House of Commons
Thursday 18 March 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Exports to EU: Art and Antiques
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Attorney General was asked—
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 gov.uk 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.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 22 March will include:
Monday 22 March—Consideration of Lords message relating to the Trade Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message relating to the Fire Safety Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of the chair of the Electoral Commission.
Tuesday 23 March—Second Reading of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill.
Wednesday 24 March—General debate on online anonymity and anonymous abuse, followed by general debate on support for the hospitality industry throughout the covid-19 pandemic. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 25 March—Motion to approve regulations relating to public health and motions under the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the renewal of temporary provisions, the one year status report and a motion relating to the extension of parliamentary proceedings during the pandemic.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 25 March the House will rise for the Easter recess and return on Tuesday 13 April.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 April will include:
Monday 12 April—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 13 April—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business.
On Monday, it will be the fourth anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer. Mr Speaker, I know that you will arrange for the flags to fly at half-mast.
There are various dates knocking around regarding the possible date of the Queen’s Speech. I do not know why the Leader of the House does not just come out and say it. Perhaps I can suggest a date—something like 11 May.
I note that the Leader of the House has arranged for the extension of the Coronavirus Act 2020. Could he be clear about exactly how long that debate will be? The other place is debating it for five hours. There was some query, Mr Speaker, about whether we could extend the time of the debate, and you told the Health Secretary that it could be longer than 90 minutes, so I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm that.
The motion is interesting. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether it is amendable? The shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), has suggested that there are some aspects of the Act that do not need to be renewed because they have not been used. For example, emergency powers to register nurses and social workers—not used; powers for the Home Secretary to vary the time for urgent warrants—not used; suspension of the requirement to hold inquests with a jury—not used. Can there be a chat about that after the statement later? We would be treating right hon. and hon. Members, and this House, with disrespect if we did not have a long opportunity to debate that motion.
It would be a pity to rush through it, especially because I know that the Leader of the House will join me in condemning the description of the Department of Health as a “smoking ruin” by the special special adviser who got a pay rise greater than the NHS nurses, who actually got a pay cut. That is a disgraceful thing to say about people who have worked extremely hard—flat out—during the pandemic. We know that the Government are finding it difficult to answer our questions, which is why we need an inquiry for those who have been bereaved by this terrible pandemic. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), have both met the bereaved. I do not know whether the Prime Minister has met the bereaved families. That is why we need an inquiry. If we are going to open up after 21 June, we need to know the lessons learned. Inquiries are very simple to set up now. I am pleased that the Council of Europe is reopening the inquiry into the Pat Finucane case; that will be important so that his family, including the hon. Member for Belfast North (John Finucane), can find the truth.
The Leader of the House will know that the Procedure Committee has been extremely assiduous and published its eighth report of this Session. I thank the Chair and all members of the Committee, some of whom do lots of different jobs at the same time. The Committee has called for all the temporary orders to be extended until 21 June. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether he agrees with that? There is a bizarre sentence at paragraph 26 that I do not understand, in which the Committee recommends that the House
“reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure.”
I am not sure when, or what exactly that means. Will the Leader of the House clarify the Government’s position on that?
The Prime Minister promised the fishermen an El Dorado. I wonder whether he knows that that is a mythical city. Perhaps he was talking about the bit where they covered themselves in gold. Either way, tell that to the Jersey fishermen who blockaded the port in protest; they are desperate. It is more desperado than El Dorado. The Office for National Statistics says that there was a drop of 83% in fish exports in January, and that UK goods exported to the EU have fallen by 40% and imports by 28%. These are not covid-related falls, because there are no similar shifts in non-EU countries. We need a statement from the Secretary of State for International Trade, and we need her to publish the impact assessment on the EU trade deal, as the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), has called for. The Secretary of State is publishing all the minor deals, but not the main one.
We also need the Foreign Secretary to come to the Chamber to explain why his private comments are different from his public comments. It appears that the Government are allegedly pursuing an unethical foreign policy. He wants to do deals with countries that do not care about their people—for example, Myanmar. I am sure that the Leader of the House will have been shocked by the image of a nun standing in front of the army there, pleading with them not to shoot at the protesters; 90 people have died. There is no point just having sanctions against a few generals. We want them against all the generals. I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen pictures of the Myanmar Parliament, but members sit there in a block, unaccountable—sometimes not even moving.
How we cheered when the tags came off Nazanin. But it is a farce that she had to go back to court again. And there is nothing about Anousheh and the other innocent people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has asked me to raise the case of Luke Symons. His parents and his granddad Bob want to know what is going on. We need to indulge in more diplomacy, and we have an ally in the President of the United States.
Finally, Sunday is international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. It is also World Poetry Day, but that is not an invitation to the Leader of the House to respond to me in verse.
Mr Speaker, my verse gets worse and worse.
I thank the right hon. Lady for reminding us that it is the fourth anniversary of the death of PC Palmer, who died in the service of the House. We keep his soul and his family in our prayers. He is a model of public service, of courage and of the type of policing of which this country is so fortunate, in the general rule of things, to be a real example—of police who are of their community and for their community, and who, unarmed, face unknown risks. We continue to mourn and commemorate him.
The right hon. Lady asks when the new Parliament will be. That will, of course, be announced in the normal course of events, as she knows perfectly well. It is one of those things that she has to ask me and I have to give the same answer every week, and we will no doubt carry on doing that for some time. [Interruption.] There is a little bit of electronic interference coming in—I do not know where that is coming from.
The debate on Thursday the 25th will be an all-day debate. Obviously, that will be subject to statements and urgent questions, but other than that we will be debating this very important issue throughout the whole day. It is obviously right, as the right hon. Lady says, that it should be properly debated. The reason why it is important to extend the Coronavirus Act 2020 is that the furlough scheme will be going on for the whole of the six months. The basis for the furlough scheme is the Coronavirus Act, which provides for only six-month extensions, but that is something that it will be doing throughout that period. As other things wax and wane, the Government have already announced that one thing will continue during that period, so the Act is needed.
May I put in a word in defence of Dominic Cummings? He is an excellent public servant who has done a great deal for this country, and he worked with a pay cut when he was first appointed. He took £40,000 less than he was entitled to, and then his pay reverted to its normal level. I am not sure that many other people working in the public sector take that level of pay cut, and I think that shows his commitment to the public service. He did a great deal for this country, not least through his energetic and effective campaigning in the Brexit referendum, but also in providing energy for Her Majesty’s Government. He is an important figure. His evidence was interesting, though it was not evidence that one agrees with in its entirety. I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has done an absolutely fantastic job over the past year and is an example of how politicians ought to behave and, perhaps most importantly, to lead Departments.
