Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Before we move on to questions, may I just say that I wish Oliver Dowden well? He worked well, but I know he has a very able replacement. I welcome the new Secretary of State, who I know must have the greatest interest in rugby league; I welcome her team—herself and the new Minister.
The Secretary of State was asked—
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that very warm welcome.
Football is central to our national life, which is why my predecessor announced this root-and-branch review of the game led by the fans. This might be a good point to mention my own interest in football, as well as in rugby league. My great grandfathers were founding members of Everton football club, although I am a Liverpool supporter, so I declare my interest on day one.
My Department has supported the chair and advisory panel to collect more than 100 hours of evidence and 20,000 responses from football fans. I look forward to receiving the final report of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and the recommendations later this autumn, and I am ready to take bold action whenever necessary to protect the identity of our national game.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome her to her new post and congratulate her on the appointment. The interim report from the chair of the panel makes it clear that the panel intends to introduce a golden share for fans to have a veto over certain reserved powers such as club names and colours and similar powers to those under assets of community value legislation to protect stadiums and training grounds. This is a welcome recognition of the power of football fans, but what discussions has the Department had in preparation for the final report with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and local government to make sure we can move quickly on the recommendations that we know are coming in the autumn?
I obviously do not want to predict the findings of the final report or predetermine the outcome, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the interim report is available on the Government website. My predecessor saw at first hand at Brentford that a golden share can do what the hon. Gentleman outlines without undermining the ownership of clubs. The review has been extensive, involving over 150 clubs and 20,000 fans, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has met numerous organisations and stakeholders throughout the industry. I look forward, as the hon. Gentleman does, to my hon. Friend’s report later this year. I can promise from the Department’s perspective that it will be extensive and will certainly have consulted many people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment; she will do a sterling job, as she has done at the Department of Health and Social Care in extremely difficult circumstances over the past year and a half. The fan-led review is hugely important, especially given the recent European super league proposals. What discussions is she having with football clubs on the review and does she plan to meet any clubs in the near future?
The review is a root-and-branch examination of football in this country and looks at the financial sustainability of the football pyramid as well as governance, regulations, ownership and the merits of an independent regulator. There is much work to do; being just 35 minutes into the job I have not arranged a meeting yet, but I will be holding a roundtable this coming week with football industry representatives.
The Secretary of State will be fed up with congratulations soon, but let me add mine as well. She mentioned the question of ownership in football. She knows the north-west well enough where we have seen the collapse of Bury football club because of incompetence and malign owners, and very recently a hostile takeover bid for Rochdale football club in my constituency, which was resisted and, fortunately, defeated. There needs to be some review not only of a potential super league but of the capacity of owners to deliver to the communities that spawned their clubs in the first place. Will the Secretary of State make sure that that is taken properly on board following the review?
I absolutely will. Fans are the lifeblood of football and sport. The review is considering the issue of club ownership in light of the submissions and evidence from supporters representing more than 150 clubs, and I will certainly consider any proposals very seriously.
As the current broadband Minister I can say that, as Members will have seen, across the country gigabit broadband is now at 47%, up from just 10% in November 2019. This Government will leave no stone unturned to get that number as high as possible as quickly as possible.
May I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her very recent promotion?
I thank the Minister for his response. Residents of the newly built Parc Derwen estate in my Bridgend constituency, and others across the UK, have found themselves tied to disagreeable fibre providers and unable to seek competitive quotes due to restrictions placed on them by developers as they are laying infrastructure. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure a competitive market as we roll out gigabit broadband?
My hon. Friend is right that competition is a crucial part of a functioning broadband market. FibreNest, the company that he refers to, says that it is willing to let other providers use its networks, and it is a commercial decision for the company. It is important that all the right steps are taken to ensure that that promise becomes a reality, and the Government will work with him and the company to ensure that it does so.
It is very good to see my hon. Friend in his place at the Dispatch Box. As a rural constituency, Montgomeryshire is very reliant on the roll-out of Project Gigabit, which I welcome very much. Not only is that integral to increased speeds, but the backbone of that fibre network is key to our levelling-up ambitions. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to deliver it at pace?
