Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Racing Industry: Gambling
I have had extensive conversations with the horse-racing industry and with hon. Members who represent constituencies with racing interests on the Gambling Act 2005 review in general and on the plans that the industry are voluntarily developing to share information on customers who are at severe risk of addictive gambling disorders.
Can the Minister confirm that when the draft proposals of the review are announced, there will be an impact assessment on the horse-racing industry? Will he meet me to discuss my alternative to the proposed single customer view, the single customer wallet, which would not only be cheaper and more efficient for the industry to bring in, but offer consumers better protections?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his ideas. I assure him that proper impact assessments will be done. We know that horse-racing is a vital sport for the people who work in the industry. It supports many jobs, it provides leisure activities for many people, and it is a significant source of national pride and prestige. Nothing in the Gambling Act review, I hope, will do anything to undermine the financial condition of that great sport or its place at the heart of our national life.
I refer to my entry in the register. I caution the Minister that the civil service always underestimates the extent of potential for fraud and the black market. Whether with tobacco smuggling, excise fraud, VAT fraud, self-employment scams or covid scams, it is continually surprised by what happens. Before he brings out the gambling White Paper, will he talk to the racing and gaming industry to ensure that his proposals do not fuel the black market and organised crime?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for attending the recent meeting that we had on the topic. We are, of course, concerned about the possibility of black market gambling. I hope there will be proposals in our review to give the Gambling Commission additional powers to tackle and combat black market betting. We will be mindful of the risks that he has highlighted; I have discussed them already with the Betting and Gaming Council and the industry. We need to balance protecting people who are at severe risk of gambling addiction and serious harm—some people even commit suicide—with ensuring that there is not a flourishing black market, which I am sure all hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to prevent.
I support the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). I welcome the fact that the Minister will carry out an impact assessment on the possible effect on horse-racing of any changes that he proposes. He will be aware that racing depends heavily on bookmakers for about 45% of its income. I congratulate him on that policy and thank him for the way in which he is carrying out the review.
I thank my hon. Friend for the meeting that we recently attended. As I said, we will consider the impact of the whole set of proposals covered in the gambling White Paper, which will obviously have a number of effects on different bits of the economy. As I said at the meeting with the all-party parliamentary group on betting and gaming a few days ago, we want to ensure that nothing in the review undermines the status of horse-racing.
Delays to gambling reform cost about £647 million each year and the Government have failed to act. It is not good enough. Up to 1.4 million people are considered to be problem gamblers, so I am struggling to see why the Government continue to drag their feet when the need for reform is crystal clear. What is the Minister doing in advance of the long-awaited White Paper, because we need to address the issue now?
All kinds of measures have been taken to address some of those very serious problems, which I completely recognise and accept. For example, a year or two ago, the use of credit cards to gamble online was banned. As we speak, the industry is in the process of developing a voluntary single customer view. A number of things have been done.
We are working, and have been working, on the Gambling Act review at pace and it will be published in the very near future. It is important to get it right, however, which is why we have taken the time to consult extensively and listen to stakeholders. I have met many hon. Members on both sides of the House to listen to their views too. It is very imminent because, as the hon. Lady says, large numbers of people are suffering serious harm, up to and including committing suicide. That is why it is important for the House to act on, I hope, a cross-party basis, broadly speaking, to sort it out.
The tourism industry has been severely affected by covid-19, which is why we have provided more than £37 billion in financial support to the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors over the pandemic. The Government’s tourism recovery plan sets out our ambition to get visitor numbers back to pre-pandemic levels a year faster than independent forecasts predict. To help us to achieve that ambition, VisitBritain’s international marketing campaign launches this month to target pent-up demand in key markets.
Last weekend I visited the beautiful Rathfinny vineyard, and last summer I met the Minister in the De La Warr pavilion. These two gems are part of the Sussex Modern trail, which links our vineyards with our cultural and artistic icons. Would the Minister meet me to discuss why Southern rail is not promoting tourism offers such as those, which would not only provide a great boost to its own passenger numbers—needed after covid-19—but boost tourism in Sussex and elsewhere in the country?
Indeed, I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency last year. He has many gems—cultural, historic, heritage—as well as tourist attractions, so I can see why so many people would want to visit his part of the world. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss his proposals, some of which would involve engagement across Departments, and I would be happy to facilitate those conversations as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do invest quite heavily in heritage, particularly with the culture recovery programme, and of course there is ongoing investment in heritage through the national lottery heritage schemes and others. Again, this is an area that sometimes involves cross-Government work, so I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his ideas and proposals.
Phone Signal: Rural Areas
We very much understand the frustration of poor mobile coverage in rural areas. That is why we agreed a deal with the operators to deliver the shared rural network, which tackles notspots and reduces the divide in connectivity between urban and rural areas. Norfolk will see coverage uplifts by the industry element of that programme, which is due to complete in June 2024.
