House of Commons
Thursday 24 March 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—
We are delivering the biggest broadband upgrade in UK history. National gigabit broadband coverage has rocketed from 6% to 66% in the past three years. Over 80 different companies are extending coverage further, investing more than £30 billion between them. Through Project Gigabit, we are investing £5 billion to ensure coverage in hard-to-reach areas across the UK.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the Government’s commitment, but as my constituency neighbour she will know that in parts of North East Bedfordshire gigabit coverage is already well below the national average. There are plans to increase it, but may I request a meeting with her or the Minister directly responsible to discuss those rural areas just outside major urban areas or towns but not in the most remote districts, which seem to be being missed by current plans?
I declare an interest. My hon. Friend is not only my constituency neighbour, but due to various boundary changes over the years we have swapped various parts of our constituency and I feel like we are joint Members for some parts of our constituencies. I would like to reassure him that premises in his constituency that are not included in the commercial providers plan will be eligible for gigabit-capable subsidy through Project Gigabit. The Project Gigabit procurement covering North East Bedfordshire is due to start by October this year, with a contract in place by September 2023. Eligible premises in North East Bedfordshire can also receive gigabit-capable connections through the broadband voucher scheme. I would very much like to meet him to talk about this matter, along with the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez).
Digital exclusion is not just a rural phenomenon. In parts of Ealing Broadway, despite the road being dug up and cable laid, businesses report cripplingly slow times to send an email or download attachments—basic stuff that is like running water or electricity in this day and age—and don’t get me started on people working from home north of the A40. Can the Secretary of State please give us a date for when all my constituents will be levelled up internet-wise? If not, will she come with me and speak to those businesses and homes, so we can hurry it along?
We were never going to go from 0% to 100% overnight. It has always been a roll-out programme. It is a huge infrastructure investment project, and it is not possible for network builders and telecoms providers to deliver everything at once. Priority is given to where the need is greatest—that includes the businesses she mentions and hard-to-reach communities—but I will take the hon. Lady’s constituency concerns away with me and raise them with Building Digital UK. I will get back to her as soon as I can with a response.
Broadband and Mobile Coverage: Rural Areas
The Government are working hard to give people great connectivity whether they live in a rural, suburban or urban area. We are doing this by: making it easier for operators to roll out infrastructure; focusing public subsidy on connecting the hardest-to-reach areas through Project Gigabit; connecting schools and public buildings through our GigaHubs programme; and working with commercial partners on the shared rural network to tackle mobile notspots.
I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted that I am asking not about broadband but about mobile connectivity instead. I live in the beautiful village of Instow in North Devon, but my mobile signal is so poor that if I move my head when making a call I am instantly disconnected. To have 5G is a dream, yet we have more anti-5G campaigners in North Devon than in almost any other part of the country. What is my hon. Friend doing to improve mobile connectivity in villages such as mine, alongside dealing with the false information perpetuated by anti-5G campaigners?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that she is asking me about mobile rather than broadband. She raises a really important point about misinformation and how it can stifle the roll-out of fast, reliable networks, which can substitute for poor broadband in areas like hers. I spoke recently at a conference with local councils on how to support the 5G roll-out. My Department shared with them public health guidance to bust and counter some of the myths about 5G. On mobile connectivity more generally, as I mentioned, we have the shared rural network that will see us jointly invest with industry more than £1 billion to increase 4G coverage in rural areas. In her region, that will see all four operators cover 87% of her constituency by the end of the programme.
I am asking about broadband, once again. My constituents are extremely concerned that the universal service obligation, which aims to provide decent broadband coverage, is inconsistent in rural areas. Constituents in Knighton have expressed their concern about some of the contribution costs, which can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, despite some properties being only a few hundred metres away from the cabinet. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that decent and, above all, affordable broadband is being rolled out to rural areas? Will the Minister meet me to discuss some of the thornier elements of my constituency?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. I appreciate her concern about the costs that have been quoted to her constituents, and it is an issue to which the regulator Ofcom is very alive. Ofcom holds responsibility for setting the universal service conditions, and it recently carried out an investigation into BT’s approach to calculating excess cost. BT has since provided assurances on what it will do to mitigate the consumer harm identified in the Ofcom report. Compliance with that report will be monitored, but as I say, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue in greater detail.
There have been giant steps forward, which we welcome, but people in some areas of my rural constituency still have difficulty getting a connection, and they cannot use their mobile phones either. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly on working together to address those small pockets that are easy to overlook but whose residents deserve the same level of service as those in the cities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for championing his constituency, as always. Just this week I spoke to one of his DUP colleagues about some of the great work going on with Fibrus, which is making Northern Ireland one of the best connected areas of our country and with the fastest speeds. Of course there is still more work to do. I was going to meet one of the hon. Gentleman’s counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the issue, but unfortunately he came down with covid. I shall follow up and arrange that meeting again.
I congratulate Channel 5 on its 25th anniversary, and I was delighted to attend the parliamentary reception this week to celebrate that significant milestone. Channel 5 has played an important and award-winning role in our public service broadcasting system, through its provision of new programming, and its unique focus on children’s television. Thanks to its significant investment in the regions, it is the levelling-up broadcaster, and I look forward to another successful 25 years.
As my right hon. Friend says, Channel 5 is 25 years old this month. I was a news presenter on the channel at the beginning and for the next eight years, and our aim was to make the news more accessible to a wider audience, ensuring that everybody in the country could understand what was going on. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating Channel 5’s team who had the imagination and confidence to do that then, and the current team who continue to bring understandable, relevant, and relatable news to people in all parts of the UK today?
I will—I congratulate and applaud them. My hon. Friend was there on Channel 5’s opening night, and so were the Spice Girls. Some of us in this House are old enough to remember that evening. Channel 5 does a huge amount for independent production companies, and one fifth of all its commissioning spending goes to those smaller companies. That is a larger spend than the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. It also does a huge amount in the regions, and it far exceeds its Ofcom quota every year. As I said in my first reply, it is the levelling-up broadcaster, and I think those statistics alone bear that out. I wish it another 25 years, and I congratulate everybody working there.
I warmly congratulate Channel 5 on turning 25, along with Channel 4 on turning 40 and, of course, one of our greatest institutions, the BBC, which is celebrating its centenary in 2022. This is becoming, without doubt, a milestone year for public sector broadcasting in the United Kingdom. While the Government have been playing games with the future of the BBC and Channel 4—and we welcome the extra funding for the World Service—their journalists have risked their lives to report the facts on the front line in Ukraine. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that any future ownership decisions that she makes on Channel 4 will ensure that its in-depth, independent journalism will be protected beyond 2022?
As I have said a number of times at the Dispatch Box, a decision has not yet been reached on the future of Channel 4. This week I met its chief executive, Alex Mahon, and its chair, Dawn Airey, and discussions are still taking place. I have yet to reach a decision, but when I do, all will be considered, including news broadcasting, the future, and the public service broadcasting remit to the nation. I have not made a decision, but when I do I will be here at the Dispatch Box and the hon. Gentleman will know the details.
Music Tours: Special Event Hauliers
I wrote to Baroness Vere of Norbiton, my counterpart at the Department for Transport, in February to discuss plans for supporting domestic tours through the implementation of the dual registration proposals. I am pleased to say that those are being taken forward and should come into force later this year. My Department and the Department for Transport continue to work closely with industry to understand the needs of the specialist events haulage sector.
I thank the Minister for that response; I am glad that the Government are finally talking about this issue, which has been flagged up as a problem for a very long time, but “later this year” will not be good enough for bands wanting to tour the UK this summer. Harvey Goldsmith has said that there are not enough trucks and not enough drivers, and that we need a solution now. What is the Minister’s answer?
That is not the message that I have heard, but I will be meeting UK Music representatives on Monday; if they share the concerns that the hon. Lady has just expressed, I will be happy to discuss those with them. The Secretary of State and I continue to do a lot of work with ministerial counterparts in other countries and across the Government on this issue. We are alive to the sector’s concerns.
In an astonishing admission, Lord Frost, the Government’s former Brexit negotiator, recently said of musicians touring to the EU:
“There is a whole set of problems here that is making life difficult on both sides”.
Big problems include the road haulage limits, which mean that UK-based vehicles cannot make more than two laden stops in the EU, which adds a £30,000 cost to each tour. Cabotage limits can add up to £16,000 a day. Those are substantial burdens, and most tours of UK orchestras are to Europe: such tours represent 12% of their earned income. Lord Frost now believes that the Government should change and move to a more pragmatic position to ease touring. Does the Minister agree?
