Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Full-fibre and Gigabit-capable Broadband
In the past three years, national gigabit coverage has rocketed from 6% to 69%. Through Project Gigabit, we are investing £5 billion so that people in hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable gigabit broadband speeds. We have already upgraded more than 600,000 premises and we have over half a billion pounds of contracts out for tender right now. Last week, I also announced £82 million in funding to connect up to 3,000 schools to lightning-fast gigabit broadband.
In too many parts of my constituency, access to good-quality, fast broadband is a real issue for local businesses, and our economy is being held back as a result. However, we are making progress, including an additional 25,000 houses being connected through fast gigabit broadband. Could my right hon. Friend update me and the House on what further progress we can make across my constituency to help those businesses that are struggling with access?
I am pleased that 82% of premises in Keighley can already access a gigabit-capable connection, exceeding the national average. I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the recent progress that has been made. We are making good progress to reach premises not included in the suppliers commercial plan through Project Gigabit. Preparations are under way for the procurement covering Keighley, which is due to start between February and April next year. It was never the case that we were going to be able to go from zero to 100% overnight—I am sure all hon. Members accept that—but we are making excellent progress.
In 2011, Ofcom estimated that only 3% of homes and businesses in East Sussex had access to superfast broadband, putting the county in the fourth quintile nationally. Now the figure stands at 98%. We have also seen local villages such as Westfield and Three Oaks working really hard to take advantage of the Government’s national rural gigabit voucher scheme, supported by the East Sussex rural gigabit top-up scheme. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking East Sussex County Council and the parish councils for their hard work and urge other rural communities to take advantage of these schemes to improve their connectivity and boost local economic growth?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she did on the Committee that considered the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill—vital legislation to give all parts of the country great connectivity. I join her in thanking East Sussex County Council and parish councils across the country that have supported local communities to benefit from our £210 million gigabit broadband voucher scheme. She rightly highlights the incredible growth in superfast coverage across East Sussex, which has benefited from public subsidy through voucher funding and earlier superfast contracts.
Charitable Giving: Cost of Living Increases
We understand that the pressures people are facing mean that some will not be able to give as much to charity as they have done in the past. However, while recent reports show a drop, average donations remain higher than pre covid, and total donations for the first quarter of 2022 look to be the highest since 2017, although this is due in large part to the incredible generosity of the British people in giving over £300 million towards the Ukrainian humanitarian appeal. I will continue to work closely with the sector on this important issue.
I thank the Minister for that response, but he just does not get it, does he? Thanks to this Government’s cruel policies, food banks are now embedded in our welfare state. As the cost of living crisis intensifies, we are running out of food donations and people are going hungry. It is an abdication of the Government’s duty to leave charities to fill gaps left by the state, so when will whoever is left in the Government start doing their job?
I gently remind the hon. Lady that the Opposition do not have a monopoly on sympathy and understanding. We completely understand the pressures that people are facing with the cost of living and have taken action to support families. That is why the Government are providing over £15 billion in further support targeted particularly at those with the greatest need. That is in addition to over £22 billion announced previously. Government support on the cost of living now totals £37 billion this year.
I associate myself with the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). That is the experience in my constituency too—food banks are suffering. Research by the Charities Aid Foundation found that 82% of charities are worried about how they are going to pay their utility bills, and many of them worry that they will not survive the crisis. What action are the Government taking to help our valuable charities to stay afloat?
During the pandemic, we showed how important charities were, with more than £750 million for the charity scheme. That showed that we needed them to survive, because they play such an important role in our society. I will continue to engage with charities and make representations to other parts of Government. We recognise the important role they play, but also we need to help families directly, which will then reduce the burden on the charities.
Charities are indeed working harder than ever to support people through this cost of living crisis. They are delivering food to older people, supporting people with the stresses of poverty and working tirelessly to advocate for vulnerable people, yet charities are suffering from a big hit to their income as their running costs spiral and demand for their services rockets. I cannot find any mention that the Secretary of State has made of charities since she was appointed last year. Will the Minister admit that charities have not been a priority for this Government, and when will they take the steps to support the sector to deal with this perfect storm of pressures?
The hon. Lady is completely wrong. The Secretary of State and I talk about and to charities all the time—constantly. What she said goes against the facts. As I just outlined, there was £750 million in charity support during the pandemic, which was a specific recognition of the key role that they play.
Gambling Review White Paper
I know that both Members have taken an active involvement in this issue and, like all the House, are looking forward to seeing the outcomes of our Gambling Act 2005 review. It remains a priority for the Department, and we will publish a White Paper setting out conclusions and a vision for the sector in the coming weeks.
