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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Football Governance: Fan-led Review

Football is nothing without fans, so it has been a joy to see them back cheering on their teams this week, and we stand unequivocally on the side of fans. Our manifesto committed to putting them front and centre of our review of football governance and we are delivering on that. That is why I appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) as chair and, this weekend, I will announce the membership of the expert panel, which will include players, management, regulators and, of course, fans. This is a serious review; I know people want to see change and this review will deliver it.

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating Hull City on being league one champions this year. Hull City are one of many examples in recent years of where football club owners have not had the best of relationships with their fans. The recent breakaway attempt by the European super league cartel of greed brought many of the issues that concern fans to a head. Fans do not just pay a lot to support their clubs; they are custodians of their heritage and they deserve respect. To avoid taking his eye off the ball, will he explain a bit more about exactly how fans will lead the fan-led review and when it will report back to the House?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. First, of course, I join her in congratulating Hull City. She is absolutely right that football clubs form the heart of their communities and, indeed, our heritage. It is essential that fans play a significant role in the fan-led review, and I have been discussing that extensively with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford.

In terms of explicit engagement, the chair will be engaging extensively with supporter trusts and fan groups over the coming weeks, but I understand that that will not work for everyone, so there will also be a consultation process, which we will set out. Of course, the chair, the Sports Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston)—and I will be engaging with parliamentarians as part of the review as well. On the question about timing, I would expect an interim report by the summer and a further report by the autumn.

There are two football teams in my life: Manchester United, who are No. 2 in the premiership, and Rochdale, who are sadly heading for league two of the football league. The idea that they are part of the same football pyramid has frankly been a nonsense for many years, but what unites the supporters of both those clubs and many more is the demands that we will never again see the ability for a European super league to take place, that the clammy hand, the dollar-studded fingers, of the corporates such as the Glazers be taken off the throat of football—that is so important—and that, once again, we will recreate a proper pyramid of football in this country. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will legislate to bring about those kinds of ends?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The points he made about the football pyramid are precisely why the terms of reference of the review, which we set out to the House, explicitly covered examining

“the flow of money through the football pyramid, including solidarity and parachute payments, and broadcasting revenue.”

I have said before, and am happy to say again, that I have set up this review with someone who is genuinely independent in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. I fully hope and expect to accept the recommendations, and should those require legislation, we will find time to do that.

As an MP for Coventry, where, in recent years, our football club has repeatedly forced fans to drive miles from the city to watch home matches, and as a diehard Liverpool fan, one of the clubs involved in the proposed breakaway European super league, I know fans’ anger at owners’ decisions all too well. Ultimately, this will be changed only with fan ownership, like the 50+1 rule in Germany, but the Government could make a more immediate change to improve this. On major decisions such as moving ground or forming a new league, they could require clubs to secure a 50% plus 1 majority of season-ticket holders. Will the Government heed that demand or will they just kick the problem into the long grass?

The hon. Lady mentions the governance structures in other countries. The terms of reference of the review explicitly say that we will be exploring

“governance structures in other countries, including ownership models, and whether any aspects could be beneficially translated to the English league system”.

The review will proceed at pace, as I set out in a previous answer, and we will then proceed at pace to implement any recommendations that follow from it.

The greed of the super-rich club owners who wanted to destroy the football pyramid, which benefits everybody, and proceed with their botched plans for a European super league has been well and truly kicked into touch by the power and solidarity of football fans across our country, but this Government helped to create the crisis by ignoring Labour’s calls for years and by failing to progress with a fan-led review of football governance, so would the Secretary of State like to apologise on behalf of the Government for failures and missed opportunities and tell us exactly when the review will report back to this House?

I do not intend to apologise. I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the robust action that this Government took, standing behind fans and standing alongside the nation, in stopping these outrageous proposals. On the fan-led review, while Labour has talked for years and years, it is this Government who are actually delivering on it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

“Guess what? Next time you come into the stadium you will be paying, son, not playing.”

That is how one youngster of my acquaintance had his dreams crushed by a Premier League club when being released as a player. With the fan-led review into football, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), under way, does the Minister agree that it needs to be more than about the architecture of our national game and that it needs to incorporate a review of how clubs treat the 98% of young people who do not make it, how they equip them for life beyond football, and how they safeguard them and their mental health?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I have discussed with him. As ever, he is absolutely right. Clubs clearly owe an obligation and a duty of care particularly to the young people they work with, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford will consider those points. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Football Association has recently received a report on safeguarding and has committed to implementing all its recommendations. We will certainly be holding the FA to account for doing that.

