Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his tireless work campaigning on behalf of the horse-racing industry. The Government recognise the contribution that racing makes to our sporting culture and to the rural economy. We equally understand the critical importance of being able to move racehorses across international borders. We are aware that the industry has provided proposals to HMRC and the Treasury regarding the VAT arrangements, and I can tell the House that the Treasury is actively considering those proposals at the moment.
I thank the Minister for that encouraging answer. As he knows, the owners of racehorses coming to this country to race have to deposit a VAT-equivalent security, returnable when they leave, whereas the owners of horses coming to this country for what are classified as work purposes do not. Given that it would not cost the Exchequer anything to correct this anomaly, and that it would help cash flow and reduce the administrative burden on racehorse owners, I hope that the Minister will continue to speak to the Treasury with a view to correcting it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his clear articulation of the issue and his powerful expression of it. I will certainly convey that to Treasury colleagues who are currently considering the matter.
Can I just say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I really enjoyed the different tradition we had this morning when we entered the Chamber? It is the first time I have seen it, and I would like to say how well the House does it.
Racehorses are very important to my constituency; they are an integral part of some of my constituents’ lives. The Northern Ireland protocol has obviously complicated things, so can the Minister tell me how my constituents in the racehorse industry in Strangford and in Northern Ireland can get through the minefield of bureaucracy and red tape?
The Government are extremely mindful of the challenges that the way the Northern Ireland protocol is being applied is imposing on communities across Northern Ireland. It clearly affects the horse-racing industry as it affects others. I know that my colleagues across Government are working extremely hard as we speak to find practical ways of fixing those problems, and I am sure that my colleague the Foreign Secretary will keep the hon. Member and the House updated on her efforts.
The anomaly on VAT, which ridiculously argues that a racehorse coming here to race or a brood mare coming here to breed is not coming for work, needs to be sorted.
Can the Minister also please ensure that the horserace betting levy is increased and reformed far sooner than is currently proposed? Although horse-racing is doing great at the moment, there is a significant challenge with the low level of prize money, which is leading to fewer runners and too many horses running overseas rather than here. We need to make sure we support the industry.
I thank the former Secretary of State, who is a representative of a horse-racing constituency, for his question. Clearly quite a lot of money is going into the horse-racing industry via the levy. It is on track to raise about £100 million this year, most of which ends up in prize money. However, my right hon. Friend has made a number of powerful representations, both in this House and privately, about the need to review that levy earlier than was planned, and his powerful representations are being actively considered as we speak.
We are making excellent progress on delivering the biggest broadband upgrade in UK history, so that we have fast, reliable digital infrastructure for decades to come. In the past three years, national gigabit coverage has rocketed from 6% to 68%, we are investing £5 billion so that people in hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable speeds, and we have already upgraded more than 600,000 premises. We also have £500 million-worth of contracts out for tender covering areas from Cumbria to Cornwall.
Under this Government, broadband speeds are anything but levelled up. For example, the average download speed in North Shropshire is just 49 megabits per second. In Tiverton and Honiton it is just 43 megabits per second, which is half the national average of 86 megabits per second and 60% slower than the average speed in London. The Prime Minister reportedly cracks jokes about this behind closed doors, but if the Government truly care about rural Britain, why are they leaving it in the digital slow lane?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not share her characterisation of what is happening. I am pleased to say that there is almost 99% superfast coverage in her North Shropshire constituency, which is above the national average. Shropshire is also included in lot 25 of Project Gigabit, so those areas that are not covered by the very fast commercial roll-out of our gigabit scheme will be out for procurement—we expect it to happen in the next year—in order to build to those harder-to-reach premises.
In the meantime, if there are any premises in North Shropshire that can receive vouchers, I recommend that the hon. Lady’s constituents apply for them. I am also pleased to say that Shropshire Council is supporting a local top-up fund to supplement our voucher subsidy and has invested £2 million to date. As I say, I do not agree with her characterisation of the progress we are making.
I know that my hon. Friend shares my and my constituents’ frustration at the failure of the Scottish Government and their ironically named Reaching 100% scheme to deliver for people in Scotland. [Interruption.] It is six years late and millions of pounds over budget, notwithstanding the protestations of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). What is the Department doing to help level up broadband connectivity for my constituents in rural Scotland?
The situation in Scotland is, admittedly, tricky. I have talked to my counterpart in the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government’s strategy prioritises some of the islands and seeks to have greater spend in some of those hard-to-reach areas than we have in parts of England. I cannot ask people in other parts of the country to suffer for decisions made by the Scottish Government on the areas they are prioritising. I am keen to continue working with the Scottish Government on trying to get connectivity to Scotland, because I share my hon. Friend’s passion for that, but we are also looking at what we can do for the very hardest-to-reach premises, a number of which are in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.
A staggering 1.1 million people struggle to afford the most basic broadband and mobile services, and the pandemic has only reinforced the fact that broadband is now truly the fourth utility. Our day-to-day lives cannot function without it. Inflation is now running at 9%, and broadband packages have risen by 12%. With the roll-out stagnating, prices rising and household incomes being squeezed, why did the Government and Ofcom allow Openreach and other providers to raise network prices above inflation, hitting consumers and raking in profits, without real investment in full fibre?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that such services are now key utilities. As he will know, we debated the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill yesterday, in which we are seeking to bring down rents to reduce prices for operators and, therefore, for consumers.