As for an inquiry, as has been said by Professor Van-Tam, the time for that will be when the pandemic has ended. The worst thing to do now would be to interrupt the enormous amount of work being done in dealing with the pandemic by having an inquiry, but of course it will be looked into in due course.
Her Majesty’s Government will reply to the Procedure Committee in accordance with the Osmotherly rules, which, as is well known, is how replies are made. As I have said before on the Floor of the House, when we asked people to give consensus, to accept, that we had to have these extraordinary measures, it was on the basis that they were temporary. If it were to be the will of the House to adopt some things permanently, it may wish to do so, but we must go back to normal first and then decide what we wish to implement. Otherwise, we would have got the consensus by cheat, and I am not in favour of cheating.
As regards support for fishermen, there has been a £23 million exceptional fund provided immediately and £100 million for them to improve their fleets over coming years, so there is support for fishermen. Maintaining more access to our own waters is going to be a benefit, though I do not think I ever called it an Eldorado; I am not sure that that is a phrase I have used.
The Foreign Secretary’s comments were shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism. It is a cheat that journalists sometimes use of editing text or a recording. It was done to Roger Scruton by the New Statesman, and it has now been done to the Foreign Secretary. It is a very cheap level of journalism, and it is not a proper way to behave. He was absolutely clear that there are behaviours that mean we cannot trade with people—he said that—if only people had bothered not to clip the recording unfairly, improperly and, broadly, dishonestly. We should look at that type of poor-quality online journalism. It is not the sort of thing that would happen in The Times.
I have so much sympathy with what the right hon. Lady says every week about Nazanin, Anousheh and Luke Symons. They are being worked for by the Foreign Office in ways that it can; Luke Symons’s case is particularly difficult, obviously. The Prime Minister spoke to the President of Iran recently about Nazanin. There is no excuse for the Iranian Government holding her. She ought to be released. These trumped-up charges are improper and wrong, and they reflect on a regime that does not acknowledge the rule of law. We should make it clear that the fault lies with the Iranian Government, not with Her Majesty’s Government.
I look forward to receiving my right hon. Friend’s response to my Committee’s report. Mr Speaker, I am sure that you have many constituents, as I do, who are looking forward to being able to get married. The news in the road map that they can get married from 12 April has brought joy to so many, but due to what I would describe as an anomaly in the guidelines, it appears that they could legally get married from 12 April in a gymnasium, a hairdresser or even walking down the aisle of a supermarket, but not in a dedicated wedding venue. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the important role that the wedding sector plays and how it has been devastated by covid, and will he use his good offices to encourage his ministerial colleagues to deal with this anomaly as soon as possible?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, which she raised in a point of order yesterday. I have the greatest sympathy for wedding organisers, including those in my constituency. It has been an incredibly difficult time for them—more difficult than for many other forms of business. However, the Government’s road map set out that at step 2, weddings, receptions and commemorative events will be able to take place with up to 15 guests in premises that are allowed to open—that is the clear point: premises that are allowed to open. This means that at step 2, no earlier than 12 April, weddings may take place in premises that are permitted to open or where a broader exemption applies, such as places of worship or hotel function suites. Wedding receptions can take place outdoors only, and there has been no change in that plan. The Paymaster General has committed to ensure that any further clarity that Public Health England can provide on this matter is put on the parliamentary intranet covid hub for all Members to see, and it may be debated on 25 March in accordance with all the other regulations, so I hope that my right hon Friend will raise it then.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) again sends his apologies and hopes to be able to resume his duties in this place as soon as possible.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday on the urgent need to address everyday racism. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a voluntary trustee of White Ribbon Scotland. Does the Leader of the House agree that groups such as White Ribbon, which are directly addressing men’s attitudes to women and men’s violence against women, could make a massive difference in tackling those issues? Will he arrange for Government time in which we can further consider that topic and the role that groups such as White Ribbon can play in moving us forward?
I welcomed the news last week that music streaming service Spotify now includes Scots on its list of languages. I have tabled early-day motion 1592.
[That this House welcomes Spotify’s lang-owerdue deceesion tae add Scots as yin o its kent leids (welcomes Spotify’s long-overdue decision to add Scots as one of its recognised languages); congratulates singer Iona Fyfe for leading the public campaign for that music giant to make that change; recognises that Scots is one of Scotland’s three traditional national languages alongside English and Gaelic, with more than 1.5 million speakers and official recognition under the European Charter for Minority Languages; asserts that recognising a language’s existence on large platforms such as Spotify is the first step towards acceptance and empowerment of its speakers; and thanks all those working to lift up the Scots language as well as welcoming Government efforts to promote and protect that language.]
I attempted to table it in Scots, but the rules of this place did not allow that. I thank those in the Table Office for their engagement on that matter and the way in which it was dealt with. Yesterday the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) attempted to wish everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day in both Welsh and Irish, but understandably that is not allowed. Might the Leader of the House have some time arranged so that we could consider how the indigenous languages of these islands could perhaps be more incorporated into the business that we undertake so that we can all best reflect all the communities that we represent?
In recent weeks, I have, on a number of occasions, raised concerns around and highlighted issues of transparency and contracts. I have also highlighted my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, to give that another plug. I was certainly reassured by the comments by the Leader of the House in saying that he is taking this very seriously. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is committed to cutting and tackling corruption. I was, however, slightly surprised to see that others in Government seem to have taken his comments on cutting corruption quite literally by cutting funding to tackle corruption internationally. This is going in the opposite direction that we need to be going in. Could we have a debate in Government time to consider the global impact of these actions and the damage that they could cause to our democracy as a result?
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s questions, which are particularly thoughtful. I think I can wish him a happy birthday for earlier this week. It seems that there is a flood of birthdays on the SNP Benches, with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) being a birthday celebrant the week before.