As my hon. Friend may be aware, my constituency has many areas of outstanding natural beauty. They include Salthouse, Overstrand and Kelling, and I am sure she may want to spend her holidays there this summer. However, places such as those also have incredibly bad mobile phone reception, and residents are caught between better reception and blighting the area with mobile telecoms infrastructure. Would the Minister meet me to discuss how we can bring a better mobile signal to those areas without decreasing their natural beauty?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I can assure him that I know how beautiful North Norfolk is. I spent some time there last summer, and it is an incredibly picturesque part of the country. We want to maintain that, and that is why the shared rural network aims to transform mobile coverage without duplicating infrastructure, therefore minimising the visual impact. My officials have spoken to the shared rural network, and they will be getting in touch with his team. I would be happy to meet him after that to see how we can do more in this area.
UK Film and TV Production
This Government’s actions have helped the film and TV industry bounce back from the pandemic. Our production achieved record success last year, and my right hon. Friend may have seen the vote of confidence given by the new Amazon Prime deal with Shepperton studios this week. Our covid-related support includes the £500 million production restart scheme and the culture recovery fund, which my right hon. Friend will know has awarded £117,000 to Maldon’s Rio cinema. We want to make sure not just that films are made here, but that they are seen on the big screen in cinemas across our towns.
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the excellent news from Amazon Prime. Can she confirm that the film and TV production restart scheme, which was possible only as a result of Brexit, has so far supported production worth nearly £2.5 billion and supported 80,000 jobs? Given this success, will she consider extending the scheme beyond its end in April, and if that is not possible, will she try to obtain equivalent cover from commercial insurers at that time?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out how successful the scheme has been. It has supported £2.8 billion of production spend and over 92,000 jobs, which means we have kept production going and had a fantastic year. As he knows, the scheme was established as a time-limited and short-term intervention in response to a market failure because of the pandemic. It will continue until 30 June, but in the meantime we are working very closely with industry stakeholders and insurers to make sure that there is an effective transition to market cover when that scheme closes to new applicants in April.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me advance notice of her absence today. I am not sure whether her own side would see that as a blessing or a curse, given that some of her recent performances have had—how shall we describe them—mixed reviews. Our public service broadcasters are responsible for two thirds of commissions outside London, and provide a pipeline of skilled and talented workers across our regions and nations. With programming that is sold around the world, they underpin our incredibly successful creative ecosystem. The levelling-up White Paper will soon impose a statutory requirement on the Government that their own policies will meet their new levelling-up missions. How will the Secretary of State square that with her plan to sell off Channel 4 and end the BBC as we know it? Will her plans to do so be evaluated against her Government’s new legal requirements for levelling up?
I confirm that we miss the Secretary of State very much. She is flying the flag for the UK in the global Expo today, and we are all proud of the work she is doing there.
I assure the hon. Lady that we very much support our public service broadcasting sector, and it has a huge role to play in levelling up the regions. We want to support that role going forward, and we have absolutely no intention to end the BBC. A decision has not yet been made about the sale of Channel 4, but if we looked at such a sale, we would very much look at commitments to the regions. We also do fantastic stuff on PSBs with apprenticeships, and those PSBs are creating jobs across the UK, which we very much want to keep going.
Gigabit broadband coverage has rocketed from 6% to 65% in the past three years. More than 80 different companies are now rolling out gigabit broadband, investing more than £30 billion between them. In hard-to-reach areas, we have already upgraded 600,000 premises, with a further 2.5 million premises in our procurement pipeline, as set out this week in our most recent winter update to Project Gigabit.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for her reply. I recognise the challenges of achieving nationwide gigabit broadband coverage, but it is essential if the levelling-up agenda is to be properly delivered. At present, the gaps in coverage in Suffolk extend to approximately 25% of premises predominantly in rural areas. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide that gigabit-capable broadband in such rural areas will keep pace with the wider drive towards nationwide coverage?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of good digital connectivity, and we want to ensure that there is no divide between urban and rural areas. There is already 97% superfast coverage in Suffolk, but we want to futureproof connectivity to take on board all the technologies that will be coming down the line. We are creating a competition friendly environment to encourage commercial roll-out in most areas, and we are then prioritising public money in areas where the commercial roll-out will not reach. Our regional supply of procurements is up and running, and I am pleased that Suffolk is in phase 1 of that programme. We are aiming to launch the procurement process by April.
With the Government’s levelling-up announcement confirming plans for the UK to have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2030, it is important that consumers in rural constituencies such as mine have access to every fibre internet service provider on the market, ideally via a wholesaler. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to help ensure that residents in North Devon and the wider south-west have, as consumers, fair and reasonable choices?