The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the great work we did on social tariffs with providers throughout the pandemic. The Secretary of State recently wrote to providers to understand what more the Government can do to promote those social tariffs. We have also been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to roll out social tariffs to even more people, particularly those on universal credit.
It is pleasing, week on week, to see more and more villages in my constituency getting fibre-to-the-premises broadband, but many small operators tell me that the “Equinox” Openreach discount on the wholesale price is having a distorting effect on the speed of roll-out from those smaller operators, particularly to rural communities. Has my hon. Friend modelled the impact that that discount is having on the market? What can her Department do to fix it?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important regulatory issue, which is actually led by Ofcom. It has been raised with me by altnets, and it is of concern. The Government want as much competition in the market as possible, as we think that is speeding up roll-out. The commercial sector is going great guns on this. I appreciate his concerns, and this week I met Councillor Martin Tett in the Buckingham constituency to talk about what more we can do to speed up the roll-out to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
My Department is playing an active role in delivering the national cyber strategy 2022, backed by £2.6 billion of public money. That includes a focus on enhancing the nation’s cyber-skills. The UK Cyber Security Council was launched by the Department last year and received its royal charter in early 2022. It will play a key role in building world-leading skills architecture for the cyber profession. We are also ensuring that tech is designed in a secure way, and our new Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 is helping to protect the most vulnerable parts of UK networks and services.
Given that fraud is one of the main purposes of cyber-attack, will the Government take the advice of the Royal United Services Institute to make cyber-security and tackling fraud a national security priority, so that the full apparatus of our security establishment can be brought to bear against overseas fraudsters?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Tackling fraud needs a co-ordinated response from Government, so although policy on fraud is led by the Home Office, I assure him that the Government as a whole are taking significant action. I mentioned our national cyber strategy. We have also secured funding so that the UK intelligence community can set up a dedicated anti-fraud mission, and later this year we will publish a new strategy to address the threat. The Department recently introduced the Online Safety Bill, which will tackle some forms of online fraud and fraudulent advertising, and that will be built on by a wider online advertising programme.
Cyber-threats come in lots of guises, ranging from spreading misinformation to undermining democracy, stealing data and intelligence, and fraud, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). Perhaps the most serious threat is the downing of critical infrastructure. What assessment has the Minister made of both the threats on downing critical infrastructure in the UK and how we overcome and challenge the people who seek to do it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking this issue so seriously. We, as a House, need to give great consideration to it. We have a number of new powers in place, including the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which gives us greater powers to look into some of the investments being made in this area. On critical national infrastructure, he will understand that I cannot go into great detail, but I simply wish to assure him that I spend a great deal of time on that issue. The more that consumers and businesses depend on our critical national infrastructure, the greater attention the House needs to pay to it, and I assure him that I am doing a lot of working in that space.
Online Harm: Women and Girls
The Online Safety Bill, which went into Committee on Tuesday, rightly has extremely strong protections for women and girls. The hon. Lady will have noticed that, in schedule 7, crimes such as harassment, stalking, revenge porn and extreme porn are designated as “priority offences” , and those measures protect women in particular. They are offences where social media firms have proactively to take steps to prevent that content appearing online. We have also added cyber-flashing as a new criminal offence to the Bill.
Will the Minister consider what penalties can be brought against social media companies that fail in their duty to protect young girls and women, given that the number of eating disorders have risen exponentially in the past few years and, sadly, young women and girls are having suicidal thoughts owing to the way these automatic artificial intelligence practices work? What action will the Minister take on that?
The hon. Lady is raising an incredibly important issue. Both girls and boys are covered under the provisions that protect children from harms. When we designate the list of harms, I expect that it will include eating-related matters and suicide and self-harm content, mindful of the terrible case of Molly Russell, who committed suicide after being bombarded on Instagram. We will also be publishing, in due course, the list of harms applying to adults. The penalties that will be applied if companies breach these duties include fines of up to 10% of global revenue, which tends to be about 100% of UK revenue. In extreme cases, if they persistently fail to comply, there are denial of service provisions, where these platforms’ ability to—[Interruption.] This is an important question. Their ability to transmit into the UK can be completely disconnected.
Will the Minister consider amending the Online Safety Bill in the light of the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent warning that there has been an 86% increase in screen-sharing scams in just the past 12 months?
Yes. The Bill is technology-agnostic, meaning that it does not refer specifically to technology because, obviously, technologies evolve all the time. My hon. Friend touches on fraud; the Bill was amended before its introduction to include in the scope of its duties advertisements that promote fraud, but I am happy to meet him to discuss further the particular issue he has raised.
Violence against women and girls is a systemic problem online, but the Government have failed even to name it in the Bill. The Minister knows that there is widespread support for tackling this issue in the sector and among his own Back Benchers, and I know that Members from all parties would welcome it if he went further. I ask once and for all: why have the Government failed to tackle violence against women and girls online in its most basic form and not included misogyny as a priority offence in the Bill?