On the corruption issue, my previous career was in emerging markets investment, and it was quite clear that the countries that do best and prosper most are those that are the least corrupt. Rooting out corruption is in the interests of all countries. It should always be at the forefront of their minds if they want to succeed and raise the standard of living of their people. This country has a proud record of avoiding corruption. It is absolutely fascinating how, in the 18th century, we were still quite a corrupt country, but by the middle of the 19th century we had set a standard for honesty that has remained ever since. We should be proud of that. I think it is very easy to defend the procurement that has gone on because it was urgent and it was fairly done. Contracts were awarded, broadly, so that we went from 1% of PPE being produced domestically to 70%, as well as the phenomenal success of the vaccine roll-out. Governments have to be fleet of foot, and bureaucracy is not always the antidote to corruption. Indeed, bureaucracy itself can sometimes be the cause of corruption.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s pleasure that Spotify is recognising the Scots language. In terms of what is orderly in this Chamber, I would be very diffident about treading on your distinguished toes, Mr Speaker, except to remind people, which I do not think is treading on your toes, that modest quotation in foreign languages is permissible. I know that some hon. and right hon. Members occasionally use Latin quips, and that is perfectly allowable, as are Welsh quips and Scots quotations, but not full speeches. I think that is reasonable, because we do not have the facilities for simultaneous translation in this House, and their cost would probably be disproportionate. It is very welcome when people give a joyful message in Scots, in Welsh or in Irish, but it would be difficult for the House to have full speeches.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations to voluntary groups that help to change and improve attitudes, whether that is against everyday racism or against behaviour towards women that is damaging and unhelpful to society. I so agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said—that we need cultural change. That is what we are doing in this place with the work of the independent complaints and grievance scheme. But ultimately it is not going to be about enforcement or rules, although they have their place, but about getting people to understand that the right form of behaviour may be different from what they have grown up to believe. It is about changing attitudes much more than punishing people.
I did feel my toes a little stood on, I must admit; I felt the trampling of the Leader of the House. A quip is one thing, but starting off in one language and switching to another language in a question, not knowing when it will end, does give the Chair a problem. If the Chair had been notified, it would not have been a difficulty; it was the fact that we had two languages before we knew how the full question was going to continue. So I think there is a difference between a quip and a question being asked.
If it is acceptable, I shall ask my question in English. May I ask the Leader of the House where he has got to on my recent request for a debate in Parliament on the disastrous Operation Midland? And I do know that he will be disappointed that I am not asking him about when the city status competition will be launched and Southend can at last become a city. Perhaps we will leave that to another occasion.
I think it should be policy in this House that every question makes a reference to Southend being made a city, so that the report that is sent daily to the Palace can include this for Her Majesty’s consideration, should our sovereign wish to issue the relevant letters patent.
As regards Operation Midland, as I said to my hon. Friend before, I think an Adjournment debate or a Backbench business debate would be a sensible thing to apply for, akthough we all recoil at the treatment of Lord Brittan and of his widow later on—of a dying man and of a grieving widow. This treatment was appalling and we do expect that people are held to account when they behave badly. This House is here to receive redress of grievance when things go wrong.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, and I take it a Geordie accent is acceptable. Can I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench business for next Wednesday? I was wondering if he could give us an insight into the Government’s plans for the continuation of Westminster Hall-style proceedings beyond the Easter recess, as the Committee next week would like to nominate debate subject topics for immediately after the Easter recess and the sponsors of those potential debates will want to know, in a timely way, too.
Mr Speaker, you will be too young to remember this, but 48 years ago, in response to dreadful Dutch elm disease, we were all encouraged to “Plant a Tree in ’73”. Do the Government have any significant plans to commemorate that campaign 50 years on with an additional national campaign for all of us to engage in to help to tackle climate change and plant a tree or trees in 2023?
The plans for Westminster Hall will be brought forward in the motion for our general proceedings and will extend the current proceedings to 21 June. That is the current expectation. As for planting trees, Her Majesty’s Government have enormously ambitious plans for thousands and thousands of acres to be planted with trees. I think we can all involve ourselves in that by planting trees as well and encouraging others to plant trees. It can be a truly national effort.
Merci à vous, Monsieur Speaker. I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree with me that we have all spent far too much time away from the Palace this year, so will he please update us on the restoration and renewal programme to secure the future of this extraordinary building, but also on tackling the questions around fire safety of the building?
My hon. Friend raises a key question. The strategic review has taken place, but the fire safety work has been a real achievement of the existing Palace authorities. I have some fantastic figures for the House about what has been done to ensure that the risk to life is minimised and the protection of the building is maximised: 7,112 automatic fire detection devices have been put in; 5,949 emergency lights have been put in—one of them outside the Chief Whip’s office, so when he comes out and you see a halo, that is because of our fire safety lights; 3,329 voice alarm sounders; 1,869 new fire safety signs; 1,364 locations for fire-stopping compartmentation; 4,126 sprinkler heads in the basement of the Palace and, amazingly, eight miles of pipe for a new sprinkler system in the basement. I am really reassured by this that the safety of this Palace is so much greater even before R and R has started. When R and R is happening, this is crucial because the highest risk of fire is very often when builders are renovating premises.
Despite the heroic efforts of schools and their staff, children and young people have had to adapt to enormous change and challenge over the last year, often chopping and changing circumstances with little notice or preparation, and I truly believe that we underestimate the impact on their short and long-term mental wellbeing at our peril. Today’s National Audit Office report on the Department for Education’s covid response reads like a litany of failure, with no plan for our children or their education in place until June. The Government now have plans for pupils to get up to speed with their studies, but can I urge the Government to show more ambition in stemming the damage this last year may have caused to our children’s wellbeing? Given that we know the effect of wellbeing on performance at school, the two must go hand in hand. Can we therefore have a debate in Government time on how we make children’s wellbeing a fundamental part of the recovery?
The Government’s record on schooling is actually extremely good. There is a £1.7 billion covid catch-up fund for enhanced support and targeted tutoring, and Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed the education recovery commissioner to oversee our long-term plans to ensure pupils can make up any lost learning over the course of this Parliament. Schools have been a priority during the whole of the pandemic to keep them open as much as possible, because the Government recognise the importance of education. Getting back to normal and helping pupils get back to normal—providing additional funding and distributing many hundreds of thousands of computers to schoolchildren, plus the 57 million lateral flow test kits that have been delivered to schools and colleges as part of ensuring schools are really safe now—has been fundamentally important.
Workers at the LIBERTY steel company are really afraid for their jobs; 5,000 staff and others in the supply chain across the country need help. Can we please have a statement from the Business Secretary outlining what action the Government are taking to support these hard-working families and, after contact with the company and the trade unions, to stand behind the refinancing of the business? The Government accept this is a strategic industry that is crucial for our future growth. Parliament and my constituents at the LIBERTY plant in Tredegar need to hear exactly what the Government’s plans are.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point and I think everyone shares his concern for people working in the steel industry, but particularly in the Trinity Steel plant. The Government are following these developments extremely closely and are going to remain involved in looking at what is happening. The Secretary of State co-chaired the UK Steel Council on 5 March and met interested MPs on 15 March to have an update on developments. My noble Friend Lord Grimstone also met the sector and co-chaired the steel procurement taskforce on 12 March. I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s question with the Secretary of State so that he is informed of the concern within the House. The Government have helped the steel industry with the £500 million in relief for the steel sector since 2013 in relation to electricity costs, but this is an important issue and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire for further information.
