Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Streaming Content Providers: BBFC Rating System
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House. I also welcome the new shadow team.
The Government launched a consultation in August last year to level the playing field between traditional broadcasters and video-on-demand streaming services, to provide a fair competitive framework and ensure that UK viewers receive equivalent standards regardless of the tech they use. That included looking at audience protection measures such as the role of the British Board of Film Classification age ratings. That consultation closed in October. We are now considering our response to the consultation and will publish the next steps in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for his tremendous campaigning work to protect children online and for sharing with the Department details of his recent meeting with the BBFC. We have great trust in its best practice age ratings and, as I have set out, we are currently considering its role, as part of the VOD consultation. We are trying to strike the right balance between freedom of expression, protecting audiences from harm and making sure that traditional broadcasting and streaming services are held to the same standards. If my hon. Friend has additional ideas on how best to do that, I have sent him the details of the lead official in this area and we would welcome his further engagement.
Online Safety Bill
May I echo my colleague’s warm welcome to the shadow Front Bench team, particularly the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell)? I am quite sure that we support different football teams and I know that we are from different cities, but we are both north-westerners and I look forward to a positive working relationship.
I have met a range of stakeholders, including civil society groups, to discuss the Online Safety Bill. I have also had regular meetings with my ministerial colleagues, and I have heard a wide range of opinions on the Bill. I am taking those options into account alongside the recommendations of the Joint Committee.
There has been widespread support throughout this House for the Online Safety Bill, and yet it has been subject to contradictory messaging and delays. None of that is helpful for the Department or good government. Will the Secretary of State finally provide a clear timetable so that the vital work of scrutiny and improvement can begin?
There have been absolutely no delays. The Joint Committee reported on 10 December and the Bill will come to the House very shortly. We have taken time to consider the recommendations carefully, and the recommendations of the Law Commission, and the Bill will be here very shortly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee system is the jewel in the crown of Parliament and well capable of providing the right scrutiny. Those are not my words but those of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. With that in mind, in the upcoming Online Safety Bill will the Secretary of State proceed with utmost caution over the proposed permanent standing Joint Committee, which would curtail her own powers and those of Ministers across Government, and if the precedent were followed to its logical conclusion, it could lead to the dilution of the Select Committee system? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I thank him for his question. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the jewel in the crown, as is the scrutiny of all Select Committees, but the Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking and novel and will legislate in an area in which we have never legislated or enforced before. I am quite sure that the place for the debate about whether or not there will be additional layers of scrutiny will be when the Bill comes before the House.
The Secretary of State may have seen the excellent research in The Guardian newspaper this week showing that search engines such as Google are disguising advertisements as search results, particularly those linked to fossil fuel companies, so much so that ClientEarth describes it as “endemic greenwashing”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she will use the Bill to crack down on these over-mighty, arrogant tech platforms?
That is a central purpose of the Bill. As a result of the work by the Joint Committee and others, including the Law Commission and those who have examined the first edition of the draft Bill, when we bring the Bill to the House there will be improvements and enhancements that will go even further in relation to those who use their power on the internet—those big tech companies and others—and the legislation will be there to provide the reassurances that I think the hon. Gentleman is looking for.
Last year, with 50 of my colleagues, I wrote to five of the major social media companies calling for meaningful change and asking them to recognise their moral duty to make this change. Only three of the five even bothered to reply to the correspondence, which makes me concerned that they are not taking the matter seriously enough. Will my right hon. Friend be characteristically robust about ensuring meaningful change in the forthcoming legislation?
I am disappointed to hear about the response from the tech companies, but frankly not surprised. We will bring forward legislation that introduces criminal sanctions, including pretty steep fines—10% of global annual turnover, which could be as much as £18 billion, so they will be considerable. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not be having to do this. Those organisations have a moral responsibility to provide the protections that young people require. It is their responsibility to ensure that illegal material is no longer placed online, that they remove content that is legal but harmful, but most of all that they protect young people and children. The Bill will have those three considerations at its heart. The companies could be doing what they need to do right now—they do not need the Bill. They could be removing those harmful algorithms right now.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Happy new year to you and to the whole House.
After years of Government delay, we still do not have a confirmed timetable for implementation of online safety legislation. With thousands of unvaccinated covid-19 patients in our hospitals, appalling attacks on NHS workers, and misinformation about the vaccines circulating readily online, what is the Secretary of State doing now—not in a year’s time, not when the legislation is finally enacted—to properly address misinformation about the covid-19 vaccines online?