We know that the Department has considered gambling-related harm to be a public health issue and preventing harm is an essential objective of gambling regulations, so may I gently press the Minister to confirm whether key public health-based reforms, such as a smart statutory levy, the introduction of online stake limits, an effective affordability assessment and controls on gambling advertising, will be included in the forthcoming White Paper?
I know how passionately and seriously the hon. Gentleman takes this issue, as do we on this side of the Chamber. That is why the review was comprehensive and covered many, if not all, of those areas that he mentioned. I ask him to be slightly patient, because we will be responding to the review in due course.
Many countries are ahead of the UK in regulating loot boxes and video games and require games to display the odds of receiving certain loot in the box items. It is essential to ensure that we are not subjecting players to blind gambling, yet Diablo Immortal’s “rift” feature finds a loophole apparently in this, and is essentially a loot box that is contingent on skill-based gameplay. The skill-based element means it is not technically gambling and does not have to display odds, but it is a loot box. Will the Minister commit to exploring in the gambling review how to close that loophole, and will the Department meet with the game developer Blizzard to discuss how to close the loophole in Diablo Immortal?
Again, this is a topic that has consumed the attention of the whole House. The gambling review was looked at separately from the specific issue of loot boxes, where we recognise there are also issues and concerns, and we have been conducting a review. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that protecting children, both on loot boxes and in the gambling review, is front and centre of our thoughts.
It is not just children who can be impacted by loot boxes and other gambling mechanics; it is also people with other vulnerabilities. It is critical that the Government take effective steps to close loopholes, and do not just bake in the problem for ever more creative tech companies to exploit.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about ensuring that the review we conduct and the conclusions that come out of it are comprehensive, but it is important, as technology evolves and changes, and becomes ever more sophisticated—as it does, particularly in the online gambling and gaming space—that we keep a close eye on developments, and we will be doing that going forward.
I thank the ministerial team for their continued good work. Specifically on fixed odds betting terminals, would it not be a pragmatic and sensible consideration to display the average return rate for five seconds at the beginning of play, so that users can make an informed decision to weigh up enjoyment against the likely returns?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The White Paper will be looking at those issues, and the Gambling Commission of course looks at those kind of issues on an ongoing basis. He raises important points about targeting, in particular of the most vulnerable in society, and it is something of which we are very aware.
One could be forgiven for failing to notice a news article yesterday regarding No. 10 policy advisers who have links to gambling companies. It would be unforgiveable, however, if either of those advisers had attempted to influence the White Paper in a way that could be considered to favour the industry. Can the Minister assure the House that that is not the case?
I am not at all surprised to see the Secretary of State still in her place; I had no doubt that she would be the last woman standing in support of the Prime Minister while all around her collapses, including her ministerial team. I wondered whether, by this morning, she would hold not only all the ministerial offices in her Department but several other Cabinet posts as well.
For many months, we have heard that the gambling White Paper is imminent. It has still not been published, although its content has again been trailed to the news- papers. Apparently, Ministers are dropping the gambling levy, which has widespread support, and other measures that would bring the analogue gambling regulation into the digital age. Is that true?
Well, we now know from the former gambling Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), that the White Paper is with No. 10 for sign-off—good luck with that. We have also been promised the media Bill, a White Paper on football regulation, a review of women’s football, a review on the future funding of the BBC, and a data Bill—all before the summer recess. How is that going? The truth is that we have chaos, paralysis and a total collapse of Government, with huge swathes of vacant ministerial posts and parliamentary business on hold. Is it not the reality that not just the Prime Minister has lost the country’s trust, but the entire Conservative party?
I hope the hon. Lady will wait to respond to the gambling review. I appreciate her giving a comprehensive list of all the policy areas and manifesto commitments on which the Government are committed to delivering. She could have gone further and mentioned safe standing, the delivery of the Commonwealth games, which start in three weeks’ time, or the Euros—well done to the Lionesses for last night. I thank her for giving a list of the Government’s achievements.
In what could be our last exchange across the Dispatch Box, I recognise that the Secretary of State cannot bind the hands of her successor, but as we move away from post-truth politics and culture wars, perhaps she can leave doing some good. The lottery is the country’s principal gambling addiction. For most, it is innocent fun; for some, it is a problem—an affliction. The now resigned tech and digital Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), confirmed to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee this week that tickets can be charged perfectly legally to credit cards, building up huge debts. When Camelot is replaced, can that be reformed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the final part of his comments and for drawing attention to the fact that we constantly review the lottery. We have made significant changes over time, such as to the age limit for who can play it. As he is aware, people can use a credit card if the ticket is bought with other shopping. That is the norm in many other countries, but we constantly review those exact areas.