I strongly dispute the suggestion that the Bill does not protect women and girls. I have already said in response to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) that we have created a new cyber-flashing offence and that we have named offences such as harassment, stalking and revenge porn as priority offences—
Have you got it in the Bill?
Those things are already priority offences in schedule 7 to the Bill. The Bill went into Committee on Tuesday and I look forward to discussing with the shadow Minister and other Committee members ideas to improve the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
I warmly welcome what we are doing with the Online Safety Bill to protect people from harm, because tech companies have been far too lax at doing so for far too long, but there is concern in some quarters that we will unintentionally end up restricting freedom of speech by conflating opinions that people do not like to hear with actual harms that are done online. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that we will ensure that we stay on the right side of that line and protect freedom of speech in the Bill?
Yes, I can categorically give that assurance. There has been some misinformation around this issue. First, there is nothing at all in the Bill that requires social media firms to censor or prohibit speech that is legal and that is harmless to children. Reports to the contrary are quite simply untrue. In fact, there is express provision in the Bill: clause 19(2) expressly provides for a new duty on social media firms to have regard to free speech. Such a provision does not currently exist.
Fan-led Review of Football Governance
The fan-led review of football governance identified financial sustainability as a core issue affecting the game, which is why the primary focus of the new independent football regulator will be to improve clubs’ financial sustainability, to protect them now and in the future. Further details will be set out in the White Paper in the summer.
Newport County AFC is a leading Fair Game club and a great example of how supporter ownership can bring about sustainable financial and governance structures and excellent community engagement; it is certainly true in the County’s case. With that in mind, will the Minister meet Fair Game to discuss its proposal for a sustainability index, which would overhaul the parachute-payments system and reward responsible clubs that demonstrate that they put their supporters first?
The regulator will be tasked with improving how clubs are financially and operationally run. Improving corporate governance and financial oversight will greatly reduce the likelihood of financial distress and make football much more resilient and sustainable for the long term. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who is the Minister responsible, has just whispered to me that he would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
I think the whole country is looking forward to the women’s European football championships being held in England this summer. That will provide a further boost for one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the agreement that the FA has reached to redistribute money from the Premier League to the women’s game, and the fact that that will support grassroots football for women and girls?
I am absolutely delighted to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. It will be a fantastic summer, with not just the Euro 22 women’s finals, but the Commonwealth games; it will be a summer of sport. It is a fantastic decision. Women in sport do not get enough sponsorship, enough time on television, enough support, or enough money. Pushing women in sport is a key priority of my Department, and this is a great decision. We want to see more decisions like that moving forward.
We operate hybrid working, whereby staff are expected to spend, on average, two days a week in the office, recognising that some roles require more office-based work than others. This is designed to maximise the use of our office capacity, as we currently have 800 desks for 2,000 staff in London. There are huge advantages to working in the office, but also to working at home, including fostering a sense of community and belonging. I am fully supportive of the hybrid approach.
Figures released in April showed that 43% of staff in the Department were working on departmental premises. Can the Secretary of State tell me what proportion of staff in her Department were working from home before the pandemic; what the proportion is now; and what steps she is taking with the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency to encourage more civil servants to work in the Department?
Before covid-19, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport followed a “smarter working” operating model where occasional working from home was an option. This enabled us to reduce our desk capacity to save money, and, typically, we expected about 40% of staff to be working from home, or from another location, on any given day. Since covid regulations were relaxed, staff in my Department have been returning to the office as part of a hybrid working operating model, with an expectation of some working from home. As I said, we have 800 desks for 2,000—well, 2,180—staff in our London office. The occupancy levels continue to increase, with an almost 80% occupancy on some days, but those figures are of the capacity that we have available to actually sit staff down in the Department. Due to our desk ratio, we now expect about 60% of our London-based staff to be working from home, or from another location, such as Manchester, on any given day.
Privatisation of Channel 4
The Government consulted extensively on the future of Channel 4, and the views from a broad range of industry stakeholders informed our policymaking and final decision. As a Scottish MP, the hon. Member may be particularly interested to know that I met STV and MG Alba about the broadcasting White Paper, which included the proposal to privatise Channel 4. My officials also recently met representatives from the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government. We are at a unique turning point in public service broadcasting. We think we have the chance to make Channel 4 bigger and better, while preserving what makes it so special.
When the Secretary of State was asked by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee why she wanted to privatise Channel 4, she said that it was because it was costing the taxpayer too much in subsidies. I think she was the only person in the room who was labouring under that particular delusion. Given that that excuse has gone, is it not time to come clean and say that the Secretary of State’s mission against Channel 4 is to do not with making it a better broadcaster, but with trying to shut down a broadcaster that has a nasty habit of broadcasting the truth, in particular truths that the Secretary of State might prefer not to be made known?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I know the Secretary of State’s reasoning for this decision better than he does. He also mis-characterises what was said at the Select Committee. He will be aware that Channel 4 is uniquely dependent on linear advertising, that it cannot own its own content, and that its borrowing sits on the public balance sheet. We think we have an opportunity to free it from some of those constraints to allow it to invest more in content to get private sector capital into the business, and we think that that will help to grow Channel 4, so that it can invest more in the businesses that he purports to care about.