The disinformation and misinformation unit is working, and we have done everything possible. I know there have been—accusations is a strong word; perhaps concerns. Concerns have been expressed by Opposition Front Benchers that the disinformation and misinformation unit is no longer in existence. That is not the case; it is not true. The unit is there and it is working. We had a pilot, which ran for six months and stopped, but the work from that pilot continues with the disinformation and misinformation unit. That work takes place daily. Daily, we work to remove harmful online content and, particularly when it comes to covid-19 vaccinations, content that provides misinformation and disinformation. Daily, we have contacts with online content providers, and the work is ongoing.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) raised a strong point about scrutiny and good government. Before Christmas, the Secretary of State appointed her preferred candidate as chair of the Charity Commission. Within a week he was gone, after it was discovered that he had behaved inappropriately to women colleagues, sending one a picture of himself in a Victoria’s Secrets store—
Order. I do not think that is linked to the question, which is about the Online Safety Bill. Your question has to be linked; that is why it is taken. I will call you on topicals, so you can ask the question then. [Interruption.] They are not my rules. They are rules the House has set so it is no use getting angry with me. The question has to be relevant.
Covid-19 Plan B: Tourism Industry
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the vital tourism sector. He is right that some of the new rules, including the guidance to work from home, can be difficult for the tourism sector, because movement of people and social interaction is pivotal to a thriving tourism industry, but we have committed to provide support and over £35 billion has already been provided to tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses.
I thank the Minister for that response and his recognition that the advice is causing problems for a number of businesses. He is quite right. People who go out to work often use cafés, restaurants, pubs and shops outside their normal working hours. I know the Chancellor has brought in a package of measures to help businesses, and I do not advocate that businesses be closed, but when they are open but suffering from lower trade, how much they are losing is intangible and difficult to assess. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Chancellor again to see whether any further help can be given where it is necessary?
I thank my constituency neighbour again for raising these important points. We have ongoing dialogue with the Chancellor and the Treasury. The new grants the Chancellor announced just before Christmas will be very important in helping the businesses affected. Many will get the grants automatically. I encourage others—perhaps those on the edges of supply chains—that do not get the grants automatically to apply for the additional restrictions grants. The impact on them may not be obvious, and I appeal to local authorities, which have discretion in the allocation of those grants, to be sympathetic to such claims by the businesses affected in the way my hon. Friend describes.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The theatres, festivals and live events that are such an important part of our tourist offer have all been hit by the uncertainty around plan B, and Government support is not working. The live events reinsurance scheme was meant to protect the music, theatre and live events sector from the impact of covid, but it has been a total flop. It does not cover cancellations due to covid outbreaks, nor does it provide support outside a full national lockdown, which no one wants to happen. Given the demand that will be caused by the continued uncertainty well into the new year, will the Government urgently review the scheme and repurpose it to give businesses and workers the support they need now?
Of course the scheme is really important. We do want to make sure that it works as intended, but it is part of an overall support package for the arts sector, which includes the theatre tax reliefs that were announced prior to Christmas and the all-important culture recovery fund. Again, more money has been released from that. I am confident that the overall package will be of great support to this vital sector.
TV Licence Fee: People over 75
I meet the BBC regularly to discuss a range of issues, including enforcement, and I will meet the chair and director-general next week. The BBC confirmed recently that no enforcement action has been taken against anyone over 75 years of age at this stage. I am clear that the BBC must support those affected by the decision to end free TV licences for over-75s, and I expect it to do so with the utmost sensitivity.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response, but do we trust the BBC? Would it not be much better to remove the power of the BBC to enforce sanctions through the criminal law against those who are over 75 and who are supporting a policy that the Government say they also support?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the entire issue of over-75s and decriminalisation remains very much under review and on my desk. The BBC has confirmed that no enforcement action has been taken. It recently began customer care visits to people aged over 75 who may need additional support in paying the TV licence. Those visits are to assist the over-75s to get appropriately licenced, with the fee paid. I expect the BBC to handle those visits with the utmost sensitivity. I reassure him that this issue is under review.
About six years ago, a previous Government entered into a two-way agreement with the BBC regarding the over-75s. The BBC’s part of the agreement was that it would continue to fund free licence fees for the over-75s. The Government’s part of the agreement was to agree to an increase in the licence fee and to some other aspects that advantaged the BBC. The BBC has broken its part of the agreement. What are the Government doing about our part?