I was first elected as a councillor to the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea, so I am glad to hear that it is moving towards becoming a city. I am also delighted—I give the Government great credit for this—that the Government are pushing ahead with the elections on 6 May, when we are going to have local elections, police and crime commissioner elections and now a parliamentary election, and are allowing campaigning to be carried out during the period up to those elections. That is the cornerstone of our democracy and the Government should be credited. However, the regulator of those elections is the Electoral Commission, which is inefficient, arrogant and politically corrupt. It is not fit for purpose, so could we have a debate in Government time about a new regulator that would be acceptable to people of all political persuasions?
Serious concerns have been raised about the Electoral Commission, not least by my hon. Friend and, as he knows, I was very concerned about some of the points he raised when this was last debated on the Floor of the House. With a modicum of ingenuity and with a benign Speaker or Deputy in the Chair, there is a debate on Monday on a motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which being a motion under an Act lasts for up to 90 minutes, where I think my hon. Friend may be able to say a few words of this kind. I have a feeling that I may be responding to that debate, so I may well say a few words in response.
Following the Home Secretary’s announcement that the elections for Mayors and police and crime commissioners will return to being first past the post, will the Government publish the assessments of which political party will benefit and any correspondence they received from Mayors and PCCs, to demonstrate to the public that this is not just about party politics, but properly leads to better democracy and more accountability?
Everyone knows that first past the post is better for democracy because the most popular candidate wins, rather than the one that nobody much likes but cannot be too bothered about. Dare I say that it is the party that is so good at losing elections that most wants to change the system.
This House has legislated to spend 0.7% of our GDP to support the world’s poorest. The Leader of the House is a great parliamentarian, so does he agree that any change can be made only once there has been a vote in this House? Will he indicate when such a vote might take place?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for this question. I participated in the passage of that piece of legislation, which sets out very clearly what happens in the event of the 0.7% target not being met; it requires the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House. That is the proper parliamentary procedure and it has been laid down in statute, and that is what will happen on occasions when the 0.7% target is not met. That is quite proper, but it does not require any vote beyond that. None the less, even at a slightly lower level, the UK will remain a world-leading donor, spending more than £10 billion of taxpayers’ money on overseas development aid this year.
Later this year, England will be hosting the rugby league world cup, including the first ever physical disability rugby league world cup, in Warrington. Can the Leader of the House arrange for a debate, in Government time, on the rugby league world cup, including its social, community and tourism benefits, to allow us to give this much-loved sport the support we can to ensure the success of the event after a really difficult year?
Mr Speaker, you have given me a very clear steer on how I should answer the question. Just in case our eagle-eared friends from Hansard did not pick it up, Mr Speaker said, “Nothing more important.” Having trodden on his toes earlier, I now need to untread on his toes by saying that Mr Speaker is absolutely right, as is the hon. Lady. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but a great event is going to be taking place, she is right to highlight the disability angle as well and we should do everything we can to promote it. As I have said before, I follow cricket more closely, but she has even encouraged me to make sure that I watch some rugby when this world cup is taking place.
Many of my constituents who currently find themselves in unsaleable flats owing to fire safety concerns would like to let their properties so that they can purchase a second, larger property, suitable for a family, but they are anxious about doing so in case their fire safety issue cannot be resolved within three years and they are not able to reclaim the additional home stamp duty surcharge. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on whether Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will consider such circumstances as exceptional and extend the three-year time frame in which additional home stamp duty surcharge can be reclaimed if the purchaser can demonstrate that they cannot sell their first property owing to issues with cladding and fire safety defects? As the Chancellor will be aware, such circumstances are outside the control of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, not only in the Hendon constituency, but across the country, due to no fault of their own?
I can broadly answer my hon. Friend’s question. If, because of exceptional circumstances beyond the person’s control, they are unable to sell their previous home within three years of buying their new one, a refund of the higher rates on additional dwellings can also be claimed, as long as the property is sold as soon as possible after those exceptional circumstances have ended. Where a person is not permitted to sell their property and, as a result, misses the three-year period, that would be considered to be an exceptional circumstance, and this may include properties that are not allowed to be sold owing to fire safety issues. HMRC will consider each individual case on its own merits but, obviously, there will be a broad category that my hon. Friend points to and therefore I think there is some comfort for him in HMRC’s position.
Rape prosecutions are at their lowest ever recorded level, while only one in seven victims has any faith in the criminal justice system. I am going on Government figures, not figures from anywhere else. Given that, may we have a debate in Government time on rape and the criminal justice system?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extraordinarily difficult point that has troubled many Governments for many years. The cornerstone of our justice system is that somebody is innocent until proved guilty, and that must always remain the case, but we have to ensure that accusations of rape are investigated thoroughly and prosecutions are brought effectively and efficiently. That must be a priority for the prosecution services and, indeed, for the police.
My local council is Labour-led, and it is using places in my constituency such as Yarm, Kirklevington, Eaglescliffe and Hartburn as cash cows, packing, stacking and racking hundreds of homes in our precious green spaces along already heavily congested roads, with little care for the impact on local people’s lives and while failing to develop brownfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend grant me a debate on irresponsible development on greenfield sites?
The incompetence of socialist councils knows no bounds. Their inability to run things properly or to have a concern for residents is legion, and we must try to defeat them at the ballot box so that we can have good Conservative councils that do things properly. None the less, there is a need for houses to be built, and it is an essential priority for this Government. We need to ensure that young people are able to get on the housing ladder, and we can do that only with a good supply of housing. Where it is put is primarily a matter for local councils, and local councils are subject, of course, to local electorates, so I would encourage local electorates to vote Conservative.
It is absolutely right that, as we emerge from this pandemic, we need to learn lessons. In particular, we need to understand the reasons for the UK’s “high and unequal” covid death toll, as described by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. I sense that, in responding to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made on this issue, the Leader of the House was wanting to kick it into the long grass. An inquiry may not be in the interests of the Government, but it is most certainly in the interests of the country, so will he schedule, in Government time, a debate to help define the scope of an independent public inquiry into this pandemic?
I completely understand why the hon. Lady raises that point. It is an extremely fair one. It is not trying to run away from looking into what has happened, and indeed Select Committees of this House are completely entitled to be carrying out inquiries now, but it is sensible to use people’s time most effectively. The pandemic is still going on—the vaccine roll-out is still going on; Test and Trace is still a most enormous scheme being rolled out as we speak—and I think carrying out the inquiry in the midst of the pandemic would be a mistake. That is not an effort to delay; it is merely an effort to be realistic.
In 2019, Stanley Park was voted the best park in the UK, being described as a
“beautiful, tranquil place away from the hustle and bustle of the Blackpool seafront”.