The Secretary of State said that she wanted to remove the straitjacket from Channel 4. Except for the opportunity to borrow, which I did not know Channel 4 had asked for, the only straitjacket is the public service remits. Will those be reduced in any way?
Can the Minister kindly tell the House why the aim to compete with Amazon and Netflix should be one of the purposes of Channel 4, especially if either Netflix or Amazon, or a similar-sized foreign-owned organisation, might buy Channel 4?
This is not necessarily about allowing Channel 4 to compete in exactly the same way as Netflix and Amazon; it is about understanding the changing market dynamics that those companies are creating. As I said in my previous answer, Channel 4 is uniquely constrained. Its borrowing would sit on the public balance sheet, but it also cannot own its content. We believe that in today’s market, it needs to be able to own its content in order to have much greater flexibility in how it runs its business, and getting private capital into the business would help it to do that. While people can bury their heads in the sand about the fundamental dynamics in the market, we are taking some difficult decisions, which we think are the right decisions to secure not only the future of the business, but the future of the kind of content that audiences in this country love.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Lucy Powell.
Yet again, the Secretary of State fails to come to the Dispatch Box herself to defend one of her own flagship policies, despite publishing a media White Paper and the Government consultation and tweeting over recess that she was selling Channel 4 off without coming to this place. Perhaps the Minister can clear up some of the confusions about the level of support for the Government’s plans. Despite the impression the Secretary of State gave at her recent Select Committee hearing, is it not the case that according to the Government’s own report, even when the 38 Degrees responses are removed, only 5% of respondents agreed that Channel 4 should be privatised? What is more, the majority of stakeholders are also against the sell-off. So can the Minister tell us who, apart from a small coterie around the Prime Minister, actually supports their plans?
I think the hon. Lady has been living in a different world. Only last week or the week before, the Secretary of State was grilled for three hours in Select Committee and took endless questions on Channel 4’s future, and—[Interruption.] I have to answer the questions that are put to me. We do not have advance sight of which ones the hon. Lady will come on to. I will simply say that the fundamental facts of the market dynamics that I have set out remain. In the consultation that she cites, a huge number of responses were to the 38 Degrees redrawing of the questions we set. We have the responsibility as a Government to look at the long-term trends in this business and to make a decision about what is best for the business, for the taxpayer and for UK audiences and creative industries. That is the sole thing driving the decisions we make in this space.
Sorry, but I thought it was Ministers who decided which questions they responded to, not the other way around. It was their decision to do it this way. [Interruption.] The question about Channel 4 is on the Order Paper.
Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State made up her mind long, long ago, based not on the evidence or the responses, but on her own ideology and a petty vendetta against Channel 4’s news coverage? The evidence is compelling: privatisation is bad for levelling up, bad for the skills pipeline, bad for the independent production sector and bad for our world-beating creative industries. Just like the forthcoming BBC licence review, is not this process just a sham? She does not listen to evidence, the industry, the public or many of her own Back-Benchers. Why does she not drop the ideology, support British jobs and British broadcasting, and stop the sell-off?
I would simply say that that is not the truth. This is not a decision driven by ideology; it is about what is best for our creative sector, what is best for audiences and what is best for the taxpayer. I am sure the hon. Lady will have plenty of opportunities to have ding-dongs with the Secretary of State on those issues in the forthcoming media Bill debate.
Oh, there she is!
I am here. We are investing almost £600 million in Birmingham and the west midlands for the 2022 Commonwealth games, which will deliver a world-class event and provide a wide range of services, including safety and security, health services, traffic management, visas, customs and inspection provisions, creating 30,000 games-time employment opportunities in the process. We are working hard to ensure that the games leave a lasting legacy for the city, the region and the country.
In this platinum jubilee year, the Birmingham Commonwealth games will give us the perfect opportunity to celebrate Her Majesty’s enduring and dutiful commitment throughout her reign to maintaining relationships throughout the Commonwealth. I have had first-hand experience of that through my work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Commonwealth games will give us a global stage to remind our friends and allies of the continued importance of strong relationships between like-minded nations?
That is a very good point and reiterates what I said earlier. This is the year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee as well as of the Commonwealth games and the women’s Euro 2022. It is a year for the whole of the UK to come together to celebrate everything that the UK has to offer and to enjoy events such as the Commonwealth games. In this year of all years, at such a difficult time in the world, upholding the Commonwealth’s shared values, the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity are more important than ever.
My Department has a wide-ranging and comprehensive legislative programme announced as part of the Queen’s Speech. The Online Safety Bill and the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill are making great progress on digital connectivity across the UK. Our data reform Bill will reduce the burdens on scientists and businesses and will truly take advantage of Brexit. Our draft digital markets Bill will rebalance power from big tech to business and consumers and we will shortly set out our plans to legislate for an independent regulator of English football. We will boost our public service broadcasters through our upcoming media Bill.
I am also planning to announce today that we will publish the terms of reference for the BBC mid-term charter review, setting out our plans to review the governance and regulation of the BBC.