As I said in my previous answer, this is something that I am continuing to review. I reiterate that the BBC has taken no action against anyone over 75 years of age—no one. This is something that I am watching very carefully. I cannot say much more at this stage, but I do have a close eye on it.
My Department is making an enormous contribution to levelling up that positively impacts on people’s lives across the country. Our £1.4 billion investment in digital infrastructure is connecting people wherever they are in the UK; we are investing £850 million into local culture and £560 million into youth clubs in the places that need them most; and we are levelling up through sport with £205 million for community sport pitches, plus our flagship 2022 events such as the Commonwealth games and the rugby league world cup.
The Secretary of State will know that grassroots football clubs, particularly those in deprived areas, are very important for levelling up. I had the pleasure before Christmas of visiting Bourne Vale social club, which helps to sustain Ipswich Vale Exiles, who have 22 youth teams and four men’s teams in one of the most deprived parts of Ipswich. The football teams are dependent on the social club, but the social club is going through really hard times and is struggling to raise enough money to continue to exist. That puts at risk all those football teams. Will the Secretary of State meet me to try to find a way through? Potentially, some of that money might go to the social club, because by helping the social club we would be helping Ipswich Vale Exiles, who are critical to Maidenhall and Chantry, which are up there among the best parts of the town.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that we have paid a huge amount of attention to local football clubs, particularly over the past year, not least as a result of the fan-led review that has been undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is here today.
We continue to provide considerable support for hospitality businesses this year. That is part of around £400 billion of direct support for the economy, which has helped to safeguard jobs, businesses and public services. We have also provided an unprecedented £1 billion to ensure the survival of grassroots professional support and leisure sectors. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.
The current Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is the fourth to promise this House a White Paper on devolution initially and then a White Paper on levelling up. Indeed, we were absolutely promised that the levelling-up White Paper was coming before Christmas. I will not ask the Secretary of State to gaze into the future and predict whether we are actually going to get the White Paper this year, but given that she has answered a question about the levelling-up agenda, could she explain to the House precisely what it is?
It is about levelling up—I am very sure. Equality and opportunity for all is probably the best way to describe it. It is certainly an ethos that is overlaid as a filter on every policy in my Department: equality and opportunity for all. I am very sure that the paper he is looking for will be here shortly, too.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an important part of levelling up is to strengthen local and regional media? They are under terrific pressure at the moment, yet do an important job in holding local institutions to account. Will she look at other ways in which we might do that? Perhaps by extending the local democracy reporting scheme, funded by the tech platforms.
I bow to the expertise of my right hon. Friend, who has served in my job and in the Department for many years, and served as Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I do not think anybody in the House knows as much about this as he probably does, so I bow to his expertise. I would like to talk to him about his ideas on how we can move forward, and I pay tribute to him for having always championed local media throughout his career. I am happy to meet him to discuss that further.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your warm welcome to me and my new team. I am delighted to be here for my first DCMS questions. May I thank the Secretary of State for her very warm welcome? In the tradition of the Manchester-Liverpool rivalry, I look forward to us fiercely disagreeing at times, but also to us joining forces to advance much-needed change in this agenda.
Does the Secretary of State agree that sport and culture, and the fast-growing creative industries, are absolutely central to levelling up, to place and belonging, and to ensuring that creative jobs are across our regions and nations? If she does agree, now that—I hope—she has read up on the funding of Channel 4 and found that it is not actually funded by the taxpayer, perhaps she could explain how privatising that public service broadcaster will not diminish its crucial role in levelling up, given its unique funding model and its strong track record in creating jobs and opportunity across our regions and nations?
I am absolutely grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to explain my answer about Channel 4, which was misrepresented on social media. Channel 4 does take its public borrowings from the Government and the taxpayer, and that is what I was referring to. Channel 4 borrowings do not come from investment; they come from the Government, and that is what I was talking about in my answer to the Select Committee. I really thank her for the opportunity to put that right.
To go into Channel 4 in more detail—
I think it is very loosely connected to levelling up. I am happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady about Channel 4 and its impending privatisation, or indeed, whether that happens or not. A consultation has taken place, and we have had over 60,000 responses. We have been working hard in the Department on the unprecedented number of responses; we have been working our way through. We will reach a response very shortly on what we will do with Channel 4, but I give her my assurance that it will be what is best for the sustainability of Channel 4 in the future.
TV Licence Fee
The Government are in the process of determining the level of the licence fee from April this year. We need to deliver value for money for the licence fee payer while ensuring that the BBC can continue to provide high-quality services. We have been having constructive discussions with the BBC, and I believe we are close to reaching an agreement, but I cannot comment further while those negotiations are ongoing. An announcement will be made in Parliament in due course.