My hon. Friend is very kind; I hope that is not the kiss of death. He is right that, in areas such as Wales in particular, the power of levelling up through digital infrastructure is key. We have recently made positive announcements with the Welsh Government. We look forward to making more, and I know that Montgomeryshire will be a key part of delivering that mission.
I congratulate the Minister on retaining his position and welcome the new Secretary of State to hers. The Minister’s is a wide-ranging and critical role, not least because we need our broadband. Parliament, our businesses, our students, our economy and our social lives depend on it—but it is another broken promise. Full fibre by 2025 was the Prime Minister’s pledge, and the 2020 Budget set aside £5 billion to deliver it. Will the Minister confirm that only £1.2 billion of that £5 billion is planned to be spent by 2025 and that, far from full fibre, we will not even get affordable broadband? According to Ofcom, more than 2 million households find it hard to afford broadband, yet the Government are slashing broadband price controls, slashing the broadband budget, slashing universal credit support, and slashing gigabit targets. When will we get the broadband we need?
Absolutely, Mr Speaker.
The fact remains that this is a £5 billion commitment to getting as close to 100% broadband across this country as fast as we possibly can. The only barrier to doing that is the speed with which we can dig up the roads and lay the cables. This Government will do every single thing we can to make sure that every single barrier is removed in order to spend every penny of that £5 billion as quickly as we possibly can.
Fraudulent Online Advertisements
The Government are committed to tackling online fraud. That is why, later this year, we will be consulting on the online advertising programme, which is considering all options, including legislation, to tackle paid-for advertising online. Meanwhile, the draft online safety Bill, which is currently in prelegislative scrutiny, will address fraudulent user-generated content.
Paid-for scam adverts are rife online, and it is not unusual for people to lose their entire life savings to them. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee in July that
“one of the key objectives of the Online Safety Bill is to tackle online fraud,”
but the Bill as drafted does not cover paid-for scam adverts at all. I am pleased that the prelegislative scrutiny Committee is going to take a look at this, but will the Minister review the Department’s currently indefensible position? We cannot wait years for the other process that he referred to to work its way through the system.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise a hugely important issue. I and this Government share his impatience to tackle it, but that is why we are talking, through the online advertising programme, about looking at every single option, whether it is to tackle user-generated content through one mechanism or, potentially, advertising through another. It is about getting that combination of measures right so that we can achieve the maximum possible effect.
May I, through the Minister, pass on my congratulations to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), on her appointment?
In line with the whole issue of fraudulent adverts, there is also the big issue of the appalling behaviour of gambling companies and their advertising, which causes huge problems and addiction for many young people. May I, through the Minister, ask the new Secretary of State whether she would take a meeting with families bereaved as a result of gambling addiction?
May I, too, extend a warm welcome to the new Secretary of State and the new Minister? I hope that, as Digital Secretary, she has changed her parliamentary password.
Online fraud is a growing goldmine for fraudsters and online child abuse is a growing goldmine for paedophiles. Latest figures from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Internet Watch Foundation show a 70% increase in sexual communication offences with children, and a 77% increase in self-generated child sexual abuse material. Why are the Government still stubbornly and inexplicably refusing Labour’s call and the NSPCC’s call for the immediate implementation in the online safety Bill of personal criminal liability for senior tech executives whose actions consistently and significantly put children at risk? We already have such a legal regime that works in financial services and in health and safety. There must be a compelling reason why the Government refuse to do the same to protect our children online. Can the Minister tell us what it is?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Bill is going through the pre-legislative scrutiny process. We are entirely aware of the issues she raises. The aim of the Bill and the aim of the Government’s approach will always be to take the most effective attitude to tackling them. As the Bill goes through that process, we will of course continue to look at all the options, but our priority will be the effectiveness of the legislation. A mechanism may well work well in other industries, but that does not necessarily mean we should copy and paste it into another.
