Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hate Speech Online

We will lead the world in this area, and we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently, ensuring that social media platforms finally prioritise protecting children, remove abhorrent illegal content quickly—including hate crimes—and keep their promises to their own users.

Online hate speech affects all and aims to sow division, yet the Government are making painfully slow progress in making online spaces less toxic. Home Office figures reveal a sharp increase in far-right activity, with Muslim and Jewish communities facing the largest number of hate crimes in the UK year after year. Along with other parliamentary colleagues, I suffer online abuse on a regular basis. What steps will the Minister take to tackle Islamophobia and antisemitism online?

Crimes such as those that the hon. Member has mentioned, including hate crimes, are not acceptable on any platform. As I have said, we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently. I cannot announce House business here today, but I can assure all Members that the Bill will be coming back very shortly. I share his concerns, as I am sure do all Members.

Let me first welcome the Secretary of State to her place, and welcome, too, the refreshing degree of engagement with the Select Committee that is now under way. I also welcome her assurance that she will be strengthening the Online Safety Bill’s protections for children, but there has been speculation, following previous comments, that she will be reviewing the duties of care for adults relating to so-called “legal but harmful content”. Can she clarify what changes she is minded to make in relation to such content?

We will be coming back to the House with this in due course, and the Bill will be coming back imminently. This is my key priority—I cannot stress that enough. Protecting children should be the fundamental responsibility of this House, and we will strengthen the provisions for children. I have given that assurance directly to Ian Russell, and I give it again now in the House. We are, however, rebalancing elements for adults’ freedom of speech, while also holding social media companies to account so that they cannot treat different races and religions differently, contrary to their own terms and conditions. Fundamentally, the Bill must be about ensuring that we are protecting children, and we will be bringing it back to the House as soon as possible.

Last weekend there was yet another case of vile online racist abuse being hurled at a professional footballer, on this occasion the Brentford striker Ivan Toney. Ironically, tomorrow we will all come together to recognise Show Racism the Red Card day. If the Government are at all serious about keeping people safe online, it is vital for those at the top of these multimillion-pound social media companies to be held personally accountable. The Online Safety Bill is our opportunity to do better. Can the Minister therefore tell us exactly why the Government have failed to introduce personal criminal liability measures for senior leaders who have fallen short on their statutory duty to protect us online?

I think it is about time the Opposition remembered that it is this Government who are introducing the Online Safety Bill. It is this Government who committed themselves to it in our manifesto. As I have already told Opposition Members, we will bring it back imminently. I am sure you agree, Mr Speaker, that it would not be proper for me to announce House business here today, but I can assure the hon. Member that this is my top priority. We will be coming back with the Bill shortly. I mean what I say, and I will do what I say.

I welcome the right hon. Lady—my fifth Culture Secretary—to her place. I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) that there is a more constructive atmosphere on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I sit.

Last night, I was honoured to be present at the PinkNews awards, where I spoke up for trans rights with colleagues across party, including Conservatives. There has been an explosion of hate speech online. Women are targeted disproportionately and trans women are targeted especially. Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre had to lock its door after barrages of violent online threats, and these are dangerous times. An atmosphere of hate has been fanned by too many newspapers and, sadly, politicians.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the now Prime Minister was wrong to weaponise anti-trans rhetoric during the Tory leadership campaign, as she did in attacking the now Leader of the House?

I do not think that anybody disputes the fact that hate speech and hate crime should have no place in our society, but freedom of speech, of course, is the bedrock from which all freedoms stem. I personally believe that every member of this House has a duty to protect free speech as well as protecting our citizens from illegal harms.

Gaelic Broadcasting

2. What recent discussions she has had with representatives of MG Alba on the future of Gaelic broadcasting. (901739)

The UK Government have a strong record of demonstrating our commitment to minority language broadcasting, to make sure that our broadcasters serve all audiences of the UK nations and regions. My hon. Friend will recall that during his previous role at the Scotland Office we both met MG Alba’s CEO earlier this year. I am grateful to the chief executive for raising the issues of the sustainability of Gaelic language broadcasting and for providing detailed proposals for change. My officials have since been in regular contact with the organisation and I am continuing to talk to counterparts at the Scotland Office. I will have further discussions with MG Alba in due course.