Betting and Gaming Industry and Racing: Economic Contribution
In 2019, the last full year of gambling data unaffected by covid, the gambling industry contributed £8.3 billion to the economy, or 0.4% of gross value added. The sector employs approximately 98,000 people and pays £2 billion a year in gambling duties. According to the British Horseracing Authority, racing has direct revenues in excess of £1.47 billion and makes a total annual contribution to the UK economy of over £4 billion.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Can I urge him, in preparing the White Paper, to take a balanced view of the economic and social benefits, the considerable pleasure for millions who bet quite responsibly and the great contribution to the Exchequer, and balance that against the very vocal lobbying, particularly in some of the media, by those who basically, with gambling, are prohibitionists?
Again, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the gambling White Paper was comprehensive, and the response will be comprehensive. We have taken evidence and information from across the entire sector, so views such as those he has represented we are absolutely taking into account during the consideration.
Short-term Holiday Lets: Licensing
The hon. Lady will be aware that, just last week, we announced a review of this very area. It is vitally important, particularly in tourism-affected areas of the country, and I know that her city, which I have had the pleasure of visiting, is one of them.
Short-term holiday lets and Airbnb are blighting my city: we have nearly 2,000. That is undermining the regulated bed and breakfast and guesthouse sector. It is taking away houses from people in my city who are desperate to get homes, but it is causing antisocial behaviour and party houses on residential streets. Will the Minister ensure that the Government introduce a licensing system as opposed to a registration scheme, and also enable local authorities to create areas where there are no Airbnbs? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the crisis we are currently facing?
I am always delighted to meet the hon. Lady. She raises some important points, articulating precisely the need for the review, which we have brought in because we are very aware of some of the issues she raised. Some of the individual entities—Airbnb and so on—are already taking action on antisocial behaviour and the number of people who can be at parties. We expect, and require them actually, to continue to be responsible for and responsive to their customers and, indeed, local communities. We have not pre-empted the conclusions of the review, so I ask her to please contribute to that review.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is absolutely right to identify the issue that she has in York and in other parts of the country, but will my hon. Friend also bear in mind that these lets generate income for the area too, and many restaurants and other places would probably go out of business were it not for some of these lets?
My hon. Friend is making an important point, and that is why this is a call for evidence. It is about information; we have not come to conclusions or, indeed, decisions about potential legislation. There is a balance to be had here. Many people rent out a spare room, and in particular in these straitened times, it is very important that they can get additional revenue where they can.
Charity Lottery Annual Sales Limit
Society lotteries are a vital source of funds for charities and other organisations, raising hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Sales and prize limits were last increased in 2020. A review after 12 months, published in March, concluded that the reforms were starting to benefit the sector, but more evidence was needed before making further changes. We will work with the Gambling Commission to keep this under review.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As he rightly said, charity lotteries, such as the people’s postcode lottery, are benefiting thousands of charities and communities around the country, not least in the Calder Valley itself, and implementing the next stage of charity lottery reform, as the Government have previously said they will do, is a great way to help to take forward the levelling-up agenda at no cost to the public purse. Will he agree to look further at this and implement that review sooner rather than later?
Yes, absolutely; we will keep this under review. The Government did express an ambition to look again at increasing the annual sales limit to £100 million once we were satisfied that this would result in an increase in overall returns to good causes and would not negatively impact on the national lottery. That goal of making sure the returns to good causes are optimised will be at the front of our minds.
Gigabit Broadband Rollout: Rural and Urban Communities
Through Project Gigabit we are ensuring that hard-to-reach areas of the UK gain access to world-class gigabit connectivity alongside delivering gigabit broadband to the rest of the country ahead of the demand. As I said in response to an earlier answer, connectivity stood at 6% in 2019, while today the figure is 69%.
I was originally going to ask about the Commonwealth games, which is obviously a fantastic event for the west midlands, but I wish to focus on something else that is very good news in my locality. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Solihull council, Solihull Community Housing and CityFibre on striking a deal to ensure that 4,000 community housing tenants are given the very latest full-fibre network? Does she agree that whatever our roll-out programme in towns, cities and villages across the country, we must make sure everyone is covered in those localities so that we leave no one behind as we strive to finally join the first rank of connected nations?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he continually contributes to this area and as Chair of the Select Committee, and he is absolutely right. The manifesto commitment was for 100% for a reason: that is the Prime Minister’s absolute commitment that nobody would be left behind. Obviously, there are hard-to-reach areas such as hill farms and other premises in more rural parts of the country, but there are innovative ways—using 5G, satellite and other means—of getting that connectivity to those areas. That is being worked on right now, and this Government will not rest until 100% has been reached.