Given that there was a Select Committee report and a Government response saying that they would legislate 10 years ago, it is a bit rich for the Secretary of State to claim that he is acting swiftly—but anyway, that aside, given the announcement only last week that the Government are prepared to set aside competition objections to preserve the status quo for three years, he will understand the healthy scepticism at the idea that the Government genuinely want change. So to answer that scepticism, will he confirm that, by the end of this Parliament, we will see a better model of redistribution in football that will see more money shift down the pyramid—yes or no?

The hon. Lady is conflating two issues about competition law and the Premier League. The Sports Minister has set out the Government’s position in a written ministerial statement. This is about securing football finances during a period of crisis, and it is essential that we do that. Clearly we will all have an open mind as we get the response, but the reason for considering this is that we want to ensure that money keeps going into the game.

On the point about change, of course that is precisely why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, who I know the hon. Lady has worked closely with in the past, and I think we can trust her to come up with serious recommendations to address precisely the issues that the hon. Lady raises. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that review, but I can give an assurance that I will deliver on the outcome of the review as much as we possibly can. I am not pre-empting it, but we will find legislative time for doing so.

Broadband and Digital Connectivity: Rural Areas

The Government are making huge progress on our ambition to deliver gigabit broadband across the whole country. Only last week, Openreach increased its planned investment target and it has set itself a target of 25 million premises to connect in the next five years. Some 40% of UK premises can already access gigabit broadband, and we expect that to rise to 60% by the end of this year. That is on top of the shared rural network commitment that will see mobile coverage increase across the whole country.

A number of rural areas have been recategorised as urban for the purpose of broadband community vouchers. While the majority of premises will retain their eligibility under the new voucher conditions, premises in an area where Ofcom believes a gigabit-capable network is likely to be built commercially—including Ofcom area 2—will not be eligible for a voucher. Does my hon. Friend agree that that lack of certainty risks villages such as Three Oaks in my beautiful Hastings and Rye constituency ending up being missed out? What steps can he take to ensure that this cannot happen?

It is of course welcome news that a commercial roll-out will reach more of the country than ever, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. This Government will make sure that no part of the country is left behind on that roll-out, which is why there is flexibility in the voucher scheme that she describes and why Project Gigabit is there to scoop up all the remaining premises. I am happy to discuss the villages that she mentions in person as well.

I am pleased to see the Government delivering on their pledge to level up connectivity across the UK, including through the £1 billion deal to bring better mobile coverage across the country and banish rural hotspots. That will greatly aid constituencies such as Wakefield, which suffers from poor mobile coverage in some rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that his Department has already begun using this funding to improve mobile coverage in rural areas?

It is good to see that working from home can provide a grander backdrop than this place. My hon. Friend is right to welcome the shared rural network. The roll-out has already started to benefit a large number of constituencies. It began in Wales and we will be talking in the coming weeks in much more detail about where it is going to benefit in coming years.

Residents in the rural part of Ashfield suffer from a lack of access to superfast broadband and feel that accessing it through the community fibre partnership scheme is far too expensive. When will areas such as Teversal in my constituency get access to this much-needed service?

My hon. Friend is right to say that community fibre partnerships, although they work well in some places, do not work well everywhere. That is why Project Gigabit is so important; that £5 billion of Government money will be coming down the tracks very quickly. We published plans in April and there will be more detail in June, and Ashfield certainly will not be left behind.

I thank the Minister for his helpful answers so far in response to the substantive question. I want to ask him specifically about access for homes in very rural areas, which have historically had not much better than dial-up speeds. How will he help those homes? In Suffolk, we have found that fibre-to-cabinet is not adequate in improving broadband speeds in many of our more rural parishes and villages. What will he do for very rural areas that need better than fibre-to-cabinet?

The universal service obligation is a help in the situations my hon. Friend describes, but of course we need to go further. That is why the Government are consulting on what we do in the very hardest-to-reach premises, and I look forward to talking more about what satellites and other solutions can offer in the near future. We have already seen some commercial roll-out, for instance, from Starlink, and interesting work is being done by OneWeb to make sure that absolutely no premises in this country is left without the connectivity it deserves.

I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to rolling out faster broadband, but I constantly get letters from people in parts of my constituency, such as Barlborough, Clowne, Heath and Shirebrook, saying that the broadband connections are not good enough. Will the Minister meet me to discuss those areas and what more we can do to improve their broadband connections?

I am of course happy to meet my hon. Friend, but he will also know that in the Project Gigabit plans that we have laid out Derbyshire is very much already on that road map. That is good news and I look forward to talking about it in more detail with him.