I am grateful for that answer. Gaelic broadcasting is not just vital culturally and socially, but delivers a positive economic impact. Its future strength, however, requires public sector broadcast status in legislation, akin to that enjoyed by Welsh language broadcasters. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the forthcoming Media Bill will be an ideal opportunity to provide that.

I entirely appreciate that certainty of future funding and particularly a strong partnership with the BBC are important for MG Alba to deliver for Gaelic speakers. It has legitimate concerns, and I have been examining its proposals in detail. Together with my officials, I am trying to decide whether the forthcoming Media Bill is the best mechanism to address those concerns, or whether the issues are better addressed through the future funding review of the BBC and the subsequent BBC charter review. I assure my hon. Friend that I am very engaged in these issues and want to get to a good solution.

There was a time when Gaelic was spoken in much of my far-flung constituency; that is not the case today. I regard Gaelic as not just a Scottish but a United Kingdom treasure. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that she might benefit from coming to the Gàidhealtachd, where Gaelic is spoken in the Western Isles, perhaps in parts of my constituency, to see what needs to be done to help it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation, and for highlighting the importance of Gaelic not just as a language but as a cultural asset for our country that we should be proud of. I hope that he feels assured that I have been listening to the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) about MG Alba and wish to ensure that it has a sustainable future.

Channel 4 Privatisation

Channel 4 is a great UK success story, and in a rapidly changing media landscape the Government of course want it to thrive in the long term, while maintaining its distinctiveness. I am currently looking at the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further details to the House in due course.

I just want to clarify in my own mind that the right hon. Lady has no plans at present to carry on the previous policy of privatising Channel 4.

Film4 films have collectively won 37 academy awards and 84 BAFTAs—a record that any Hollywood studio would be proud of. Its films include important examples of the British Asian experience, such as “Bhaji on the Beach”. Does the Minister recognise that the privatisation of Channel 4 would jeopardise the only major private investment stream in British film?

As I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, I am thoroughly reviewing the business case, which is the right thing to do—I am an evidence-based politician. We have a fantastic, growing creative industry in this country, which relies on platforms such as Channel 4. That is, of course, part of the decision- making process.

Privatising Channel 4 could result in over 1,000 jobs being lost from the supply chain in our nations and regions. Ministers cannot claim to support levelling up while letting this loss go ahead. When will they finally confirm that they know privatising Channel 4 is the wrong decision for our economy, regions and culture?

As I have said, I am reviewing this business case and can assure all Members that I am doing it thoroughly. I am basing my decision on evidence. I am listening to representatives of the sector, all Members of the House and the public, and I will come back shortly with our decision.

Grassroots Sport: Funding

I share hon. Members’ passion for grassroots sport, which brings communities together. I have seen that in my own community, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has in his. It makes people happier and healthier. Since 2019 we have worked with Sport England to invest over £1.16 million in Bradford East. Last year, Sport England received almost £350 million from taxpayers and the national lottery, which we will continue to support.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right; Bradford’s grassroots football, cricket and boxing clubs are a vital support network for many of Bradford’s young people. Yet, despite the outstanding work of the volunteers who run them, many have been forced to close their doors because of Government cuts, underfunding and, frankly, lack of support. I hear her saying that over £1 million has been put into my constituency, but I have not seen the effects in our grassroots boxing, football and cricket clubs. Will she commit to ensuring that grassroots clubs get the support they need in the forthcoming sports strategy? I invite her to come to my constituency to see for herself the fantastic work done by grassroots clubs.

Either the Sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), or I would be delighted to come to Bradford East. I think that £1.16 million is a substantial amount for one constituency, and I will remain committed to ensuring that we invest in grassroots sports because they are vital in bringing communities together.

Child Protection Online

The inquest into Molly Russell’s tragic death further highlights that the No. 1 priority of the Online Safety Bill has to be protecting children and young people. I commit to strengthening that aspect and getting it back to this House imminently.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the imminent return of the Online Safety Bill. She knows that children and their families have already waited far too long for the Bill to progress. Will she apply a similar sense of urgency to what will happen once the Bill has passed? As she knows, a series of actions are required of Ofcom and the Government to bring this regime fully into force. Will she undertake to ensure that the Government’s part in that happens swiftly?

