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.