House of Commons
Thursday 10 February 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Russia Sanctions Legislation
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out on 31 January, we are now laying legislation to broaden the designation criteria for the Russia sanctions regime. As Minister for Europe, I have signed the legislation that we will lay before Parliament and intend to come into force this afternoon. We are toughening and expanding our sanctions regime in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This legislation will significantly broaden the range of people, businesses and other entities that we can sanction in response to any further Russian aggression. As the Foreign Secretary has set out, this will amount to the toughest sanctions regime against Russia that we have had and mark the biggest change in our approach since leaving the European Union.
The Foreign Secretary is in Moscow as we speak, calling on Russia to pursue a diplomatic solution to this crisis. We have made it clear, however, that if Russia continues to ignore calls to de-escalate and respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, it will face serious consequences. Alongside the United States and other international partners, the UK is preparing an unprecedented package of co-ordinated sanctions that mean those who share responsibility for Russia’s actions will bear a heavy cost.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
I do not need to remind anyone in the House of the seriousness of the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders. We stand united in opposition to Russian aggression and in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty. We urgently want to de-escalate this crisis and we support diplomatic efforts to achieve that goal, but our diplomacy must be matched by deterrence. On 31 January, the Foreign Secretary announced to Parliament the Government’s plan to put in place what she called
“the toughest sanctions regime against Russia”.
“The package that we are putting forward in legislation will be in place by 10 February”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2022; Vol. 708, c. 56-58.]
It is now 10 February and no such legislation has been put in place. As the Foreign Secretary meets her counterpart in Moscow, media reports suggest that the plan has fallen through. The House rises today, leaving no parliamentary time for the Government to put the legislation in place until after the recess.
This raises very troubling questions about the risk that Russian action against Ukraine could take place without the necessary legal measures in place to allow Britain to respond. What is the reason for the delay? What reassurance can the Minister offer this House that without the legislation in place the Government could implement severe sanctions if they are needed?
Promises made to this House should be kept. Hon. Members deserve the opportunity to scrutinise and debate these measures, which need to be in place. I do not want these sanctions to join the long list of measures to counter Russian aggression that have been ignored or delayed, such as the economic crime Bill, the reform of Companies House, the register of overseas entities Bill, the foreign agent registration law, and the new counter-espionage laws—the list goes on. With 130,000 troops threatening Ukraine, the Opposition stand ready to work with the Government in the national interest to get the appropriate measures in place. We can only do so if the Government keep their promise to bring forth this sanctions legislation—where is it?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s unanimity of voice with regard to his opposition to Russia’s aggressive actions on the border of Ukraine. He is absolutely right that in times of high tension like this it is incredibly important that our allies and others understand that there really is unanimity of purpose across the House, and I thank him for that.
As I said in my statement, I have signed the legislation that we intend to lay in Parliament to come into force this afternoon. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary is pursuing the diplomatic pressure face to face with Russia. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, senior officials and I have regular interactions with our friends and allies both in Europe and across the Atlantic, and I can assure the House that they regularly express gratitude for the robustness of the UK’s approach. We will continue to pursue a diplomatic track, but the Foreign Secretary is making it clear to the Russians as we speak that if they miss the opportunity to de-escalate, there will be repercussions.
I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend is proceeding with the long-awaited additional sanctions, and I look forward to the statutory instrument coming to the House as soon as possible. What does my right hon. Friend believe is the position in relation to the Minsk II agreements, and what has been Her Majesty’s Government’s reaction to the proposals made by President Macron? Does my right hon. Friend agree that they could in fact make the situation more perilous for Ukraine?
We have regularly called on Russia to abide by the commitments to which it has previously voluntarily subscribed, and there is no justification for the aggressive posture that it is now displaying on the borders of Ukraine. We and France, as well as other members of NATO, speak regularly; indeed, just yesterday I was on a multilateral call with French representatives. We are co-ordinating our approach and our language and ensuring that we understand and calibrate our actions in concert, and I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that that will continue to be our approach on this very serious issue.
I echo much of what was said by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I find this situation frustrating in many ways. Obviously we all want to do everything we can to counter Russian aggression, and we all want to be doing what we can to support legislation that would make that possible. But the action taken today of laying such legislation without our being given any opportunity for scrutiny or debate, or even knowing what it can achieve, makes it very difficult for us to help the Government and to approach this constructively, which is what we want to do. I must be brutally honest and say that it is a challenging task to come up with a series of questions about legislation that we have not yet seen, although we all want see that legislation work.