During the pandemic, we have learned how important open outdoor space is, not just for social distancing but for health and wellbeing. Despite this, my local authority is looking to build on Stanley Park, reducing the already limited green space in Blackpool by around 20%. Will my right hon. Friend look to hold a debate in Government time to discuss the importance of parks in towns and cities and how they can best be protected?
My hon. Friend is right to praise the value of parks and open spaces. Who was it who called the parks—our great royal parks—the “lungs of London”? Was it Pitt the Elder? It may have been; I cannot remember. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not here, because he would be bound to know.
We have seen during the covid-19 pandemic how important access to parks and green spaces is to local communities. Green spaces help health, wellbeing, integration and social engagement. As I understand it, Stanley Park is itself listed and is one of England’s parks of special historic interest, owing to its art deco design. It is important that local authorities build new developments with the consent of local residents and that they build beautifully. That should be a real theme. It always strikes me that, under current planning rules, it is most unlikely that the Royal Crescent at Bath would be built. We have an obsession with building things that are not beautiful. We want to build things that are beautiful, and then, where they are located will become a matter of pride rather than of disappointment. However, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), we cannot forget that new housing must be built.
Betting firm Football Index is now in administration, with its licence suspended by the Gambling Commission amid reports that the firm operated like a pyramid scheme and had been admonished by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2019 for creating the impression that the product was a lucrative investment opportunity. Clearly, concerns over how Football Index was raising money have been ongoing, and this has raised serious questions about how fit for purpose the Gambling Commission is, having licensed the platform. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on what can be learned from this episode and what more can be done to ensure that regulation of the betting industry is fit for purpose to protect consumers who collectively have £98 million trapped in Football Index, and will he support a public inquiry into this scandal?
The hon. Lady raises a matter of concern across the House, as is gambling more generally and the right approach to regulating gambling. I suggest that she raise this with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which would be able to look into it, and I, in turn, will raise it with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and get her a fuller answer because it is a matter of concern across the House.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As chairman of the all-party group on cats, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we can have a debate in Government time to look into the encouragement of pet-friendly tenancies?
Indeed, allegedly, some people even keep tarantulas, though I do not believe that that particular right hon. Friend of mine is resident or has been resident in the House. Pets play a very important role in people’s lives and create great happiness. As has often been said in politics, “If you want to have a friend, buy a dog”, though I am sure that is not true for many right hon. and hon. Members. The Minister for Housing revised the national model tenancy agreement this January, making it easier for tenants with pets to find private landlords who will accept them. The key change was to remove restrictions on responsible tenants with pets, encouraging landlords to offer greater flexibility in their approach to pet ownership. A private landlord ought to accept a request from a tenant to keep pets where the landlord is satisfied that the tenant is a responsible pet owner and when the pet is suitable in relation to the nature of the premises at which it will be kept. This aims to strike the right balance between protecting private landlords from situations where their properties are damaged by badly behaved pets while ensuring that responsible pet-owning tenants are not unfairly penalised. I hope that helps my hon. Friend.
Parliament needs to really do its job and take stock of the coronavirus legislation. Many will be surprised to learn that only 17 of the 398 statutory instruments made were under the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is estimated that Parliament needs at least two full days to scrutinise the Act. Will the Leader of the House please respect parliamentary scrutiny and ensure that Parliament has at least two full days to scrutinise it?
I think that there has been a great deal of scrutiny in this House throughout the pandemic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has made very frequent statements, and he is making another one shortly after I have finished today. We will allow a full day for the debate on Thursday, rather than the hour and a half that is the requirement for SIs under a Bill. So I think the amount of scrutiny that is being allowed is reasonable and that it will allow people to participate fully and raise all the points that they need to raise.
On 2 June 2018, a 17-year-old boy called Tavis Spencer-Aitkens was brutally murdered in my constituency. In April 2019, five people were sentenced: four for murder and one for manslaughter. Since then, every single one of them has posted on social media from behind bars, and a couple of them more than once. One of the quotes from one was:
“Five years left, light work”.
This has caused immense distress to the family and friends of Tavis. It is clear that the current in-house, slap-on-the-wrist approach is not providing a significant enough deterrent. We need to look at changing sentencing and eliminating any possibility of early release. Would my right hon Friend consider a debate in Government time on this vital issue?
What my hon. Friend reports is deeply troubling and so horribly sad for Tavis’s family. It must just so much rub salt into the wound. The Government take unauthorised communication through social media and its impact on victims and families seriously. Reducing crime in prisons remains a key priority. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service works closely with law enforcement agencies, so that crimes committed in prison are dealt with effectively.
We continue to roll out our £100 million spending programme on prisons and security during the covid-19 pandemic. That is funding mobile phone blocking technologies and portable detection equipment. We have also spent taxpayers’ money on next-generation X-ray body scanners to find contraband internally concealed by prisoners, and enhanced routine searching capability of staff and visitors at priority sites. In 2019, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service’s digital media investigations unit worked with social media companies to remove nearly 400 illegal posts and accounts. In 2020, the DMIU has successfully removed 220 posts and accounts as of 30 June 2020. I understand that will not be much comfort to Tavis’s family, but at least something is being done, though I accept that more needs to be done.
My constituent lost his job, and 16 weeks later he is still waiting for his first universal credit payment. Does the Leader of the House accept that is unacceptable, and will he commit to holding a debate in Government time on the delays to processing universal credit?
The universal credit roll-out has been a remarkable success during the pandemic with, I think, 91% of claims being processed extremely quickly and the majority paid within three days. That does not mean that there will not be occasional errors. While 91% is a high success rate, it means that 9% did not meet that. There was also the £20 a week uplift. The hon. Lady is right to raise individual cases of this kind in the House. That is how we seek redress of grievance and it is what we are here for. If there are individual cases that have not been answered satisfactorily by the Department for Work and Pensions, my office is more than willing to help hon. and right hon. Members to seek redress of grievance.
Next week is the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh attaining its independence from Pakistan at the end of a very bloody civil war. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing all Bangladeshis, wherever they reside now, a very happy Independence Day? Will he arrange for a debate or a statement on UK-Bangladeshi relations, so that we can all join with the Bangladeshi community in celebrating this joyous occasion?
The UK and Bangladesh share a close relationship based on strong historical and people-to-people links. We continue to work closely together on our shared interests, including security, development, climate, trade and the Rohingya crisis. We are working closely with the Government of Bangladesh to mark Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh-UK relations, including on 26 March 2021.
The UK was one of the first countries in the world to recognise an independent Bangladesh after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was received by the former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, in Downing Street on 8 January 1972. We look forward to the fourth UK-Bangladesh strategic dialogue, which is to take place in London later this year, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a good thing to celebrate, and to celebrate an independence day that is not independence from us, which is perhaps a rare treat.