The House of Commons Library confirms that the majority of my Delyn constituency is in the worst 30% for connectivity in the UK, with more than 10% of my constituents still receiving less than 10 megabits per second broadband speeds. It is not a devolved matter and should be delivered by DCMS, so I hope that my right hon. Friend can confirm what the UK Government specifically are doing to help my constituents out.
Responses to the recent Welsh market review are being assessed to determine which premises require Government subsidy through Project Gigabit. We will then work out with the Welsh Government how to provide gigabit coverage to as many premises as possible. Further support is available through our gigabit broadband voucher scheme and those unable to access at least 10 megabits per second may be able to request an upgrade through the universal service obligation. As of January, Ofcom reported that 0.3% of premises in Delyn may be eligible for a broadband universal service obligation connection.
I congratulate St Johnstone on their emphatic premiership play-off win last week and wish Scotland good luck next week against Ukraine, for if we win we will move on to Wales the following weekend when we will surely cuff them. That game next week, which I am sure you are looking forward to, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be broadcast live on Sky Sports. With the awarding of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish TV rights to Premier Sports and Viaplay, Scottish fans will have to subscribe to four different platforms to follow the game. England fans are able to watch their men’s national team free to air through ITV and now Channel 4. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can address this inequity without harming Scottish football’s financial situation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Minister for Sport, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), and, I think, probably the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure would be happy to meet him to discuss that. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the broadcasting White Paper has just been published and the media Bill is coming forward shortly. I am sure his comments can be considered, and he may want to contribute to the process.
We are in regular contact with Ofcom and the radio industry on these issues, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further, so that I understand the interest driving his question.
Some 53% of people in a public poll actually thought that Channel 4 was already privately owned. They did not realise—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure has already said, we have to address a rapidly changing broadcasting landscape in the UK at the moment. It is a bad business model for any organisation to depend on one form of revenue. As we know, linear advertising is decreasing and Channel 4 is dependent on that advertising. It is a decision we have to take for the benefit of Channel 4. As I have already said, Channel 4 itself—[Interruption.]
Order. Stop shouting at the Secretary of State, because we cannot hear her answer these important questions.
As Channel 4 highlighted in its own document, “4: The Next Episode”, it wants to raise investment and invest in more content, and we are setting Channel 4 free to be able to do that. If Channel 4 does that while state-owned, it is offset against the public balance sheet. We cannot allow that, because Governments do not own money—we only have taxpayers’ money—so we have to enable Channel 4 to be set free to raise investment and to continue to make the amazing and distinctive British content and edgy, diverse programmes that it does.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and his long-standing interest in this area. Clause 50 of the Online Safety Bill already exempts recognised news publishers from the provisions of the Bill, and in clause 16 there are particular protections for content of journalistic importance. As we committed on Second Reading, I think in response to one of his interventions, we will be looking to go further to provide a right of appeal in relation to journalistic content. Work is going on to deliver that commitment right now, and we will bring forward further news as soon as possible. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend is the first to hear about it.
We have targeted in the Online Safety Bill the platforms that create the most harm and where the most harm happens. We have done that in consultation with a number of stakeholders, including the Children’s Commissioner, but we do understand the problem that the hon. Member talks about. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), is taking the Bill through Committee. We are looking at other platforms where harm exists and the practices that the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) talks about. What I will say is that the Online Safety Bill cannot fix absolutely everything on the internet—we cannot fix the internet, but we can do as much as possible within that Bill to reduce as much harm as possible, because keeping children safe is at the heart of the Bill and is the core principle that runs through it. We are open to discussions about anything we can do to improve the Bill, but we think we have gone as far as we can in protecting freedoms of speech and democratic content and protecting children, who are the most important part of the Bill. I am sure my hon. Friend will have discussions with the hon. Member.
Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), I have worked in the broadcast industry. Subject to certain conditions, I support the sale of Channel 4. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any sell-off will be subject to requirements to make minimum British content, news content and the innovative programming that we so much enjoy on that station?
I thank my hon. Friend for enabling me to lay out some important points. Channel 4 is being sold as a public service broadcaster and the criteria that he has outlined will absolutely be in there. If anybody cares to read the broadcasting White Paper, we have put a number of things into the media Bill—not just the sale of Channel 4—that will help Channel 4, including provisions on prominence and the introduction of a code that will put all public service broadcasters and streamers on a level playing field in terms of what they can broadcast in the UK. It will be sold as a public service broadcaster and there will be a requirement to continue to make distinctive British content, such as “Derry Girls”, “Gogglebox” and all those programmes that are distinctly British. There will be a requirement to do that, as well as what he has listed.
There is always overwhelming demand from our fantastic sports facilities around the country to host those amazing events. That is why we are aggressively pursuing many international and other sporting events so we can make sure that the love is spread across the whole country. I am sorry that the hon. Lady is disappointed on this occasion. Those decisions are not made directly by Government, but we work with all the organising authorities to try to ensure that we level up sporting opportunities across the country. I am happy to speak to her about future opportunities.
The Attorney General was asked—
CPS: London North
Before I answer my hon. Friend, I inform the House that my friend and close partner, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, is in the Gallery. It gives me great pleasure to welcome her to London to watch Attorney General questions this morning. I recently visited Ukraine to witness first hand the indomitable and inspiring work that she is leading in Ukraine to bring to justice those Russian soldiers suspected of war crimes. The UK is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.
