for evidence has recently had tens of thousands of new people emailing and writing in. I encourage anyone listening to take part in that before it closes We will look at those responses very carefully and see what else we can do.

Covid-19: Backlog of Court Cases

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken by the CPS to tackle the increased backlog of cases before the courts as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (913663)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken by the CPS to tackle the increased backlog of cases before the courts as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (913667)

Notwithstanding the pandemic, the courts have continued to operate and the Crown Prosecution Service has continued to play its part in our justice system. I was very pleased to read the recently published report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate on the CPS’s response to the court backlogs in the light of covid. The report reflects the CPS’s hard work, and finds that over the pandemic it has maintained its ability to function well, and to continue to deliver its essential public services.

Will my hon. and learned Friend tell me what reassurance I can provide my constituents that the most serious cases are being prioritised, to ensure the protection of the public?

Ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice, and that the public are protected, is a priority of the Attorney General’s Office, of the CPS and of this Government. To achieve that, with the CPS working with the police, we introduced an interim charging protocol last year. The protocol prioritises the most important cases, and I am really pleased that those cases include high harm cases and those with vulnerable victims, such as rape and domestic abuse.

How can I reassure the people of Ashfield and Eastwood that victims of violence against women and girls will continue to receive justice in spite of delays caused by the backlog?

As I have mentioned, I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is vital that we continue to speedily prosecute those accused of violence against women and girls. I know that the Prime Minister shares that as a priority for our Government. We have put in place a number of measures to reduce the impact of delays on victims. Those include special measures allowing vulnerable victims and witnesses to pre-record their cross-examination ahead of the trial date, which were rolled out at all 82 of our Crown Courts by last November. That is just one of the measures we have taken to ensure the continued better operation of the system for our most vulnerable victims.

Court staff in London and Liverpool recently voted for strike action, and listening to evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union to the Justice Committee this week it is easy to understand why, when PCS members are having to improvise their own perspex screens to protect themselves from covid after managers said it was unaffordable. Does the Solicitor General appreciate how this cavalier approach to health and safety by management has left court staff scared, angry and prepared to take strike action?

I appreciate the amazing work that everyone in our justice system is doing on the frontline. As a former Prisons Minister, I recognise what prison officers are doing and I know that HMCTS has done a tremendous amount of work to make our courts safe. I pay tribute to all the work of court staff who are going in and allowing our justice system to continue. HMCTS has put in a number of measures, and my understanding is that it is no less safe to be working in a court than in any other environment.

Covid-19: Public Understanding of the Law

What steps he is taking to increase public understanding of the law during the covid-19 outbreak. (913664)

It is essential, particularly during this pandemic, to ensure that members of the public have a good understanding of the law. I am proud, therefore, that my Department supported Justice Week, which took place in the first week of March, and I am incredibly grateful to the many members of the legal sector who ran and contributed to online initiatives during that week. It makes me proud to be one of the Government’s pro bono champions.

As coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, are there practical ways in which my right hon. and learned Friend can help reduce the confusion between Welsh and English covid laws for my constituents in Clwyd South, on the border with England?

It is important, of course, that everyone around this United Kingdom, and especially my hon. Friend’s constituents in Clwyd South, understands and follows the law and guidance as regards the covid-19 regulations to keep the country safe. Through the information that is available on the website, and the Government’s advertising and announcements, the law in England has been made clear to the public. It is really important that the devolved Administration in Wales make their laws and guidance clear to people in Wales. The Government continue to seek a co-ordinated approach across the UK where appropriate.

I am now suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements for the start of the next business.

Sitting suspended.