My right hon. and learned Friend has been a huge advocate of this Bill, on which he has worked personally. He is absolutely right that it is not just about getting the Bill through this place and the other place; it is also about ensuring the Bill works on the ground and makes a tangible difference in protecting children and young people, day in and day out. I will commit to looking at this and ensuring that we go as fast as possible.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a group of Carshalton and Wallington mums who brought to me the very sad case of their children who had accessed illegal drugs through social media companies such as Instagram and Snapchat, which sadly resulted in their taking an overdose and dying. These mums are inspirational in sharing their story. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Online Safety Bill will provide the protections they need to ensure that no other children go through the same thing?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic advocate for his constituents. Selling illegal drugs is a priority illegal offence in the Online Safety Bill. Platforms will need not only to take content down, but to take proactive steps to prevent drug dealers from abusing their services. If platforms do not remove this content quickly, they will face tough enforcement measures, including huge fines, and the same goes for any other illegal content.

One thing the coroner highlighted was the effect of harmful algorithms that directed harmful content towards Molly Russell. Will the Minister undertake specifically to look into that issue and deal with that sort of harmful content, because the owners of Meta describe those as not being specifically harmful. It is worrying when the people who run these platforms do not see this as a problem.

My Ministers and I have been looking at this area. One fundamental problem relates to the accountability of these companies and who is ultimately responsible for these algorithms. We have been looking at that and I look forward to updating the House as soon as we bring the Bill back.

Are we not playing a wonderful game at the moment, guessing who the Ministers are, Mr Speaker? I shall miss it when everything is stabilised. I chaired the Education Committee and looked at this area. The fact is that sophisticated, mendacious and quite evil people are involved in this; they are clever—they move. Minister, please do not underestimate what you are taking on.

I do not think anybody is underestimating the scale of the challenge. We will be the first country in the world to really tackle this head on to the extent that we will be doing. I have committed in the House to bringing this Bill back imminently, and that it will be one that will deliver, especially for children and young people, which is vital.

The Secretary of State will have seen the research last week from Ofcom on children’s online ages, which showed that because children routinely sign up for social media before the supposed minimum age of 13, using a false date of birth, they then continue to get older in how they appear online, as well as getting older in their actual age. That means that by the time they reach 14 or 15 huge swathes of teenagers appear to the social media platforms to be over 18. So how can we ensure that protections that are meant to protect children online do in fact protect them?

I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about this Bill and has played a leading role in helping to shape it to this point. I agree that unless social media platforms manage to assess the age of their users, they will fall foul of the Bill. Let us face it: for too long social media companies have got away scot-free. That will end with this Bill, because we will put in place protections for children that will be even stronger.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for her determination to change things for the better, which is what we all want. In four out of five cases of online grooming the victims are girls. Recent studies have shown that to be factual. So what discussions has she had with the Department for Education about online awareness in schools? It is very important that this starts there, because if we start it there, we can stop these things later on.

My ministerial team and I, as well as the Department, work closely with the Department for Education. Media literacy is of course essential, and the Online Safety Bill will strengthen Ofcom’s media literacy functions. I look forward to further discussions about this with that Department.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post. She and I have worked together before and I look forward to working with her again in future.

Molly Russell’s death was an avoidable tragedy and serves as a further call to action to regulate social media. We owe it to her family and countless others to do this without delay—this is beyond party politics. The coroner found that much of the self-harm and suicide material that Molly saw was not content she sought, but was pushed to her by engagement algorithms. That goes to the heart of what the Online Safety Bill was seeking to address. Although it was not perfect, the Bill had almost completed its passage here before the summer, and it was already long overdue. Does the Secretary of State accept that these delays are costing lives? Will she take up the offer that I have made to her in private to work together to do whatever it takes to get this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member. I have worked with her extensively over the years and I have a great deal of respect for her. I absolutely share her commitment to protecting children. That is why the Online Safety Bill really is my No. 1 priority. As I said, I cannot announce the business of the House today, but I can assure the House that the Bill will be brought back very soon—a commitment I also gave to Ian Russell. We must protect children from being allowed to be subjected by social media companies to the type of content that Molly Russell was subjected to, and the horrendous tragedy that followed. For too long, social media platforms have shirked their responsibilities for protecting children. It is time that we all worked together to put an end to that.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment and look forward to working together. To be fair to the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), she committed to the very difficult task of getting the Bill through, with all the vested interests and internal differences. The current Secretary of State says she is rewriting it, but I fear that will lead to further delay and disagreement. She is never going to satisfy those who dogmatically view this only through the lens of free speech. They do not understand that the issue is not the views expressed, but the power of the platforms to cause harm, which Ian Russell described as “monetising misery”. Does she agree that sticking to the important principles of duty of care and regulating business models, algorithms and their impact is the best way of squaring this circle?