Youth Investment Fund
As I am sure the hon. Member would agree, youth services play a vital role in supporting young people, and the £500 million youth investment fund remains a manifesto commitment. It builds on more than £12 billion given this year to local authorities, who have the statutory duty to allocate funding to youth services in line with their local needs. Detailed plans for the fund are subject to the 2021 spending review, which, as she knows, will be coming later in October.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the innovation and expansion we have seen in the Scouts this week with the launch of the Squirrels, which will open up Scouting opportunities for four and five-year-olds? The sector is hugely innovative, but it is also really struggling financially. It has been two years since the £500 million youth investment fund was announced, but not a penny has been spent. Can the Minister tell the sector when it can expect that money to come forward, or whether the Government have raided our children’s piggy banks?
We all, I am sure, have Scout troops in our constituencies to which we would pay tribute, and the expansion is hugely welcome. I am afraid, as I said in my answer, that the detailed plans for the fund are subject to the 2021 spending review. I look forward to being able to talk more about those plans after the spending review.
Musicians: Touring the EU
Ministers, officials and diplomats have been speaking to EU member states to establish arrangements for touring musicians and other artists. I can confirm that at least 19 out of 27 member states allow some visa and permit-free touring. We are continuing to engage with the remaining member states to encourage them to align requirements more closely with our own.
The reality is that there has been limited progress on this matter. South Shields is home to many independent musicians, who used to be able to showcase their talents right across Europe. The cost and bureaucracy involved now prohibits them from doing so. Carry on Touring has written to the Minister with a solution: a pan-European EU visa and work permit waiver. Will she please ask the new Secretary of State to use her first day to implement it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question; I had a wonderful break up in the north-east and enjoyed her constituency over the summer. I will be happy to ask the Secretary of State to look at that proposal, but we put forward, as part of the EU negotiations, a very fair proposal to our EU member state counterparts, which, unfortunately, they rejected. I know that my former Cabinet Office colleague, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) did a lot of work in this area as well. There has been a lot of engagement at ministerial level with our counterparts and we intend to continue that work, because we know that this is an important issue and a frustration not just for some of the major touring artists but, more importantly, for some of the smaller groups who may not have the financial funds to be able to negotiate some of the complexities in this area.
North East Fife is home to, among others, StAnza festival and East Neuk festival, where local artists can share their work and experience with performers from Europe and beyond, but clearly—I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)—sufficient steps are not being taken. Bureaucracy is stifling this industry. What other steps can the Minister take to ensure that we get people out to Europe and performing?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I mentioned, there have been intensive negotiations at a ministerial level with our EU counterparts and a lot of progress has been made. As I mentioned in my opening reply, we now have agreements with 19 of the 27 members states that allow visa and permit-free touring, but we want to make more progress because we know this is a very important issue for musicians and artists across the country.
We welcome all the new Ministers, but I want to be clear on this issue: the Minister said in response to those questions that extensive efforts are being made, yet on 4 August when the Department published a statement describing the situation, the industry was clear that nothing has changed. Will she refer to that 4 August statement on touring and tell me, since the original Brexit deal was signed, exactly what has changed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her passion, and we share that intensity of desire to get this issue sorted for UK musicians. The challenge is our desire to secure the same freedoms for our musicians in the EU that EU musicians are allowed when they come over to the UK. It is a shame, because the quality of musicianship in our country is second to none, so in a sense EU member states are missing out if they continue not to provide the freedoms that we provide to their artists. We will continue our intensive negotiations, but we have to accept that this is not in our control. We put forward a very fair and sensible deal to our EU counterparts and it is for them to agree the same freedoms that we grant them.
Covid-19: Live Events Sector
In July, we removed all restrictions, enabling audiences to return to live events. In August, the Government announced a live events reinsurance scheme worth £750 million, which will instil confidence and support events previously unable to obtain covid-19 cancellation insurance. DCMS has continued to support the events sector throughout the pandemic, including through the £2 billion culture recovery fund.