The Minister will know that there is growing support for scrapping the licence fee or axing the TV tax, not least in Redcar and Cleveland, where the Bilsdale mast fire left people without TV reception, yet most were not given any sort of refund. Does the Minister agree that this is not an acceptable situation and that if the BBC were a satellite, broadband or phone provider, a refund for time without service and, in some cases, even further compensation would have been expected? Given that the BBC is using my constituents’ licence fees to pay celebs hundreds of thousands of pounds—
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the plight of his constituents after the mast fire in Bilsdale. I have been working very closely with Arqiva to try to restore those services urgently, and I believe 98% of households have now had their Freeview restored, but I believe the BBC has also been issuing refunds. It has got to something like 11,000 refunds now; if my hon. Friend wishes to take this issue up with the BBC, I recommend that he do so.
Gambling Act 2005: Review
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Gambling Act review is a priority for the Department. We are currently working very carefully through the evidence, including the 16,000 submissions that we received. Our intention is to find ways of introducing reforms to prevent the serious harm caused by gambling addiction while allowing those who can bet safely to do so, and we will publish a White Paper setting out our plans in the very near future.
With gambling firms grooming and sucking vulnerable people into a web of debt and despair, it is crucial that the Government outlaw their exploitative practices as soon as possible. As for their victims, will the Minister commit to talk to Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care so that, alongside his strategy, a comprehensive public health strategy is generated to provide support for people who have experienced gambling harm and to protect people from being sucked into that place?
I agree with the hon. Lady. There are some extremely troubling practices, particularly among online gambling firms, that, as she says, lead people down a path to a very dark place that sometimes leads to suicide. I have met many of the families whose sons, daughters, husbands or wives have tragically committed suicide as a result of gambling addiction.
On co-operating with DHSC, I have already met my colleague the Health Minister to discuss this issue and will be meeting her again on this topic. I have also met NHS clinicians such as Dr Matt Gaskell, who runs the Northern Gambling Clinic in Leeds, to discuss these issues. I have received his very interesting, constructive and useful ideas, which are feeding directly into the review.
While taking evidence from fans during the football review, I was struck by their unprompted concern about the amount of gambling-related content in football. I appreciate that the Minister is new in his role, but could he tell the House whether he or his predecessor have had a chance to meet football fans to discuss their concerns ahead of publication of the review?
I thank my hon. Friend for her work in this area, and particularly for her work on the fan-led review. As a fan of Crystal Palace—a proud south London club—I am very keen to make sure that football fans’ voices are heard. Next week, I am meeting a number of sporting organisations, including the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football League, the Football Association, the Football League and England Golf. Following the conversation that my hon. Friend and I had on the phone a day or two ago, I have already asked my office to arrange a meeting with the Football Supporters Association, which I hope will happen in the coming days or weeks.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the changes that we all wish to see, but does he believe that the review will result in a strengthening of measures to prevent under-age gambling? When can we expect to see the desperately needed changes come before the House?
Yes, I expect that we will see a strengthening of age-related measures and, indeed, a strengthening of measures more widely, for the reasons that we have mentioned already. Because it is urgent, as the hon. Member says, we intend to publish the White Paper as soon as possible in the coming months.
UK Film and Television Industry
The Government’s actions helped the film and TV industry bounce back from the pandemic, with production now stronger than ever. Our support includes the £500 million production restart scheme, supporting over 88,000 jobs, and the cultural recovery fund, supporting over 200 independent cinemas. We have also built on the UK global screen fund.
One reason why we have such a successful TV and film production sector in this country is the broad ecosystem of large, medium and small businesses that all contribute to that global success. Could I take the Minister back to the point raised earlier about Channel 4? Can she reassure me that specific regard is being given to the small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency and across the north of England who rely on Channel 4 for their first entry into network television commissions? What steps is she taking to ensure they are not disadvantaged?
I would like to provide him with those reassurances. That is very much on my mind, and that of the Secretary of State, as we look at this issue. I read with interest my hon. Friend’s piece in The Times on Channel 4 and levelling up, and the contribution that the broadcaster makes in that regard. In so far as we are minded to sell—no decision has yet been taken—it would be done in order to secure the future of the broadcaster and looking at the wider sector. I assure him that the independent production sector is doing incredibly well and is moving away from a reliance on the public service broadcasters anyway.