Today the Government announced that plug-in grants for the purchase of new electric vehicles will be slashed again from £3,000 to £2,500; this is after they were cut from £3,500 to £3,000 last year. I know that the Leader of the House is very fond of his old Bentley, but the Government are meant to be committed to a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. At the moment, new EVs are simply not affordable for many people. Can we have a statement, so that we can ask Ministers in the House why the Government’s policy on this seems to be going in completely the wrong direction?
The answer is that there is a limit to taxpayers’ money, and that as more electric vehicles are produced, so they become more efficient and so the price falls. This is the natural economic process, and it is one that will be mainly led by the private sector. This is how we have got the innovation so far, through the private sector producing these remarkable vehicles. We managed to switch from the horse and cart to the internal combustion engine without large Government subsidies. A little bit of Government help is right, but it cannot be excessive because the taxpayer cannot afford it.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to make a point of order in relation to what the Leader of the House said earlier. He may have inadvertently misled the House when he used words like “cheat” and “editing a recording” about something that I raised in relation to the Foreign Secretary. I have had this statement from the journalist in question and from the Huffington Post:
“We did not edit any recording passed to us and quoted it in full.”
Could I have your guidance on what the Leader of the House could do? If the Leader of the House is not prepared to repeat what he said outside, he must withdraw it and apologise now; otherwise, he is casting aspersions on the integrity of a journalist. Could I have your guidance please, Mr Speaker?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Foreign Office has made it clear, and has said:
“We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the Foreign Secretary’s comments. As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights. In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”
“We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped”.
If the journalist did not clip it himself, he ought to have known it was clipped. He is either a knave or a fool.
Independent Review of Administrative Law
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the independent review of administrative law.
In our democracy, judicial review plays a vital role in upholding the rule of law: it acts as one of the checks on the power of the Executive. Importantly, as the noble and learned Baroness Hale put it in her submission to the review panel,
“In the vast majority of cases, Judicial Review is the servant of Parliament”.
Through judicial review, the courts ensure that the powers that Parliament grants are not used in ways that exceed the limits imposed on those powers, and are not used in ways that are contrary to Parliament’s intentions. The purpose of judicial review is not to question the merits of any decisions made under those powers; rather, it is to ensure that the decision was made lawfully. The jurisdiction of the courts is therefore meant to be supervisory only.
Last year, I launched an independent review of administrative law to examine trends in judicial review. I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking the panel, chaired by the noble and learned Lord Faulks, for its diligence in producing such an excellent report, copies of which I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses. It was quite an undertaking, conducted in this time of covid. The panel ran a call for evidence, which elicited many valuable contributions from a diverse range of interested parties.
The report’s finding—that there is a growing willingness to accept an expansion of the remit of judicial review, whether in terms of more decisions being considered justiciable, or the way in which the courts review an exercise of power and the remedies given—is worrying. I am sure that the House will agree with me that the recommendations in the panel’s report about how we can restore a more sensible balance of responsibilities between Parliament and the courts are clear, practical and achievable.
The Government are consulting on a range of policy proposals, but there are two recommendations in particular from the report that we are keen to take forward as soon as possible. First, we will follow the review’s recommendation to legislate to remove a type of judicial review known as the Cart judicial review, after the Supreme Court case of that name.
The issue is that, even though decisions of the upper tribunal are supposed to be of the same status as those of the High Court, the Cart judicial review route allows someone to challenge certain upper tribunal decisions by applying to the High Court for permission for judicial review of the upper tribunal’s decision, and potentially onward to the Court of Appeal should the High Court refuse permission, as in fact it does in the vast majority of cases.
In such an appeal, the Court of Appeal is essentially asked whether it thinks that the proposed appeal against the High Court’s refusal to grant permission to judicially review the upper tribunal’s refusal to grant permission to appeal the first tier tribunal’s decision should be allowed. That—eloquently, perhaps—outlines the essence of the problem: we say that there are simply too many layers and too many otiose proceedings that do not serve the interests of justice.
The review analysis found that out of 5,502 Cart judicial reviews brought between 2012 and 2019, only 0.22% were successful. That is an astonishingly low rate. Given that each and every one of those cases required detailed consideration by judges, I agree with the panel that a huge amount of judicial resource is being used to rectify a vanishingly small number of errors. The proposed reform will place the decisions of the upper tribunal and the High Court on an equal footing, and we will bolster the current array of remedies available to the courts so that issues can be resolved in a collaborative way.
I agree with the panel that the courts should have the ability to suspend quashing orders and to mandate a time by which any administrative oversight should be corrected. I will accept that recommendation and would like to consider how it should be implemented and whether suspended quashing orders should be presumed to apply or mandatory.
The steps recommended by the panel are an excellent starting point for rebalancing our system, but the Government would like to go further to protect the judiciary from unwanted political entanglements and restore trust in the judicial review process. As the House will see, the report contains a detailed analysis of judicial review and how it operates in practice, and we are at the right juncture to take a closer look. Today, I want to open up a public debate on the role of judicial review within our wider constitutional arrangements by launching a consultation on further proposals to examine the use of ouster clauses, the remedies available in judicial review proceedings, and further procedural reform.
It is self-evidently open to Parliament to delineate the role of the courts in controlling any particular power because, of course, Parliament is sovereign. Parliament can do this by passing an ouster clause—a considered choice that certain subjects are not appropriate for judicial control. For example, in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, Parliament provided that reports of the Boundary Commission are not subject to judicial review. Unfortunately, the current practice on ouster clauses—not giving them effect—arguably goes against the intention of Parliament, so we are considering putting in place a set of rules that clearly delineate which issues are a matter for the courts to adjudicate through judicial review and which are not. For that reason, the Government want to consider the workings of ouster clauses and find a way for them to be used more effectively and in the way intended by Parliament.
The consultation proposes the introduction of prospective-only remedies, which would limit the retrospective effect of any quashed decision or action. That would complement the use of suspended quashing orders and could result in more considered resolutions. Instead of the sledgehammer of remedies that demand immediate resolution and lead to rushed policy, I want to create a system that encourages solutions to be found through political will rather than legal dispute, so that policy making as an exercise can be much more collaborative and better informed.
The consultation will therefore consider three things: first, whether to give judges discretion in providing for prospective-only remedies; secondly, whether prospective-only remedies should be presumed to apply in all challenges against statutory instruments; and finally, whether all remedies granted when challenging statutory instruments must be prospective-only unless it is a matter of exceptional public interest for them not to be.
As part of this work, to make such remedies effective I am bringing forward proposals for reforms to the doctrine on nullity. The consultation will also consider whether to recommend to the civil procedure rule committee that it considers a range of procedural reforms to improve the efficiency of the administration of judicial review claims.