I warmly welcome the new Secretary of State. The live music sector has had an enormously challenging 18 months. Although I strongly welcome Government interventions such as the culture recovery fund and the live events reinsurance scheme, VAT on tickets for live events is set to double by the end of this month. As we all know, live music is not only essential to our economy, but plays a vital role in bringing us together after so many months of lockdown. As live events return, will the Government consider a permanent extension of VAT relief on music tickets to aid the sector’s recovery and to ensure that the show can go on?
I assure my hon. Friend that I will be working closely with the Chancellor to discuss the support required for the live events sector. The 5% rate on VAT for event tickets has been extended until 30 September 2021, when the 12.5% reduced rate will be introduced until March 2022. We have already provided £21 million to festivals and £2.5 million to grassroots music venues through the culture recovery fund, and our reinsurance scheme is designed to support the continuation of live events.
Has the Secretary of State any information on the take-up of that reinsurance scheme? Some promoters have said it is so inadequate, and covers such specific circumstances, that there is almost no point in taking it out. Was it always the Government’s intention to design a scheme in such a way that they could claim to be acting, while being safe in the knowledge that the scheme would not actually be used?
The Government have already provided more than £35 billion for the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors in the form of grants, loans and tax breaks throughout the pandemic. When I last spoke to the House about this, the figure was £25 billion, so there has been a considerable increase since then. As our tourism recovery plan makes clear, we will continue to support the sector’s return to pre-pandemic levels and beyond, hopefully well ahead of independent forecasts. For example, the £10 million national lottery days out campaign, to be launched next month, will stimulate demand for more off-season day trips to tourist sites across the UK this autumn and winter.
Tourism and hospitality has often been viewed as a Cinderella industry, but we know, particularly after covid-19, how vital it is not only to local economies such as mine in Hastings and Rye—of which it represents more than 30%—but to the UK economy, and also what a wide range of opportunities it offers globally. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage people, particularly the young, to choose this industry as a fantastic career path?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this topic. I know that she is passionate about the sector, having visited her fantastic constituency on a beautiful sunny day in June this year.
We recognise the importance of recovering from the pandemic with a more resilient tourism industry that will offer exciting, good-quality, well-paid jobs to young people as well as long-term careers for everyone, throughout the country. We work closely with the Tourism Industry Council to ensure that the sector is signposted to key Government initiatives such as the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the UK-wide kickstart scheme.
I thank the Minister for all the help that he has given us over the recent period. In my constituency, tourism is a key marker for economic growth, jobs, wages and so forth. May I ask the Minister what has been done in co-operation and partnership with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in particular, to ensure that we all benefit in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I had the privilege of visiting Northern Ireland this summer, and saw many tourist attractions there. We work very co-operatively with our colleagues in Northern Ireland, including, obviously, Members in this House, who I know talk passionately—as the hon. Gentleman does—about tourism and the value of tourism. Obviously, the tourism recovery plan has implications for the whole United Kingdom, although some elements are devolved, but we work closely with our Northern Ireland colleagues, and there is Northern Ireland representation on the Tourism Industry Council. They contribute significantly, and I hope that positive relationship continues.
I thank the Minister for all he has been doing over the last 18 months to support the sector, and for meeting hoteliers in my constituency this week. He will recall that, despite Cornwall’s having the busiest summer it has ever had, many hotels were operating at less than capacity because of the lack of availability of staff. As he will understand, one of the issues is accommodation, and the current limit of £58 that staff are allowed to offset on accommodation provided by their employer. Will he commit to work with me to get that figure reviewed, so that we can have a more workable solution for the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for his continued passion and support for the sector throughout the country, let alone in his own fantastic constituency, which I have also had the pleasure of visiting. Perhaps I have travelled a bit too much, although I am sure there is no such thing.
This issue was indeed raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents during the conversation that we had earlier this week, and they provided some compelling information. I make the commitment to him and his constituents that we will look very carefully at the issues raised, and that I will work across Departments to see what solutions can be found.
Public Service Broadcasting
Public service broadcasting remains critical to the UK’s media landscape, and the Government are committed to ensuring that it continues to thrive. We will present proposals in the form of a broadcasting White Paper to update the existing public service broadcasting framework later this year.