Internet Access for Households and Businesses
Only 97.5% of premises in England and 95% in West Worcestershire can access superfast broadband of at least 30 megabits per second. We are now bringing forward investment of £5 billion through Project Gigabit to provide gigabit connectivity to premises across the UK that are not covered through the commercial delivery. We have already provided gigabit coverage to 600,000 premises in areas that previously only had low speeds. We are aiming to commence procurement for gigabit coverage in Worcestershire between September and November of this year.
The figures I have got from the House of Commons Library for West Worcestershire say that 9% of my constituency is still not covered. That is because it is very cumbersome to put together the groups of people with vouchers to make a scheme viable, and they are very vulnerable to someone withdrawing their voucher at the last minute. Will the Secretary of State look at ways to improve that, so we can have someone underwriting and strengthening the delivery of this important service to rural areas?
Hundreds of premises in rural areas across my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I know well, have received gigabit-capable connections through the voucher scheme, but, as she says, there are some fragilities to that. We will be bringing forward our Project Gigabit procurement for suppliers to provide coverage to premises that are not covered by the commercial providers, or where vouchers are not the most effective approach. Alongside this, we have introduced voucher priority areas, but in some instances suppliers are able to deliver faster thanks to their participation in the voucher scheme. I reiterate what I said in response to a previous answer: we were never going to reach 100% overnight, but to have gone from 6% to 69% across the UK in three years is pretty remarkable, and that progress continues at pace.
The Prime Minister—sorry, the Secretary of State—[Laughter.] With the level of change at the moment, it is hard to keep track. The Secretary of State refers, I presume, to the current Prime Minister’s commitment that no one be left behind, but she knows well that under successive Conservative Governments, the absence of a digital inclusion strategy means that the digital divide has broadened, whether it be between rural and urban, between those who have digital skills and those who do not, or between those who can afford broadband and those who cannot. The last digital inclusion strategy was in 2014. When will a new one appear?
The progress with which we have commenced the roll-out of gigabit broadband across the UK has been exemplary. Just last week, I held a roundtable with telecommunications providers to urge them to look at social tariffs and to offer lower rates to those who are left behind and cannot afford the rates that others can. Work never stops in this area. We are very aware of those who cannot access broadband and cannot have digital access—
Heritage Steam Railways
The Government absolutely appreciate the unique importance of heritage steam railways in this country in promoting our industrial heritage and supporting tourism. We are in regular communication with the industry.
I am lucky to have seven heritage railways in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and steam engines were designed to be run on coal. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they face a crisis in the supply of suitable coal. The sector is working to develop alternatives to coal, as required by the net zero agenda, but it needs help. Will the Minister commit to supporting heritage steam to ensure the survival of our industrial heritage?
I have had several conversations with the right hon. Lady on this topic, as I have with colleagues from across the House, and I understand the complexities and challenges. She will be aware that some of the issues that need to be resolved may be outside DCMS’s portfolio. Ultimately, the sourcing of fuel supplies is a commercial arrangement. However, I will be happy to continue to work with her and facilitate further conversations across Government.
In the last few weeks, we have seen huge crowds at Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, Glastonbury, Silverstone and Wimbledon. The women’s Euros kicked off last night, and the Birmingham Commonwealth games are on their way. It is set to be a great British summer of culture and sport.
Speaking of sport, last week I was lucky enough to attend an event celebrating the upcoming rugby league world cup—[Interruption.] I know that Mr Speaker is a huge fan of the sport, and while I do not share his detailed expertise, he will be delighted that rugby league’s execs have told me—and him, I believe—that rugby league has never had so much publicity and so much attention. All I can say, Mr Speaker, is, “You’re welcome.”
The Government deserve considerable credit for their recent announcement to allow safe standing in all premier league grounds. However, the rule change does not permit seat locking for safe standing, which is essential if we are to be able to increase capacity and provide cheaper ticket prices like those in Germany, as the overwhelming majority of fans want. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, officials from the Football Association and the English Premier League and colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group for safe standing to discuss the issue and get on—
I assure my hon. Friend that the safety of spectators at football matches was the key priority in the development of the policy. The report found that keeping seats unlocked would offer greater choice to spectators and was supported by the data from the spectator survey. Of course, I am always happy to meet and discuss the matter further.