The Government are, of course, committed to holding the criminal justice system to account for its performance, which is why we are now publishing criminal justice scorecards that focus on regional performance, which make a crucial contribution to our understanding of how the system is working. CPS London prosecuted nearly 39,000 cases in 2021, with almost 29,000—74%—ending in a conviction. That is a 15.2% increase from 2020. The inspectorate recently completed an inspection of CPS London North and I am pleased to report that it found commendable improvements in the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences.
The whole House joins the Attorney General in welcoming our colleagues from Ukraine.
I associate myself with the Attorney General’s remarks to our friends from Ukraine.
Clearly, one of the most important aspects of CPS performance is how it deals with witnesses and victims, particularly of violent crimes. Can she update the House on how CPS London North has performed against those criteria?
I was pleased that the inspectorate report that looked specifically at performance in CPS London North found that 81.3% of responses to witnesses fully met the standard for being timely and effective. There is always more we can do and I know that the CPS is committed to improving the quality of its communication with victims. I would say, however, that CPS London North was also successful in securing convictions very recently for serious offences and we should record our thanks and gratitude to its team of prosecutors.
I am a co-chair of the all-party group on miscarriages of justice, and we are all conscious that we want the Crown Prosecution Service to be as good as it possibly can be. However, up and down the country—in London and elsewhere—there are serious worries about recruitment and the performance of many members of staff. Could there be a thorough look at the performance of the CPS at the moment?
I regularly visit CPS teams around the country, and there is a huge amount of dedication and commitment to improving performance. No one is under any illusion about the scale of improvement needed. However, we are seeing huge measures, with investment and resources being ploughed into the system nationwide—whether that is Operation Soteria, or the pilots in the south-east and in Avon and Somerset. All around the country, we are seeing better practices, focusing on closer collaboration between the police and the prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and more support for victims. We now have some changes to the disclosure guidelines, which are going to focus on supporting victims. I think that, cumulatively, we are going to see improvements and the early data gives me grounds for optimism.
Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions
I have seen at first hand the horrendous damage that these crimes do to victims, particularly when I was honoured to visit the Havens, which is a sexual assault referral centre, and that is why tackling violence against women and girls is a central mission of this Government. Supporting victims from the report to the police right through to trial and sentencing is a service that all victims deserve. I am working very closely with the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary so that we get a whole-system response to this challenge. I am very pleased to see that there has been a notable change in the volume of prosecutions, which has increased by more than 10% from quarter 2 to quarter 3 in 2021-22.
I thank the Attorney General for her response. In 2020, one in 20 victims of sexual assault reported being drugged or spiked by the perpetrator responsible for their assault, and that was before the terrifying reports last year of young women being injected. Given the scale and seriousness of this spiking epidemic, does the Attorney General regard it as acceptable that just 102 people were convicted for spiking offences in the whole of 2021? What more is being done to tackle this?
I know that the Home Office is looking very closely at the issue of spiking. There will be movement on this because we take it very seriously, and we are very concerned about the increasing number of incidents relating to the spiking of victims as a way of attacking and sexually assaulting them. In the data we are beginning to see on how the system is responding—whether that is the number of referrals the police are making to the CPS, the number of charges that the CPS is passing on to trial and for prosecution, or the actual conviction rate—we are seeing improvements. We want to go further, of course, but we are seeing early signs of improvement.
The Attorney General rightly talked about a whole-system approach, but over the past year I have seen an increasing number of extremely concerning cases involving domestic violence in which, specifically, the CPS, the probation service, the courts and the police all seem to be operating in silos when trying to protect women from abusive ex-partners who continue to abuse and harass them. What is the Attorney General doing to ensure that the various parts of the criminal justice system work together to increase prosecutions and protect these women?
The hon. Member is absolutely right that a whole-system approach is required. That is why the end-to-end rape review was announced last year and we have seen updates on how particularly the CPS is doing in relation to its responsibilities. The CPS recently published a rape strategy and the update to that, which sets out the improvements it has continued to see in every aspect of how it is managing rape prosecutions: better collaboration, as I mentioned; supporting more specialist units; and ensuring more support is given to victims. But I would just gently say that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which I was proud to support as a great initiative by this Government, set out provisions to increase the sentences to be served by rapists and others convicted of sexual assault and I am only sorry that Labour voted against those measures.
We will have to go a little faster. I appreciate that the Attorney General has complicated questions to answer, but we have a lot of business ahead of us today. We are supposed to have only another five minutes. We will obviously take longer, but can we go a little faster—short questions, short answers?
I am sure the Attorney General will have read the damning conclusions, and indeed the horrendous case studies, set out in last month’s joint inspectorate report into post-charge handling of rape cases. Does she accept the report’s findings when it comes to the way the system is failing survivors of rape and will she give us both a commitment and a timetable to implement its recommendations?
We are of course always concerned about the need for more improvement and no one is denying that challenge. However, the CPS is committed to driving up the number of rape prosecutions and I am pleased with the green shoots of progress, which is notable from the recent data. If we compare performance —[Interruption.] This is not to be dismissed or laughed at. Since quarter 4 of 2018, the volume of CPS rape charges has increased by 24%. We have also seen that the rape conviction rate is 70%. Those are grounds for optimism. I do not deny that there is more to do, but we are seeing movement in the right direction.