Digital Inclusivity

Our 10 tech priorities include building a tech-savvy nation so that no one is left behind in the digital revolution. Adults can, free of charge, undertake qualifications designed to build digital skills up to level 1, and the Government are encouraging broadband providers to roll out low-cost-broadband social tariffs for lower-income households.

Recently published Office for National Statistics data showed that in the first quarter of 2020, some 22% of people in Luton who were over 16 had not used the internet for three months—that is more than double the national average. Many of my constituents were severely disadvantaged at the start of the pandemic, particularly as work, school and social lives moved online. To support my constituents—who had to choose between data and dinner—I would like specific information about whether the affordability of access to broadband and online services will be adequate.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the pandemic has demonstrated how digital inclusion and accessibility have been fundamental to our ability to learn, work and meet our friends. Social tariffs are already available that offer low-cost landline and broadband services for those on certain means-tested benefits. However, the Government are now encouraging all fixed-broadband providers to introduce a social tariff.

The Minister says that no one should be left behind, but 60% of over-50s with household earnings under £20,000 per year are not online; more than half of adults who are not online are disabled; 2 million households in the UK have been without internet access during lockdown; and there are up to 900,000 children without devices. Yet the Government’s digital inclusion strategy was last updated in 2014 and there is still no target for inclusion. Why will the Minister not tell us what proportion of the population she is happy to leave behind in this digital age?

I feel that that is a massive under-representation of the huge amount of work that has happened over the past year. The Government agreed a set of commitments with the UK’s major broadband and mobile operators to support vulnerable customers during the covid-19 period. A whole heap of extra laptops—1.3 million of them, on top of the 2.9 million that were already in schools—have been rolled out to young people. In February, to tackle the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on disabled people, the Department launched a £2.5 million digital lifeline fund to support 5,000 people with learning disabilities to access devices, connectivity and digital skills support.

Protection of Online Users

What steps his Department is taking to (a) protect users online and (b) improve the accountability of technology companies. (900236)

Last week we published the Online Safety Bill. For the first time, tech companies will be held accountable by an independent regulator for keeping their users, especially children, safe from harmful content and behaviours online. If companies fail to keep their users safe, Ofcom will have the power to fine companies up to £18 million or 10% of their annual global turnover.

I thank the Minister for her answer. This is an incredibly important policy area. As well as the online harms that she mentioned, an increasing number of people throughout the country, including in my Aylesbury constituency, sadly fall prey to online financial scams, which can not only have a profound impact on somebody’s financial status but result in great anxiety for victims. Will the Minister outline the action her Department will take to ensure that technology companies really step up and play a full part, alongside the police and banks, to protect us all from online fraud and identity theft?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which he is absolutely right to do, because we know that scams of this kind can ruin lives and, as he says, a growing number of people are encountering them online. The Government are approaching the issue in three ways. First, we are working closely with law enforcement, technology companies and banks to tackle online fraud at source. That work is led by the Home Office, which is currently developing an ambitious fraud action plan, on which we have been providing support. The Online Safety Bill that we published last week will tackle any kind of fraud that is facilitated through user-generated content. On top of that, we are consulting on tougher advertising regulation and will be doing that later this year.

Football Super League

What assessment he made of the potential effect of the super league on levels of competition in professional football in the UK. (900239)

The Government were vocal in their opposition to the European super league, which would have been detrimental to the entire football pyramid.

In fact, the whole House was united in opposition. I am glad that all the English teams that were to be involved have now withdrawn from the project, and that was the right result for football fans, clubs and communities right across the country.

The super league was based on the American model of football, which does not have promotion and relegation. It has other criteria such as the draft and salary caps to make it a more competitive league. Will the Minister give an assurance to this House—in fact, prejudge the review if you like—and promise that, whatever happens, there will be promotion and regular relegation between the different football leagues?

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I know that he shares my passion for American football, but it is not necessarily a model that we would wish to emulate. It has strengths and weaknesses, but, at heart, football—in fact, all sport—is about competition and fairness, and those should underlie the sport. We are conducting the fan-led review. I am afraid that I cannot pre-empt the conclusions of that review, but I think that we are all looking forward to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), a highly regarded and respected Member of this House, will be conducting over the coming weeks, and I am sure that he will contribute to that debate.