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this issue. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is not responsible for the overall negotiating position, but as I say we have been in close discussions with other Departments. We have made progress on some of the specific issues raised with us, such as splitter vans, and we have also provided a lot of support to the wider events sector. We have made sure that carnets will not be required and we have been doing a whole bunch of other stuff.
As I said, I am meeting UK Music representatives on Monday to discuss the remaining outstanding issues, but we have also had a number of conversations with EU member states. In the vast majority of those, people no longer require permits or visas to carry out this kind of work.
Local Libraries and Regional Museums
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport works very closely with its public sector bodies to support the libraries and museums sector. Through the libraries improvement fund, for example, we are investing £5 million in 25 library services to upgrade buildings and technology and equip them to meet the changing needs of local communities. DCMS will directly support regional museums with £18.8 million of investment through the museum estate and development fund this year and through the DCMS Wolfson museums and galleries improvement fund, which opens in May.
I thank my hon. Friend for the significant financial support from the cultural recovery fund that his Department has already given the Aerospace Bristol museum and STEM learning centre in Filton in my constituency. Will he give serious consideration to its application to become an Arts Council national portfolio organisation for 2023 to 2026?
To date, the cultural recovery fund has given out £1.5 billion in grants and loans to around 5,000 organisations. I am pleased that our investment has helped support fantastic cultural organisations such as Aerospace Bristol, which I have had the pleasure of visiting with my hon. Friend. Arts Council England decides independently which organisations to fund; the national portfolio programme is a competitive process, in which the Arts Council makes decisions on funding based on the applications it receives and, obviously, the criteria. I therefore cannot comment on this particular case, but I wish Aerospace Bristol all the best in its application. It is a great institution.
Libraries are cultural institutions that are perhaps most accessible to a lot of the people we talk about wanting to help, who will often go into a library more easily than they might to a museum or theatre. Local authorities have a statutory obligation to provide a comprehensive service. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that local authorities are meeting that obligation and that our libraries continue to be able to offer access to all parts of our communities?
The hon. Gentleman is right: libraries fulfil a vital role in our local communities. The partnership between central Government, DCMS through various funds and, of course, the huge amount of money—about £600 million—that local authorities put into library services, is really important. If there are particular issues and councils are closing down libraries inappropriately, the Secretary of State could possibly get involved. If the hon. Gentleman faces that situation, he should please let us know.
Bury Transport Museum, which is part of the east Lancashire heritage railway in my constituency, not only preserves our regional automotive and steam engine heritage, but is a centre for education and skills training. I thank my hon. Friend for the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been invested in the institution from the culture recovery fund. Will he agree to visit that brilliant museum and view its proposed £10 million project at Buckley Wells to preserve the world’s oldest continuously in-use steam engine locomotive shed?
How can I turn down an offer like that, Mr Speaker? As my hon. Friend says, our heritage, including our industrial heritage, is really important to this country. Support through various funding schemes—obviously, the culture recovery fund really helped—and on an ongoing basis, including through the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is really important in sustaining those entities. I would be delighted to visit.
I declare an interest, as chair of the John Clare Trust, in the English poet’s house in Helpston near Peterborough and Stamford. Will the Minister do something for me and give the National Trust a good shaking? So often, the small literary houses and smaller places get neglected. The National Trust, with all its vast reserves, is obsessed with the great mansions of the rich and the powerful from the past. When will these little museums get the extra help that they need?
Darlington Hall is a very special place in our national railway story, so I welcome Tees Valley Combined Authority’s £20 million investment in our rail heritage quarter and the expansion of the Head of Steam museum. Will the Minister outline what further steps his Department can take to support such local heritage sites?
Railways are the theme of this morning, and for good reason. My hon. Friend is right that they fulfil a vital role. The culture recovery fund helps to sustain many of them. Many heritage institutions, including railways, have received further support through various other Government initiatives, and many heritage institutions benefited from the levelling-up fund. Again, I would be happy to talk to him about how the National Lottery Heritage Fund could further support their goals.
Regional museums are great, but let us not forget about local museums. From Tameside’s Portland Basin Museum to Stockport’s Hat Works Museum, they tell the story of who we are. However, research from the Museums Association shows that there has been a 27% decline in spending on local museums by local government since 2010. What is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that councils invest in local museums so that we can continue to tell the story of our local communities?
The hon. Member partly answered his own question, in that this is a partnership between local authorities and the museums. It is also about reaching out to the private sector, which contributes to our museums, as well as Government support. We are trying to help when and where we can, for example, with the £18.8 million investment through the museum estate and development fund this year and through the DCMS Wolfson museums and galleries improvement fund, which opened in May. However, this is a partnership between central Government and local authorities, as he articulated.
As my hon. Friend knows, the review of the Gambling Act 2005 is under way and will conclude imminently. Part of that is about the legislation governing casinos. We have received detailed evidence from the casinos sector—I have made a few visits to the sector—and we will publish our White Paper in the near future.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Gambling Act review provides a golden opportunity to review the legislation governing casinos and to bring that into the modern age. Allowing for sports betting and electronic payments and reviewing the current machine-to-table ratio will all help to create new jobs, investment and additional tax receipts for the Exchequer. Will the Minister commit to examining the case for the changes, as well as for allowing additional large casinos in locations such as Blackpool as part of the review?
The matters that my hon. Friend has raised are being considered in the review. We need to balance the ability of casinos to be economically viable with the need to keep players safe, and we are looking into how the current rules can be improved for those purposes. I know that there are seven unused Gambling Act 2005 casino licences, and I have heard my hon. Friend’s powerful representations on behalf of Blackpool, particularly with the levelling-up agenda in mind.
The Minister is well aware of the costs of delaying action to tackle problem gambling. When the Government’s long-awaited White Paper is finally published, it must go further to tackle issues with gambling licences, including those relating to the national lottery. In recent weeks, concerns have been raised about the Gambling Commission’s decision to award the new licence to a company with reported links to Gazprom. Given the extremely concerning situation in Ukraine, can the Minister confirm that he is confident that the new provider has no links to the Russian regime, and if so, why?
As part of its licence awarding process, the Gambling Commission has a statutory obligation to ensure that anyone to whom it gives a licence meets the fit and proper person test. I have asked the commission to assure me that it has conducted thorough inquiries to establish that the provisional licence awardee meets the test, and it has given me that assurance. There are also arrangements for the proposed licence holder to undergo the UK secure vetting process, and that work will begin shortly.
Bingo halls and adult gaming centres are important to seaside towns and high streets, and particularly important to tackling isolation among the elderly. Sadly, Redcar lost Beacon Bingo during the pandemic, but we still have some fantastic adult gaming centres, such as Playland Amusements. May I invite the Minister to come to Redcar and Cleveland and see our amusement centres in action, which might help to inform his decisions in the forthcoming gambling review?
I entirely recognise the importance of bingo halls and adult gaming as elements of vibrant communities up and down the country, often providing places where people can socialise. We are certainly trying to find ways in the review of ensuring that they are able to prosper and thrive, especially given that the risks posed to game players in those settings are at the lower end of the spectrum. I know that Redcar is famous not just for its bingo and gaming centres but for its lemon top ice cream, and I look forward greatly to enjoying that.
Despite its glaring omission of fixed odds betting terminals, the Gambling Act was largely successful, but it predates online gambling by a very long way, and it is therefore essential that we update gambling legislation to deal with that issue. When will we be able to see the White Paper so that we can start the discussion?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that online gambling exploded some time after the 2005 Act, and it does pose a number of serious risks. On Monday, in an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), we discussed the tragic suicide of Jack Ritchie as a result of gambling addiction, and Jack’s parents, Liz and Charles, were in the Gallery listening to the debate. That case underlines the importance of taking action, particularly in relation to the online element. We are thinking about this very carefully and we do not want to rush it, but the publication of the White Paper is imminent.
The Department is delighted to be supporting Buckingham Palace’s delivery of celebrations to commemorate the exceptional service of Her Majesty the Queen over seven decades. She has a special place in the heart of the nation. Lottery distributors are providing £22 million to help communities become involved, and there will be a series of events between 2 and 6 June, including a special Trooping the Colour event and a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s cathedral.