Can the Minister assure us that whatever the legislation does include, it will enable actions to be taken to tackle the improper use of, for instance, Scottish limited partnerships—colleagues of mine have been calling for that for years—and the multitude of other avenues through which Russian money is being used to influence and change attitudes, as well as the cyber-attacks that are carried out across these islands and in other European countries? Without seeing the legislation, it is difficult for our support to be as full as we might have wanted it to be.
I completely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Our actions are closely co-ordinated and calibrated with the actions of our international partners. The UK has made it clear, as indeed have our friends and allies internationally, that if Russia were to pursue further aggressive actions in Ukraine, that would come at a huge cost. Of course, as with all conflicts, there would be a human cost—there would be casualties and fatalities both on the Russian side and, inevitably, in Ukraine—and we are desperately seeking to avoid that. However, if Russia does not heed our call to de-escalate, there will be meaningful sanctions in response. There will be costs. As I have said, throughout all this we are co-ordinating very closely with our international allies, and ensuring that our response is in place should Russia not heed our calls to de-escalate.
The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that we are at the “most dangerous moment” in the next few days. I do not expect a detailed answer to my question but, to bring home the devastating consequences should military aggression occur and to bring home that we will not tolerate this increased military aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine, will we consider taking cyber-measures against Russia, not necessarily after an invasion but now?
My right hon. Friend will be unsurprised that I am not willing to speculate on the nature or scope of the response of the Government or our allies, but Russia should understand that, if it were to attack or present further aggression towards Ukraine, there would be a meaningful response not just from the UK but from our international allies. I will not speculate further at this time.
The Minister knows full well that every single Member of this House stands foursquare with the Government alongside the people of Ukraine. We want to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, the Foreign Secretary told us that the legislation would be in place by 10 February, which is important because of the recess. We were also told that it would be an affirmative measure, which means that it would not come into force unless the House has voted for it.
The Minister is wrong to say that it will just happen this afternoon. It is completely autocratic for the Government to publish legislation without any opportunity for anybody to scrutinise it. Frankly, they have just been lazy. We are Johnny-come-latelies when it comes to sanctions in this area. When will we have a debate on the Floor of the House on the measure so that we can make sure the whole House sends the same message to Russia? At the moment, it just looks as if the Government are not governing anymore.
I understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed, I truly do. Our actions have been, at all stages, calibrated to deter Russian aggression and to act in concert and collaboration with our international partners. I appreciate that this House has complete unanimity of purpose in its desire to dissuade Russia from aggressive actions towards Ukraine. We are moving at pace to ensure, where possible, that sanctions regimes are in place ahead of this. We will continue to take actions that dissuade Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and we will always do so in close co-ordination and co-operation with our international allies.
What happens in Ukraine, and indeed what happens in eastern Europe, matters. It matters to this House and it matters to our country’s interests. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if global Britain means anything, it must mean that we stand up for freedom, democracy and the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently returned from a trip to Washington where, across the political divide, the UK’s actions in dissuading Russian aggression have been recognised, and gratitude was expressed to me. He is right that freedom, democracy and the rule of law are foundation stone principles that we will defend. We have already given support to Ukraine, including defensive weapon systems, to help it protect itself against further Russian aggression. The expanded sanctions package is part of that message of deterrence so that Russia understands there will be repercussions if it were to pursue further aggressive actions towards Ukraine.
Despite the Russia report, despite the Opposition’s calls and despite the Government’s promises, the UK remains a destination for Russian dirty money and influence. The Minister says that the promised sanctions legislation will be in place this afternoon, although it has not been published, we are rising for recess and there is no time for a debate. Will he explain to me how we will be able to demonstrate that, as he says, sanctions will be put in place should there be any incursion or action by Russia? That is of the utmost importance to our national security and our standing.
We have worked to ensure that this extension of the scope of potential sanctions is effective and that it displays a meaningful deterrent message to Russia. We are working to bring the measures into force this afternoon, so that they are in place as soon as practically possible. The message that I get back from the international community is that it massively values the UK’s very firm response on this issue. That is the message I received on my recent trip to Washington. It is the message I receive on calls with international partners, and we will continue to be very robust in our actions to dissuade Russian aggressio‘n.