My hon. Friend is rightly back in her place and is holding my feet to the flames on these issues. Thanks in part to our gigabit strategy, there is a thriving market rolling out gigabit-capable broadband all across the country, but we cannot force providers to offer their services in specific locations. Where deployment is supported directly by publicly funded contracts, those contracts include requirements for wholesale access. For Project Gigabit, the procurement processes differentiate suppliers on the choice of retail offerings that they are able to bring. We are also supporting various industry initiatives to develop the wholesale market for smaller alt-nets.
In 2016, The Lee Parish Council in my constituency received an assurance about broadband provision from HS2 Ltd, that it would keep it
“updated on the outcome of discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Broadband UK in relation to support for broadband provision for communities along the Phase One route.”
Apart from a few holding letters, The Lee Parish Council has not heard anything for three years. Will the Minister provide details about those discussions to reassure my constituents that they are indeed taking place?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for raising that. I am keen that any hon. Member should feel that they can write to me about issues in their area. We are trying to get a much better system up and running so that we can get such cases answered. I encourage her to write to me as I am very happy to look into her concerns.
May I take this opportunity to send our best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for a speedy recovery from covid?
We have had a dizzying number of broadband targets, each weaker than the last. Which is the Government’s current target—is it nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 as they previously said, 85% coverage by 2025 as their national infrastructure strategy says, or the latest one of nationwide coverage by 2030? How confident is the Minister about meeting any of those targets given that the digital divide is growing, not narrowing, and she has no detailed plan for reaching communities that are not commercially viable?
I thank the hon. Member for probing me on these matters and send our best wishes to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). The target is 85%-plus by 2025, and we expect to have all our procurements under contract by the end of this Parliament. We are confident about meeting those targets which, given the increasing importance of digital connectivity to our prosperity, are vital to ensuring that we do not see digital divides emerge.
The Scottish Government have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in accelerating the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland, even though broadband is reserved. Will the Minister insist to Cabinet colleagues that levelling up plans must include finally delivering the funding necessary to roll out superfast broadband, as that is the United Kingdom Government’s responsibility?
I thank the hon. Member for raising the important connectivity needs of Scotland. This is a Union issue and the Government are keen to help. I recently had a productive meeting with Kate Forbes—incidentally, I congratulate her on her pregnancy—who is an excellent Minister. Ensuring connectivity across the Union is very much part of our levelling up plans, and I am happy to continue working with the Scottish Parliament on such issues.
The Government’s focus on gigabit roll-out is absolutely right and I am grateful that Buckinghamshire is included in the current public review of gigabit broadband infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that there is a plan to tackle the problem in villages such as Mentmore in my constituency, where fibre has been installed but 20 commercially unviable houses have been left out, leaving those people and homes behind? How can we narrow that gap and ensure that once fibre goes into a village, it really reaches everyone?
This is a common challenge across the country. We are trying to focus public resource on premises that are not being connected by the commercial roll-out and ensuring that we share data with commercial providers so that we know which premises we need to cover in our contracts. I am happy to look into my hon. Friend’s area to ensure that we do that.
Public Service Broadcasting
Our public service broadcasting system is a critical part of our media landscape. We are committed to making sure that it continues to thrive in the face of a rapidly changing broadcast sector. That is why we are undertaking a strategic review looking at making sure that the PSB system delivers for audiences and supports the success of our incredible creative sector. We will set out the conclusions of that review in due course.
I want to put on the record my thanks for a useful meeting with the Minister this week about social tariffs for mobile devices. Channel 4 is close to my heart, as it is to those of many hon. Members. Will she assure me that any future owner of Channel 4 will be as committed to using small, local producers and providers as Channel 4 is at present? Have the Government carried out a risk assessment on what privatising Channel 4 might mean for small, local, important British producers?
It was a pleasure to meet the hon. Member this week to discuss the important issue of social tariffs as well as Union connectivity, which I know he feels passionately about. Channel 4 is valued by all of us. There is a debate to be had, however, about the best ownership structure for it. The Government believe that one of the strengths that any future buyer might see in Channel 4 is its links with independent producers—small independent producers in particular—and, were we to decide to sell it, we would very much want to see that protected.
An important part of public broadcasting is radio. Last October, the Government’s review into digital, audio and radio found that the Hope valley in my constituency has very poor DAB—digital audio broadcasting—service. What are the Government doing to improve digital radio access for rural communities such as the Hope valley?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the needs of the Hope valley, which he is right to do. We have conducted a review of this area, and we have been working with commercial radio and the BBC on this issue for a number of years. We do not expect them to be doing a great deal of extra work on DAB roll-out, but I am happy to continue looking into the matter and to consider the issues he highlights in his own patch.