I admit I was hoping that the Secretary of State would answer this question so that I could say “from one red to another”, although maybe not in the full range of meaning of that term. I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group. NUJ members are concerned about the future of public broadcasting, because of the sale of Channel 4, because of the 25% cut that has already been incurred at the BBC and because of reports that the Government are considering refusing even an inflation-rate increase in the BBC licence fee. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the NUJ parliamentary group to discuss these concerns?
I want to start by saying how delighted I am to have been appointed Secretary of State at DCMS. This is one of the most important Departments in Government, economically, socially and culturally, and I am determined to ensure that our sectors bounce back stronger than ever from covid. We continue to support them through this stage of the recovery, particularly through our £750 million events insurance scheme. London Fashion Week and London Tech Week are back with a bang. The creative and tech industries are British powerhouses, and I am committed to driving them to even greater heights. In the meantime, we have all enjoyed a fabulous summer of sport. It started with the Euros final, followed by incredible success at the Olympics and the Paralympics, and it was topped off by Emma Raducanu’s wonderful victory on Saturday—the best tennis match I have ever watched. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating our fantastic athletes.
Can I express my delight at the arrival of my hon. Friend in Cabinet? She demonstrates that you do not need to be a boring conformist to get on in this world. Returning to the boring conformity, however, I shall put my substantive question to her. What assessment has she made of delegating the decision on what is harmful and what is not harmful to the online platform providers?
The fact is that the Online Safety Bill does not delegate that decision to online platforms. What it does is define the harmful content that companies must address. The Government will set out the categories for those harmful contents later. Companies will need to ensure that children are protected from any content that meets this definition, and that will clearly be directed by Government; it will not be delegated to them.
We know that the new Secretary of State has set out her own views and interpretation of racism online, because she has written about it, so I am sure she will remember what the Prime Minister said about the torrent of online racist abuse against England footballers on 14 July. This is what he said:
“Today we are taking practical steps to ensure that the football banning order regime is changed, so that if a person is guilty of racist online abuse of footballers, they will not be going to the match—no ifs, no buts, no exemptions and no excuses.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 362.]
I am really pleased that the Prime Minister heeded my call to extend banning orders to online racism. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what practical steps have been taken to change the football banning order regime since 14 July?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in endorsing that bid. It is a key ambition of this Government to ensure that augmented reality and all those future technologies are made a reality not just in London and the big cities but across the whole country, so Eastbourne is a real opportunity. I would be happy, for instance, to facilitate a meeting with the BFI or something of that nature in order for her to help to pursue this endeavour.
I would also like to welcome the Secretary of State to her place. I have been glancing at her oeuvre, and now is perhaps not the time to discuss the alarming dumbing down she once identified in the once highbrow artform of panto or, indeed, to ponder her long anti-gay rights voting record. Just as well there are no homosexuals in the arts sector.
Instead, let us continue to focus on Afghanistan. We know the Taliban respect only violent power. They care nothing for culture or heritage. UNESCO is monitoring the evolving situation, focusing on the universal rights to education, freedom of expression and heritage. Does the Secretary of State agree that the women standing up for their rights and national culture in street protests are extraordinarily brave? Will she outline what the UK Government will be doing to protect all those who feel abandoned in Afghanistan, whether they are women, LGBT people or minorities who fear for their lives and futures?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for his warm and kind words of welcome.
Of course, we all stand with the women of Afghanistan. I know the hon. Gentleman has been looking through my long tweet history of 20 years, or whenever I first went on Twitter, and he will therefore know that I have repeatedly supported the women of Afghanistan and will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the need for affordable broadband and mobile access, which is why this Government have worked with the companies during the pandemic and since to make sure there are social tariffs so that cheaper products are available. Such tariffs are a crucial part of making sure everyone has the access we all need in the 21st century.