I want to be absolutely clear: my intention is not to appease everybody; my intention is to ensure that we bring the Bill back as soon as we possibly can and that we prioritise protecting children and young people. The hon. Member will see that happen very shortly.

Rural Broadband

We are investing £5 billion in Project Gigabit so that hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable gigabit speeds. We have already upgraded over 740,000 premises. National gigabit coverage has therefore rocketed to 71%, up from just 6% in January 2019. We have already launched procurements with a value of over £700 million to deliver gigabit connections to hard-to-reach homes and businesses across the UK. We recently signed our first contracts in north Dorset and Teesdale, with more coming soon.

My constituents in Throwley and Wichling were incredibly disappointed to find that their bids for gigabit vouchers were unsuccessful, especially after they worked so hard to gather community support. While most people are able to use their broadband to do video calls, work from home, and stream movies and matches, those constituents cannot. Can my hon. Friend assure me that they will be getting fast broadband soon?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case and for all the work that she and her team did to help those villages. I asked officials to look into this case, and they told me that the broadband supplier responsible for the projects in those villages did not put them forward for consideration as a voucher priority area, on the basis that they were not expected to deliver a gigabit-capable connection faster than our own Project Gigabit procurement in Kent. In good news, I can assure my hon. Friend that we are making very good progress on that procurement and we hope to be able to launch it in the coming weeks.

Technology Platforms: Transparency and Accountability

7. What steps her Department is taking to increase the transparency and accountability of technology platforms. (901746)

The Government are driving forward a digital regulatory approach that unlocks growth and boosts trust. As part of that, we are taking steps to improve transparency and accountability, including through the Online Safety Bill; data protection legislation that maintains rules for responsible usage; and digital markets legislation, which will promote competition in digital markets.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the recent behaviour of PayPal in arbitrarily removing certain accounts of campaigning and journalistic organisations without any warning or explanation? Will he consider how the Online Safety Bill can give greater protection for free speech by increasing the accountability of PayPal, Facebook and the other giant tech platforms?

Absolutely. I agree with my right hon. Friend: it is really important that big tech platforms are transparent and accountable to their users in their terms of service for how they trade. That is important in the principle of how the Online Safety Bill works, both in protecting freedom of speech and in ensuring that companies enforce their platform policies correctly. In terms of digital markets, it is also important that customers know what fair access they have to markets and that they will be treated fairly by platforms, and that the platforms make clear what their terms of service are.

Personal Data

We will create a new bespoke British data protection system that will give people around the world world-class data rights and control over their data, and greater ability to benefit from its responsible use, as well as maintaining data advocacy. For example, our Bill will create a better complaints system and provide the framework for the delivery of smart data schemes that will empower individual consumers and business customers to access and share their data simply and securely with trusted third parties, enabling innovative services.

On 1 October, the Government announced that they would be collecting, processing and storing all British smart meter data. This is despite assurances given over many years that that data was under the control of households and that only they could decide who accessed it, and that, without express permission, it would be used only for billing purposes. Indeed, in 2016, the then Home Secretary told me that smart meter data is protected and not under the Government’s control. Will the Secretary of State set out to me how households in this country can control their smart meter data in the face of this chaotic and dysfunctional Government?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and discuss this further and also take this away to discuss with hon. and right hon. Members across Government.

Topical Questions

I want to start by paying tribute to my Department for its role in Her late Majesty’s funeral and the Lying in State. At the same time, we have also been getting on with delivering the Government’s priorities. In the coming weeks, we will, among other things, be announcing a new package of measures to assist broadband roll-out, bringing back the Online Safety Bill, providing an update on Channel 4 after reviewing the business case and updating the Gambling Act 2005 and the fan-led reviews.