I appreciate the support given to our TV industry. However, a big question remains on the viability of the BBC licence fee in today’s modern society. With hundreds of commercial and subscription channels currently available, I urge the Minister to look at the possibility of phasing out this outdated payment model and to consider other options for the BBC to be able to fund itself.
The current licence fee funding model is fixed for the rest of the charter, until 2027, but we will be reviewing the model well in advance of the next charter period. We are considering all options. I appreciate the concerns he raises, which I know are shared by a number of others.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do not think I said happy new year to you at the beginning of questions. Happy new year to everyone here today.
I know it has been a tough few weeks for our world-class arts and culture sector, which has found itself grappling with omicron and covid rather than the festive rush. We have supported the sector throughout the pandemic and in December we doubled the emergency funding available, to £60 million, to overcome this latest challenge.
In the meantime, UK tech enjoyed another record-breaking year in 2021—I think this country had three times the tech investment of any other EU country. As we head into 2022, it promises to be a historic year for the future of the UK. We continue to make fantastic progress on our three showstopper events—Birmingham Commonwealth games, Unboxed and Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, all of which will bring the whole country together in a year of celebration and renewal.
The online safety Bill will be before the House very shortly. I do not think I can answer the hon. Lady’s particular question, because that is not a policy of the Department—it is not our policy area—but the online safety Bill will be here shortly and we can discuss it further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on organising what sounds like an incredibly successful event. He and I know just how important sport and physical activity is for our physical and mental health.
At the recent spending review, the Chancellor announced an additional £205 million for up to 8,000 community football pitches and multi-use sports facilities across the country. Every year, our arm’s length body, Sport England, distributes millions of pounds to support grassroots sport right across the country, including more than £180,000 in my hon. Friend’s constituency since 2019.
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all in the House.
There is a total lack of ambition to make Britain a world leader on high-speed broadband. Reforms made in 2017 are holding back 5G connectivity in many areas across the country. Instead of paying a fair price to sports clubs, churches and local authorities to host and upgrade masts, the telecoms companies are slashing rents and holding community and sports groups to ransom through the courts, to boost their bottom lines—multibillion-pound organisations making profits on the backs of groups that have kept our communities going during the darkest days of the pandemic. Will the Government look again at the scope of the telecoms Bill that is due before the House shortly, to make rent evaluations fairer, rebalance the market and ensure that we can get 5G broadband across the UK improved?
We have put forward an important piece of legislation on this, to get our ambitions out there on improved wireless and broadband connectivity. I would be keen to engage with the hon. Gentleman further on these issues, but we think we have struck the right balance between the mobile network operators and those who receive rents.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that the singing of the national anthem is something that provides a great sense of unity and pride in our nation. In this year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, will he take steps to encourage national broadcasters to play the national anthem and ensure that the BBC restores it at the end of the day’s programming before it switches to News 24?
We fully support the singing of the national anthem, Her Majesty the Queen and other expressions of patriotism, including the flying of the Union Jack. The more we hear the national anthem sung, frankly, the better. Of course, organisations such as schools are free to promote it, and the more we can do in this area, the better it will be.
You may have a sense of déjà vu, Mr Speaker, when I tell you that before Christmas the Secretary of State appointed a preferred candidate as Charity Commission chair. Within a week he was gone, when it was discovered that he had sent a photo of himself in a Victoria’s Secret store. Does the Secretary of State do no vetting when she appoints candidates? When she appoints a new candidate, can she promise us that it will be less chaotic a process than last time round?
As I have said before, all our interview processes are undertaken in full compliance with the governance code and the principles given by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We asked Martin Thomas at interview whether he had anything to declare, which he said he did not. He has rightly apologised for his error of judgment during the application process. I have accepted his resignation. The Select Committee will examine this matter and the error of judgment, but of course he also passed through the cross-party Joint Committee process. We are reviewing our processes; we review them constantly. I am afraid there is not much more I can say about this.
On Monday I visited Harefield United football club in my constituency, which told me, as many other grassroots football clubs do, of its frustration at being unable to access excellent facilities in local schools. What discussions have taken place between the Department and the Department for Education about opening up those brilliant facilities to a wider range of grassroots sports clubs?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We have to open up school facilities for more sporting activities. I have already had several conversations with DFE Ministers about opening up school facilities. We are also working together on the school sport and activity action plan, and in the spending review additional money was allocated to support the opening up of school facilities and the teaching of PE in primary schools. My hon. Friend is raising a really important point; more action will be taken.