Diversity: National Cricket Teams
We must ensure that cricket, and indeed all sports, are accessible to people from all backgrounds. National team selection is not something the Government have control over—that is for governing bodies to decide—but I am sure we can all agree that the primary basis should be talent. We need that diverse pool of talent. I have had positive conversations with the England and Wales Cricket Board and the county clubs on ensuring that talent pathways are fully open to the diverse range of people who play the game at grassroots level.
The Minister makes some interesting points, but does he agree that actions speak louder than words? The game has been described as institutionally racist. Can a review of dressing room culture, being undertaken by Clare Connor, fix the deeply entrenched under-representation of black women cricketers when Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black member of the women’s cricket team, said she had never been made to feel different until she entered the cricket world?
I agree with the hon. Lady on those concerns. There is a lot more to do in cricket and across sport as a whole. I have met the county chairmen and Lord Patel, as well as having dialogue with the ECB. I believe progress is being made, but I agree completely with her: I want to see actions, not just words.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does my hon. Friend share my disquiet that Lord Patel, Yorkshire’s new chair, has been forced to publicly call out a group of individuals for seeking to delay and derail vital reforms of the club in order to combat the scourge of racism? Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to support Lord Patel in his fight, the ECB should state that international cricket can return to Headingley but on the strict proviso that members back Lord Patel’s reforms, we see a dilution of the power of the Graves Trust, and that they ignore the siren calls of those who wish to retain the shameful status quo?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his and the Committee’s work in this area. The decision to bring internationals back to Yorkshire is for the ECB and I have to respect that, but I have met Lord Patel, even just yesterday, and personally I am somewhat comforted and assured about the progress being made in Yorkshire. Indeed, I have seen good progress being made in cricket overall, but I want to see a lot more. I reiterate that the decision is for the ECB, but I am sure that it will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments.
Access to the internet is increasingly important to people’s life chances. Today, over 65% of premises can access gigabit-capable networks, but we have ambitions to do much more, precisely because we want to ensure that a more profound digital divide does not emerge. The Government are encouraging broadband providers to roll out low-cost broadband social tariffs for low-income households, so that the internet is more affordable. We are highlighting those services via work coaches at jobcentres. We are also looking to boost digital skills. Adults can undertake specified digital qualifications up to level 1 free of charge.
The Local Government Association has warned that digital exclusion is more likely to impact those on low incomes, the over-65s and people with a disability. At the start of the pandemic, only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had home internet access. Meanwhile, my city is significantly below the UK average for gigabit broadband availability. With vulnerable people in Portsmouth increasingly being left behind by the Government, what specifically is the Minister doing to address affordability and bridge the digital divide?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such an important issue. I cannot disagree with some of the LGA’s analysis. I am happy to look into his city in particular, but this is an issue I discussed with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) just this week. Providers are offering social tariffs but we do not think uptake is strong enough. We all have a responsibility in this House to promote social tariffs, so that those who need to get on to the net can. We are looking at various initiatives to make sure people can get online, because it is so important for people’s life chances.
Local Tennis Courts
We are fortunate in this country to have some of the world’s top tennis talent, including Emma Raducanu, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid, and I should take this opportunity to wish our athletes in Beijing the very best of luck—we have talent across so many sports. At the spending review, the Government announced £30.1 million to renovate park tennis courts in the UK, in partnership with the Lawn Tennis Association. Plans involved reviving over 4,500 courts, including those in poor or unplayable condition at more than 1,500 venues.
I am grateful to the Minister. That superb mapping exercise across the country by the LTA to benefit, as he said, over 4,500 public courts could be of huge benefit to families, sport, health, local pride and community improvements. My question is a nice and simple one: when will the application forms be ready? Will my hon. Friend share with us some good news?
I thank my hon. Friend for his excitement about our work on tennis courts. He never misses an opportunity to ask that question—I cannot venture into the Tea Room without him doing so—but I appreciate his persistence. Delivery will commence in the next financial year, from April 2022, because I am aware, as he is, that this will make a really big difference to tennis in this country.
May I ask the Minister to take this even more seriously? I know that the English team has not being doing well in some sports, but can we look seriously at the opportunities to get a much broader range of young people coming in to play tennis and, in particular, cricket? There seems to be a real difficulty for children in many schools to pursue cricket and tennis, and it seems that most of the people who end up rising to the top come from very privileged backgrounds.
The hon. Member raises some important points. We do punch above our weight in global sport and that is partly due to the success and investment from Sport England and, indeed, UK Sport. We will be refreshing the school sport and activity action plan and working closely with the Department for Education, focusing very much on engaging young children in a whole variety of sports, for the reasons that he expressed.