That sounds like a very good idea, and I know there are many D. H. Lawrence fans in this House, including my hon. Friend. I should explain that it is not normal practice—in fact, it is very rare—for central Government to fund or get particularly involved in new memorials and statues. Of course, organisations often propose, fund, develop and deliver memorials commemorating a huge variety of events and people at local and sometimes national level. These groups should work with the relevant planning authority and other organisations to identify a suitable site and obtain the necessary planning permissions. I hope his proposal is treated sympathetically.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and we are all alarmed about the situation. We are closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and stand ready to provide whatever support we can to help to protect Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage for future generations. We urge all parties in Afghanistan to protect the cultural heritage of their country, including the museums and cultural institutions.
Warm congratulations to the Secretary of State. It was a big relief to everyone that the Government withdrew their vaccine passport plan but, if we do see the return of vaccine passport ideas or other covid restrictions, please can the Government distinguish between events and conferences, where covid-secure measures and tracing are highly developed, and nightclubs and mass gatherings, where more precautions may be needed? They are very different sorts of venues, and they require different sorts of precautions.
I know that conference venues and organisers have put a huge amount of work into reopening safely, with many already using voluntary certification. I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s huge support in this area. I take her point about the nature of business events; they are more organised and structured than some other events. The Prime Minister announced a range of plan B measures. Further details will be coming out, but I should emphasise that they are plan B. I would be happy to talk further with her.
I know the hon. Lady’s passion for all things sport. We should probably take the opportunity also to congratulate Alfie Hewett, Gordon Reid and Joe Salisbury on their success last Saturday in the United States. On the point the hon. Lady is raising on women’s sport, I can tell her that that is absolutely a priority of mine and of the Department. W£58e have a women in sport working group, which is very effectively looking at what further actions we can take to promote and support women’s sport. I would be happy to continue talking to her about this and other issues.
The Attorney General was asked—
Financial Crime: Prosecution Rates
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude to you, to the Prime Minister and the Government, to Opposition parties, to the whole of Parliament and to the brilliant team at the Attorney General’s office for all of their work, which enabled me to take that precious time with my baby? On behalf of my family, may I say that we are incredibly grateful?
The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office both play a crucial role in tackling financial crime. In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted more than 6,500 defendants for fraud and forgery, with a conviction rate of 85.6%, and the SFO secured successful judicial outcomes in 84% of cases over the past four financial years.
It is now estimated that 86% of reported fraud is cyber-related. I am concerned that the CPS, the SFO and Action Fraud need the right skills and sense of urgency to deal with this rising crime, which has devastating effects on people’s lives. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on that?
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the significant increase in cyber-crime. I am particularly interested in the issue, and last year I addressed the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime and outlined that cyber-crime is a key priority for this Government. That is why in March this year the CPS launched its first ever economic crime strategy, to ensure that it remains ahead of the changing nature of this complex crime.
Mobile Phone Data: Criminal Trials
Effective handling of digital information is crucial to ensuring robust disclosure practices and effective trials. Alongside the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, I will be co-hosting a tech event later this year with industry experts to investigate novel approaches to managing mobile device data throughout the criminal justice process. The revised disclosure guidelines that I published earlier this year specifically address technological issues, to assist practitioners in this ever-complex field.
My hon. Friend raises an important and concerning issue. People smuggling is a terrible crime that blights the lives of vulnerable people and I welcome all the efforts the Government are making to combat it. The Crown Prosecution Service regularly uses mobile phone data when prosecuting offences under the Immigration Act 2016. Phone metadata can identify the location at which the phone was used, while the information content can identify details of the offence, or even wider offences. The CPS is highly cognisant of the effective use of mobile data, where available, to pursue effective prosecutions.
Effective and Accountable Justice
Together with colleagues in the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice, we have developed a criminal justice action plan to drive system recovery as we rebuild after the pandemic. Progress against the action plan will be measured by a set of criminal justice scorecards, which will be published quarterly from this autumn. This approach will enable a cross-system response to dips in performance and hold each part of the system accountable for improvement.
As a former Scottish Justice Secretary, I am well aware of Scotland’s distinct legal jurisdiction, but broadcasting and human rights are reserved responsibilities. Craig Murray, a Scottish journalist, has been jailed for eight months without appeal. Is the Attorney General able to make any representations to ensure that the European convention on human rights and other protocols are followed when they apply to such rights and powers?