The summer of 1977 was truly magical for me, as a young girl—a very young girl, I should add—because it was the year of the silver jubilee, celebrating 25 glorious years of the Queen’s reign. I remember the street parties, and designing a card fit for a queen, and I still have the pencil. Will my hon. Friend join me in launching my very own card for the Queen, some 45 years later, and will he encourage young children in my constituency to enter my competition to design a card so that we can send it to the Queen from Stourbridge to mark her long and glorious reign?
I was only one year old in 1977, so my memory of that is somewhat hazy, but I am delighted to strongly endorse my hon. Friend’s card for the Queen campaign. I am sure that her constituents will embrace it with enthusiasm and that cards for the Queen will come flooding in from Stourbridge.
As I said a moment ago, bingo clubs are very important. They are part of the social fabric of our country, and we acknowledge that the risks from gambling are very low in the bingo club environment. We will be looking at what we can do to help and support bingo clubs through the very imminent Gambling Act 2005 review.
I am glad to hear the Minister talk about the brilliant benefits of bingo clubs to communities such as mine and about the low risk. Will he give an assurance to bingo players that in review of the Gambling Act, bingo will be assessed on its own merits based on the evidence and not just chucked in with the rest as an afterthought?
I can categorically give that assurance. I have met members of the relevant industry association, and we recognise that the risks posed by bingo hall gaming are at the very low end of the spectrum. We are distinguishing between forms of gambling that are very high risk, of which there are many, and those that are low risk such as bingo.
As Putin continues his brutal assault on Ukraine, we have led the way in making the Russian regime a sporting and cultural pariah, convening Ministers from across the world to form a united response against the Russian dictator. We have helped to protect a historic football club while pursuing severe sanctions against Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. I have also met the Ukrainian Culture Minister. In fact, we talk every day to discuss what other support we can give. I am also pleased to announce that the Government are providing the BBC with an additional £4.1 million in emergency funding to help the World Service continue broadcasting directly into Ukraine and Russia. This will ensure that audiences in the region can continue to access independent news reporting in the face of systemic Russian propaganda.
Chelsea football club is supported by many Kensington residents. I welcome the new ticketing arrangements announced last night. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the sale process? What the fans and the community are looking for is certainty, and of course victory over Real Madrid.
And we wish them well with that. There are certain principles that apply to Chelsea within the Department and with myself. We applied the sanctions to Roman Abramovich, and obviously he cannot benefit in any way from the club, but it was important to maintain the integrity in the club and enable the club to continue to play and the fans to continue to enjoy football. With regard to the sale, I believe that there has been a huge amount of interest. All I will say here is that anyone who is interested in buying Chelsea football club should please go straight to the club. The Government are not handling that side of—
Perhaps I ought first to declare an interest as a Manchester City fan who plans to attend the FA cup semi-final against Liverpool, but is it not wrong to hold that match between two north-west teams at Wembley on a weekend when there are no trains running from the north-west to London? What influence will the Government use to get the FA to sort this problem out, ideally by moving the semi-final to another venue? Is this not just further evidence that we need the voice of fans in football decision making, and that the fan-led review needs to be urgently implemented in full?
There were a number of questions there. We are working with the Department for Transport and trying to ameliorate that situation. It is an FA decision, so we are also discussing it with the FA. It is important that we get the fan-led review in place. We have agreed in principle to a regulator, and we hope to bring that forward as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to Sir David Amess for his work championing Southend, which now continues. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth), who is keen to support the bid for 2029. We have just announced the final four for 2025. She makes some good suggestions, and we want the application process to be as open as possible. We will provide whatever help we can, and I am happy to talk to her further.
The Online Safety Bill was published last week. MPs on both sides of the House wanted Zach’s law to be included, to protect children with epilepsy from cruel thugs who send flashing images online to trigger epileptic attacks. How many children would this measure save, and why was it not included in the Bill?
The epilepsy measures are being considered by the Ministry of Justice, but the new communications offence in clause 150 will capture epilepsy trolling because it is engaged where a communication is sent with the intention of causing serious distress.
I have been told by several credible sources that DCMS is briefing that the Secretary of State still wants to introduce a new Joint Committee, by a motion of this House, to monitor the regulation of online harms—even the name of its Chair and for how long it will sit have been briefed. Given there is no collective agreement and that paragraph 104 of the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report expressly rules out such a new Joint Committee to scrutinise digital regulation, what is the Secretary of State’s actual position on this?
We ruled out wider legislation in statute, but a Joint Committee to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill would be established by a Standing Order and is under consideration. This is a groundbreaking, globally leading Bill, and there is expertise in both Houses. There cannot be too much ongoing scrutiny of this Bill.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning on this issue. We are very conscious of the debate on the voluntary levy and the effectiveness of treatment. I have met and discussed this with clinicians such as Dr Matt Gaskell from the Leeds gambling centre and, of course, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones from the London clinic. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his question is under active consideration.
I am delighted to report that 88% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency can access gigabit-capable broadband, which is above the national average. Across the UK, it is two thirds. We are on track to deliver more, and we will begin procurement in 2023 to mop up the bits of his constituency that are not covered by the commercial roll-out.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good question. Matters concerning identifying potential suspects are, generally speaking, dealt with under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which I know the Home Office is considering taking a look at. He is right to say that it is important for the police to be able to identify perpetrators where allegations are made, and the Government, particularly the Home Office and the Security Minister, are looking into that question carefully.
On Saturday, on a visit to Northwood football club in my constituency, Ian Barry and the directors showed me a site where there is bowls, football, cricket, tennis and a number of other activities. What opportunities does the Minister see to join up the grant funding streams across different sports so that we can create enhanced, multi-sport facilities at community level?
That is a very important point. Through the Football Foundation in particular, we work closely with local authorities and clubs to help them work collaboratively. That includes working with multiple clubs to share facilities, because that makes sense. We are also investing £205 million to build or transform up to 8,000 multi-use sports facilities and £21 million to refurbish park tennis courts.
As I said, I will be meeting UK Music and I am happy to discuss this matter with it. We have provided a huge amount of support to the live music industry throughout the pandemic, including a really successful reinsurance scheme, but I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s points away.
People are turning to the internet for advice on the cost of living, and we are also seeing how fake ads claiming to be from people such as Martin Lewis are used by fraudsters. So will the Secretary of State look at compelling online platforms to verify advertisements that exploit the trust and expertise that high-profile people have built?
I am delighted to report to my hon. Friend that the measures he is calling for are in the Online Safety Bill, which was introduced to Parliament just last Thursday. I believe it will have its Second Reading shortly after the Easter recess, and I look forward to debating those matters with him then, but they are in the Bill.
I have addressed this in a number of ways earlier today. As I say, I am meeting UK Music. We have done a number of things with Departments and with counterparts in other countries to reduce the barriers for touring musicians, and we will continue to carry out that work.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last month, I took the Minister to see Belper Town football club, which is a true grassroots football club. However, Derby County is in danger, and this could have a huge knock-on effect on grassroots football in the region. Please will he confirm when the full recommendations from the fan-led review of football governance, which could have helped Derby County avoid administration and all the pains of the past six months, will be brought into force?
It was a pleasure to visit Belper Town football club. My hon. Friend is making valid points, and she knows that I have met the English Football League and the administrators about the situation at Derby County. We will be bringing more information forward about the response to the fan-led review very shortly.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I need some guidance from you about the answer I have just been given. Paragraph 104 of the report we have just published today and laid before the House states that
“we see real risks of duplication in creating a Joint Committee focused on digital regulation more broadly. Such a committee would cut across the work of existing parliamentary committees that are already well placed to scrutinise digital regulation and for this reason we do not support the recommendations on this from the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill”.
Should such commitments given in writing to a Select Committee be adhered to, perhaps not forever, but for more than 24 hours? What is your view on those who are briefing at the same time as a Committee Chair receives certain commitments in writing? Will you make it clear to the House that the establishment of such a Committee would need Opposition parties to agree to fill it?
I do not want to carry on the debate. The hon. Gentleman asks how Ministers can clarify their policy on establishing a Joint Committee on digital regulation. It is open to the Minister to make a written or oral statement to the House on the matter. Alternatively, the hon. Gentleman can table further questions to the Department. He may wish to contact the Table Office for advice. Also, as Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee he has a lot more powers than other people in this House, and a decision on establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses would be a matter for both Houses. So he may pursue this in other ways, but I certainly do not want to extend the debate any further.