We know that over Christmas children and young people would have been watching mainly streaming services rather than terrestrial TV, so can I press the Minister? Would it not be an easy and quick win to require all streaming services to use the British Board of Film Classification age verification system? We know that Netflix does, but Disney does not, which causes confusion for parents. This would be an easy, quick win for the Government, as well as everyone else.
I know that the right hon. Lady is passionate about this issue, which is something we are actively looking at, as I mentioned earlier. Those ratings are already voluntarily taken on by the likes of Netflix and others, but we are looking at what more could be done.
If there is evidence that officials in the Department have inadvertently advised the Secretary of State on the application of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the HMRC film production company manual, would this be of concern to her, and would she agree to meet me and my constituent about this matter?
I have met my hon. Friend in my office and we have discussed at length the situation regarding transport between film venues. It seems to fall into a difficult area. I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport and am awaiting his response. When I have had his response, I will revert to my hon. Friend further.
The minor reforms made as a result of the collapse of the Football Index by the Secretary of State’s Department are thin gruel for my constituents who lost thousands through that scam. What are the Government doing to ensure that both the Gambling Commission and the Financial Conduct Authority are fit for purpose, and that my constituents get the justice that they deserve after the collapse of that scam, the Football Index?
The Gambling Commission has revoked the licence of the Football Index’s operator. The individuals have surrendered their personal licences. The matter has been referred to the Insolvency Service, which is investigating allegations of directors’ misconduct. It has the power to conduct criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions, including for fraud if appropriate. On the broader question of compensation, there is no statutory basis upon which compensation can be paid to people who have lost money as a result of the collapse of a betting firm, but the investigations by the Insolvency Service are ongoing.
The Attorney General was asked—
Spending Review 2021: Law Officers’ Departments
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on her new role? She is familiar with the position of shadow Attorney General. I look forward to working with her in the future. The Government committed to improving performance across the criminal justice system in the spending review. For example, funding for the Crown Prosecution Service will increase by more than £80 million a year by 2025, which will be used to drive improvements in the prosecution of rape cases and to help to tackle the court backlog.
The Government will not rest until we have improved public safety. The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers will cut crime and get criminals off our streets. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there are more than 300 new police officers in Lancashire, his own region, all working to keep our community safe. Of course, the success of those extra police officers will depend on corresponding increases throughout our criminal justice system, so that we have enough resources to deal with the increased workload created. That is why I am pleased that the CPS has recruited more than 300 more prosecutors since 2019, thanks to the Government’s funding.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and happy new year. It remains to be seen whether the funding allocated is sufficient to tackle the record backlog in court cases facing our country, but may I ask a specific question about one particular aspect of the backlog? This week, magistrates across the country will resume hearing the backlog of cases relating to breaches of covid restrictions over the last two years. Whatever we may think of that process, we know that those magistrates will be put in an impossible position if the laws that the Government are asking them to enforce are not applied equally to individuals working for the Government themselves. Will the Attorney General guarantee that, if Sue Gray concludes that covid restrictions were broken by individuals in Downing Street, there will be no barrier to those individuals facing the same legal consequences as everybody else?
The right hon. Lady makes it clear that she is more interested in scoring political points, frankly, than dealing with the court backlog. When it comes to the primary issue of the court backlog, I am very pleased to see that in the magistrates courts, where, let us be clear, the vast majority of criminal matters are dealt with, we are now seeing a fall in caseloads, going back to pre-pandemic levels. On the question that she actually asked, the process is being led appropriately by Sue Gray. That is the right response. Of course, all recommendations made by that independent process will be considered in the right way.
Strength of the Union
As the Attorney General for England and Wales, I have the Union at the heart of my work. I am pleased that, for example, CPS Wales performs very well: a recent inspectorate report concluded that the Wales CPS area has the highest magistrates court conviction rate across England and Wales. I take this opportunity to thank all our prosecutors based in Wales for their excellent work.
Over the past 18 months, my inbox has been full of people who are frustrated and confused by the differences between the England and Wales covid rules, my constituency being close to the border. As part of the devolution settlement, under the Wales Acts, there is provision for devolution to be suspended temporarily during times of national crisis in order for decisions to be made by Westminster for the whole of the United Kingdom. Will the Attorney General confirm whether she gave any advice to the Government along those lines? If not, what would a national crisis that would trigger such a clause be?