As Lord Chancellor, my role is to uphold the rule of law and defend the judiciary. The Government want to seize the opportunity to do just that by restoring a proper balance between the institutions that have been so integral to our success as a nation in protecting the rights of individuals and our vital national security, and effective government itself. We are determined to ensure that judicial review—this vital check on Executive power—is maintained for future generations and that the process is finely tuned within our constitutional arrangements, to enable it to be a true conduit for fairness in our society. I commend this statement to the House.
May I begin by thanking the panel for their work? We will study the proposals carefully and note the announcement of further consultation. We would like to see all submissions to the consultations published; can the Secretary of State confirm whether he will do that? I also note that, as feared, the Government are considering making certain decisions of Parliament beyond the reach of judicial review. I note that the independent review of administrative law considered that it would be a serious disadvantage to enable Parliament to oust JR by altering the statutory code. Can he confirm whether that is in fact his intention, and if so, why he has taken the step of ignoring the concerns of his own review?
The Government should exercise extreme caution in expanding the use of ouster clauses to prevent the Executive from being challenged in the courts. That is a fundamental right, and this is particularly worrying, given the Government’s disdain for parliamentary scrutiny and No. 10’s history of hoarding powers.
In my 20 years in this House I have never encountered a Government more disdainful of our rights, freedoms and rule of law than this one. One of the Prime Minister’s first actions was to unlawfully prorogue the House; after he was re-elected, he sent his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland out to boast about how the Government would break international law in a specific and limited way; and on Tuesday we saw the Government launch an unprecedented attack on the British public’s freedom to protest. At each of these moments the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has chosen to stay silent, ignoring his special duty to uphold the rule of law.
Judicial review is the only mechanism by which members of the public can challenge the Government and public bodies when they break the law. In recent months, we have seen how important that is. It was a judicial review that uncovered the truth about the Health Secretary’s unlawful failure to publish multimillion-pound covid contracts within the 30-day period required by the law. In a Government who have been turned rotten by cronyism—we are having the Health Secretary on WhatsApp pouring a pint to land a deal—accountability matters a lot, and it is not only crony contracts that the Government may be trying to hide.
The Government have made countless mistakes, which may or may not have been unlawful during the coronavirus pandemic. These may help explain why the UK has one of the highest death tolls in the world. Mistakes include failing to provide health and care workers with adequate personal protective equipment, as well as sending hospital patients back to care homes without testing them. Members of the public are rightly using judicial review to challenge the Government on mistakes like that. If the Government weaken judicial review, they may avoid responsibility for other potentially unlawful acts during the pandemic. Will the Lord Chancellor guarantee to me that no judicial review focused on the Government’s mistakes during the pandemic will be affected by the changes that he now proposes?
On the surface, the review has looked at technical aspects of judicial review. The formal scope focuses on potential codification of grounds, the parameters of judicial authority and the procedural changes, but its political purpose is sweeping and dangerous. The person appointed to lead it was highly vocal in his criticism of the judiciary in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment on Prorogation. There has been briefing from Johnson’s Downing Street of the intention
“to get the judges sorted”,
and there can be little doubt that the review is part of an attempt to hoard more power in No. 10.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House where the idea to attack judicial review came from—was it him, the Prime Minister or Dominic Cummings? If the Lord Chancellor still refuses to publish all the submissions to the review—it is extraordinary that he will not publish those submissions—will he at least commit to publishing the submission that came from the Home Office?
A responsible Government would seek to consolidate and protect the democratic legal right of judicial review, not constrain and undermine it. Just as we condemn foreign Governments for attacking the rule of law, as in Poland and Hungary, Members must also condemn our own Government for doing the same. Members from all political traditions should be just as outraged that the Government decided in the middle of a pandemic to use their precious time to launch an attack on judicial review. Madam Deputy Speaker, be in no doubt: this cynical, misguided and politically motivated move is from the same authoritarian playbook. Judicial review is the only way the public can challenge the Government when they act unlawfully. Labour will defend it, so that we can hold this incompetent and untrustworthy Government to account.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I think I can deal very shortly with the rather hyperbolic diatribe about the position of this Government and the rule of law. There is absolutely no doubt about our adherence to rule of law principles, as with all Governments who have preceded us and indeed Governments to come. I take issue with his suggestion that somehow I am staying silent on these matters. I certainly have not hesitated at important moments, for example, during the Prorogation issue, to defend the judiciary robustly in public, as is consistent with my oath.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, particularly those on publication. First, those contributions to the review call for evidence that are quoted in the report have been published today. The other public responses to the consultation will be published next week. We are making sure that they are all consistent with our general data protection regulation obligations, but I give him that undertaking that they will all be published. The Government submissions to the consultation will be summarised and published within the next 10 days or so, which will give everybody a clear view of submissions to the call for evidence, but in a way that is consistent with collective Cabinet responsibility. I give him absolutely that undertaking that the next stage—the consultation process—will follow the same course as other public consultation processes. I encourage him and all interested parties to take a full role in this.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about ouster clauses, which deserves some scrutiny. Such clauses are not completely unknown to this House. Indeed, when one looks at the Parliament Act and the particular function that the Speaker has with regard to processes between this House and the other place, one sees that it contains ouster clauses. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had an ouster clause. The question is about the particular purpose and the way in which such clauses are used. There have been times when broad ouster clauses have been introduced, which have naturally caused great concern. The right hon. Gentleman might well remember one such example, because the asylum Bill that he shepherded through this House back in 2003 contained an ouster clause that was described as “without precedent” in its extent. I sympathise with the position he is in, because Governments will often want to create a high degree of legal certainty, to make sure that the processes are clear and that the parties involved and everybody else knows with certainty what is to happen; I can understand why he wanted to pursue that course then. So it is wise of everybody concerned with this issue to take a long view, consider the matter carefully and come up with considered submissions and suggestions, rather than, I am afraid, descending to rhetoric that does not meet the reality of the situation we are dealing with.
These proposals are sensible, incremental reforms that are very much within the tradition of the development of our law. They are the result of much consideration, not just by Lord Faulks, but by a very diverse panel of different opinions and different perspectives, which can hardly be described as a sort of panel that was designed to reach a conclusion before the document had been written. It was genuinely independent and I value it very highly for that.
In summary, these proposals, together with what we want to consult upon, are a mature, reflective look at a process that plays an important part in our society and our constitution, but which, like all other parts of our democracy—this place, local government and all the agencies of accountability—merits careful and close scrutiny. Frankly, it is our duty, as a Government and as a Parliament, from time to time to make sure that that delicate constitutional balance is being maintained. That is what we seek to do, and I make no apology for the initiative that we have taken.