Nowhere is there worse violence being committed against women and girls than that by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Can the Attorney General assure the House that she will give every assistance to the Ukrainian prosecuting authorities to ensure that prosecutions will one day take place?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important issue. That is exactly the subject for discussion today and tomorrow with my friend the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, who has come to London at my invitation. I was honoured to go to Ukraine to see at first hand some of her work. What is remarkable about the leadership and fortitude the Ukrainian Prosecutor General is demonstrating is that she has already brought and led some charges and prosecutions of Russian suspects and one Russian soldier has already been sentenced for a war crime. That is remarkable, given the circumstances in which she and the Ukrainians are working.
In England, modern slavery victims are helped by victim navigators to get the criminals to trial. Unfortunately in Wales, in the last seven years, there have only been two successful prosecutions under modern slavery legislation where people have been put in prison. Will the Attorney General look at expanding the victim navigator scheme to Wales in association with the great charity Justice and Care?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is a doughty campaigner on this subject and I commit to looking more into what can be done.
May I add my welcome to our friends from Ukraine?
In January, the Attorney General told the House:
“This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 142.]
Why, therefore, has she spent the months since then taking the BBC through the High Court to protect an MI5 informant who attacked one partner with a machete and another partner predicted will kill a woman if he is not challenged and exposed? One of his victims is now taking her case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, but does this not demand a fuller investigation? Rather than disregard the interests of domestic violence victims where the security services are involved, will the Attorney General support an inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee into the handling of this case and whether it raises wider concerns that agents are able to use their status to evade criminal responsibility?
Of course, any allegation of domestic abuse or sexual assault on victims is horrendous. On no account does anyone in this Government condone that behaviour. I was very pleased with the result at court of our application for an injunction, because there are national security interests, and it is vital that those are balanced in any matter.
The Government are taking huge steps to support victims of domestic abuse. We passed a landmark piece of legislation, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which brought in key measures, key duties and investment to support those who are victims of this heinous crime. I hope the Labour party will get behind that ongoing work.
Serious Economic Crime
In the past five years, the Serious Fraud Office has secured reparations for criminal behaviour from organisations it has investigated totalling over £1.3 billion. That sum is over and above the cost of running the SFO itself. In addition to recent convictions leading to fines and confiscation orders totalling more than £100 million, just this week Glencore Energy has indicated that it intends to plead guilty to seven bribery counts brought by the SFO in relation to its oil operations in Africa.
Serious fraud is too often conducted by the powerful and the rich, which makes it hard to investigate, difficult and complex. That is equally the reason why we must focus on this area above all to demonstrate equality before the law. Will my hon. and learned Friend say how many fraud trials the SFO will conduct this year, and the estimated value of those fraud cases? Does he have a plan to increase that number?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot have a situation where, just because the fraud is complex, it is beyond the reach of the law. That is why I am pleased that this year the SFO is taking forward seven prosecutions involving 20 defendants on a total of 80 counts, comprising alleged fraud valued at over £500 million. The alleged frauds include investment fraud, fraudulent trading and money laundering.
The Solicitor General will be aware that the Serious Fraud Office has recently suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the courts and received heavy criticism from judges, not least in the ENRC case last week, in which the High Court criticised a former SFO director for
“gross and deliberate breach of duty”.
Given that the taxpayer now faces a significant bill, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that the report commissioned from Sir David Calvert-Smith is published in full so that this House can consider his recommendations?
My hon. Friend has raised two points: ENRC and the Sir David Calvert-Smith review. Those are, of course, separate matters, because the Unaoil matter is distinct. In respect of ENRC’s civil case against the SFO, it is important to note that the judge found against ENRC on the overwhelming majority of its allegations against the SFO. My hon. Friend is correct about the review being led by Sir David Calvert-Smith, which is focusing on the findings of the Court of Appeal in the Unaoil case. The Attorney General has committed to publishing the findings of the review, and I am happy to restate that commitment today.
Since 2016, the Serious Fraud Office has convicted just five fraudulent companies, but it has negotiated deferred prosecution settlements with another 11. Does the Solicitor General share my concern that when the SFO detects corporate fraud, its instinct is to negotiate instead of prosecuting and convicting those responsible?
The hon. Lady is right that it is always important to be vigilant about the point she raises, but I would make two points. First, in looking at the deferred prosecution agreements, we should just consider what has been achieved over the past five years: £1.3 billion has been taken off companies that have acted in a fraudulent way, in agreements sanctioned by the courts. As I have indicated, this year there will be seven trials in respect of 20 defendants on 80 counts, in respect of fraud worth more than £500 million. It is good news that just this week, Glencore has indicated that it will plead guilty to serious fraud, and it will be sentenced accordingly.
I call the Chairman of the Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill.
May I, on behalf of my fellow members of the Justice Committee, echo the welcome that has been given to the Prosecutor General for Ukraine?