I welcome the concerted diplomatic pressure that we are putting on Russia, with the Foreign Secretary there today, the Defence Secretary there tomorrow and the Prime Minister in Warsaw today. I also welcome the fact that we are laying this statutory instrument this afternoon. What is important with sanctions is not only that we have the legislation, but our willingness to use the sanctions, and quickly. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are prepared to use these sanctions, and that we will do so with alacrity if needed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message should be heard loud and clear, and I have no doubt that as we speak my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is doing that on her trip to Moscow. This extended sanctions package is meaningful. If Russia was to pursue its aggressive posture towards Ukraine, there would be serious consequences, and this extension of the scope of our sanctions is absolutely part of that.
The US, far from what the Minister has just said, is said to be expressing exasperation at the failure of the Government to take tough action against the flow of Russian money. On top of that, it has taken two years for the Government to take any action on the recommendations of the Russia report. This is damaging our international standing. Whatever is happening this afternoon in terms of sanctions, can he give us an undertaking that we will be tackling that Russian money and ensuring that it cannot flow?
A number of Members speak with seeming great authority on the tone or the thinking of our allies. I have just returned from Washington, where I have spoken with elected Members and senior officials in the White House, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the United States recognises the robust position that the UK is taking through the extension of our sanctions regime and that we will ensure, if Russia pursues an aggressive posture, that there are consequences that are meaningful.
It seems to me that for the first time in my adult life, it is our values—the values of this country and the values of the west—that are being challenged in a meaningful way in Russia and, I am sorry to say, elsewhere in the world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is in that light that we should see what is happening on the borders of Ukraine, and it is also in that light that we should respond in terms of sanctions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are incredibly important principles at stake here, and the UK and our international friends and allies are making a statement to Russia in clear and unambiguous terms that we expect it to abide by the commitments that it has previously made to respect the territorial integrity of another sovereign state and to de-escalate and step back from the aggressive posture that it has taken. If it does not, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making clear that there will be repercussions.
The UK is the destination of choice for Russian criminals and kleptocrats who then use their wealth to silence journalists and avoid scrutiny, including by launching endless oppressive lawsuits. Why should we have any confidence that the Minister’s Government and party, which have done nothing to counter that—indeed, the issue has grown year on year—will suddenly impose meaningful sanctions? The US said that there was “dismay and frustration” at the failure to tackle it.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments that I have already made. I have just returned from Washington and I assure the House that the UK has been recognised and thanked for the robust position that it has taken, is taking and has signalled that it is willing to take.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to having signed the legislation and I look forward to seeing it this afternoon. That is part of the Government’s clear and continuous message to Russia that any further incursion into Ukraine would be a huge strategic error. NATO must be united in calling for a diplomatic way forward, so can he confirm that the UK Government have called for NATO partners to be as vocal as the United Kingdom has been in delivering that message to the Kremlin and, further, to match our defence spending commitments?
Last month, I attended the NATO Russia council on behalf of the United Kingdom, and the unanimity of voice with which the NATO allies condemned the aggressive posture that Russia has taken towards Ukraine was striking. Defence spending is a broader point of discussion. We are incredibly proud of the fact that the UK maintains that 2% or more on defence spending. We will ensure that we are as passionate in our diplomatic attempts as we are in our passion to support our friends and allies in NATO, including the eastern NATO allies that have borders with Russia.
If, God forbid, Vladimir Putin is watching the parliamentary channel at the moment, does the Minister think that he will get the sense that the Government and the House are acting urgently? I am not getting that clearly. There is an all-party desire to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis and for us to be seen to act as firmly as possible on sanctions. I ask him to ask someone in No. 10 or elsewhere to give a sense of urgency to it. All parties support it, so the Government should get on with it.
The feedback that I get, not necessarily from the Opposition but certainly from the international community, is that it recognises and is grateful for the posture that the UK has taken with regard to Russia’s accumulation of troops on the Ukrainian border. That is the message that I have been getting loud and clear from across the international community.
Does the Minister understand that after years of delay, yet again the Government’s rhetoric on the issue does not seem to match their actions on Russian money in this country? The Foreign Secretary is in Russia today, supposedly putting a very strong message to the Kremlin, and the inaction and inability to bring forward legislation to this place so that we can scrutinise it undermines that message.
I disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment of the situation, because in conversation after conversation that I have had, in the United States and with other friends and allies across the world, they recognise the work that the UK is doing and are grateful for it. On the expansion of the scope of potential sanctions against Russia, we are demonstrating to the Russians that we are serious in our actions as well.
Russian troops have been massing on the border for months. Meanwhile, Putin and his friends have been behaving like international gangsters and throwing their weight around for years. Why leave it until now? Why draft a measure and, hopefully—we have not seen it yet—put it before the House just a few hours before the recess, if we are lucky? From what the Minister is saying, however, because he has not really answered the question, it sounds more and more like it will come into force after the recess. In the meantime, there could be an asset flight and Russian troops going into Ukraine.
As I said, the actions that we are taking are intended to come into force this afternoon. Our posture towards Russia has been consistent. We have made it clear for some time—as the Foreign Secretary did on 31 January—that the UK intends to increase the scope of our sanctions regime so that we can take meaningful action, in co-ordination and concert with international partners. That is intended to send a clear message to Russia that its aggressive posture is unacceptable, that it needs to de-escalate and that, if it were to pursue aggressive actions against Ukraine, there would be meaningful consequences.
I really do not understand why this is all so last-minute. Is the Minister comfortable with his Government’s approach of ignoring the recommendations of the Russia report? It is important to note that the Intelligence and Security Committee—a cross-party Committee of both Houses of Parliament—made clear recommendations after taking a lot of evidence and scrutinising the issue of Russian influence on this country. Why have those recommendations not been taken up by his Government?
As I have said a number of times, in my interactions with our friends and allies both on my recent trip to the United States of America when I represented the UK at the NATO-Russia Council and on international calls, the UK’s firm posture towards Russia has been recognised, and our international partners are grateful for it. To ensure that our sanctions regime and any potential sanctions that we impose are effective, co-ordination with our international partners is incredibly important. I am intensely proud of the position that the UK has taken in support of Ukraine, in support of the international rules-based order and in support of our friends and allies around the world. The UK will continue to be at the forefront of attempts to de-escalate the situation and support the Ukrainian people.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Has he had communications with other NATO leaders regarding Macron’s lone-wolf approach to Putin and ensuing comments that demonstrate a shift from standing NATO policy towards reaction to potential attack? Will he reaffirm the Government’s commitment to NATO’s approach against Russian aggression?
The UK remains a committed member of NATO, and I assure the hon. Member and the House that the UK, France, the United States of America and other members of the Quint speak regularly. My most recent conversation with international partners was yesterday, when we had a detailed debrief of President Macron’s talks with Vladimir Putin. We work in close co-ordination with international partners, and I assure him that that close co-ordination, whether through sanctions or our diplomatic efforts, will continue.
Government Contracts: Randox Laboratories
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will make a statement on the process for awarding Government contracts to Randox Laboratories Ltd, following the release of documents in response to the Humble Address of 17 November 2021.
In response to the greatest public health emergency that we have faced for a generation, the Government engaged with many businesses—big and small—as part of an unprecedented national effort. On 3 February, we responded to the Humble Address and laid the documents before the House. We are committed to transparency and helping the House perform its valuable scrutiny, and the Department dedicated significant resources to reviewing about 11,000 records to identify the 35 relevant documents. They show how we took every possible step to build the huge infrastructure for testing that we now have in this country—the biggest testing programme in Europe. The programme has done so much to stop the spread of this deadly virus and given us all hope that we can learn to live with covid-19.
Randox has been globally recognised in the diagnostics industry for nearly 40 years and even as early as March 2020 had lab-based PCR testing capacity for covid-19. Robust rules and processes are in place to ensure that all contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and that any potential conflicts of interest with respect to commercial matters are appropriately managed. Direct awards, such as in this case, are permitted by public contract regulations for reasons of extreme urgency brought about by unforeseeable events. I am sure that no hon. Member would deny that the situation was one of extreme urgency.
As the House would expect, Ministers of course have a role in approving contracts, but their approval relies on the impartial evaluation conducted by civil servants. I reinforce to hon. Members that Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts, and that the documents given to the House show no evidence that any of those principles have been breached. Instead, they plainly show that we did everything in our power to keep this country safe at a time of crisis, as the British people would expect.