The Attorney General was asked—
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
Since the beginning of 2021, thanks to the referrals made by the Solicitor General and by me, sentences have been increased in more than 100 cases. Recently, I personally argued the case of Stephen Gibbs in the Court of Appeal sitting in Cardiff. I welcomed the decision to increase his sentence for attempted murder from 13 years to 20 years and seven months.
Under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, it is currently only possible to submit a request to increase a sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, but the majority of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are cases of causing death by careless driving. What is my right hon. and learned Friend doing to protect victims of crime who are not covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme?
I acknowledge the argument that my hon. Friend makes very energetically. She knows that the unduly lenient sentence scheme is reserved for specific offences in which the offender’s culpability is particularly high. There are no immediate plans to extend the coverage of the scheme, but I am pleased that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will allow us to take extensive action on road traffic offences, including by increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment.
The Attorney General will be aware of the horrendous case of my constituent Debbie Leitch, who died at the hands of her mother Elaine Clarke, who has since been sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison for her appalling actions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), following our recent letter, to discuss the case with a view to considering whether the sentence is unduly lenient?
It is indeed a tragic case and I extend my sympathies to all those who knew and loved Debbie. I thank my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for bringing the case to the attention of the Law Officers. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General has reviewed the sentence imposed with the utmost care and decided to refer it to the Court of Appeal. It is now a matter for the Court to decide whether to increase the sentence.
The unduly lenient sentence scheme affords the Law Officers an important power. The judiciary generally gets it right in the vast majority of sentencing decisions. In the few instances in which Law Officers, after careful consideration, consider a sentence to be unduly lenient—when there has been an error—the case is referred to senior judges in the Court of Appeal to look at the sentencing exercise and reach their own conclusion.
Violence Against Women and Girls
Tackling violence against women and girls is a central mission of this Government and, indeed, of independent prosecutors. More than 10,400 suspects were charged with domestic abuse offences in the most recent quarter for which data is available, with a conviction rate of more than 75%. Following a successful spending review, the Crown Prosecution Service is recruiting prosecutors and other staff to ensure that even more victims see justice done.
One of my constituents has provided multiple pieces of video evidence and repeatedly reported indecent exposure by a neighbour, aimed at his young daughters. The police repeatedly changed the staff who were handling the case, and then the CPS declined to prosecute for lack of evidence and because the flasher had moved. Will the Attorney General empower the CPS to prosecute more such crimes so that women and girls can have faith in the justice system to help them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important case. Under the victims code that we introduced in April last year, victims have the opportunity to seek a right to review—in other words, a right to ask the CPS to reconsider a decision—and I know many individuals will take up that opportunity. We have outlawed several offences, such as upskirting, coercive control and non-fatal strangulation, to ensure that more victims get the justice they deserve.
The UK is playing a leading role in supporting the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian aggression. Over recent weeks, I have had the privilege of speaking to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, for whom I have the greatest respect, as she fights tirelessly for justice and accountability for the people of Ukraine. She and I have signed a memorandum on co-operation, which underlines the UK’s support for accountability and reinforces our joint efforts to gather and preserve evidence for use in future criminal trials.
A month ago today, this aggressive war of Putin’s was unleashed on Ukraine. We continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they fight for peace. However, I question why the UK’s sanctions, which continue to be slow, have also failed to be robust. Mr Usmanov is clearly laughing at this Government; he has moved hundreds of millions of pounds into irrevocable trusts. Why did the Attorney General not insist that the sanctions regime be made watertight?
I reject that characterisation of our sanctions regime. The UK is leading the world and our allies in terms of the extent and the unprecedented nature of our sanctions package. We have sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and entities; there were 65 more announcements today. We are seeing the impact, and that is what counts—the impact of the sanctions is having a huge effect on the Russian economy. The rouble has plummeted in value. The stock market has crashed. Inflation has risen. That, not political point scoring, is what is going to beat Putin in this war.
The Government are very quick on announcements, but very slow on action. The Attorney General will be aware of the SLAPP—strategic litigation against public participation—litigation being used by Russian oligarchs to wear down investigative journalists and campaigners. The purpose is not to take them to court, but to bury them under a whole load of requests to produce documents and answer questions; it is to wear down their resources. We need urgent action. Can she say what she is doing to shut down, urgently, the use of SLAPP litigation?
Absolutely. The Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor recently announced urgent action he will be taking to target exactly the SLAPP litigation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He will be introducing measures, in the public interest, so that we stop the abuse of our legal process and ensure that legal tools are not abused and misused in this way.
We have allowed the system to be misused for a very long time and that is why we are running to catch up now.
What are we doing to gather evidence of war crimes? It was good to see the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally accuse Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. Will the Attorney General say what role the UK’s sexual violence in conflict experts could play? It seems clear that rape is being used, once again, as a weapon of war, in Ukraine.
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly worrying point. It does look as if there is very strong evidence to support claims of sexual violence being used in this conflict, which is completely abhorrent and horrifying. We have a strong track record. A few years ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office led the way, alongside Angelina Jolie, in raising the profile of this weapon in conflict and in taking concrete action against it. The Foreign Secretary will make an announcement on the issue very soon. On evidence gathering, as I mentioned, I have reached an agreement with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General. My hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is working to lead an international coalition with the International Criminal Court, focusing on evidence gathering and on building resources to assist an independent prosecution, so that we bring war criminals to justice and secure accountability.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome very much the establishment of a war crimes taskforce, on which my right hon. and learned Friend serves, and the additional funding that the Ministry of Justice has given to the International Criminal Court.
The war crimes that are undoubtedly being committed in Ukraine are being committed on the territory of a country that adheres to the conventions of the ICC, which therefore has jurisdiction. Will the Attorney General take on board the very important point made by the chair of the Bar in a speech last night, that even though Putin and his cronies may be beyond our reach at the moment, the bringing of an indictment is itself an important signal that we stand up for the rule of international law? Will she take up the suggestion of working with the legal professions and seconding British lawyers to the ICC to strengthen its investigations team?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He has almost taken the words out of my mouth. I am very pleased in my capacity as leader of the Bar to be working with the Bar Council. There is a huge opportunity to build on the wealth of expertise in the English legal system. We have renowned experts in public international law, and I echo the call made by the chairman of the Bar for all of those in private practice who wish to serve, whether through working with the ICC or to support the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, to get in touch with the Bar Council and the Law Society so that we can channel their efforts to the best possible use.
The Levelling Up Secretary has been boasting for weeks that the Government will seize oligarchs’ mansions, but they have no idea how to do so legally, and by the time they work it out the culprits will be clean away. The Justice Secretary is a sudden convert to anti-SLAPP legislation, biting the hands that used to feed the Tory party, but shows no urgency to legislate. The Attorney General is investigating her own Serious Fraud Office for failures to prosecute, yet the SFO is so starved of money that its yearly budget would not buy one of Abramovich’s yachts. It is pathetic. Do the Government lack the means to bring international criminals to justice, or do they just lack the will?
I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s charge, which is completely unfounded. The reality is that the actions that we have taken are world leading. We introduced emergency legislation not so long ago. We are considering the confiscation of assets, of course at all times within the legal remits and according to due process. What we are doing, and the effect of our actions, is clear: we are starving the oligarchs and those who are funding Putin’s murderous activities of access to their finance. We are going after his corrupt cronies and key businesses directly. We are paralysing the military-industrial complex, and that will be how we strangle the economic funding for this brutal activity.
Given that Russia is not a member of the ICC and will almost certainly refuse to recognise its jurisdiction, what discussions has the Attorney General had with her international partners on alternative forums for prosecution? Does she agree with former Prime Ministers John Major and Gordon Brown that a court could be set up for that purpose, as was the case in Nuremburg?
Of course, all options are on the table, and I will always defer to my counterpart in Ukraine, the Prosecutor General, in my efforts to support her and her choice of route for redress. While we welcome the focus on accountability, we believe that the International Criminal Court is the right place for those responsible for committing these atrocious crimes in Ukraine to be held accountable for their actions. That is why, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, we are focusing all our energy, all our assistance and all our resources on the ICC prosecutor’s independent investigation.
The Government’s plans on tackling financial crime are outlined in the economic crime plan, which recognises the important roles played by both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office. In the year ending September 2021, the CPS prosecuted over 7,600 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.9%. Over the last five years, the SFO has secured reparations for criminal behaviour from organisations that it has investigated, totalling over £1.3 billion.