We must ensure that all journalists have the right to express themselves and work in a free society. We are incredibly proud of that tradition in this country and our human rights regime rightly protects freedom of expression. I am happy to discuss this vital matter further with the hon. Gentleman.
I welcome the Attorney General back to her place. I am sure she will agree that it is also right to pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the way in which he discharged his duties as the Attorney General to the very high standards and with the impartiality of that office—it could not have been done better.
Does the Attorney General agree that for an effective system it is important that we have not only a fully joined-up plan but effective funding for all parts of the justice system? What steps is she taking to ensure a joint approach to getting the best possible outcome for the Law Officers’ Department, the CPS and the Ministry of Justice in the coming spending review?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for resources as we rebuild after the pandemic. We need to ensure that the court backlog, which we all accept exists, is dealt with. That is why we have been working across Government, with the sector and with local bodies to ensure that comprehensive support is available for victims and witnesses. After all, it is victims for whom we are here and for whom we need to fight.
I welcome the Attorney General back to her place—it is good to see her—and thank the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for all his work during her maternity leave.
The court backlog is at a record high, with victims waiting years for their day in court. The latest Government data reveals that in the year ending March 2021, a staggering 1 million victims of crime abandoned their case because they lost faith in the justice system. The CPS budget has been cut by 33% in real terms over the past decade. Ahead of the comprehensive spending review, what specifically will the Attorney General say to the Treasury? What does she say specifically to the millions of victims who have lost faith in the system?
As I say, we accept that there is a court backlog, and it is a priority for this Government as we build back from the pandemic. The CPS has implemented a number of changes, with cross-system partners, to assist the criminal justice system in its response to covid. I was pleased that the independent inspectorate praised the CPS response to the pandemic. The CPS has recently introduced specific measures to accelerate its management of cases in the context of the pandemic.
The Chancellor has been clear that there will need to be tough choices as we come out of the pandemic. The public expect us to deliver the highest-quality services at the best value, ensuring that every pound is well spent. The CPS has received funding uplifts in the past three spending rounds, including £85 million to allow it to recruit more than 350 new prosecutors to boost capacity and support court recovery.
I have listened to what the Attorney General has said, but say to her that the criminal justice system is on its knees. In rape cases, 44% of victims are pulling out before their case gets to court. The latest Crown Prosecution Service data shows that it would take the Government 22 years to reach their own target of returning to 2016 rape prosecution levels—22 years! It is absolutely not good enough, and we see this Government repeatedly fail rape victims. Will the Attorney General tell me what she plans to do to ensure that the Government meet their target, or will she sit on her hands and oversee the further decriminalisation of rape?
The assertion that there has been a decriminalisation of rape is simply not backed up by the facts and is a very damaging narrative to proffer. It is very important that we recognise that, yes, there have been delays in the system, and I recognise how distressing those delays are. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that progress is being made to boost court capacity and to enable cases to continue to flow through the system. That includes harnessing technology, such as the cloud video platform, making use of the Nightingale courts and exploring the use of extended operating hours in court. The special measure allowing vulnerable victims, including rape victims and those who are witnesses in those cases, to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to reduce waiting times, which is under section 28, has been rapidly rolled out to cover all 82 Crown courts as of 23 November last year, and the CPS was a key partner in ensuring that that roll-out went smoothly.
I welcome the Attorney General back to her place and wish her growing family all the very best.
Does the Attorney General agree that any effective criminal justice system must ensure that cases are brought in a timely manner? Will she join me in welcoming the £50 million announced by the Scottish Government to clear the court backlog, and outline any advice that she has given to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that victims can access effective and prompt justice through the court system?
There has been a real focus on dealing with the backlog and ensuring a better flow of cases right from reporting at the police station through to conviction. That was most pertinently highlighted in the recent rape review published by this Government with a particular focus on those victims. There have been a huge number of changes implemented by the CPS with cross-system partners to assist the criminal justice response to covid. As I have mentioned, it includes the interim charging protocol, which is designed to be clear that the high-harm crimes and covid-related crimes, such as spitting and assaults on essential workers, are prioritised. That will be and has been an effective step forward in dealing with the backlog.