The Randox files published last week, later than the Government said they would be—that was not acknowledged by the Minister—paint a picture of a Conservative Government who are simply unfit for office. That Conservative Government played fast and loose with public money. They handed Randox a £133 million contract without competition. The Minister talked about every possible step being taken in testing infrastructure, but let us remember what happened. Randox tried to requisition equipment from universities that, because of the files that were released, we now know had to be stopped. Vital tests in care homes were voided, and 750,000 tests were recalled. The Government’s response was to hand it a second contract worth £350 million, again without competition.
We now know that both the civil service chief operating officer and the Minister, Lord Agnew, sounded a warning alarm. That Minister said that the Department was paying “dramatically over the odds” for Randox’s services, but the Government ploughed on. Why was he ignored, and did the Department do what he asked, and introduce a competitive tender process by March 2021? There does not seem to have been the operation of robust rules that the Minister referred to, or an impartial evaluation. Was that put into place or not?
Secondly, there are still no minutes of that crucial meeting on 9 April, just a rough draft email sent seven months later. Two years on, the Department cannot even explain who was there. We now know that Health Ministers held another four meetings that were never declared in the Register. How many more secret meetings were there?
That brings us to Owen Paterson who, as we now know from these papers, is called “O-Patz”—really, Mr Speaker, is there any clearer sign that we are in the twilight days of this Government? The files show that this former MP, a paid advocate for Randox, was arranging meetings with the Health Secretary in the Division Lobby, a place to which only MPs have access, and where it is impossible for civil servants to join them—hardly the appropriate management of commercial interests that the Minister referred to. Will she explain what was agreed in those discussions, and will she correct her Department’s claim that there is no evidence of any breach of the rules?
I make no apologies for how we as a country rose to the challenge that we faced in early 2020. I think that sometimes we forget what this country—indeed, the world—was going through. We must remember those days, and I am sure that hon. Members across the House will agree that what we have put in place since will ensure that we can cope far better in the future. We do need to learn lessons, and we will learn lessons.
However, one of the most important lessons that I take from when we worked together is that we can do incredible things. The NHS has been phenomenal, our hospitals have been phenomenal, and local government has been phenomenal, as has the private sector. We have all worked together and we have really worked hard, and that is why we can now see that—with the vaccine programme as well, along with the therapeutics and antivirals—we are combating this virus. We could not have come this far without everybody working together, and this country’s testing structure has been crucial in helping us to get through this time. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who has been involved in this huge effort both at testing sites and working in the lab, and everybody who has come forward to get tested to keep their loved ones safe.
I would like to respond to some of the questions posed by the hon. Lady. My Department did inform you, Mr Speaker, that we were unable to meet our initial deadline for responding to the Humble Address. That was mainly due to the surge of omicron at that time, and the way that my Department had to respond to ensure that we kept our citizens safe from that variant surge.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of the Randox kits that were recalled in the summer of 2020. It was on 15 July that year that NHS Test and Trace was notified that some kits produced by Randox laboratories may not have met the required standard for coronavirus testing. As a precautionary measure, while this was investigated further, NHS Test and Trace paused the use of these Randox test kits with immediate effect. It was on 7 August that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency instructed Randox to recall the Randox covid-19 home testing kits with a specific catalogue number. That decision was taken as a precautionary measure to prevent any further use of these Randox tests. The risk to safety was low, and test results from Randox kits were not affected. An independent assessment in June 2020 had placed Randox ahead of other laboratories, and Randox was meeting its delivery targets by September 2020. We were very precautionary in the measures we put in place to ensure that we were protecting everybody at that time.
I did note the point of order that the hon Lady made this week about the meeting on 9 April 2020, which she has raised again today. The note was taken during the meeting, and it was saved in a draft folder of the private secretary who took the note. When the Department received a freedom of information request for the minute of the meeting, the private secretary found the minute and shared it. For clarity, “note” and “minute” mean an official record of a meeting; the words mean the same from that point of view.
I reiterate that there are robust rules and processes in place that ensure that contracts are awarded in accordance with the public procurement regulations of 2015, and that Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts at all. That is a really important principle that the Government work on now, and have worked on probably for decades, and that principle will never be broken.