I thank the Solicitor General for that answer. It is important that the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office adapt to the ever more sophisticated techniques that criminals are using to commit fraud and evade prosecution. Can my hon. Friend share any examples where either the CPS or the SFO has sought to change its working practice to evolve with the changing nature of economic fraud?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the threat is evolving, which is why the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to merge its specialist fraud, organised crime, and international headquarter divisions into one new directorate—the serious economic, organised crime and international directorate. This will increase flexibility, enhance capacity, build resilience and ensure that learning is shared to improve expertise in tackling economic crime.
The programme to replace the Action Fraud service is being funded as part of the £400 million investment in economic crime, so no additional money, as I heard sotto voce from the Opposition Bench. As well as continuing improvements to the reporting process, including the call centre and website, the new programme will also deliver vastly improved data and intelligence capabilities, and 350 new investigators and intelligence officers.
Economic crime and fraud are not simply at the very top level; they are volume crime. They are the most likely crimes to affect ordinary people, and neither the police nor the authorities are equipped to deal with them. Is it not about time that we got serious on economic crime and made sure that we invested in the investigating process that can make a real difference, as that is not happening?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: fraud is a cruel crime. It is not a victimless crime and it can destroy lives. That is why it is so important that the proper resources are allocated, as I indicated. A total of 7,600 individuals have been prosecuted for fraud, with an 85% conviction rate. We also have £400 million more going in. Moreover, over the past five years, £500 million has been secured by the CPS in confiscation orders, returning more than £120 million to victims of fraud.
At the heart of any legislation on economic crime is the basic principle that anybody who wants to make money in the UK needs to obey the UK’s laws. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that P&O had “broken the law”, that we will be “taking action” against it, and that we will take it to court
“under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 325.]
Can the Solicitor General tell us, as part of the team of Government lawyers, whether he agrees with the Prime Minister’s statement? Does the statement reflect the team’s own legal advice to the Prime Minister, and, assuming that it does, what are the next steps in the legal proceedings that the Government intend to take against P&O for breach of the 1992 Act?
The Government absolutely deprecate and abhor the actions that have been taken by P&O, and the Prime Minister was very clear about that. What we will not do is indulge in point-scoring, but we will take every possible step within the law. The right hon. Lady will understand that that requires an important liaison with the Insolvency Service to ensure that we know what the position is. If the law allows for a prosecution, I can tell her that this Government will not hesitate to take every action necessary.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Economic crime is highly complex, often cyber-enabled and spans multiple jurisdictions. In recognition of that and to keep pace with the changing nature of crime, the CPS published its first ever economic crime strategy last year, which affirms its commitment to improving criminal justice outcomes and supporting victims. The conviction rate for fraud and forgery over the past period was 84.9%, and, as I indicated, in the past five years £568 million was enforced in respect of CPS-obtained confiscation orders.
Has the Minister seen the Age UK report and the way that organised crime, which includes highly sophisticated big players, is targeting elderly people? A total of 800,000 elderly people were defrauded last year. Somebody is defrauded every few seconds in this country. These players are homing in on our most vulnerable people, and what we are doing as a Government—no, what he and his colleagues are doing as a Government—seems to be amateur when compared with these professionals.
That is why I am so delighted that at the spending review the Government allocated a full £400 million to boost efforts in the fight against crime—money that goes to the National Economic Crime Centre, the National Crime Agency and the police—together with 20,000 additional police officers. Those fraudsters need to understand that there is nowhere for them to hide.
Fraud and Economic Crime
Economic crime is highly complex. In the year ending September 2021, the CPS prosecuted 7,609 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, with a conviction rate of 84.9%. As for the SFO, it performed strongly last year: in 2021, it secured three deferred prosecution agreements, including one with Amec Foster Wheeler Energy Limited involving a financial settlement of £103 million. Furthermore, it successfully prosecuted GPT Special Project Management and Petrofac, resulting in just over £100 million in financial penalties.
Between 2013 and 2019, the Serious Fraud Office secured convictions against five corporations out of 43 investigations. We can literally count the number of successful prosecutions on one hand. Does the Attorney General regard that as an acceptable recent track record for the Serious Fraud Office? If not, how does she plan to change it?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Just yesterday I met the director of the Serious Fraud Office; I am glad that this year looks like a very active year. The SFO is taking seven trials involving 20 defendants to court in 2022, and will be pursuing those convicted to ensure that funds from criminal conduct are confiscated and victims are rightly compensated. The estimated value of fraud across all seven trials this year is more than £540 million in a number of jurisdictions. That is a great amount of work, and something we should all be getting behind.
Business of the House
It would be a pleasure. I join you, Mr Speaker, in wishing the shadow Leader of the House all the best for a speedy recovery, and welcoming the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to her place.
The business for the week commencing 28 March will include:
Monday 28 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]; followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; followed by debate on a motion on war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments. The subject for that debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 29 March—Debate on a motion to approve the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Delay in Expiry: Inquests, Courts and Tribunals, and Statutory Sick Pay) (England And Wales and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022 and a motion under the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the renewal of temporary provisions; followed by Opposition day (18th allotted day, first part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 30 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Care Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 31 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments; followed by a general debate on the impact of long covid on the UK workforce; followed by a debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 31 March, the House will rise for the Easter recess and return on Tuesday 19 April.
The provisional business for the week commencing 18 April will include:
Tuesday 19 April—Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill.
I can also confirm to the House that the state opening of Parliament will take place on Tuesday 10 May and the current Session of Parliament will be prorogued ahead of the Queen’s Speech. The date of Prorogation will be confirmed in due course.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. You beat me to it, Mr Speaker, but eagle-eyed fans of business questions will, I am sure, notice that I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the shadow Leader of the House. Like so many up and down the country, she is suffering from covid, so I wish her and others a very speedy recovery.
Tuesday marked five years since the Westminster terror attack, and we remembered those who tragically lost their lives, including PC Keith Palmer. We are forever indebted to him and to his family for their sacrifice. Today I would also like to take the opportunity to thank all those who are continuing to keep us safe.
Today marks one month since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, with more and more war crimes being committed each day. The Labour party stands with our allies, including NATO and our other partners, in complete solidarity with the Ukrainian people. However, this devastating situation is also having implications for our own security situation. In yesterday’s spring statement there was no mention of stopping cuts to our armed forces. Other European Governments have already acted to reboot their plans and review defence spending, but the Chancellor has not announced any halt to Army cuts. There was no review of defence spending, no reform of military procurement, and no change to the real cut in day-to-day Ministry of Defence spending. This means less money for forces recruitment, training, pay and families. Can we have a statement from the Defence Secretary on how he plans to keep Britain safe if these cuts go ahead?
The Chancellor has been responsible for 15 tax rises in the past two years, and even though he proclaims that he believes in low tax, the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that he has reversed only about a sixth of the tax rises he has announced since he took the job. The national insurance threshold rise is nothing more than a cynical attempt to distract from the fact that for every £6 this Chancellor takes away from people he has given them back just £1. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor on when it became Government policy to turn Britain into a country of high tax and low growth?
Families are facing the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. The majority of households will see, on average, a £1,300 increase in year-on-year bills by October. Some 6.5 million households across the country will be facing fuel poverty next week. Our proposal for a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producers would cut household energy bills by £600, helping those who need it most. As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I am proud that the Welsh Labour Government have again put in a more generous package of support for those who need it. Why are this Government not doing the same? Can the Leader of the House explain why this Government are happy to raise taxes on hard-working people but will not do the same for oil and gas companies?
Yesterday the Prime Minister said that he was taking legal action against P&O Ferries, but his officials are now saying that he overstepped the mark. Can the Leader of the House explain whether the Business Secretary has issued proceedings against P&O, and if not, why, a week on from these shameful sackings, the Government have done absolutely nothing to help these British workers? In fact, this Government have consistently voted to continue to allow bullying tactics from a few bad employers, and on Monday Conservative Members were whipped to abstain on our motion to outlaw fire and rehire. Can we have a statement on why this Government have let British businesses be undercut and let British workers down for the past decade?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. She is as enthusiastic as the shadow Leader of the House in the number of questions that she asks.
First, I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Keith Palmer and recognising the enormous sacrifice that many in our security services make in keeping us safe and defending us. There were a number of services to recognise the fifth anniversary, but it is important that we never forget the sacrifices that those individuals have made. I thank her for drawing the House’s attention to that.
The hon. Lady went on to talk about the Russian invasion. Again, I thank her. The House’s unity on this matter is exemplary. It is vital that we stick together and continue to send strong messages. Working with our international colleagues, this House will continue to send a robust message to the Putin regime.