T2. The Chiltern Open-Air Museum in my constituency is a much-loved part of the local community’s culture and history and frequently used as a filming location. Sadly, a dispute with the developer, who owns the freehold to the museum’s land, has forced it to cancel the Halloween spectacular and give up several other opportunities to raise vital funds on which the museum relies. Does the Minister agree that museums such as these are essential in preserving local and national history, and will he join me in supporting local efforts to allow the museum to thrive? (901730)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of museums. Our Department is aware of the situation that she has raised and the Arts Council has been in direct contact, but I will keep a close eye on this and will keep her updated on any progress.

T3.   Having a good internet connection these days is as important as being connected to the electricity grid, and yet there are still parts of West Worcestershire where my constituents struggle to put together consortia of vouchers to enable the roll-out. Can the Minister look urgently at the whole process and see whether she can find a quicker and easier way to get this essential service to every rural part of the country? (901731)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting her particular concerns in West Worcestershire. We obviously share her desire to get great connections to everybody as quickly as possible. We are reviewing the voucher scheme and checking that it is working correctly at the moment and seeing whether it can be enhanced. I see from the figures that her West Worcestershire constituency is lower than average on gigabit connections, but we have an active procurement review under way and hope to be able to give her more details on that soon because we will be mopping up all the hard-to-reach areas of her patch.

T4.   Under the BBC’s Digital First plans, the current “Look East” service based in Cambridge will be axed, meaning that news about my Luton South constituency will be covered by journalists in Norwich, some two-and-a-half hours away by car. Will the Secretary of State ask Ofcom to consider whether this would constitute a breach of the BBC’s charter obligations, which require it to ensure that all audiences are able to fully engage with major local issues? (901732)

T8.   Community clubs such as Accrington Stanley are at the heart of constituencies such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden. The fan-led review is crucial in protecting community clubs and providing sustainability and fairness in the game. Can the Minister please update me on the Government’s position on the fan-led review? (901736)

I understand the importance of and the attachment that many fans have for the fan-led review and recognise that this is a very important sport nationally. Obviously, as a new Minister, I want to take the time to look at it in detail, which is what I am doing at the moment. I am pleased to say that my first meeting was actually with the fans’ groups to hear their views first.

T5. With the men’s competition kicking off last Saturday and the women’s and wheelchair teams due to get going next week, the rugby league world cup is getting into its stride. To secure the legacy of this great event and Bradford’s being city of culture 2025, I am backing an ambitious levelling-up bid to transform Odsal stadium, the iconic home of the Bradford Bulls, which is in my constituency. With the recent economic uncertainty, I am concerned that the bid could fall by the wayside. Will the Minister show Bradford that the Government are serious about levelling up and visit Odsal stadium with me? (901733)

It seems, following the earlier question from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), that I am going to have a day trip to Bradford, which I am more than happy to do, considering that it is right next door to my constituency. I was pleased to be at the launch of the men’s tournament; it is fantastic that we are hosting the rugby league world cup, and the hon. Lady rightly highlights Bradford’s ambitious plans, particularly given its city of culture status. I would be more than happy to come and see her.

We need more full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband in the Kettering constituency. Can we have it sooner rather than later?

I welcome my hon. Friend constantly holding my feet to the fire on Kettering’s gigabit capability. He is actually above the national average, with 88% of premises in his seat having gigabit-capable broadband, but I am glad to say that we are doing more. We will be awarding a procurement next year to try to tackle all those bits we have not yet reached.

T6.   Despite Scottish Tory rhetoric, broadband and telecoms are entirely reserved to Westminster, but because of the slow pace of Westminster’s roll-out the Scottish Government have had to invest £600 million in speeding up broadband roll-out, which the UK is now using as a springboard for its own roll-out. Can the Minister now promise that the Scottish Government will receive a proportionate share of the UK Government’s £5 billion funding—money that the Scottish Government were forced to spend and should not have had to spend if the UK Government had had their act together? (901734)

My understanding is that some of the main challenges come from the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, which is making the roll-out rather challenging. His colleagues in Scotland have asked for Scotland to have more than the per premises cap, basically asking us to give more money to Scotland than we are giving to other parts of the country. I do not think that is fair, and I do not think we should be paying for the mistakes of the regime.

A year ago, I and a number of colleagues from across the House had to intervene when, due to poor governance, Derby County football club went into administration and came within a few days of going out of business before being rescued by local supporter David Clowes. Can the Minister assure the House and all football fans that the recommendations of the fan-led review will be implemented in full, so that we can get better governance in this important industry?