Tourism Industry: Covid-19 Recovery

What steps his Department is taking to support the tourism industry's recovery as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (900240)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this timely topic ahead of English Tourism Week, which kicks off this weekend. In total, we have provided more than £25 billion already to the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors to see them through this challenging period. With large parts of the sector now reopened, we are working with partners to champion the UK’s tourism offer through the “Escape the Everyday” marketing campaign, for example. Businesses can also benefit from the VAT cut, business rates relief and other measures. Our tourism recovery plan will set out the role that the Government will play in accelerating the tourism sector’s recovery from covid-19.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for his excellent work in promoting this sector, an important part of which is business tourism, which is also getting going again. For example, keeping it very local, Harrogate Convention Centre will host Clarion Events’ Home & Gift Buyers’ Festival in July, and that will bring many thousands of visitors to the town. This sector of the industry is large in scale and consequently has a significant supply chain, both directly and indirectly, including, for example, hotels and guest houses in Harrogate. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to ensure the best restart possible for this important business sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I pay tribute to his support for the tourism sector—business tourism as well—both in his constituency and right across the country. Business events are indeed highly valuable to the UK economy, directly contributing more than £31 billion each year before the pandemic, supporting a vast supply chain and filling hotels, often in the tourist off-season. The Events Research Programme held its first business event pilot in Liverpool last month, which I was delighted to attend. That is a big step forward in our work to fully reopen the sector. Our tourism recovery plan will soon set out more detail on how we will support business events with their long-term recovery.

Leaving the EU: Touring Creative Workers

What recent steps have the Government taken to fix the red tape issues for touring creative workers caused by Britain leaving the EU. (900255)

We are working flat out with the industry to support creative workers to tour the EU, and we have a dedicated DCMS-led working group to achieve that. Our priorities are to provide clarity for artists on any rules, to work bilaterally with other EU nations to ensure that the new processes are as easy and straightforward as possible, and to try to secure transitional funding support.

We are extremely proud of our Stockton International Riverside Festival, which, as well as attracting street acts from across the world, commissions its own work to showcase what our own talented people can do. Now those same people face those barriers of fees and all other manner of problems—and they are still barriers today—if they want to take their work into the EU. That is due to the Government adopting that attitude of “it’ll be alright on the night”. Well, it will not. I heard what the Minister said, but what guarantees will she give artists from Stockton and the rest of the country that the Government will sort out the travel problems soon and that we can share our art and culture with the world?

As I have already explained, we have been working non-stop since the transition period finished to make sure that we were working through those issues. We have confirmed that portable musical instruments do not require carnets. We have confirmed that touring artists will not be double-charged social security contributions, and we have published new guidance for touring to other EU nations. Through bilateral discussions, which have been taking place at official level between me and the Secretary of State and our opposite numbers in the EU, we have established that at least 17 member states allow some visa or work permit-free touring activities, and we are continuing to do that work on a daily basis.

Events Research Programme: Liverpool Pilots

What steps he plans to take in response to the pilots held in Liverpool and London in May 2021 as part of the events research programme. (900252)

My top priority has been getting back to the things that we love. We have now moved to step 3, but I know that it is essential that we return to events without social distancing at step 4. That is why we have undertaken the events research pilot programme. Pilots including sporting events at Wembley, the Brits and music events in Liverpool have been building up a picture of how the virus spreads in different settings, and we have been looking at a range of factors, including ventilation, testing protocols and people’s behaviour.

The successful and safe reopening of events is, of course, vital to individuals and the economy generally, but particularly in my constituency of Edinburgh West. We have already lost the impact of Edinburgh International Festival each year, but also specifically the Royal Highland Show, which contributes £65 million to the economy, and more than a year of international rugby events at Murrayfield. With the measures that the Secretary of State has outlined, I hope that we will soon be able to host these events again, but will he assure me that the impact of these trials and the lessons learned will be shared with the Scottish Government to ensure that they can also take them forward?

Yes, I am very happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance. This programme has been world-leading. I do not think that any other country in the world has done quite such extensive piloting of events, and the outcomes of the pilots are helping to shape the sort of guidance that we will impose at stage 4 of the road map.

Topical Questions

Earlier this week, I joined millions of people up and down the country in sharing the joy of seeing great sporting, cultural and tourism venues open again. I was delighted to reopen the National Gallery, and to visit Tate Modern and the English National Ballet. However, those institutions and others can only operate sustainably if we move to step 4 and remove the remaining restrictions. We set up the events research programme to examine safe ways of doing that. I can tell the House that we have had positive findings from the pilots at events such as the Brits, the FA cup final and at the Crucible, and this will inform our approach to reopening at stage 4.

The proposal for the European super league was driven by a small number of clubs wanting greater financial power and control, which in some ways was exactly the reason that the Premier League itself was set up in the first place. I was somewhat disappointed by the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), when he described the £4.8 billion deal that the Premier League has just done on TV rights—with only £100 million coming to the rest of football—as money flowing “through the…pyramid”. May I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State, therefore, that his support for the financial status quo will not in any way compromise the ability of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to recommend in her review the radical changes to governance, regulation and the distribution of finance in football that the vast majority of fans want to see?