We must respect the arrangements set out in each of the devolution settlements, but I agree with one aspect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is that sometimes the rules of other Administrations can be confusing. This week, for example, under Welsh Government guidance it is okay to go to the pub, but not to the office. The vaccine roll-out and the immense financial support provided by the UK Government are two outstanding examples of what can be achieved when we work together as one United Kingdom, co-operating for the good of the Union.
A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. A key aspect of the Union of which the right hon. and learned Lady is so fond is Scotland’s separate and distinct legal system. Does she agree that any actions taken by the UK Government on legal human rights remedies must continue to respect that, and that any attempt by Westminster to alter those protections against the will of the devolved Administrations would be contrary to the devolution settlement and yet another example of this Tory Government helping—thanks very much—rather than hindering the cause of Scottish independence?
The Law Officers are always concerned about any legislation promoted by the Scottish Parliament and Government that falls outside legislative competence. That is why I was pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with the Government earlier this year on the Bills proposed by the Scottish Government on the UN convention on the rights of the child and on local self-government. Ultimately, we are a United Kingdom. The people of Scotland have voted to remain as part of that United Kingdom, and I only wish that the hon. Lady and her party would respect that will of the people.
Violence against Women and Girls/Hate Crimes: Successful Prosecutions
This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously, as shown by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and our commitment to publishing a new hate crime strategy later this year. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and to protect the public, and it has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes.
Clearly not that seriously, certainly in Warwickshire; according to the CPS data, Warwickshire has the lowest conviction rate—47% conviction against prosecution—at 1.3%. Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, criticised that as the “effective decriminalisation of rape”. She is right, is she not?
No, she is not right. We understand, of course, that we need to do better when it comes to charging rape and to RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—outcomes. The Director of Public Prosecutions accepts that and I accept that. However, we must be fair about where the problem is, so that we can be frank about the solutions. About 10% of police referrals make it to the CPS and, in the most recent data, we see a slight increase—nationally—in the CPS charging rate when it comes to rape, so there are some early signs of improvement. Above all, we have a great commitment by the CPS and criminal justice partners to improve the situation. The rape review was published last year, and we have seen the RASSO 2025 strategy. Innovative processes around Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone are changing the way police and prosecutors work to better tackle rape and serious sexual offences, so that victims are better supported through the process.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that the CPS and her Department invest in ensuring that we have the best-quality prosecutors for rape and serious sexual offences, as well as the manpower and the technology to deal with delays in disclosure, which is of particular relevance in these cases; but, equally, that we need a whole-systems approach to avoid the very considerable level of attrition that comes before, as she rightly observes, cases ever get to the charging stage? That means co-operation, above all, with the police at early stages of the investigation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he puts his finger on the problem. That is why the additional funding that the CPS received last year will partially be dedicated to improving its resources and firepower in dealing with RASSO. We will see a bolstering of specialist RASSO units. A hundred new prosecutors have already been trained in RASSO within the CPS, and within the next three months 70 experienced staff will be appointed into RASSO posts in the pathfinder areas.
I highlight the fact that Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone in Avon and Somerset are being rolled out more widely throughout the CPS areas. They are pioneering better working between police officer and prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and greater support for victims to turn around the decline when it comes to victims’ withdrawal from the process; that is critical to the success of a prosecution.
I thank the Minister for that response. Not only is there clearly a need for successful prosecutions, but women—ladies—and girls feel particularly vulnerable and fearful in society today. What is being done across the UK to ease, protect and restore confidence among ladies and ensure that they feel safe on the streets of this country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. He is absolutely right, and that is why we have rolled out an increased number of independent sexual violence advisers. That is why we are rolling out a victims code, because complainants—
I apologise, Mr Speaker. I wanted the Chamber to enjoy the oratory and eloquence of my hon. Friend, but we will be denied that for a few moments longer.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is right, but I want to emphasise the commitment to fighting violence against women and girls that this Government have not only talked about, but demonstrated through actions. Not only have we introduced new offences—for stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, revenge porn and upskirting—but, as announced this week, we are making a new criminal offence of non-consensual photographing of breastfeeding women in public, and we have provided support on domestic abuse through our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This Government have pioneered a plethora of historic changes to show that we support women and girls and to make Britain a safer place for them.
Nationality and Borders Bill: Compatibility with International Law
To be clear, the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and the fact that it discharges its international obligations in good faith. The Nationality and Borders Bill brings in vital changes to enable this Government, and our immigration and Border Force operatives, to stop the illegal and dangerous trafficking of illegal migrants. I encourage everybody in this Chamber to get behind this vital Bill and support it.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Attorney General may well pride herself on international leadership, but does she therefore agree with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently corrected the Home Secretary’s claim that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and pointed out:
“Having a nationality is not a privilege—it’s a human right”
that is protected by UN treaties to which the UK is a party and which the UK is obliged to protect?