The prosecution of serious fraud has had significant success and I am glad that the Solicitor General recognises that. I have written to him in relation to the Calvert-Smith report, as many of us believe that confidence in the system demands full publication. Will he commit to looking earnestly and carefully at the concerns about gaps in substantive criminal law which sometimes create greater challenges for prosecutors in corporate fraud cases, for example the test in relation to corporate liability in criminal cases and whether there is a case for a duty to prevent, as is the case in other common law jurisdictions?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. Yes, there are convictions taking place. We can talk about Glencore, Petrofac and others, but he is absolutely correct that we must consider whether the law is there to meet the changing circumstances. The point he makes about corporate criminal liability is one that we are looking at very closely, not least in light of the Law Commission’s conclusions. If there are gaps in the law, we will fill them.
Stalking and Coercive Behaviour
Stalking and coercive and controlling behaviour are serious crimes which disproportionately harm women. Prosecutions for both have increased in the years since the offences were created. In the case of coercive and controlling behaviour, they have risen from just five in 2015 to 1,403 in 2020-21. I am pleased to say that the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases in the last quarter for which data is available was 76%.
The Government first legislated to deal with stalking and coercive behaviour in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Government will continue to prioritise tackling violence against women and girls?
My hon. Friend is right. Those are just two elements of violence against women and girls. I am pleased that in the last decade the Government have: outlawed upskirting; criminalised sending revenge porn images; created a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation; passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015; introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; banned virginity testing and hymenoplasty; and reversed the decision to automatically release sexual offenders at the halfway point of their sentences. Those who commit crimes against women should expect condign punishment.
Northern Ireland Protocol
I cannot comment specifically on any advice that I may or may not have received. It is not uncommon or inappropriate for Law Officers to seek advice, both from their officials and external specialist counsel. The Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week set out the Government’s proposals. She will be introducing primary legislation to address elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. I refer the hon. Member to that statement.
I thank the Attorney General and I appreciate the constraints within which she has to work on this matter. The Government are, of course, well within their rights to bring forward legislation to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market and protect the Union. Will the Attorney General take the opportunity today, from the Dispatch Box, to spell out to the misinformed US Congress delegation visiting Northern Ireland that defending, upholding and protecting the Union is consistent with the New Decade, New Approach agreement and consistent with the Belfast agreement? Will the Government move expeditiously—that is, before the summer recess—on bringing forward legislation?
The Bill that is proposed will take vital steps to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom, our precious Union, and protect peace, which is cemented by the Belfast agreement. It will include provisions which will ensure the security of the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation. It will propose that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel, underpinned by data-sharing arrangements, including a trusted trader scheme, to provide the EU with real-time commercial data. All those measures are consistent with the Belfast agreement and consistent with Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. I urge all Members here and parliamentarians abroad to support them.
The Attorney General said again today that there is a long-standing convention that prevents her from discussing either the fact or the content of her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol, which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Wednesday 11 May, The Times newspaper and BBC “Newsnight” not only disclosed the fact of her legal advice, but actually quoted from its contents. Let me ask her a very straightforward question that requires only a yes or no answer: did she personally authorise the briefings to The Times and “Newsnight” regarding her advice on the protocol—yes or no?
I take the convention incredibly seriously; it is a running thread through the integrity, robustness and frankness with which Law Officers can provide advice. I do not comment on media speculation, and that is the Government’s line. [Interruption.] The measures proposed there are to protect peace in Northern Ireland, to protect the Belfast agreement and to protect our precious United Kingdom—[Interruption.]
Order. The question has been asked. It is simply not right for the—[Interruption.] The Attorney General is on her feet uttering words. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not happy with the answer, that is a different matter. It is not correct for her to sit there shouting. [Interruption.] No, that is it. The right hon. Lady has asked the question and the Attorney General is giving her response.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take the Law Officers’ convention incredibly seriously and I do not comment on media speculation. That is a firm position of the Government. There are big differences between the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and myself, and I am very disappointed at her line of attack. [Interruption.] I love the United Kingdom; the right hon. Lady is embarrassed by our flag. I am proud of the leadership that the United Kingdom has demonstrated; she wants us to be run by Brussels and wants to scrap Trident. My heroes are Churchill and Thatcher; hers are Lenin and Corbyn. [Interruption.] When it comes to UK leadership in the world, Labour does not have a clue—[Interruption.]
Order. We will stick to the specific subject of the question. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is not satisfied with the answer, that is another matter. She will have to come back and ask it again another time.
May I raise a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker?
No, I cannot take a point of order in the middle of questions.
The Attorney General’s advice to the Prime Minister was reported to have said that the Good Friday agreement takes “primordial significance” over the Northern Ireland protocol. Does she accept that the Good Friday agreement sits alongside other agreements, rather than takes precedence, and that it should not be used as a basis to walk away from the deal that the UK Government signed? Will she commit to publishing the legal advice in full?
I will not repeat my answer, but we do not comment on media speculation and I respect and take incredibly seriously the Law Officers’ convention. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the Government will publish a statement summarising their legal position shortly. We will not publish legal advice, if it has been given—the content or the fact of it—and our overriding responsibility is to the Belfast agreement and the peace process. The current arrangements with the EU are undermining this, which is why we have to act now.