Sadly, my hon. Friend’s example demonstrates the need for reform within football. I can tell him that I am taking this matter incredibly seriously, which is why I want to take the time to review and ensure that we are getting this right. We want to give confidence to all the fans who enjoy this great sport.

T7. The Association of Photographers is extremely concerned about the Government’s plans for copyright exemption for commercial text and data mining, which allows artificial intelligence companies to freely scan the images created by photographers such as my constituent to generate new ones. Getty Images, the largest such platform in the world, has banned the upload and sale of such AI-created art. How will the Government protect the photography sector as that technology evolves? (901735)

I confess that, as the Minister for the creative industries, I share some of the hon. Lady’s concerns. I will be meeting my ministerial counterpart who has the Intellectual Property Office in his portfolio to look at this matter, because I appreciate some of the issues the hon. Lady raises.

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that UK radio listeners are able to find British broadcasters, including the BBC and commercial radio, in a world where access through smart speakers is controlled by global tech companies?

The media Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2022 and the Government will introduce it when parliamentary time allows. We have been looking at including radio.

Charities in my constituency face the double whammy of more people needing urgent help and fewer people able to donate, given this Government’s calamitous handling of the cost of living crisis. Just last month, Slough food bank reported a 66% increase in annual usage, with a staggering 888 food parcels handed out each month. As we approach the winter months and the situation inevitably worsens, what steps will the Government take to ensure that such organisations can operate throughout the winter?

As the hon. Member will know, we introduced the energy price guarantee to help organisations with the cost of living, and are working with all sectors through the current challenging time. I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the matter further.

Mr Speaker, I apologise to you and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for my discourtesy in not being here at the beginning of topical questions. Earlier this week, I met representatives from the creative industry. They would warmly welcome the media Bill if the Channel 4 provisions were dropped. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this issue?

I want to push the Minister a little bit further, as he might appreciate. There is widespread support for the fan-led review. Okay, have the discussions about how it is going to be done, but can we have a commitment from the Front-Bench team that they are going to implement the principles of the review—an independent regulator, fairer distribution of funding, and an end to parachute payments?

The hon. Gentleman is very good at pushing me on points, but I am sure he would accept that it is only right that I check all the details before making commitments. I assure him, though, that we will be publishing the White Paper very soon.

Is the Minister able to update the House on any discussions he has held with the premier league and the English Football League to encourage a fairer distribution of money throughout the Football League pyramid?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met both organisations; as I say, my first engagement was with the Football Supporters’ Association. It is right to listen to all those views, and we are aware of discussions that are happening across the various groups, but I recognise that reform is needed. That is the firmest commitment I can give at this stage.

The Secretary of State will, I hope, have been made aware that in the early hours of this morning, the main telecommunications cable to Shetland was cut. As a consequence, this morning, my constituents in Shetland have very limited access to telephone or broadband services, with all the implications that has for the emergency services, let alone local families and businesses. First, can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that we will get a full statement on what is happening? I am told at the moment that it could be two days before services are replaced. Secondly, in the longer term, can we have a proper look at the resilience of that service? It is just not acceptable for a community the size of Shetland to be left without telecommunications for this long.

We can commit to get the right hon. Member an update before the end of play today. Of course, our roll-out is important, but resilience is equally important.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Disclosure of Evidence

1. What recent steps he has taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure of evidence. (901755)

It is an honour to serve as Attorney General for the second time, and to lead a legal profession that is the envy of the world and a Government Legal Department whose integrity is an example to multiple jurisdictions. I am very proud to hold that position. I also welcome the Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), to his place.

In May, this Government published the review of disclosure and amended the disclosure guidelines to deliver improvements for police, prosecutors and the victims of crime. The new guidelines feature an annex on data protection that will ease the burden on police, leaving them with more time on the beat and to investigate crime.

Within Northumberland, there has been a review that highlights multiple failings in multi-agency communication, and states that lessons have been learned. However, I have been contacted by constituents, and it appears that similar failings are still happening. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please reassure me and the people of Blyth Valley that steps are being taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure?