I thank both the Lord Chancellor for the tone of his statement and the members of the panel for their work. The Lord Chancellor was very clear in his commitment to the importance and the fundamental nature of judicial review in our constitutional arrangements. Does he agree therefore that, as these proposals are progressed to further consultation, it is important that the conclusions are adequately considered by Government, that there should not be any undue pressure of time to bring proposals forward, that it is better to move carefully and incrementally, and that this House will have ample time to consider any proposals once the Government have formulated them? A guiding principle that we could perhaps bear in mind are the words of the late Lord Bingham in his book “The Rule of Law” when he said that, in judicial review, the role of the judges was to be the “auditors of legality: no more, but no less.” We should not have confusion about how the audit works, but neither should we do anything that impedes the ability of the auditors to do their job.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee. His reference to the late Lord Bingham and the description of the audit role is an invaluable intervention. That is precisely what the Government seek to do here. It is all about protecting the role of the judiciary as well. I am a fierce defender of their role and I want to make sure that they are not inadvertently drawn into matters of policy, which are matters for this place, the Government, and democratic institutions, and not drawn into merits-based assessments as opposed to assessing the legality or otherwise of Executive action or omission.
I thank the Justice Secretary for his statement and the panel for its work. We will, of course, scrutinise the report carefully and constructively, but we will do so from the starting point that there is very little about this vital democratic safeguard that needs to be fixed. We absolutely do not share the Justice Secretary’s concerns about perceived expansion of judicial review. Our concern is that successive Conservative Governments have sought to constrain anything that gets in the way of their agenda: a gagging Bill on charities; restrictive trade union laws; cuts to legal aid; and, this week, the egregious attacks on the right to protest. We would be utterly failing as an Opposition if we did not approach this whole project with a healthy and significant degree of scepticism and concern. Talk of ouster clauses and restricting remedies is indeed especially alarming, and leads us to question again—is not this more about the Prime Minister’s anger at judgments such as the article 50 Miller case or the Prorogation case led by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry).
Par for the course, this announcement was trailed this week in the context of migration litigation, but, in that context, if the Government were really interested in reducing reliance on judicial review, why do they not restore the statutory appeal rights that they have slashed and burned over the past decade or invest properly in decision making, so that it is faster and more decisions are right first time? In short, it is better to fix the failing Home Office instead of meddling with one of the only systems that people have left to protect themselves from its incompetence. That is true right across Government. More reviews about asylum seekers have been talked about this week. Tomorrow, it will be people’s housing or social security cases.
Finally, the Justice Secretary has been reminded repeatedly from these Benches that the inherent supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session to review Acts of Government is protected by the Act of Union and the Treaty of Union. Will he confirm that anything that impinges on that jurisdiction is not for this Westminster Parliament or Government to decide?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. May I answer his last question first? I can give him that assurance. With regard to the Cart jurisdiction, that clearly relates to a reserved matter concerning immigration issues, which does, of course, apply to the Scottish jurisdiction as well. In respecting separate jurisdictions, as I always do, these proposals relate to England and Wales matters and have been carefully delineated in that way.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s other assertions, I will simply say this: to conflate issues relating to public order with this Government’s approach to the rule of law and their steadfast belief in democratic institutions is, once again, to stretch reality too far. Without repeating the arguments that we had earlier this week, I cannot equate the adoption of recommendations by the independent Law Commission about the law of public nuisance with the sort of reactionary, authoritarian acts of France of the 1790s. It beggars belief that such comparisons are being made. They do not stand close scrutiny, and I am sure that in the weeks and months ahead, the intellectual poverty of these arguments will be exposed.
I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement. From my recent practice at the Bar, I know that the judicial review system is sometimes abused, and some unscrupulous lawyers will use it when they should not. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Opposition Members would be hypocritical to oppose this review, given that they—including the shadow Justice Secretary—proposed a complete abolition of judicial review in immigration and asylum matters?
My hon. Friend, who is an experienced family practitioner of many years’ standing, will know from her professional experience that, while the proper use of legal process to make legitimate claims is at the heart of our rule of law, it should sadden all of us if we see attempts being made to delay and frustrate that process by the use of procedures that, frankly, are otiose and do not add to the fairness or justice of proceedings but rather detract from the overall outcome and the fairness of it.
My hon. Friend is right to make the point that successive Governments, including the one in which the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) served, have argued, sometimes very passionately, in favour of quite wide-ranging ouster clauses in order to achieve a higher degree of legal certainty. That was what happened back in 2003, when the right hon. Gentleman was in government. What we need to do now is avoid having those arguments in future, with overly wide ouster clauses, and find a proper modus vivendi, whereby they can be used proportionately in a way that will not offend the courts.
I thank the panel for the work it has been doing. There is no justification for the proposals to restrict people’s access to court. The current judicial review system works well, allowing people directly to hold Governments of any colour to account and enforce their rights through the courts. Instead of this assault on the rule of law, will the Ministry of Justice instead focus on the shockingly low conviction rates for crimes committed against women and girls and publish plans for how to ensure that offenders of violence against women and girls are properly prosecuted and convicted?
The hon. Lady is, frankly, wrong to describe these proposals as a curtailment of judicial review. I will give her an example of an area where the use of a suspended quashing order could have helped campaigners. There was a case about tuition fees in which the Secretary of State was challenged for breaching the public sector equality duty. The court could only, at that stage, give a declaration of unlawfulness because a quashing of the decision would have caused administrative chaos. If a suspended quashing order had existed as an option, that would have had more teeth for those who were campaigning against tuition fees, which the hon. Lady’s party supported back in 2010.
From personal experience in local government, I know that judicial reviews can bring significant uncertainty to decisions that have been made by democratically elected and publicly accountable bodies. Will my right hon. and learned Friend outline the benefits he anticipates from this review in respect of local authorities and their decisions?
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience as a deputy leader of a major London borough and a long-standing member of the Local Government Association. He will see that there will be many advantages as a result of the proposals. For example, as I have mentioned, the ability to suspend quashing orders is a very pragmatic and sensible step. It means that minor administrative errors will not result in the entire policy being struck down, leading to great uncertainty and often administrative headaches for local authorities and others. I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his background in local government, will look at the consultation document and come up with further sensible suggestions.
The amount of time and resources spent by successive Conservative Governments on restricting judicial review is extraordinary. It is one slender means that the individual has to challenge the power of Government when they act unlawfully. Rather than saying, “There’s nothing to see here,” does the Lord Chancellor want his legacy to be one of undermining judicial discretion, the common law and the rights of the citizen in order to make the Executive safe from challenge and scrutiny?