The short answer is yes, of course I will look at the outcome of the inquiry that I have commissioned. I have specifically asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to look at football financing and the pyramid, because I know all the challenges with it. That is separate from the interim measures that will cover the next three years. That will ensure that money flows through the pyramid, because it is not just the additional £100 million; it is all the other payments to the English Football League that will be secured through that announcement, should it go ahead.

The shared rural network is a fantastic initiative. What good news can we have for the notspots of Hampshire? (900321)

Yes, our £1 billion shared rural network is eliminating mobile coverage notspots across the country, including in East Hampshire. Operators have already announced the first 333 upgrades and 54 new sites in England. We will shortly be announcing the next stage of the programme. Although I cannot give full details now, I very much expect this to contain more good news for my right hon. Friend’s constituents.

More than 3 million people participate in parkrun in England, and it plays a major role in the physical and mental wellbeing of participants. Parkrun has had legal permission to return since 29 March under the covid framework from the Government and Public Health England, but there is completely inconsistent decision making across authorities, and the situation is threatening parkrun’s future. As Great Britain Olympian Greg Rutherford has said:

“If we’re all allowed to go and pile into restaurants and pubs again why on earth would we not be allowed to run about outside?”

Will the Secretary of State give a clear, simple statement here today and say that local authorities and landowners need to recognise and accept the nationally approved framework and allow parkrun to start again?

Yes. I completely share the hon. Lady’s frustration that this is not happening. I have discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and he and I will shortly be sending a very clear message and signal in writing to local authorities about our expectation that those events should proceed.

I am delighted with the Secretary of State’s response and grateful for it.

Singing also makes a positive difference to the health of over 2 million people who sing in amateur choirs. The go-ahead was given for indoor rehearsals from Monday of this week, following step 3 of the roadmap, but on Tuesday, literally as conductors were on their way to rehearsals, late guidance was issued by DCMS limiting indoor rehearsals to just six people in total. This news was devastating to choir members but also to their conductors and directors, who lose their income because of it. I am afraid that confusing and contradictory communication is the hallmark of this Government. Last year it was the Secretary of State encouraging rehearsals for pantos that were never going to happen; this year it is choral concerts with no rehearsals. What is going on? Why the late guidance? Will the Secretary of State publish the evidence that led to his decision? Thank goodness his Department is getting an experienced director of communications, because he needs one.

I share the frustration of many Members of this House that we have not been able to permit more people to participate in amateur choirs. I can tell the House and reassure Members that that decision was made on the basis of very clear public health guidance. Ultimately, the Prime Minister and I did not feel that we could contradict that public health guidance. Of course we published the guidance, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommendations are regularly published. I very much hope and expect that by step 4 —all going well, we will proceed with that on 21 June—we will be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact and ease restrictions on large events and performances, including those that apply at step 3.

Next month Falmouth is welcoming the world’s media as part of the G7 summit and showing off the very best of Cornwall’s heritage and culture. As my right hon. Friend will know, Falmouth University produces some of the world’s best graduates in the creative arts industries. Will he meet me to discuss how best we can nurture this talent to potentially grow the film, TV and post-production elements in Falmouth in order to provide these quality industry careers here in Cornwall? (900322)

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great supporter of Cornish culture and heritage, and I know of the outstanding reputation of Falmouth University. We have done a huge amount to support this country’s film industry, which is currently probably stronger than it has ever been, notwithstanding covid. I or one of my ministerial colleagues would be delighted to meet her to discuss what more we can do to support the Cornish film industry.

Last week the Culture Secretary boasted that his Government were defending heritage. If only that were so. Cuts have led to almost 800 library closures, the Whitehall Bell Foundry has been passed by Tory Ministers into the hands of commercial developers after 450 years of continuous existence, and we have heard nothing of what will replace Creative Europe culture funding. What is the Culture Secretary’s focus in telling museums what statues they can have and blocking trustees that he does not like? As one museum curator said, “arm’s length” Government interference is now becoming “knuckle length” interference. Should the Culture Secretary not be focusing on sorting out the Brexit visa mess rather than on petty culture wars and museum meddling?

There were an awful lot of questions wrapped into one from the hon. Gentleman, but in terms of what I am doing and where my primary focus is, it is about returning the things that we love and ensuring that we move from stage 3 to stage 4 of the road map to enable heritage attractions, theatres and companies up and down the country to operate normally again. We have given £2 billion-worth of support—the single largest injection by any Government ever—but I make no apology whatever for standing up for this country’s heritage against a small and noisy minority that wants to tear down the things that we enjoy as a nation.