It looks as though the Secretary of State will shortly have a lot more spare time on her hands, perhaps for more sport and physical activity, but that becomes much harder if leisure facilities and swimming pools close because of high fuel costs and reduced footfall. Operators are really worried. What more will the Government do to support local authorities and the rest of the sector as they face the Tory cost of living crisis?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his continued support to me and the Department. Last week, we published our response to the consultation on intellectual property and artificial intelligence, of which I am sure he is aware. Following that consultation, we intend to amend copyright law to make it easier to analyse material for the purposes of machine learning, research and innovation. That will promote the use of AI technology and wider data mining techniques for the public good.
This has been an objective of mine since I first arrived in the Department. Yesterday I visited the British Library, which holds many of the nation’s treasures. We want to ensure that collections in libraries, museums and art galleries reach across the country, so that everybody has access to and can see, enjoy and learn from those national treasures. At the beginning of my tenure and recently, I asked every organisation to look again at what they are doing to ensure that that happens.
I am sure Mr Speaker has a response on Westminster, but as of July 2022, London has 81% gigabit coverage. It is an urban area: it is easier to cover and easier to reach homes. Birmingham is at 93%. Those figures are up from just 14% and 21% respectively in November 2019.
We are looking at the long list of potential future bids for UNESCO world heritage sites. Many people will be surprised that York is not already on the list, for many of the reasons the hon. Lady outlines. I am happy to have a conversation with her. I do not think there is an expectation of financial support, but we should be able to provide support and advice.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Canal & River Trust on the current review of the Government’s annual grant funding of the trust, as required by the 2012 grant agreement. The UK’s historic canals and waterways represent some of the finest examples of working industrial heritage in the world. They play an important role in the wider visitor economy and as a valuable green space for local communities. Because of their unique social, cultural and economic importance, the Canal & River Trust, an independent charity, benefited from £3.2 million.
The Government recently introduced a dual registration scheme to support touring trucks, because touring was completely forgotten during the Brexit negotiations. Although we do not have a Minister for this area, can somebody tell me how orchestras that own their own vehicles and do not benefit from the scheme for small-scale operators will be able to operate in this area, helping our creative industries?
A huge amount of work has gone into touring, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I am sure that he will be delighted with the recent announcement from Greece that it will, along with Spain and others, open up and allow our musicians and artisans to tour across the EU. Negotiations are taking place on a daily basis and problems are being resolved as we move forward.
The Hillingdon outdoor activities centre at Harefield in my constituency has given generations of children the opportunity to experience new sports. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that more children can benefit from such opportunities in future?
The Government encourage everyone, no matter their age, to be as active as they can be. We recognise that outdoor activities centres provide opportunities for all members of society to be active. Outdoor activities centres were supported through the pandemic by Government assistance, such as the furlough scheme, and there is a range of programmes, including the National Citizen Service and the £80 million green recovery challenge, with delivery partners that include outdoor activities centres.
I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have worked together for 18 years, and I have no war. I have two objectives: to ensure that both Channel 4 and the BBC survive and that they are fit for the ever-changing broadcasting landscape. With the greatest respect, I say to him that we need to be aware of how the landscape is changing at warp speed.
As has been mentioned, the Commonwealth games are fast approaching, allowing athletes from Wales to display their proud individualism under our great Union. Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in congratulating Jacob Edwards from Olympus Gymnastics in Wrexham, and wishing him all the best as he represents Team Wales?
I am absolutely delighted to wish Jacob Edwards the best of luck. Of course, the nations compete separately in the Commonwealth games, so there is an England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales dynamic that we do not have in the Olympics. I wish all nations the best of luck.
The Secretary of State was very upbeat in her response to the Opposition Front Bencher, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who asked about local authority leisure centres. They are in financial distress because of the rising costs of energy, and that is particularly true of those that run swimming pools. Is the Secretary of State saying that they are safe for the future, and if so, how is she securing that?
The cost of living challenge—in terms of energy costs, which we all face across all sectors—is a problem that the Government are addressing. We supported the leisure sector throughout the pandemic. Conversations are taking place with sectors about the problems that they face and the solutions that the Government can help to find.
The Attorney General was asked—
Access to Justice for Victims of Crime
Before I answer question 1, may I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my superb hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)? He was quite simply an excellent Solicitor General, who took the difficult decision to resign from the Government this week. He was an absolute honour and pleasure to work with, a brilliant lawyer, a dedicated Member of Parliament and a shining example of the highest standards of public service.