You will remember, Mr Speaker, as the right hon. Member for Chorley, and every Member in this House will remember, the enormous pressure we were all put under, barely two years ago, to try to find businesses and organisations that could quickly produce much-needed equipment and services to assist the people of our country during an unprecedented global pandemic. Can I put on record my appreciation of the enormous work that the Government did, and does the Minister agree with me that, had it not been for their work, we would not have been able to protect and save the lives of so many people in our country?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s recognition, remembering where we were barely two years ago, of how we have moved on since then. We have put in place a test and trace programme that is renowned across Europe and across the world, and we have a world-leading vaccination programme as well as the amazing work done on therapeutics and antivirals. Coming together in the national effort has been vital, which is why I make no apologies for my Department’s looking at every opportunity to ensure that everybody could get tested who needed to be tested, that everybody could be jabbed who needed to be jabbed, and that the right therapeutics were in place to keep people safe.
These secret communications reveal that Paterson corresponded directly with the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), in January 2020 about the services that Randox could provide. Then, without competition, Government contracts were issued to provide Randox with equipment if it struggled to get it, offering loans of equipment that were drafted on the same day as the emails were exchanged. Nice work if you can get it, eh? In the exchanges, Paterson repeatedly noted that he was a paid consultant to Randox, but the Government seemingly overlooked that fact for months until The Guardian revealed he had lobbied for Randox to get the contracts. Internally, Paterson then asked the Health Minister to kill the story once and for all. Can the Minister explain to me how that is not institutional corruption? Nobody trusts this Government. They are rule breakers and system cheaters. Does this whole case with Randox not just prove that the Government are interested only in helping their friends?
Once again, I make no apologies for the Department working to look at every opportunity to make sure that we had the right mechanisms in place to keep our country safe. As I said earlier, Randox was a recognised company in the diagnostic industry. The hon. Gentleman talks about how he perceives the Department working. The fact is that we have released all the documents. As I said earlier, the 11,000 documents were looked at to identify what was relevant. We have been very open in putting that information in the House of Commons Library and responding to the Humble Address.
The documents seem to show that there was a meeting with the former Member for North Shropshire and the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the Division Lobby. Will the Minister respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds)? Did that meeting take place?
The evidence has been put in the Library and the information is there. I want to make it clear that my Department went through as much evidence as it could. As I said earlier, we were at the start of a pandemic; nobody had ever seen anything like it before. I make no apologies for making sure that we had everything in place to keep the country safe.
Oh dear; I almost do not know where to start. I have to be very careful, because the Standards Committee may well want to return to some of these issues and I will not stray into that territory. There is no rule that says that a Minister cannot be inappropriately lobbied, but there are rules saying that Members are not allowed to engage in paid advocacy. We may need to look at the rules to make sure there is a better way of dealing with this issue. I am not making any allegations about the Health Secretary or anybody else. I just wonder: when the Minister voted to protect Owen Paterson on 3 November, did she know about all of this or not?
I respect the hon. Gentleman and I look forward to the outcome of the work of his Committee. The code of conduct for MPs rightly remains a matter for Parliament. Today, we are talking about the Humble Address that my Department responded to, quite rightly. There are lessons that can be learned. We are now looking at making sure we have mechanisms in place for the future. Standards are in place in the House and it is quite right that hon. Members meet those standards. I look forward to the outcome of your Committee’s work to make sure we have a rounded approach and that the situation with Mr Paterson does not happen again.
It really is quite remarkable: what the Minister has outlined in her response is what should have happened during the course of the pandemic and what has been proven not to have happened. Instead, the situation has been epitomised by Tory donors receiving billions of pounds in contracts, Ministers losing mobile phones when their Department and the law have tried to find out what has gone on, and decent companies with great experience in this field—I am thinking of Arco up in the north-east—being left with next to nothing. How can the Minister stand there and defend the indefensible?
As I said, we follow the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and in procuring goods and services we are committed to fair and reasonable timetables and procedures, and encourage open competition wherever possible. However, we were in the middle of a pandemic.
Let me go through the process in a bit more detail. Awarding bodies use three main procurement routes in awarding contracts. First, there are direct awards without competition using emergency procurement rules, and I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that we were in an emergency situation. Secondly, there are direct awards using variations to existing contracts. The third route is awards from framework agreements—both direct awards and mini competitions—where suppliers have previously undergone a competitive process to be appointed to the framework. As we move out of the pandemic, we will obviously get back to business as usual and use these other mechanisms.