I am disappointed we did not get through more topicals, folks, because it means there are disappointed Members.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Domestic Violence Prosecutions

The Crown Prosecution Service published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme in January, which aims to help to narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes through a focus of co-ordinated multi-agency action and specialist support for victims. The CPS has also taken steps to increase domestic abuse prosecutions at a local level. For example, since the start of the pandemic, CPS Thames and Chiltern has increased lines of communication with police forces to ensure domestic abuse cases are appropriately prioritised.

The criminal justice system is facing unprecedented backlogs, with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault forced to wait more than a year for their day in court. The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to address these failings, but it was an opportunity missed. Labour’s “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper was announced this week and is ready to go. Will the Attorney General support it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which focuses on an extremely important issue of domestic abuse, which is one that I and the entire Government feel strongly about. In fact, I am sure everybody in this Chamber does. It is this Government who introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In a recent case that I conducted myself in the Court of Appeal, the offender’s sentence for extremely violent domestic abuse was increased from nine years to 15 years on my application. That is how seriously we take domestic abuse, and that is how seriously it is taken in terms of punishment and the crime. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that we should prioritise domestic abuse in the criminal justice system, and I can confirm that we do that. It is a very high focus for this Government and for the criminal justice system.

The “Evidence led domestic abuse prosecutions” report states that

“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”

Does the Attorney General think that the current level of resourcing to tackle domestic abuse is sufficient?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the case load. In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service’s case load has increased considerably. It is also right to point out that the conviction rate rose to 78.7% in quarter 3 of 2020-21, up from 77.4%. The Government have recently announced, as I am sure she knows, several funding packages specifically on domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 crisis as it relates to domestic abuse. The decrease in the volume of overall prosecutions due to the impact of covid-19 is a factor, but this Government are funding this area and giving particular focus to it.

The number of domestic abuse-related prosecutions fell by 22% in the year ending March 2020, despite a 9% increase in recorded crimes. When I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many specialist domestic violence courts have been in operation over the past 10 years, he could not give me an answer. Will the Attorney General commit to our proposals, set out in our “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper, to introduce properly funded specialist domestic violence courts across the country?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is an astute one, and she recognises, as we all do, the importance of this area. It is of course this Government who have already put the Domestic Abuse Act on the statute book, so we are ahead of her party in prioritising this area, and that is a simple fact. The reality, I have to say, is that the CPS’s domestic abuse best practice framework seeks to address the withdrawal rates. She talks about the number of prosecutions, and of course prosecutions have gone down across the board because of the impact of the covid pandemic. However, we want to deliver a high-quality service to victims, and the work that is being done on the framework encourages more timely court listings to get these cases on more quickly and reduce victim attrition, which I know is something the Ministry of Justice and the whole criminal justice system are working very strongly on.

It is interesting that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says his party is ahead when it is Labour that has set out a green paper to tackle these issues head-on. What is even more worrying is that domestic abuse prosecutions now seem to be going the same way as rape prosecutions, which are at their lowest recorded level, and new figures show that 44% of rape victims give up before their trial even begins. Will the Attorney General adopt our fully drafted survivors support plan for rape victims and will he commit to backing Labour’s violence against women and girls green paper, or will he continue to sit on his hands and allow the continued systemic failing of the criminal justice system for women and girls in England and Wales?

I do not think it is accurate to refer to the criminal justice system as failing women and girls. It is a high focus for the criminal justice system, and there are a lot of people—thousands of people—working very hard, day in and day out, in the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces around this country, with a very high priority to focus on this area. It is this Government who have allocated another £76 million to support victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children. It is this Government who have put the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 on the statute book. It is this Government who are creating 20,000 more police officers, and who have already funded the Crown Prosecution Service to over £85 million—closer to £100 million. It is this Government who recognise that we have to do better. We have to do more, and I accept that. There is always more that can be done, and in such an important area, one can never sit back. We have received 180,000 responses, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, following the tragic case of Sarah Everard, to the consultation that the Government set up, and we will be looking very closely at those responses.

According to the Centre for Women’s Justice, one woman every week for the last two years has reported domestic abuse by their police officer spouse or partner, and every woman it spoke to said that the police had failed to investigate their case. Given the severity of these statistics, how confident is the Attorney General that the correct processes are in place in the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that complaints involving the police are investigated objectively?