Victims are not spectators. They have the right to be informed of their case and to be supported. That is why the Government are increasing funding for victim and witness support services to £192 million by 2024-25, which represents an uplift of 92% on core budgets in ’20-21. A large proportion of that funding has been allocated to police and crime commissioners to commission local victim support services. For ’22-23, the Ministry of Justice allocated about £5.2 million to the Greater Manchester PCC, to support services.
I am bound to welcome any extra resources to support victims. Nevertheless, victims and their families are still treated in an appalling fashion in too many cases. Cases that do not come to court, trials that are cracked and all the things that go wrong give victims the impression that they are simply an adjunct to the process. What is the Attorney General seriously going to do about it?
Well, I think that the Government have already acted in a significant way to put victims front and centre in our criminal justice system so that justice is secured for them. For 2021-22, the Ministry of Justice has provided £150 million for victims and witnesses alone, whether that is with more independent sexual violence advisers, who are game-changing in the victim experience—victims have told me personally how transformative the presence of an ISVA can be to their experience through the criminal justice system—or with the £20 million for local community-based sexual violence and domestic abuse services. I am very proud of the track record of this Government on supporting victims.
I join the Attorney General in her tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), whose service was absolutely outstanding and exceptional. He departed his post with great honour and with the respect of this House, the profession and the judiciary.
I thank the Attorney General for what she says about victims. It is clear that the Government have done a great deal. However, I am sure she is aware that in the course of the Select Committee’s prelegislative scrutiny of the welcome draft Victims Bill, we have heard evidence that—as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) said—although there is good work, there is still patchiness in the provision of services for victims in many areas. The draft Victims Bill is a real opportunity to improve that and ensure a much more consistent approach. May I ask the Attorney General for an undertaking that the Government will look with care at the recommendations that we make as a result of that prelegislative scrutiny?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the forthcoming Victims Bill. I am proud that the Government are introducing specific measures to transform victims’ experience of the criminal justice system. The Bill will pursue measures to improve victims’ experiences; we are looking at what more can be done to ensure that the victim’s voice is heard, both pre and post charge. I am particularly proud of the victims code, which came into force last year and is a real reflection of our commitment to victims.
May I say what an honour it is to be at this Dispatch Box facing the next Prime Minister as she awaits her call from the palace? It is a true honour, although colleagues will have noticed that in her list of leadership priorities last night the Attorney General had absolutely nothing to say about tackling the epidemic of crime in our country or ending the culture of lawbreaking in our Government, both of which have flourished on her watch. What she did say last night, however, was that we need to
“shrink the size of the state”.
I ask the Attorney General a very simple question: in percentage terms, what size of staffing cuts does she plan to make to the Crown Prosecution Service, and what will that mean to the record backlogs that our courts currently face?
I know that the right hon. Lady loves to degrade these question sessions to petty politics. I am not going to lower myself to her standards; I am here to talk about victims and what we are doing to secure justice for vulnerable people. I am very proud of the financial settlement that this Government have put into the CPS, increasing the number of prosecutors. Notably, in the past 12 months alone there have been 115 more RASSO-trained prosecutors in place to work specifically to support victims.
The Scottish Government are investing an extra £4 million this year to tackle violence against women and girls and offer greater support for victims’ needs. The Crown Office budget in Scotland is more than 40% higher than at the start of the last Parliament, supporting a range of improvements and modernisation processes. Does the Attorney General welcome that? Does she agree that more funding should be made available across the UK for greater access to justice for victims? Will she consider putting that in her prime ministerial manifesto?
The hon. Lady has raised some good points. Over the last two years, however, there has been a sea change in what the Government have been doing to tackle violence against women and girls. We now have more data, with localised data dashboards and scorecards shining a light on how different parts of the country are performing in relation to RASSO— rape and serious sexual offences—and indeed all crime, and how they are recovering from covid.
As I have said, I am proud of the victims code, which contains 12 rights for victims which will be enshrined in statute—for instance, a right for victims to be referred to the relevant support services, a right for victims to have access to the relevant information, and a right for victims to make a personal statement in court. Those are meaningful changes that this Government have introduced, and I am very proud of that.
CPS in Mid-Wales
I visited the CPS in Wales in February and was pleased to be able to speak to the hard-working and dedicated prosecutors about their work, which has also been praised in a recent report from the CPS inspectorate. I know that the hon. Member had a productive meeting with the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales recently, and I hope he will join me in commending the area for its strong performance in recovering from the backlog.