The hon. Lady went on to pivot to funding of our armed services and a request for a debate. She will be aware that next week we have Defence questions, so she will have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Defence himself as he stands at the Dispatch Box. I am sure that when she does so, she will hear, once again, that we are the largest spenders on defence in the EU. We are already funding one of the best armed services in the world, and we continue to do that. That funding and that professionalism in our armed services is one reason why the people of Ukraine can defend themselves against Russian aggression with the weapons and technical support that we are supplying. We should be enormously proud of that. We have great armed services and we will continue to fund them properly.
The only way that we can do that, however, is though sound economic management and the hon. Lady went on to talk about the spring statement. Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out his tax plan. He certainly has a plan to deliver for the United Kingdom, to continue to keep us on the straight and narrow and to plot a path through the enormous economic challenge that the world is facing. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sent ripples around the world through the energy and food markets—it will have an impact on the whole world.
In the UK, we have a plan to deal with that. Inflation is actually lower than in the US. Yesterday, the Chancellor cut fuel duty to help people who are struggling to fill up their car, which is a £5-billion tax cut for motorists in the UK, and cut national insurance now, which is a £6-billion tax cut for people. Instead of the Labour party’s policy of a windfall tax on energy companies, which is a broadbrush approach, the Chancellor is targeting the hard-working families who need support so that the people with the broadest shoulders bear the burden of taxation. That is the fair and right way to approach our taxation system.
The hon. Lady concluded by mentioning P&O Ferries. I join her in condemning its action. The way in which it treated its staff is abhorrent and it should be held to account. She will have heard the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday that it will be held to account in terms of the employment laws of the United Kingdom. I hope that P&O will reflect on the way it conducted itself and will find a way to reinstate and support its staff.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Nik Allen and his team at My Local News on the 2,000th edition of their magazine, which reaches households across most of my constituency, including Abbots Langley and Garston; provides important local news and community information; and promotes local businesses? Will he advise me on how I can best help to promote the important role of vital local journalism in the House and celebrate such magazines in Watford and across the UK?
In asking the question, my hon. Friend has achieved that. I join him in congratulating the team at My Local News. Local newspapers and magazines play an important role in our communities and I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate to highlight that.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) in sending my best wishes to the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), and in remembering Keith Palmer and all those who keep us safe. The Facebook memories from five years ago that I saw a few days ago were quite something. I also echo the comments about on the ongoing tragedies in Ukraine.
The cost of living crisis is fast becoming a catastrophe for millions of families. The Resolution Foundation has found that the number of people in absolute poverty in the UK is expected to rise by 1.3 million next year. Having heard the Chancellor’s leadership pitch yesterday, can we now have a statement that actually details a financial package to offer meaningful support to pensioners, the disabled, people on benefits and those struggling on lower incomes who currently have to choose between heating and eating?
It is nine months since the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman confirmed the WASPI women’s claim that the Department for Work and Pensions was guilty of maladministration, yet nothing has happened. Can we have a debate in Government time to detail a timetable to properly compensate the women affected? We have also heard reports that there are plans for further aid cuts through the international development strategy, so I would be grateful if the Leader of the House arranged for a statement to be made to clarify that position.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has been heavily involved in securing the safe passage of the Dnipro kids, who have gratefully made their way here, but many others have not been as helpfully supported. When can we have a statement from the Home Office to outline a change of direction that shows a generosity of spirit similar to that it managed to find with the Dnipro kids, so we can finally end the requirement for visas and make it far, far easier for others fleeing Ukraine, as has happened in other European countries?
Finally, with the change to Monday’s business, I am very grateful personally to the Leader of the House and to the Backbench Business Committee for the rescheduled debate on the armed forces compensation scheme war pension. It is indeed my own debate and I take this opportunity to encourage all Members to take part in it.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. It is a pleasure to be able to accommodate him on Monday. He is twice the man of the usual SNP spokesman, I think the House will agree. I am grateful to him for his comments about Keith Palmer and for once again expressing the unity across the House in our response to Russia.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government’s approach to tackling poverty and he is right to do that. I hope he recognises that the best way out of poverty is through work and for that work to pay, and for those people who are in employment to pay as little tax as possible. That is what the Chancellor set out yesterday when he reduced the amount of tax for those in the lowest paid employment. In previous Budgets, he set out a reduction in the taper levels for universal credit, so people retain more of their income. That is the right approach to fiscal responsibility and to ensuring the economy continues to grow, so that we can afford to pay people who are in employment more money and they can retain more of their wages. That is the right way to approach people working their way out of poverty and we are making great progress in that direction.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about refugees and made reference to the airplane with the children on, which I hope has now landed. I congratulate him on his role in securing that safe flight for those individuals. Of course, there is more we can do and we continue to do more. We in the United Kingdom are actually one of the most generous nations in the world when it comes to supporting refugees. We have an excellent programme, which is available to support as many people as possible coming here. We are opening up to nearly 100,000 school- children, who will receive support through the education system. At the same time, we also have a great package of humanitarian support, as well as military support, going to Ukraine, and I think that is the right balance. We are playing our part and we are leading the international community in doing that.
The hon. Gentleman made reference to a debate on the armed forces on Monday, which I think we have granted. I thank him for his questions.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the joint Commissions—the House of Lords Commission and the House of Commons Commission—in their meeting on 17 March on restoration and renewal, decided yet again to employ more consultants. Surely, whether one wants to decant or not, what we ought to do in this House is make up our mind what we want to do. It is costing us £100 million every year we delay and it is costing us £130 million every year in maintenance. Will the Leader of the House please provide for a debate in Government time, so that we can debate the whole matter of this huge project and try to find a sensible way forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Restoration and renewal has always been a parliamentary programme and it remains so. It is for Parliament to decide how the programme evolves. We have stressed throughout that there can be no blank cheque for this work. That is why the Commission was concerned when in January it considered estimates ranging from £7 billion to £13 billion and decanting for between 12 years and 20 years. Both Commissions have therefore taken an initial decision to change the sponsor function. This is, of course, a House matter and the Government will seek to facilitate bringing that and other related decisions to the House for consideration once the Commission has completed further work on the proposed approach.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Given that we have had this afternoon’s business so cruelly snatched from us at the eleventh hour, I appreciate him announcing the Backbench Business debates for Monday and Thursday next week. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether there will be some measure of protected time for the Backbench Business Committee debate on war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments on Monday? That may not be a problem, but one never knows what can arise in the parliamentary agenda on the day. I thank him for announcing the date of the state opening on 10 May. Given that there is no general election or change to the membership of the House, could some preparatory work be done prior to prorogation so that the Backbench Business Committee can be re-established as soon as possible after the Queen’s Speech? That should not be beyond the wit of man.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I confirm that he will get two hours of protected time on Monday. Subject to progress in the House, he may of course get more time if other business progresses more quickly. I hope that will satisfy him, and I hear his plea about the re-establishment of the Backbench Business Committee after the Queen’s Speech. I am sure the Chief Whip, who is in his place, has also heard it.
The University of Nottingham recently decided to withdraw the honorary degree of Dr Tony Sewell, who spent decades of his career combating racial inequality in this country, because it found his recent report on race, which was thoughtful, detailed and rooted in evidence and data, too controversial. Does my right hon. Friend agree that free speech and the free exchange of ideas is the foundation of social progress in this country, and that rather than penalise contributors to that important debate, universities should be encouraging them? Will he make time for a debate on that important topic?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking Tony Sewell for his dedication to public service. She is right to raise this issue, and I was disappointed to see Nottingham University endorsing cancel culture. Those sorts of actions prevent ethnic minorities from participating in public life.
As we know, asbestos in school buildings is still a real problem, and something that we ought to be much more concerned about. Asbestos more generally is an issue, and if we could have a debate on that in Government time, we might also have the opportunity to discuss the asbestos leak that took place in this building but was not notified to most people, except through HuffPost’s good journalism, with about 170 people now on 40-year health watches as a result. Will the Leader of the House consider a debate in Government time on the vital issue of asbestos and health?
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is an important issue. She will be aware that the case to which she refers within the House of Commons is currently subject to a Health and Safety Executive investigation, and I expect the result of that to be made public once it has concluded. I assure her that House of Commons teams working in those areas take such matters seriously, and a number of procedures are in place to try to prevent such a leak again. Once that investigation has concluded, I am sure that any recommendations will be fully implemented, and we can be assured that those working and operating as contractors in this building are safe.