I am sure that I am not the only one in the House who is finding this utterly excruciating. The Minister cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say in one breath that she makes no apology and in the next breath say that the Government are going to learn lessons. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) asked her a simple and direct question about the meeting on 5 February. Did it happen—yes or no?
The chief operating officer of the civil service requested the restoration of competitive tendering by March 2021. Will the Minister confirm that that did not happen, tell us how many more contracts were issued without tender after that date, and explain why the emergency procurement rules are still in use almost a year after the deadline?
I am finding this really rather difficult, for the same reasons as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). Has the Minister actually read what has been laid in the Library? If she has, will she enlighten us as to what it says about the meeting in the Lobby?
Randox cashed in on covid contracts; its profits jumped from £12 million to £50 million, and as the money rolled in the company was re-registered in the Isle of Man. Does the Minister think that tax on UK covid contracts should be paid in the UK?
That is really for the Treasury to look at, but I come back again to the fact that Randox was an established company in diagnostic testing and that at the time we looked at which businesses could deliver our testing requirements. I am delighted that since then we have built up our own additional testing structure; in fact, later today I will be visiting the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in Leamington Spa to see the amazing testing work that we have set up there under the UK Health Security Agency.
This is agonising and frankly embarrassing. The Minister has been sent here to state repeatedly that we were in an emergency situation and a global pandemic, and she makes no apology. Does this scandal not just further prove that this Government are interested only in helping their friends to get richer?
I reiterate what I said earlier: we have robust rules and processes in place to ensure that contracts are awarded in accordance with the Public Procurement Regulations 2015, which I have also outlined in further detail. Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts.
Business of the House
I would be delighted.
Monday 21 February—Remaining stages of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 22 February—Remaining stages of the Charities Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 23 February—Opposition day (13th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Thursday 24 February—Debate on a motion on the UK’s relationship with Russia and China, followed by general debate on the matter of the UK Government recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 February will include:
Monday 28 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, while I am on my feet I will briefly pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), my predecessor as Leader of the House and Lord President of the Council. During his time in post, he was instrumental in guiding parliamentary business through the pandemic. It may come as some surprise to colleagues that he was the leading advocate for the digital revolution in Parliament and a pioneer of the hybrid proceedings, and, to be fair, he ensured that the House and its Committees were able to sit throughout the pandemic.
My right hon. Friend also oversaw the Government’s delivery of the legislative programme over the past two and a half years, including ensuring that all necessary legislation was in place ahead of our departure from the European Union. He took his role extremely seriously; he was an ardent champion of Back Benchers, not least ensuring that all hon. Members who brought up issues at business questions had those raised with the relevant Secretaries of State. Those are huge strides that I will have to step into. I have huge respect for my predecessor and I hope I can fill his shoes. I have an enormous amount of respect for him and I think of him as a true friend.
My door will always be open to anyone who wants to speak to me. I especially hope that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) will come through that door, and that we can have a positive relationship in the best interests of the House and its Members. I can assure the House that I will look to carry on my predecessor’s commitment to ensuring that those who work on the estate are treated with dignity and respect. I look forward to working with the House of Commons Commission, where I will look to build on recent work to ensure the efficient and effective running of the House for the sake of its Members and all who work here.
I warmly welcome the new Leader of the House to his post. I thank him for the forthcoming business and look forward to working with him. Also in my line of sight is the new Government Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), and I welcome him to his place as well.
I thank the previous Leader of the House for our time working together. I note that he is taking up his new role as the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. I was interested to find out more about that role, so I had a look on the ministerial webpage, only to find—certainly when I last looked, and I had been refreshing the screen all morning—that there seemed to be no responsibilities listed. I know from experience that that might suit him, so I wish him well.
This is Race Equality Week. Hate crime is rising in Britain. Race is now a factor in more than seven out of 10 hate crimes recorded in England. Can the Leader of the House explain what the Government are doing to tackle this? Religious hate crime is also rising, particularly against British Muslims, so can the right hon. Gentleman also demonstrate his personal commitment to tackling that by scheduling in Government time a debate on Islamophobia?
