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Topical Questions

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021

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 am afraid that I am going to have to write to the hon. Lady, being new to the job as I am. I will do that immediately.

T3. May I also offer my congratulations to the new Secretary of State? In Eastbourne, the ambition for a mixed augmented reality studio is beginning to take shape. What would this mean? Skilled jobs, an injection into the hospitality sector and keeping us at the forefront of film-making. What support can the sector and MediaBite, the project lead, anticipate from the Government, and will the Minister join me in wishing them well in their endeavour and in their bid to Innovate UK? (903469)

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?

Order. Topical questions are meant to be short and punchy, not big, long questions. If you want to ask a long question, come in earlier, please. We have a very short time.

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.

T5. Last year there was full gigabit-capable broadband in just 13% of households in my Eddisbury constituency. Thanks to UK Government initiatives such as the rural voucher scheme, the figure now stands at 47%, but we still have a long way to go, which is why I am launching a survey of the broadband and mobile coverage of my local residents to find out where the notspots are. Will the Minister agree to meet me to assess that survey and to discuss what more can be done to ensure that we get full coverage right across the constituency? (903472)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the world-leading pace of this country’s broadband roll-out, but we know there is more to do. I would encourage everybody in his constituency to fill in his broadband survey, and I would be very happy to meet him.

T2. The lockdowns during the pandemic have brought into sharp focus the stark digital divide in our country. Despite Government promises, 1.9 million households still do not have internet access, and many more, including in my Slough constituency, rely on expensive pay-as-you-go services. Is it not about time that the Government finally bridged this divide? (903468)

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.

T6. D. H. Lawrence is Ashfield’s most famous son, and I thank the Government for the extra funding they supplied last year for the D. H. Lawrence Centre in Eastwood. Will the Secretary of State now back my bid to get a D. H. Lawrence statue in Eastwood to celebrate his life and works? (903473)

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.

T4. When last in power, the Taliban destroyed 70% of the artifacts in the National Museum of Afghanistan, including many significant works of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic history. With academics now facing persecution and libraries and museums under threat of destruction and looting, what steps can the Government take with their international allies to prevent a further cultural genocide? (903470)

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.

T7. I join the new Secretary of State in congratulating Emma Raducanu on her historic victory this week; we are at a pivotal moment for women’s sport. I also commend BBC Wales on committing to show Wales’s 2023 FIFA women’s World cup qualifiers on mainstream TV because, as the saying goes, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it—visibility matters. So what commitments can the Secretary of State give to encourage women to participate in all sports, especially at grassroots level? (903474)

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.

Before we begin questions to the Attorney General, may I take a moment to welcome back the Attorney General from maternity leave? May I also thank the stand-in Attorney General, Sir Michael Ellis, for his service while she was away?