Yesterday, I was pleased to hear the Chancellor commit to reforming and reducing tax, and to sharing the proceeds of growth more fairly around the country. One of the least fair taxes has to be council tax, which is based on the wrong criteria and out-of-date figures. Many of the lowest paying areas for council tax are in central London, where very often people pay less than half of what those in two-tier county or shire areas might pay. Some of that might be to do with Nottinghamshire having had wasteful Labour administrations for 32 out of 40 years, but it is also due to structures and the way such things are set up. May we have a debate in the House to seek to inform the Chancellor’s review of local government fair funding and council tax, to help him to simplify and reform that system?
My hon. Friend is a keen advocate and champion for local council tax in Nottinghamshire, and his leadership of Nottinghamshire County Council is exemplary. I know that he will bring fairness to those people in Nottinghamshire through his office, as well as his leadership of that council, and I am sure he will continue to hold the Government to account. There will be opportunities for him to debate such matters either via a Backbench Business Committee debate, or an Adjournment debate.
The Government have chosen not to waive visas, and a constituent of mine has said:
“My mother is still in Poland waiting for the decision on her visa application. I submitted it on her behalf on 15th March, and only today I got a confirmation from UKVI that her documents have been received. Depending on the priority of application, the time for decision is between 24 hours and 5 working days, and there is no way find out either the priority category, or to track the application.”
May we have a statement to give some clarity on the processes so that our constituents can plan for family members coming to the UK?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the Prime Minister has shown exceptional leadership during the war in Europe and that the extra missiles being provided by the United Kingdom are an example of help to the beleaguered country of Ukraine. I am also sure that he will welcome the unity of the House in the fight on Ukraine’s side. I hope he will be able to announce today that the Prime Minister will give a statement to the House on Monday to update us on what happened at NATO. I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s response.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am not one who often understands subtlety, and yesterday I may have inadvertently referred to my hon. Friend as “the hon. Gentleman” rather than “my hon. Friend”. I hope I did not cause him any offence. He should be assured that nobody believed that he was an hon. Gentleman when I made that inadvertent error yesterday.
My hon. Friend is a huge champion of parliamentary democracy. He is right to continue to ask for the House to be updated on a regular basis. I know he will continue to do that and I hope he will recognise that the Government have been responding from the Dispatch Box to keep this House informed.
All partially sighted people and people with sight loss should have the confidence to use trains safely, but that was not the situation for my blind constituent who, two years ago, tragically died by walking in front of a train. The station lacked audio announcements and tactile paving. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to my late constituent’s partner, Mr Hall? Next week, we will hear whether he has won the Royal National Institute of Blind People “See Differently” award for his campaigning on behalf of people with sight loss. Will the right hon. Gentleman also press his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that all stations have tactile paving? Many still do not, and tactile paving saves lives.
I am truly sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent’s plight. That truly is a terrible story. The Secretary of State for Transport is committed to trying to improve disability access to all our stations and public transport. The hon. Lady will understand that an enormous amount of capital investment is going into those services, but I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Transport is aware of her question and that we do all we can to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
This week, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has been mounting guard at the royal palaces and the Tower of London; I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the regiment on that honour and in paying tribute to its work as an integrated part of the British armed forces? Will he find time for a debate on the value of Gibraltar to the United Kingdom and the British family, and on the links that bind us together?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to not just Gibraltar but many nations around the world that co-operate with our armed services. The regiment has received an honour. I thank him for putting it on the public record and congratulate all those involved.
I was grateful that the Leader of the House seemed to suggest last week that there would be regular updates on the tragic situation in Ukraine, and I hope that we will have an update soon. Last week, I asked about a Huddersfield resident, Richard Dass, who is ferrying people to the border and ferrying supplies in his camper van. He wants to know which medical devices we can get over to him from this country, and I would appreciate some help on that.
Perhaps I can ask one more question. Did the Leader of the House see the pictures of the young girls in Afghanistan who were turned away from their education when they turned up for the first day of term? That is a disgrace. May we have a debate soon on what is happening to women and girls worldwide who are being deprived of education?
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise that matter at Women and Equalities questions next Thursday, and he would be right to do so. We have a proud record on women’s education around the world and the Prime Minister is a huge champion of that. We in the UK are leading on it and will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to Ukraine and the situation with Russia, and I will try to assist him with that. His other point was that it is important to recognise that there are other challenges around the world. A lot of our focus at the moment appears to be on Ukraine, but we must not forget other parts of the world that have challenges with which we can help and assist.
Two and a half weeks ago, the Independent Expert Panel produced a report on the activities of John Bercow in which more than 21 incidents of bullying of staff members of this House were proven. For eight years that cast a dark shadow over this place, and when whistleblowers, including myself, tried to raise it in the Chamber, we were shouted down. Indeed, on one occasion, a former Labour Leader of the House came up to me and told me that it was inappropriate even to mention the subject in this Chamber.
I am slightly disappointed that since the report came out we have not had a statement on it from the Leader of the House and, in particular, about what future safeguards we can put in for after you have left, Mr Speaker. I hope you stay for a long time—[Interruption.] I do! However, if another unscrupulous Speaker—a serial liar, a serial bully—were to replace you, something must be put in place to stop what happened last time. When will we hear about some initiatives from our Leader of the House?
The answer is: right now. To be clear, there is no place for bullying or harassment in Parliament and MPs should be held to the highest standards. That is why the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to improve the working culture in Parliament. I hope that the decision of the ICGS gives all people in Westminster the confidence that if they come forward their cases will be heard fairly and that those who commit such actions will be held to account.
The Chancellor’s spring statement yesterday had little in the way of support for those struggling with rising food costs and other essentials. In a recent survey in my constituency, 90% of households said that they have experienced an increase in the cost of groceries. We have had a number of Opposition day debates from the Scottish National party on the cost of living, but will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on the damaging effects of the cost of living crisis?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will recognise that the Chancellor was here answering questions for two and a half hours yesterday. To say that he did nothing to help with the cost of living crisis is slightly misleading. A £5 billion tax cut to the cost of fuel is a huge contribution to people who are struggling to fill up their cars to get to work. We recognise the challenge that the rising cost of food also brings, which is why he introduced the tax cut. As for energy costs, he is cutting VAT on energy-saving materials, such as solar panels. He has also doubled the household support fund to £1 billion so that councils in her local area and others can support the most vulnerable.
Yesterday the Chancellor made a historic cut in fuel duty which will be welcomed by millions of motorists and businesses throughout the country, and which will reduce prices across the board because it will reduce the cost of transportation. However, greedy and racketeering oil companies put up prices at some petrol stations yesterday. Furthermore, when the international oil price rises, the pump prices go up immediately, but when it is falling, as it is at present, there is a “feather approach” before it reaches the motorist. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on this, and will he work with me and with FairFuelUK to persuade the Government to create a “PumpWatch” consumer watchdog to ensure that motorists pay fair prices at the pumps?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who is a long-term campaigner on this issue. I know that a series of Chancellors of the Exchequer have done battle with him on it, and I think he should take some credit for yesterday’s 5p cut. The Chancellor has written to fuel companies to ensure that they pass on the cut, but my right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at Question Time next week.
As the House will know, illegal and unlicensed quad bikes are an increasing menace on our streets. My recent ten-minute rule Bill made provision for the police to seize and destroy quad bikes through a registration scheme, to make the wearing of helmets on public land compulsory and to compel manufacturers of these vehicles to fit immobilisers to prevent theft. Does the Leader of the House agree that this growing problem needs to be tackled, and may we have a debate on it in Government time?
These motorbikes can be a huge menace to communities. They race up and down pathways and through gitties, they injure pedestrians, and they are a huge source of antisocial behaviour. I know that the police have powers to seize them and have them crushed if they are not properly insured or licensed, and I urge the hon. Lady to raise the matter with the Home Secretary when she is next at the Dispatch Box to ensure that the police have the full powers they need in order to continue to clamp down on such antisocial behaviour.
Whether we are talking about universities, jobcentres, local authorities, the national health service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or passport offices—and the list goes on—students, consumers and taxpayers are still getting a raw deal from the continued “working from home” malaise. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate or a statement on what role the Government might play in getting people back into their offices?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Cabinet Office is leading the way on this. There is an enthusiastic move to get people back to work and back into the office, led by the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to this issue: getting people back into the office and working to deliver the services that our constituents deserve is the right thing to do.