Of course, the issue of the police is a matter for the Home Office, but I would say that I know the police are working very hard to prioritise and focus on these domestic abuse cases, and they do seek to achieve the very best possible results in all circumstances. There are tried and tested mechanisms for making complaints against the police, and clearly they are available to anyone who feels that a complaint would be appropriate and justified. We have worked very hard to produce the Domestic Abuse Act, which covers a number of areas that, as we have already rehearsed, will protect women and girls, and we will continue to do so.

Crown Prosecution Service: Communication with Victims

How we communicate with victims is absolutely critical to the delivery of justice. Having spoken to the Director of Public Prosecutions and others at the CPS, I know that they are fully committed to and understand the importance of clear and open communications to victims, giving explanations about their cases. That is why the CPS is carrying out a root and branch review to assess how best to deliver on its commitments to victims.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her response. What steps is the CPS taking to ensure that, in cases where the victim is known to have autism and other mental health conditions, they receive priority communications so that their mental health is not put under yet more pressure?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. In 2019, the CPS published its revised guidance on prosecuting cases where the defendant may have a mental health condition or disorder. Furthermore, where the CPS is aware that a victim has autism or mental health issues, it will consider writing in addition, or instead, to a guardian or parent, to deal with that case. For cases of rape or serious sexual offence, the CPS ensures that either the police officer overseeing the case or the independent sexual violence adviser is present to help explain to the victim any decision taken by the CPS in relation to the case.

It is essential that victims receive justice for the crimes committed against them. How is my right hon. and learned Friend ensuring that victims in Clwyd South, and elsewhere in the UK, are aware of their right to challenge unduly lenient sentences?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has highlighted the importance of the ULS scheme. The Attorney General’s office promotes that scheme on social media, and we are working with the Ministry of Justice to raise awareness of the scheme as part of the revised victims code that came into force last month. For example, the code now includes a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims of the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. That will help improve awareness of the scheme, including for my hon. Friend’s constituents in Clwyd South.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the draft victims Bill provides an important opportunity to place the victims code on a proper statutory basis? Will she consider whether the Justice Committee would be suitable to carry out prelegislative scrutiny? Does she agree it is important that the code includes communication pre-charge by the police, as well as by the CPS post-charge, as both are equally important?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the victims Bill. As he says, that Bill will have prelegislative scrutiny, and we welcome the Justice Committee’s views on that. He is right to highlight the importance of the work that goes on pre-charge, as well as post-charge, and we will be looking carefully at those matters.

Prosecution of Hate Crime

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS’s work to improve community confidence in its prosecution of hate crime. (900282)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question on hate crime. I have been appalled by recent examples of hate crime, which are an utter disgrace. I warn racists and antisemites alike that the Crown Prosecution Service recognises the devastating impact that hate crime has on victims and communities, and it is committed to bringing offenders to justice. That is evidenced by the continued rise in sentence uplifts. This year, increases in sentences for hate crime reached the highest rate yet of nearly 80%. Outreach has continued throughout the pandemic with a range of community organisations to increase community confidence and improve the prosecution response to hate crime.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response. Recently in my constituency, the owner of the Delaval Tandoori was physically and verbally assaulted by two men. The wonderful community of Seaton Delaval has rallied around to support that family-run business in the wake of the attack, but I know they will join me in looking to my right hon. and learned Friend for his assurance that the CPS will do all it can to bring those responsible for hate crime before our courts.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Crown Prosecution Service will prosecute cases referred to it by the police and other law enforcement agencies, and where the test set out is met, it will prosecute those offences. Those who commit such offences must understand that their sentences have an 80% likelihood of being uplifted as a consequence of the hate element of their crime. According to one media report, we have recently seen a 600% increase in antisemitic crimes. We recognise that any form of hate crime against any group is obnoxious and antithetical to the interests of this country, and cannot be tolerated. The CPS recognises the devastating impact. Everything will be done and continues to be done to check those offences.

Prosecution Decision: Kettering

For what reason the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute the organiser of a large funeral held in breach of covid-19 regulations in Kettering in November 2020. (900283)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about this issue, which he has already brought to my attention. The CPS makes its charging decisions independently, with every case judged on its own merit, based on the tests set out in the code. In this particular case, my understanding is that the CPS reviewed it and determined that there was insufficient evidence to continue with the proceedings. That was because there was no evidence that the suspect was responsible for the excess numbers present outside the church.

There is widespread dismay and outrage in Kettering that the organiser of that huge Irish Traveller funeral, held during the covid lockdown, has in effect got away with it. Clearly, however, the Crown Prosecution Service cannot successfully prosecute on any criminal case unless it is provided by the police with sufficient formal evidence against the accused. Given that the court hearing was held five months after the funeral took place, will the Solicitor General confirm when the CPS received the case file from the police?