My hon. Friend is quite right: disclosure is a very important issue, whether in Northumberland or any other part of this jurisdiction. Updated principles on accessing third-party material have strengthened privacy protections for victims, and mandate that officers must have clear written reasons in place before accessing any material such as, for example, therapy notes. My hon. Friend has made an important point about communication between the criminal justice agencies, and we are ensuring that that continues to improve apace.

The Minister will know that this is a very important matter in terms of miscarriages of justice. The Chairman of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. Will he look at other countries’ good practice on this, especially the United States?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are always looking and willing to look at how other jurisdictions practise in this sphere. Of course, it is a problem across western jurisdictions, because people now carry on their person so much more data capacity than ever before, which opens up a wide array of questions as to disclosure. The amended disclosure guidelines unequivocally state that indiscriminate access to personal records should never occur, and it is worth noting that the volume of suspects charged has continued to increase quarter on quarter, with a rise from 526 to 550 in quarter 3. That is an increase of 4.6%, so we are moving in the right direction on charges.

Ukraine: Potential Russian War Crimes

2. What steps he is taking to support the investigation of potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine. (901758)

The Government stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion. I am personally dedicated to supporting Ukraine’s search for accountability and justice. I recently spoke to the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, and heard his important ongoing efforts to investigate and prosecute domestically Russia’s actions on his country’s territory, which are appalling. We discussed, among other things, UK support through the UK-US-EU Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group initiative, which will provide direct practical and advisory support to his office in Kyiv. The UK will continue to play a leading role to ensure accountability for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer. This abhorrent invasion is no longer focused on by the media as it should be, and there are atrocities going on every day. Does he agree that every crime committed by Russian soldiers must be taken into consideration and people must be held to account, as must their leader, Mr Putin?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right. The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group was launched on 25 May by the EU, the US and the UK to ensure efficient co-ordination of respective efforts. It is a very complicated area, but we want to support accountability efforts on the ground. My colleague in the other place, Lord Ahmad, has already announced £2.5 million of UK support for that initiative and for elements of that organisation, including the deployment of mobile justice teams, and training for judges is already under way.

It is obviously important that all the evidence the Ukrainians are gathering to seek out those who have carried out crimes is collated quickly. Is there any help that our Government can give the Ukrainians to do that? It is so important that those people are held accountable before the courts sooner rather than later. What can be done to expedite the process?

Justice delayed is justice denied, and that is as accurate today as it ever was. We have to move at pace, while getting it right, and collating the evidence is important. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything we can to support the Ukrainians in every conceivable way, including in this area.

I welcome the Attorney General back to his place; he is providing much needed continuity amidst the chaos. Bombings of civilians, conducting executions, torturing war prisoners and sexual violence—independent investigators have concluded that Russia has committed all those crimes. I have heard what the Government intend to do, but what specific steps will they take now and in the future to ensure that perpetrators face the consequences of their actions in an international court?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that. Of course, this is a cross-party issue. We want to see these horrific crimes brought to justice. We will do everything we can to support the Ukrainians in that effort, and we are working across the international community to do that. We have put money into mobile justice teams and training judges for the Ukrainians. We are doing everything we can and will continue to do more.

Prosecution Rates for Rape and Sexual Assault: South-west England

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve prosecution rates of rape and sexual assault cases in the south-west. (901759)

His Majesty’s Government are committed to improving rape prosecutions and are investing across the justice system. Through Operation Soteria, prosecutors across the south-west have helped to lead the way with a focus on joint working with the police and on early advice, and an enhanced service to victims.

Last week, Devon and Cornwall police were placed into special measures because of their failure to record crime and manage sexual offenders. Fewer than 20 people were convicted of rape in Devon and Cornwall out of 1,500 recorded offences last year. People are losing faith in the CPS and the police. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to extend the sexual offences backlog pilot from London and the north to include the south-west, with a clear focus on reducing the 1,000-day wait for rape victims to get justice in court?

Not least because I am a south-west MP, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. Work is already under way: I mentioned Operation Soteria in the south-west. Specifically in his Plymouth constituency, I know that work is going on with the violence against women and girls commission; I have seen that work and I commend the commissioners for it. There is also a conference happening in the next few weeks and I ask him to keep me updated.

More broadly, on the hon. Gentleman’s substantive question, referrals from the police to the CPS are up for offences of rape, charges are up and prosecutions are up. I am determined that that positive work and positive trend must continue.