Yesterday, as Conservative Members callously cheered on the Chancellor, millions of people felt that they had been punched in the gut. The Chancellor’s plans to plunge a further 1.3 million people into poverty is causing untold distress and worry throughout the country. Will the Leader of the House allocate time in the Chamber, as a matter of urgency, for the Chancellor to do better, come back and deliver a statement that works for everyone?
The hon. Lady alludes to the Chancellor’s presence in the Chamber for two and a half hours yesterday, when he announced a tax cut for 70% of workers in the United Kingdom that means that those with the broadest shoulders can bear the burden of taxation, while a huge chunk of the wages of the hardest working on the lowest pay is taken completely out of tax. That is the right approach, as opposed to the scattergun approach that the hon. Lady seems to advocate from the Labour Benches.
Six West Yorkshire fire appliances, supported by six pumps from the Greater Manchester fire service, were tackling a raging moorland fire last night at Cupwith reservoir near Marsden in Scammonden in my constituency. Fires, barbecues and fireworks are already banned on the moors, but these devastating fires keep happening. I know that the Leader of the House is a farmer and that he will understand the devastation that these moorland fires cause not only to the environment but to wildlife. Can we have an urgent debate on what more can be done to prevent these devastating fires, particularly as we head towards the summer?
I am sorry to hear about that fire, and I pay tribute to those who are working hard to put it out. We have a fantastic fire service whose members put themselves in danger to put such fires out. My hon. Friend has contributed, via his question today, to drawing attention to the fact that people should be careful with barbecues, cigarettes and other things that can start what might seem to be insignificant fires that can soon take hold and cause huge devastation.
The Leader of the House has been waxing lyrical about the spring statement, so I refer him to page 31 of the book on it, which shows that the Government intend to spend 3.5 times less on chasing tax avoidance and evasion than they intend to spend on so-called social security fraud and error, and that they are projected to bring in less income through tackling tax avoidance and evasion than through tackling so-called social security fraud and error. Can we have a statement from the Treasury and/or a debate on the tax gap, which is estimated at £78 billion, or is this just another case of the Government punishing the poor at the expense of the super-rich?
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to debate taxation today as we discuss the Bill that will deliver a tax cut to 70% of workers in the UK. What the Chancellor announced yesterday was a system of taxation that allows those people with the broadest shoulders to bear the burden, which means that work will pay. That is the best way to tackle poverty and the best way to enable people to work their way and keep their wages so that they can aspire to a great career. That is the approach that we will continue to take.
Thank you, Mr Speaker —[Interruption.] Oh—I think I felt a kick there!
The damage to children from sustained parental conflict can be devastating. Last night I spoke at an event for the Family Solutions Group alongside the president of the family division and leading lights in the family law world. We all know that we in this place need to do more on family breakdown. The Ministry of Justice is working really hard on this and we need other Government Departments to row in behind it. Will my right hon. Friend grant time for a debate about separating families and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which comes into force in April?
My hon. Friend is probably not the first person to get a kicking in this place, but probably the first to get one internally. She brings an enormous amount of expertise to this place from her former career. I know that a lot of MPs have cases in which divorce is causing challenges for their constituents, and she is right to draw attention to that. The Ministry of Justice is bringing forward legislation, but 280,000 children are caught in the middle of family breakdowns and I commend her for her work on this matter. I am sure that she will continue to draw it to the House’s attention.
Could the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on ensuring that there are sufficient staff to cover the UK Visas and Immigration MPs’ hotline? Earlier this week, my team spent at least three hours trying to contact a member of staff on an urgent passport issue, and that was not a one-off occurrence. I know there is high demand, but I am keen to hear what additional support the Home Office is providing to ensure that Members can raise urgent queries on behalf of their constituents in a timely manner. If this is the service that MPs are receiving, I dread to think what individual constituents are facing.
Gedling borough residents are opening their council tax bills to find enclosed a letter signed by the council’s leader and deputy leader criticising the Government, including a statement that the borough had not received levelling-up funding. However, at a meeting I had with officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities this week, I learned that Gedling’s levelling-up fund bid had been described by them as disparate and insufficiently compelling. The council would have had that feedback when it prepared that letter. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how best to raise this issue in the House, and does he agree that Gedling Borough Council’s leaders’ time would be better spent working on better bids than on churning out taxpayer-funded propaganda?
I share my hon. Friend’s pain, because Gedling Borough Council covers part of my constituency, too. He is right to draw the House’s attention to this. The good news is that the second round opens to bids soon and will close on, I think, 6 July. I know he will continue to press Gedling Borough Council to improve its bid so that his constituents can feel the benefit of Government support.
Will the Government make time to debate the national planning policy framework, focusing especially on decisions that directly contravene our binding net zero targets such as the decisions on the expansion of Bristol airport or new fossil fuel extraction at Horse Hill and in Cumbria?
I hope the hon. Lady recognises that we need a balanced approach to our energy sources. The Government are committed to moving in the direction of renewable energy, and this important matter is worthy of debate in the House. We have to go at the speed our constituents and taxpayers can afford, and we need a balanced approach to our energy sources.
Energy-intensive industries such as steel and ceramics are struggling with the soaring cost of energy, and we cannot afford to lose critical producers such as Stocksbridge Speciality Steel or Naylor Industries in my constituency. I was delighted that, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recommitted to bringing forward a British energy security strategy to provide relief to these industries. Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate or a statement in Government time when this strategy is announced so that hon. Members can scrutinise it on behalf of the industries we represent?
My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise this again at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions next week. We will shortly set out the British energy security strategy to bolster our energy security. Ministers have been making every effort to keep the House updated on the Government’s response to the war in Ukraine, and I am sure the House will be kept updated on this important issue, too.
The House is united in its condemnation of P&O’s actions in sacking 800 British workers, but this is only the latest in a long line of such incidents, and it will not be the last unless the Government introduce legislation to ban fire and rehire. What are the Government’s plans to introduce legislation to make sure this is the last scandal and to give British workers the support they deserve?
The House will recognise the irony of a Labour Member talking about banning fire and rehire, a practice that the Labour party used as recently as last year. Fire and rehire should be an absolutely last-case scenario when a company is in difficulty and wants to secure as many jobs as possible in order to survive. What P&O did last week was, frankly, a complete abhorrence. Its actions cannot be defended by anyone and should be condemned. We have employment laws to protect people, and we will make sure P&O follows the law.
Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of my constituent Chris Truett to clear sand from the seawall path and to plant thousands of flowers at his own expense? And will my right hon. Friend therefore condemn Labour-controlled Sefton Council, which reportedly dumped the sand back on to the seawall and mowed down all of Chris’s flowers? Volunteers in our communities should be celebrated, so can we have a debate in Government time to do so?
I pay tribute to Chris and the work of volunteers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Sefton Council should be supporting their valuable work. Volunteers and community groups work incredibly hard to improve parks and green spaces, including the botanic gardens, Lord Street, Bedford park and Ainsdale village. Volunteers deserve to be celebrated for their work in the community, so I encourage my hon. Friend to apply for an Adjournment debate or a Backbench Business debate.
I think that the Leader of the House meant to say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that we now have the highest tax burden in modern history, even after the Chancellor’s plan yesterday. People are really struggling. They are engulfed in a cost of living crisis, yet the Chancellor has written off £4.3 billion of covid loans to fraudsters and wasted £8.7 billion on duff personal protective equipment that was so useless it had to be burnt. So may we have a debate on fraud and waste in the public finances?
As I recall it, when the Government were securing PPE the Labour party was screaming like mad for the Government to take PPE from anywhere and anybody. It is all well and good to sit in judgment in hindsight and to criticise those decisions, but the Government were trying to secure PPE to protect frontline workers in the middle of a global pandemic. I am fairly confident that I was right in what I said in answering the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), as opposed to how the hon. Gentleman framed it. What the Chancellor set out yesterday with his tax plan delivers the biggest net cut in personal taxes in more than a quarter of a century.
A newspaper report today suggests that 45 streets and statues in London could be cancelled. In Peterborough, the Labour opposition has already toyed with renaming streets, including the iconic Gladstone Street in the heart of my city—not for anything that great Liberal Prime Minister did, but for the sins of his father decades earlier. Now these student union historians want to take control of the city council. May we have an appropriate Gladstonian statement from the Government opposing taxpayers’ money being spent on this woke nonsense and letting my constituents know what they can do?