Understanding of the Law
It is vital that children of all ages learn about our famous legal system. My office works very closely with the Department for Education to ensure that the curriculum covers a full range of important legal concepts, including fundamental rights and criminal law. My office also works very closely with members of the pro bono and public legal education committees, who run programmes to engage and educate young people about the law outside the curriculum.
Our legal system is the cornerstone of our society, so does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to work with not just with schools but voluntary organisations to make sure that young people understand not just the law and our legal process, but Parliament’s role in forming the law?
My hon. Friend has put it very well. Understanding the law is vital for young people. To that end, I wholeheartedly support pro bono work as part of education and a way in which students can support their communities to understand the law, their rights and what is required of them. When I was both training for and practising at the self-employed Bar, I undertook pro bono work and also volunteered for the free representation unit. I encourage all practitioners, young and older, to maintain that very proud tradition of the Bar.
In 1975, a 17-year-old young man died while on Army training. He was a recent recruit. The family have never believed the account of his death given by the Ministry of Defence. In 1998, my predecessor wrote to the then Attorney General about the case. Now it appears that new evidence has come forward. Will the Attorney General meet me and some of the family members to discuss this, in their pursuit of the truth?
Covid-19: Criminal Justice System
I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss the important issue of criminal justice capacity since the covid-19 restrictions have been eased. The covid outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. I have been proud of the resilience that the criminal justice agencies have demonstrated. There is still more to do, but both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts during this difficult time, and I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.
I support the Government’s efforts to address the recovery, and pay tribute to all those working hard across the country to make this happen, but can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me how victims are being supported so that they do not drop out of the criminal justice process due to the time lag?
I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and CPS teams around the country. I was pleased to meet CPS South West last year to learn more about its case progression and response to the pandemic. In February this year, the Government announced an additional £40 million to support victims of crime during the pandemic and beyond. Throughout this period, almost £600,000 of funding has been made available to assist helpline services, and £3 million per annum until 2022 has been committed to independent sexual violence advisers. That is a reflection of the comprehensive package of support put forward by this Government to help to build back better after the pandemic.
Refugee Rights: International Law
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 discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, in accordance with our international obligations. The Home Office’s new plan for immigration is based on fairness, and the Government stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty from all over the world.
Speaking in the House on Tuesday of the Home Secretary’s plan literally to push back migrant children and their parents arriving by boats in the channel, the now former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), said that these actions would not even
“come close to breaking international law”—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 799.]
Given the number of leading UK legal experts with no axe to grind who say the absolute opposite, can the Attorney General at least reassure the House that she has not advised the Home Secretary that pushback plans would be either legal or moral?
The Government are committed to addressing the unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings, and are continuing to explore all options available to bring the numbers down. Our primary focus is on preventing people from entering the channel, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives. As part of the Home Office’s ongoing operational response, it will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.
Unduly Lenient Sentences
In 2020 my office received, and as the Law Officers we reviewed, 552 referrals under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Ninety-seven of those were referred to the Court of Appeal and 61 sentences were increased. In February, I was proud to present in the Court of Appeal a case in which the victim was raped while in a relationship, and I was successful in increasing the defendant’s sentence. It is important that victims report these crimes and that justice is seen to be done.
Last month Cleveland police’s former head of corporate communications, Mr Green, pleaded guilty to making indecent images of children. The district judge gave Mr Green a sentence that involved no jail time and a community order lasting just 24 months. That strikes me as an unduly lenient sentence in any case, but given the position of trust he held in his senior role in Cleveland police, I believe that the case must be reviewed. Will the Attorney General review Mr Green’s sentence and ensure that justice is heard for the victims of his crime?
I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work on behalf of those who have been affected by cases of this nature. This case was brought to my attention by Steve Turner, the Cleveland police and crime commissioner. As my hon. Friend will be aware, I can only review sentences that fall within the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and as this case was heard at the magistrates court it is ineligible.