I thank the Attorney General for her answer, and it is good to see her in her place. I also pay tribute to Jenny Hopkins, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales. As the Attorney General said, I met her recently, and she and her team are doing a terrific job. However, the court backlog in Mid Wales—rural Wales—is still quite spectacular. What is the Attorney General doing to deal with the problem?
The data, to which we now have unprecedented access, shows that when it comes to recovery from covid and court backlogs, the CPS in Wales and the local criminal justice board have performed exceptionally well. Huge resources have been put into court recovery, which is why the magistrates court backlog in the CPS Wales area was the first to recover from the impact of covid, with live caseload numbers falling to below pre-covid levels in December 2021.
I successfully personally presented a case at the Court of Appeal, sitting at Cardiff Crown court, which resulted in an increase from 13 years to 20 years and seven months, with an extended licence period of five years,. in the prison sentence given to Stephen Gibbs for an attempted murder. I was delighted and honoured to be in court in Wales.
Rape Prosecution Rates
We are united in our combined efforts, across Government, to improve performance for victims and increase the number of successful rape cases that go through our courts. Since we published our rape review action plan, there has been a steady increase in the number of rape charges, prosecutions and convictions quarter on quarter. We are closing the gap between complaints and convictions. Most notably, the number of convictions for rape offences is up by 27% on the number in 2019.
In Lancashire, our brilliant police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowden, is funding a variety of projects to reduce the number of rape and serious sexual offences. They include dedicated specialist support services for victims, and Operation Night Guardian, which focuses on the night economy. How is the CPS in Lancashire working alongside our police and crime commissioner to improve the rates of conviction for these abhorrent crimes?
I am pleased to report that CPS North West is in an Operation Soteria area. Operation Soteria, which was introduced recently under this Government, is an ambitious joint police and CPS programme of work to transform the way in which rape prosecutions are handled. It will provide a renewed focus on investigating the suspect rather than the victim, and will ultimately create a new operating model for the investigation and prosecution of rape. We are pleased to be seeing the green shoots of progress nationally: the number of rape convictions has increased by 29% compared with the last quarter pre-covid.
I have a constituent whose sperm was used without his consent by his ex-partner so that she could become pregnant. The police have looked at the case and passed it to the CPS, which says that the law does not allow it to deal with the offence as any kind of sexual assault. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the law? This is not just “sperm theft”, but a form of sexual assault and a violation of my constituent’s rights.
My thoughts are very much with my hon. Friend’s constituent. That sounds like a very traumatic affair. I want to thank her for raising this case. I know that she has already received a reply from my Department setting out the reasons why the CPS could not proceed with this particular case. The CPS looked at all the facts of the case carefully and considered all the available offences under current legislation before determining that no offence had been committed under current law. I will raise the case with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice so that they might look at the existing statutory framework.
Since the Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade judgment, a 10-year-old girl in Ohio who is pregnant as a result of rape has been forced to travel to Indiana from her home state for an abortion, which she could not get locally. Will the Attorney General condemn the appalling cruelty that has resulted, and will result, from the Supreme Court ruling? Will she also condemn the Conservative MPs who celebrated it on social media?
I do not think it is the right of a UK Government Minister to comment on a judicial decision in another jurisdiction such as the United States. That is a matter for the United States Supreme Court and the United States Congress to resolve. What I am focused on is the experience of victims in Britain and Wales and how we can improve our criminal justice system. That is why I am very proud of the achievements that we have secured. I am very proud that, for example, the CPS prosecuted 430,000 defendants last year on a whole suite of offences, including 69 alleged terrorists, 33 of whom were convicted, and 19,000 serious violence offences, with a conviction rate of almost 75%. Those are the statistics, the facts and the policies on which I am focused.
Is the Attorney-General proud of her achievements when the delay between offence and completion in rape cases is now more than 1,000 days and there are 50 UK Crown courts with delays of more than three years and 18 with delays of more than four years? Does she agree with the Victims Commissioner that these delays are appalling? Could she take time out from her leadership campaign to look at bringing in pre-recorded evidence and cross-examination in all rape cases in all Crown courts now?
Actually, what we are seeing as a result of pioneering operations such as Soteria is a closer collaboration between police and prosecutor. What we know works is when a prosecutor has a good, clear case strategy, has a grip of the case and has properly identified the challenges, and when the police are supportive and involved in the investigation. Close collaboration, early investigative advice and support for the victim is what will cut down the timelines and ensure that victims get justice in a swifter way. That is why I am very proud of the section 28 roll-out.