I am standing in for the Culture Secretary, who is today promoting the UK’s national day at the Dubai Expo and welcoming the Queen’s baton ahead of the Commonwealth games. Our Department is at the heart of the levelling-up agenda, through fantastic digital connectivity for all and initiatives such as the new national youth guarantee to enrich the lives of young people in every corner of our country.
We continue to make brilliant progress on our plans for a blockbuster 2022, during which we will honour Her Majesty the Queen, who this week marked 70 years of steadfast service to our country. Two nights ago, we celebrated the best of our world-class music industry at the BRITs. To echo the comments from the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), the ministerial team would like to wish the very best of luck to Team GB, who are flying the flag for the entire country at the Beijing winter Olympics.
Musicians in Newport West and across the UK have been campaigning alongside leaders in the Musicians’ Union, such as Councillor Sarah Williams, for a touring visa that will allow them to showcase British musical prowess. When will the Minister wake up and fight for the musicians’ passport that people so desperately want and need?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, but we need to distinguish between broadcasters, or indeed newspapers, that are exercising editorial judgment, and social media platforms that are carrying content generated by other users. However, we will introduce shortly—in the coming weeks—an online safety Bill that will impose new duties on social media firms in connection with illegal content, content that is harmful to children and content, including disinformation, that is harmful to adults. I hope that will go a long way towards addressing the points that he rightly raises.
I am afraid that the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) was far too vague. Musicians and orchestras are facing a touring crisis. We need an EU-wide cultural touring agreement that includes allowances for cabotage, carnets and customs rules. That needs to happen now, so what are Ministers doing to sort the problem as a matter of urgency?
We have been working closely across Government to deal with some of the cabotage issues. The issues around agreements with member states are being addressed on a bilateral basis. We have had great breakthroughs with Spain and are working closely with Greece, but most people can work in those countries for up to 90 days. I am happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman further on the issue.
Swimming is massively important not just for health reasons, but for safety in our island nation. Saltash swimming pool is an excellent facility. What more can the Government do to ensure the long-term future of such facilities?
I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about this issue, because we spoke about it when I visited her constituency last year. She is right that swimming is a vital life skill, as well as being very good for our physical and mental health. We have provided the sport sector with £1 billion of financial support through the pandemic, and launched the £100 million national leisure recovery fund precisely to try to ensure that swimming pools stay open. Further investment through Sport England and other bodies is forthcoming. I would be happy to facilitate further discussions between my hon. Friend and Sport England.
One of my first Acts as a Minister in DCMS was to take through the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021. We take these issues incredibly seriously, and I offer the hon. Gentleman reassurance that we have a whole package of work to ensure that our telecoms networks are secure. Those matters have not been influenced by other issues.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about social media platforms potentially becoming gatekeepers for radio stations. We are looking closely at this issue to ensure that radio stations can have their own data, protect their listenership and so on. I offer him reassurance on that point.
I thank the hon. Member for his question and for the meetings that we have had with the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). He is right to raise this serious issue, as people are suffering harm from gambling addiction. The review is getting very close now—he will not have to wait much longer—and the issues that he is raising will be squarely addressed. I am happy to meet him and the other members of the APPG at any time; if they just get in touch, we would be happy to organise a meeting.
Good broadband connectivity is vital not only for leisure, but for working from home. But one street in my constituency is a street of two halves—one with 8 megabits per second and the other with 1,000 megabits per second. How can we address these issues? Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we deal with urban notspots?
The hon. Lady makes very important points. As we discussed earlier, sport should be for all, on and off the pitch. We need to make sure that there are opportunities right across sport. I believe that progress is being made—diversity and inclusivity are at the top of the agenda for many sportspeople I talk to—but she is right that we need more action, not just warm words.
I welcome greater efforts by the Government to improve internet access, but I met the families federations of the Navy, Army and the RAF, and they are concerned about access to the internet across the military estate. May I invite the Department to do a study on internet access on bases for our armed forces, and to report back to Parliament?
I must say that Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions are a major agenda item, and I do not think that we give it long enough. I hope that others will listen to that. So many people could not get their question in; I can only say sorry. I believe that it should be a full hour.
The Attorney General was asked—
Crown Prosecution Service
Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate recently published a report on CPS performance in the west midlands, and it is due to report on Yorkshire and Humberside in April. I am pleased to say that, despite the pressures of the pandemic, the report on the west midlands found that commendable improvements had been made, including in seeking orders to protect complainants and witnesses, and in handling third-party disclosure.
Youth crime plagues several parts of Rother Valley; there are hotspots around Greenlands Park in North Anston, the market area in Dinnington, and the Queen’s Corner in Maltby. How is the CPS tackling serious youth crime and youth antisocial behaviour in Rother Valley and across the whole of South Yorkshire?