There are 14,000 cases of fraud every day and millions of cases of fraud every year. Each day, thousands of people are scammed out of hard-earned savings. Yet we have a Business Secretary who thinks fraud is not a real crime. Perhaps that is why the Chancellor is happy to write off £4.3 billion of fraudulent loans.
Meanwhile, we have a Prime Minister who does not seem to understand his own Government’s record on tackling crime, claiming last week that they have been “cutting crime by 14%,” when that does not seem to be quite the case. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there is actually
“a 14% increase in total crime, driven by a 47% increase in fraud and computer misuse.”
This causes misery, as well as financial ruin, for many people. It seems to me that this indicates a Government that are both soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. Will the Leader of the House please ask the Prime Minister to come here and correct that record about crime statistics?
Families up and down the country are facing a cost of living crisis, with energy bills set to rise by more than £700 per year per household. Meanwhile, oil and gas producers are making over £700 profit per second. Instead of helping working families, this Government are choosing to load them up with debt. The Government’s forced loan—the so-called discount—means that households will actually end up forking out an extra £19 billion on their bills next year. Meanwhile, the Chancellor is pretending that he is giving us a discount. Given that the Government appear to be keen on “Buy now, pay later” schemes, would the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this?
Labour’s plan would keep bills low enough, through a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas profits, and all households getting £200 off their bills, with an extra £400 for those who need it most. Can the Leader of the House explain why the Government are not backing a windfall tax that would help fund a cut in VAT on energy bills and ease the burden on working people?
I asked the previous Leader of the House several times for the online harms Bill. We have had a series of updates, but no actual legislation. Last year the Prime Minister said the Bill would have completed all stages by Christmas, then it was just Second Reading, and then there was a vague commitment that it would happen at some point during the Session. The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee has reported and we have had a debate, but nothing is forthcoming on the business. Can the new Leader of the House enlighten us about the location of the Bill?
Finally, as I have to say each week—unfortunately, nothing seems to change—this Government are out of touch, out of ideas and out of control. A decade of dither, their delay and their incompetence has left working people paying the price.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about my predecessor. He has gone off to give us those Brexit dividends and find the benefits of Brexit. They are easy to find, to be honest, and I think he will be quite successful. Instead of criticising and being negative about Brexit, it is time the Labour party embraced Brexit, understood that the British people voted for Brexit and got on the bandwagon with us. Come and give us the Brexit dream, and let us go together, support the previous Leader of the House and move forward.
The hon. Lady mentioned race crime. I think everybody in the House will recognise that race crime is a terrible offence, and we should all do our part in condemning anyone who is involved in racial crimes. I wholly accept the point that she makes. I would be delighted to work together, in any way we can—we have a responsibility not only as Members of Parliament, but as citizens, to call out racial hatred whenever we see it in all its forms.
Turning to fraud, everybody will recognise what a terrible crime fraud is. As Members of Parliament, we can help. There are very evil people out there who are trying to steal people’s savings and attack our constituents, but we can help by highlighting some of those scams and by working to bring down not only fraud, but all crime. The Government’s record on crime is actually pretty good. If we look particularly at the statistics on violent crime and burglary, we see that the number of those crimes in our constituencies is coming down.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Prime Minister coming to make a statement. I say gently to her that if we look at knife crime in the city of London, we see that when the Prime Minister was the Mayor of London, he tackled knife crime and it came down. Under the current Labour Mayor, those statistics have gone in the wrong direction. She should support the Government and support our ambitions to recruit more police officers, on which we are delivering, and together we can tackle crime.
Energy costs are clearly a very big issue for our constituents. The Government have done an awful lot to try to help with the pain of global energy costs. We have put £9.1 billion into the energy bill rebate scheme, with a £200 discount on bills this autumn. The Government are taking a number of steps. I am not saying that there is not more that we can do, and I understand the squeeze on people, on hard-working families, but the best way out of poverty is through hard work, good jobs and good careers. That is what the Government are delivering. I say to the hon. Lady: get behind the Government and support us as we do that, because reducing the tax burden on the lowest-paid and helping out those on universal credit is what we are delivering.
Finally, the hon. Lady mentioned the online harms Bill. The Bill has been through pre-legislative scrutiny and that report has been received. I am sure that the House will be updated in the usual way when I announce business in future. At this moment in time, she will just have to chill her beans, but it is coming at some point.