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend’s constituents, as of many around the country who are abiding by the rules, which is what has managed to get our infection rates down. To answer his specific question, the first hearing was at the Northampton magistrates court on 19 April. The police had not previously sent the file through to the CPS due to a technical error on the part of the police. The file was received at 11.30 am on the morning of the hearing.

Criminal Justice System: Covid-19 Recovery

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service's contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery. (900284)

What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking with partner agencies in the criminal justice system to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (900286)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service’s contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery. (900295)

I am pleased that inspections in both June 2020 and March 2021 found that the CPS responded well to the challenges caused by covid-19. Those inspections were by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The CPS has made a significant contribution to supporting the criminal justice system during an exceptionally difficult time, working closely with partners. I am proud of prosecutors and staff who have continued to deliver their essential services, both virtually and in person where necessary, throughout the pandemic.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer and for his welcome focus on domestic violence, which he demonstrated throughout this Question Time. Will he reassure me that the Crown Prosecution Service will do all it can to prioritise cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the backlog, as those types of cases have a higher drop-off rate the longer the delay?

Yes, tackling domestic abuse, as I have been saying, is a key focus of the Government. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the CPS south-east region, which covers her area, identifies domestic abuse cases, working with the Courts and Tribunal Service, to ensure that they can be listed before the court as a priority and that trial dates can be brought forward to avoid any unnecessary delay. She is right to focus on the issue. Work is being done in support of her point.

While a defendant typically has legal representation following the reporting of a rape, the victim has to wait months before an independent advocate becomes available. Even then, the independent sexual violence advocate is not permitted to go into the court to support a woman at the time she desperately needs it. First, why is there a three to six-month wait for an advocate to become available to deeply stressed individuals who have been assaulted? Secondly, will the Government undertake to review the situation in which the advocate, who is meant to support the victim, has to stay outside the courtroom? It is ridiculous!

As the hon. Lady may know, a rape review is due to be published soon. Together with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced an interim charging protocol in April 2020 to prioritise the most important cases, to which she is referring, through the criminal justice system. Those are high-harm cases, including rape and domestic abuse. I am proud of the CPS’s response. I am sure she recognises that the exigencies of the pandemic have affected backlogs to a significant extent in many areas of public and private life, but a huge amount is being done to ameliorate that backlog. Particular priority is being given to the sorts of cases to which she is referring.

What learning will the CPS take forward from its pandemic response to increase resilience in the future?

One of the things that we will be looking at is the cloud video platform. The CPSI report published recently recognised the flexibility and adaptability of the CPS in responding to the pandemic. The cloud video platform was enabling around 20,000 virtual hearings a week, and post pandemic I am sure we will be looking at that among many other things.

If the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases, will the Attorney General explain why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?

I have actually discussed the issue of recorders very recently with the senior judiciary. The Ministry of Justice has recently arranged for an unlimited amount of sitting days—I think I am right in saying—so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on. That is a very generous arrangement to allow the courts to make dramatic progress, and that includes recorders and the judiciary generally.

Although it is important that partner agencies in the criminal justice system do everything possible to eliminate the delays caused by covid-19, some of these problems stretch back much further than the start of the pandemic. In 2017 we reformed pre-charge bail to introduce time limits on how long suspects could be on bail before being charged. That came after the terrible treatment of some individuals, including Paul Gambaccini, who was held on bail for a year without being charged. Today, a number of people are still being bailed for a shocking length of time—years on end. I currently have a case where the National Crime Agency has kept an individual on bail for almost six years. That has ruined her life. The Government are now seeking to undo even the inadequate protections in the Police and Crime Act 2017 with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Will the Attorney General tell the House what the Government will do to protect against these injustices in coming legislation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he makes. He thinks of the defence position, and is right to do so, and I am very grateful to him for raising it. I recognise how distressing delays can be, both to defendants and, of course, to victims, but these have been unprecedented times.

On the case my right hon. Friend refers to, decisions on whether to impose or extend pre-charge bail are operational and are not therefore something that Ministers can interfere with, but he makes a powerful point. It is right that those decisions are independent of Government, and it is important to note that the length of pre-charge bail is separate from the length of the investigation. There may be particular circumstances that cause concomitant delays in individual cases that are outwith my immediate knowledge or ability to intervene, and nor would it be appropriate for me to do so, but I recognise the point he makes. If he wishes to write to me about that individual case, we can certainly forward it to the relevant authority.

I now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.