My hon. Friend is an energetic campaigner and spokesman for those of his constituents who are, sadly, afflicted by crime. The simple answer to his question is: more prosecutors, better training and closer liaison with the police. The CPS has an area youth justice co-ordinator, who is responsible for local training and sharing best practice. Last month, the CPS team in South Yorkshire secured a murder conviction and a life sentence with a 17-year minimum for Kyle Pickles, who was responsible for the tragic murder of 15-year-old Loui Phillips. I hope that Loui’s family can take some solace from the fact that justice was done in that tragic case.
I thank the Attorney General for her response. I have written to her about the need for the CPS to better understand local circumstances when making decisions. Will she look again at the possibility of co-locating CPS lawyers in local police stations, in order to ensure that they make the best possible decisions, based on local knowledge?
I have seen my hon. Friend’s letter. The point that he raises is critical to the success of the work of the CPS and the police. Closer liaison and better working between police and investigators creates better outcomes for victims and at trial. That is why I am pleased that the west midlands is an Operation Soteria area—that operation is pioneering and institutionalising closer working, by ensuring early investigative advice, improving action plans, and ensuring closer and better scrutiny of the decisions of the police and the CPS. It is a great area where there is some good work.
In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted over 6,500 defendants for fraud, with an 85.6% conviction rate. Meanwhile, in the last five years, the Serious Fraud Office have secured court orders requiring the payment of over £1.3 billion from defendants to the taxpayer. We are determined to build on that to make the United Kingdom a more hostile environment for all forms of economic crime, including fraud.
But the truth is that the scandal of the bounce back loans is enormous. We know now that financial crime is being driven by very sophisticated crime syndicates. My constituents want to know when the Government are going to get serious about this. Where is the economic crime Bill? Where is the real focus on trying to get these billions of pounds back? They have been stripped from the Government, under the most incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer I have seen in my 40 years in Parliament.
To deal with that last point, I find that an extraordinary point to make. It was this Chancellor who ensured in the hon. Member’s constituency that the money was rolled out to save jobs in Huddersfield and we make absolutely no apology for that—millions of pounds to save lives.
Where the hon. Member is right is that fraud shatters lives and destroys trust. We are determined to deal with that. That is why this Government put £400 million in the spending review to support the National Economic Crime Centre and the National Crime Agency to ensure we crack down on fraud. He will see an awful lot more prosecutions, I assure him.
I thank the Minister for that response. However, overall, reports of fraud went up by 33% from 2020-21 but the number of police officers dealing with economic crime has increased by just over 6%. What is he doing to ensure the police and the prosecuting authorities are properly resourced to deal with the country’s rising tide of criminal fraud?
At the 2019 spending review, the CPS received over £80 million. At this spending review, the Government awarded an additional 12% to boost the number of prosecutors and the capability. In addition, as I indicated, £400 million is to be allocated to the NECC and the NCA. That is over and above the funding that has gone into the taxpayer protection taskforce: £100 million and 1,200 staff. This Government are serious about cracking down on economic crime and we are delighted to support those efforts.
Might I say, Mr Speaker, that the Law Officers are entitled to perhaps a good half an hour of the House’s time as well?
The Solicitor General probably has more experience of prosecuting serious fraud hands on than anyone else in this House. From my own experience at the Bar, I know he is right when he says that fraud is not a victimless crime. Does he agree that we need a joined-up approach across Government to tackle this effectively, not just the excellent work that is being done to improve the Crime Prosecution Service’s results, but support from the Home Office to ensure that Action Fraud is not the black hole it is at the moment for many people who lose money in what are termed small-scale, lower-value frauds, but are massively important to them? At the other end of the scale, we need to look at tightening up our laws on corporate criminal responsibility, so we can catch the high-level fraudsters as well. We need approaches on all those fronts.
As so often, my hon. Friend speaks authoritatively. He is absolutely right that fraud shatters lives and can destroy people’s future in the process. He is right that we need to ensure that the most serious frauds are properly prosecuted—which is why the Serious Fraud Office has received additional funding in the spending review—but also that so-called lower-level crimes are properly resourced. That is why the special crime division of the CPS is doing important work, and why it is increasingly getting the resources it needs to ramp up its capability to take the fight to fraudsters.
This is hard to believe, but on 4 February this year Peter Swailes junior was sentenced for a crime that involved financial fraud. A person was kept in his shed for up to 40 years. The CPS managed to get a conviction, but he was not sentenced to any time in prison. I wonder whether the Attorney General would look at the case to see if it was unduly lenient.
I must admit, I would like an answer but we have to be careful that supplementaries really are linked to the question, which was about financial crime. I think the person mentioned in the hon. Gentleman’s question will have suffered financially as well so I am sure the Minister can answer accordingly.
Lord Agnew resigned as a Government Minister because the Treasury
“appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20.]