The last time we debated this issue in this Chamber, the Attorney General told me that
“any allegation of domestic abuse or sexual assault on victims is horrendous. On no account does anyone in this Government condone that behaviour.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 414.]
So why did the Attorney General not call for the Prime Minister’s resignation when she found out that he had turned a blind eye to an allegation of sexual assault by one of his own Ministers, but did call for his resignation to launch her bizarre leadership campaign live on TV last night? Does that not just sum up how she has debased the office she holds and put political ambition before the rule of law?
The hon. Gentleman could have asked about domestic abuse victims; he could have asked about RASSO; he could have asked about crime prevention and keeping the British people safe. Instead, he used his opportunity to score cheap political points—[Interruption.]
When it comes to domestic abuse, our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is strengthening protection for victims and ensuring that perpetrators feel the full force of the law. It includes the first legal definition of domestic abuse, it improves support for victims in the courts, it introduces new offences and it strengthens the legislation precisely for victims of domestic abuse. It is a pity he did not want to talk about that.
Disclosure Between All Parties in Criminal Justice System
We published the review of disclosure and the amended disclosure guidelines in May to deliver improvements for police, prosecutors and victims of crime. The new guidelines feature an annex on data protection that will ease the burden on police handling of digital material and will leave the police more time to be on the street, fighting and investigating crime. I am pleased with how the guide- lines have been received by the profession throughout.
My hon. Friend raises a real priority for the Government. These guidelines will mean fewer unnecessary intrusions into a victim’s private life and more interactions with victims to help them understand the process. All of this will mean that victims are more engaged, there is less attrition and the process is swifter but just as effective. It is unfortunate that some Labour Members have promoted an incorrect understanding of what these guidelines mean.
Covid-19 Related Contracts Awarded by DHSC: Potential Fraud Losses
There have been no prosecutions by either the Serious Fraud Office or the Crown Prosecution Service of frauds connected to covid-19 contracts awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care. However, I can neither confirm nor deny whether the Serious Fraud Office is investigating any frauds relating to those contracts. This Government rightly took swift action at the height of the pandemic and, thanks to the excellent work of this Government, including Government lawyers, we have successfully defended the majority of our coronavirus-related litigation.
The secrecy on VIP lane contracts is emblematic of the loss of trust and transparency in this Government. Over the last 48 hours, Conservative Members have repeatedly stated the importance of integrity and honesty. As Prime Minister, will the Attorney General finally lift the veil of secrecy, publish the full details of VIP lane contacts and refer the matter to a committee or authorities, as necessary?
A lot of covid-related litigation has gone through our courts, and there has been a lot of scrutiny of the Government’s decision making and actions during the pandemic. I am pleased to say that the Government were successful in the majority of cases, with our decision making being upheld and found to be lawful.
Before I call Barry Sheerman, I note that he wishes to raise the case of his late constituent Ms Katelyn Dawson, who is the subject of an open and adjourned inquest. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in relation to matters that are sub judice to allow reference to the case as part of the question and answer.
Vulnerable Road Users Killed by Dangerous Driving: Prosecutions
I am aware of this tragic case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I take this opportunity to offer my deepest condolences to Katelyn’s family and friends. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning, over many years, on all road safety issues. He has been a leader in this field.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I recognise the devastating impact that fatal road traffic accidents and collisions can have on families and victims, which is why, under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, this Government increased the maximum penalty to life imprisonment for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. Last year, the CPS charged more than 650 defendants in relation to fatal road traffic accidents, bringing the total number of charges back in line with pre-pandemic levels.
I have been around long enough to be one of the people who introduced the seatbelt legislation that banned children from travelling unrestrained in cars.
I was not going to talk about specifics, Mr Speaker, although you were very kind to mention the case in my constituency. I am very worried that, across the country, an increasing number of families have had a family member killed by a driver and then, because a lot of people are able to hire very expensive lawyers who can argue things like automatism—that they were not in control of their body or faculties at the time of the accident—the CPS is increasingly frightened into not prosecuting. That is my worry. Can we do something about it?
It is tragic; there are simply no words for the situation that the hon. Gentleman sets out. Ultimately, fairness sits at the heart of our justice system. Therefore, the same threshold is used for all offences—deciding whether to prosecute in fatal road traffic cases or murder cases. That is set out in “The Code for Crown Prosecutors” and has remained the same since the CPS was formed in the 1980s. It sets out a two-stage test, with which many people here will be familiar. A case will proceed only where both stages of the test are met. It always comes down to the evidence and the public interest, and I am very happy to talk to him about what more can be done, operationally or in the state of the law, to remedy the problem he identifies.