What is clear is that we need to take tangible action to deal with the problem of illegal migrants crossing our channel and dangerous traffickers exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world, while we also need to fix our broken asylum system. That is why the Nationality and Borders Bill addresses some of these very important issues through tangible proposals. The Home Office will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats, and I support that activity.
Does the Minister agree that the Bill helps protect our fight against human trafficking? It will be very interesting to see what the Lords sends back to us, but will the Government continue to commit themselves to ending this evil trade?
There are no two ways about it, and I am proud to say to my hon. Friend that I really support this Government’s attempts to end this evil trade, as he puts it. It is immoral that the criminal people traffickers are taking advantage of people and putting their lives at risk. The people making these crossings do not have the skills or the equipment to traverse some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world safely, and it is of fundamental importance that the Government disrupt this business model and make it untenable.
Over the Christmas holidays, I read “The Lightless Sky”, the account by Gulwali Passarlay of his journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to the UK. After reading that book, I would ask the Minister—and I recommend that she reads it, too—whether she accepts that human traffickers only exist because of the absence of the safe and legal routes that this Government continue to deny to those who are in desperate need and fleeing for their lives?
We are subject to international obligations that make it clear that, if people have legitimate claims for asylum, there are safe and legal routes through which they may pursue those. To get on an illegally manned vessel and to try to break through our borders illegitimately is dangerous, immoral and unlawful.
Criminal Justice System: Disclosure between Parties
Effective disclosure is a vital part of the criminal justice process, and it is inseparable from the right to a fair trial. The Attorney General is now undertaking the first annual review of the disclosure guidelines to ensure that this complex area is continually monitored and that issues that can have such profound implications for securing justice for victims are identified and resolved.
I entirely agree with the Solicitor General that providing defendants with full disclosure of the evidence against them is extremely important, but it is also vital to ensure that police are not taken away from their frontline duties by overly bureaucratic requirements. Currently, for example, local officers in Aylesbury have to spend many hours redacting video evidence they send to the CPS before a charging decision is made just in case it is eventually shared with the defence. What can be done to reduce this burden so that police can be where they are most needed, which is on the streets?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for once again raising a really powerful point. In my discussions with police officers up and down the country, this issue of redaction has arisen again and again, and he is right that this is creating a serious administrative burden that absorbs resources that could profitably be deployed elsewhere. That is why I can assure him that this issue is receiving very close and current attention, and I expect to say more on that shortly.
While the digital data extraction forms that were imposed on survivors of rape are now, thankfully, a thing of the past, the culture that led to their introduction by the CPS and the police is, sadly, not. Could I ask the Attorney General how she is ensuring that women who come forward to report being raped receive the dignity, privacy and respect to which they are entitled?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is incredibly important that when complainants are brave enough to make these allegations, they are not then subject to intrusive, unnecessary and disproportionate disclosure inquiries. Getting that balance right is extremely difficult. There is clear guidance in the Attorney General’s guidelines, and the case of Bater-James and Sultan Mohammed is there as well, but we need to go further to make sure that correct, proportionate and fair decisions are made.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be shadowing the Solicitor General—we have missed him in Shepherd’s Bush.
Last month the Court of Appeal ruled the conviction of Ziad Akle, prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office, unsafe because there was a material failure of disclosure that significantly handicapped the defence. The court described this as a serious failure by the SFO to comply with its duty and said it was particularly regrettable given that some of the documents withheld had a clear potential to embarrass the SFO. It is difficult to imagine a more damning series of judgments on a prosecuting authority. The Attorney General, having recently expressed full confidence in the director of the SFO, has belatedly announced an inquiry, but the Attorney General superintends the SFO and her office line-manages the director, so will the Solicitor General confirm that this inquiry will be fully independent so that it can examine the Attorney General’s own role in this fiasco as well as that of the SFO and the director?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind welcome. That judgment was a significant one and we take it extremely seriously, but he is wrong to say that there was a delay, because the Attorney General moved very swiftly to institute a far-ranging and sweeping inquiry. That will take place, and it will take its time because we will need to consider extremely carefully what emerges from it. The SFO is an important prosecuting authority; it needs to do its job properly and fairly, and we will make sure it does exactly that.