The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should resign for saying that fraud is not a crime people experience in their day-to-day lives, but what about the Law Officers’ culpability? Will the Solicitor General tell us why, according to the latest figures we have obtained from his Department, the Crown Prosecution Service has cut the number of specialist fraud prosecutors by more than a quarter in the past six years, from 224 at the end of 2015 to 167 at the end of 2021?
I send our best wishes to the shadow Attorney General as she recovers.
The hon. Gentleman is not right in the way he characterises the Government’s approach. He did not mention, as I respectfully suggest he ought to have, the £100 million that was invested in the taxpayer protection taskforce. That is 1,200 staff who have dealt with 13,000 inquiries in respect of fraud and recovered £500 million already and expect to recover significantly more. It is not just about the CPS; what about the National Cyber Security Centre, which took down 73,000 scams last year? I am pleased to note that the CPS has received an additional 12% in funding over the course of this spending review period. It is ramping up its capability and taking the fight to fraudsters.
Rule of Law: Government
The rule of law lies at the heart of the UK constitution and the Law Officers have a particular role in respect of upholding the rule of law. Together with the Solicitor General, I take that responsibility very seriously wherever we are called on to give advice.
On the morning of 8 December, the Attorney General went to Downing Street to advise the Prime Minister after the emergence of the now infamous video of staff in Downing Street joking about parties. That lunch time, the Prime Minister came to this Chamber to say that no parties had taken place in Downing Street and that no covid rules had been broken. Did the Attorney General approve of those comments? If so, was she colluding with the Prime Minister, or did he mislead her?
From their early work on Prorogation to the now daily revelations about lockdown-busting parties, this Government have had a fair few brushes with the rule of law. I know the Attorney General cannot comment on an ongoing criminal investigation, but will she tell us whether, when the investigation is concluded and all the 50 email questionnaires come back, anyone found to have breached lockdown regulations, whatever their rank, will face the same consequences as Joe Public did? Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), if there have been breaches of the ministerial code, will there be resignations?
The Prime Minister has made his position clear and I am not going to add any more in the light of the live police investigation. The hon. Lady mentioned the rule of law; fundamental to the rule of law is democracy. I am proud to support this Prime Minister, who has honoured democracy by delivering Brexit and is now leading not just the UK but the world in beating covid. Had the Labour party been in charge, it would have cancelled Brexit, not delivered it, and we would have been in more lockdown, not less. On the big calls, Labour gets it wrong.
Thanks for that peroration but, to come back to reality, this week the Leader of the Opposition was obstructed while entering this House by disorder on the streets outside following the Prime Minister’s inflammatory remarks at that Dispatch Box. It is the Attorney General’s job to advise Ministers, including the Prime Minister, on acting in accordance with the rule of law, so what advice does she have now to prevent his behaviour from leading to any further breakdown in law and order?
All violence is unacceptable, and I am grateful to those police officers who stepped in to assist the Leader of the Opposition. No one should have to endure that experience. The Prime Minister has spoken on the subject; I am not going to add any more to his comments. What I will say is that on the big calls Labour gets it wrong, and on the things that matter, this Prime Minister and this Government are leading us through covid and international diplomacy against Russian aggression.
Was the Attorney General able to read an interesting article this week by her noble Friend, former Conservative Minister Baroness Altmann, warning of a “slippery slope” towards authoritarian rule and an elected dictatorial elite seeking to override Parliament? Whether it is undermining judicial review, shredding human rights protections, endless ouster clauses, restricted appeal rights or tearing up international treaties, none of it is upholding the rule of law. Is not everything the Attorney General is doing putting the Government above the law?
I strongly refute that suggestion. I am not aware of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but the freedoms and protections that we all enjoy rely fundamentally on the rule of law. I know he understands that: it is an important constitutional principle that demands equality under the law and access to an independent judiciary. The Government are subject to the law. Those are the foundational principles that I adhere to and that I know this Government stick to.
Retained EU Law: Devolved Administrations
The Brexit freedoms Bill will once and for all take back control of the UK legal system, ending the special status of retained EU law and making it easier for the democratically elected UK Government to amend or remove it. The devolved Administrations have been kept informed of the progress of the reviews into retained EU law that will inform the Bill. The Government have engaged regularly with the DAs on a wide range of EU exit and EU engagement issues and we look forward to continuing that close working relationship.
On Friday 28 January, Ministers of the three devolved Administrations were called to a meeting with the Attorney General at very short notice—the very next day, in fact—to discuss the so-called Brexit freedom Bill, which will have significant impact on hundreds of areas controlled by the devolved Governments. The meeting has been described as
“a rushed exercise…with nothing more than a vague verbal briefing”,
“no effort by the UK government to properly consult devolved governments on the details of the plans nor seek their views on their impacts on devolved areas of policy and law.”
Will the Attorney General make an unequivocal commitment today that the devolved Administrations will be consulted extensively before any further decisions are taken that would affect their existing policies, and specifically in relation to retained EU law?
Of course there will be continued and meaningful engagement with all the devolved Administrations in this process. It is an important opportunity and an important moment for our whole United Kingdom, and I very much look forward to the input of all the DAs.
Covid-19 Contracts: Serious Fraud Office
I meet regularly with the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss case work and corporate matters. I can confirm that the SFO is indeed investigating a number of suspected fraudulent applications for covid loans, but I can neither confirm nor deny that it is investigating frauds specifically connected to covid-19 contracts awarded by the DHSC.
The Good Law Project has now uncovered the existence of an additional 18 VIP lane contracts, bringing the total to 68. Between them, they were awarded a total of £4.9 billion in personal protective equipment contracts. Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General, has said that the Department of Health and Social Care was
“open to the risk of fraud.”,
and that he has not received
“adequate assurance that the level of fraud losses are not material.”
What steps does the Attorney General, or the Minister, advise should be taken to uphold the rule of law and assure the House that contracts awarded through the Government’s VIP lane were not fraudulent?
It is extremely important that we in this House do not inadvertently misrepresent a judgment that has been made in the High Court. In the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the Court indicated that the arrangements did not confer any advantage at the decision-making stage of the process; that the company’s offers were very likely to have meant it being awarded contracts even without the arrangements; and that there was sufficient financial due diligence in respect of both sets of contracts. Without seeking to go behind the decision of the Court in that case, it is important that it is placed in its proper context. This Government will abide by the rule of law.
Proceeds of Crime
The SFO has had a very positive year in delivering on its commitment to recover the proceeds of crime. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) will listen, so far in 2021-22 the SFO has obtained more than £44.5 million in new financial orders from the courts, and at the same time it has successfully recovered more than £45 million by enforcing these and existing orders. Those are the largest recorded sums obtained and recovered in a single year by the SFO.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his response and hope that there is some hope therein for my constituents who, just two years ago almost to the day, wrote to me about their personal case of how the London Capital & Finance scandal had impacted them. In October of 2021, the only update offered by the SFO was that investigations were ongoing. What assessment can he make of that progress, and what hope can I offer my constituents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for very properly pressing this case on behalf of her constituents. The SFO continues to investigate the dealings of London Capital & Finance plc and associated companies. The size and complexity of those cases, including the sheer number of victims and witnesses, means that it can take a significant period for a full investigation to be carried out. I meet the SFO director regularly to discuss casework, and I can assure my hon. Friend that driving forward the fastest possible case progression is a priority for me and for the Attorney General. I want to end with this point: over the last five years, thanks to the work of the SFO, a full £1.3 billion has been returned to taxpayers over and above the costs of running the SFO.
The Minister will be aware of actions that have been taken against the Serious Fraud Office and individuals who work for it by those who seek to hide money—ill-gotten gains—that they wish to launder. It is disturbing that they can take action against individuals who work for agencies that are there to investigate such crimes and criminal behaviour. What action can be taken to protect those individuals from such abusive litigation?
I am happy to discuss that matter with the hon. Gentleman. Where criticisms are made of the Serious Fraud Office, we will have no hesitation in acting robustly and promptly. That is why, for example, just yesterday my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General ensured that an investigation was set up in respect of the findings in the Unaoil case.
Defendants: Mental Health
New and refreshed training has been rolled out for prosecutors, information sharing between agencies is being improved and the CPS is developing a mental health flag on its case management system. These positive steps were recently recognised in a criminal justice joint inspection report.
Does my hon. and learned Friend welcome the greater use of mental health treatment requirement orders for offenders subject to community orders or suspended sentences? Will he engage with Ministers across justice and health services to ensure that sufficient funding is in place to enable the long-term adoption of this approach in Devon?
Yes and yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to welcome the use of mental health treatment requirement orders, because they provide courts in Devon and elsewhere with a powerful tool to rehabilitate offenders at the same time as ensuring they are properly punished for their crimes. Thanks to record support through the NHS long-term plan funding, plans are on track to introduce primary care MHTRs to half of England by 2023.
In addition to those with mental health disorders, people with other disabilities such as hearing impairment require additional support in court. This House has taken steps to make that happen for those who are hearing impaired. Can the Minister advise what services are deemed necessary for trial proceedings to take place for those with hearing impairment disabilities?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. Whether someone is a victim, a witness or a defendant, they have the right to be able to hear what is going on in court. There are of course facilities already in place—hearing loops and so on—but the court retains the discretion to ensure that special measures are in place so that defendants can have the right to a fair trial and witnesses can have their voices heard.