In North Devon, I am repeatedly told by police that the CPS requires too much information before it can decide whether to prosecute, that there are many outstanding rape cases and that the delays that victims endure result in some feeling unable to wait the months or even years for cases to progress. Can I meet my hon. Friend to see what can be done to unblock the situation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. She is right that the workload on our police and the CPS is high. Close working between the police and the CPS is vital. Hot off the press is the refreshed joint national action plan, which was published today and shows that the CPS has seen a 58% increase in charges. I know that she takes the issue incredibly seriously. I would be delighted to meet her, whether here or in her beautiful constituency of North Devon.

Prosecution Rates for Blocking Public Rights of Way

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting protesters who block public rights of way. (901760)

The Government continue to ensure that the police and prosecutors have the necessary tools to tackle the dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their lawful daily lives. In relation to the Insulate Britain protesters, for example, the CPS has so far secured no fewer than 364 convictions in the magistrates court. It continues to take those cases to trial, which shows its resolute determination to bring those criminals to justice.

On Tuesday, the House decided to criminalise grandmothers who hold prayer cards outside abortion agencies. At the same time, quite rightly, we brought in ever more new powers to deal with Just Stop Oil protesters. The difference is that the grandmothers will go away quietly, but the other protesters will keep turning up. There is no point having more and more legislation—we have so much legislation in this area—if the police do not enforce it and the CPS and the courts do not throw the book at these people and give them long custodial sentences.

Of course, the sentencing of such individuals is a matter for our independent criminal justice system, but we have an offence of nuisance on the statute books, as well as offences such as obstructing the public highway, the powers of which have been increased to 12 months’ imprisonment. The Public Order Bill is going through Parliament, which I was rather surprised that the Opposition did not support. As I have said, we are determined that those who seek to disrupt the normal lives of citizens meet the full force of the law. That is what should happen and that is what is happening. The Crown Prosecution Service and the police, as the operationally independent authorities, are working extremely hard in close partnership to bring those people to justice and see that they receive the punishment that they richly deserve.

May I welcome the latest team of Law Officers to their places? I think I missed a stray Solicitor General in the summer recess, between the incumbent and the hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), but it is very hard to keep up these days.

We all know there are well-trusted laws to criminalise this type of behaviour, but is the Conservative party now opposed to all public protest and free speech? Reading its 2019 manifesto, I would have expected to see the Solicitor General and the Attorney General on the picket line opposing fracking, but last night they voted to allow fracking to go ahead, including, I presume, in their constituencies. If the Law Officers are prepared to break a clear promise in such a blatant and cynical way, what example does that set to others in upholding the rule of law?

The hon. Gentleman’s question is not of course on point to the question asked, but the reality of the matter is that the Labour party is embarrassed by the fact that it is on the side of the protesters, rather than those people who wish to go about their lawful duties, and that is why it did not support the Public Order Bill. The offence of public nuisance is available, it has a wide array of penalties available to it and we know the courts will use those powers. I think the Labour party ought to focus on supporting the British public, who wish to go about catching trains, driving along roads and going about their lawful business.

Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in Wales

The CPS inspectorate recently inspected CPS Wales and commended the area for its strong performance—for example, in disclosure and its good handling of victims and witness care. The CPS maintains excellent relationships with its criminal justice partners and is driving improvements throughout Wales.

The CPS and magistrates courts in Wales have done a terrific job. In fact, they were the first to recover from the pre-pandemic backlog. I recently met Jenny Hopkins, the excellent director of the CPS, and I would encourage and ask the Minister to come to Wales, especially a rural setting such as Montgomeryshire, and have a roundtable to discuss access to justice.

I heard about my hon. Friend’s very productive meeting with the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, and he rightly raises the excellent work that is being done by CPS Wales to address the magistrates court backlog. He is absolutely right that it is the first area to recover from the impact of covid, and I would be absolutely delighted to join him on a visit to Wales.

Crown Prosecution Service: Effectiveness in Ensuring Access to Justice

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for the victims of crime. (901763)

The CPS is committed to ensuring that victims of crime are properly able to access justice. Last year, the CPS commissioned independent research to better understand what victims want and need, and to identify areas for improvement. On 27 June, the CPS published its response to the research findings, setting out key areas of action to improve how it engages with victims, and this includes delivering a universal service offer for all victims of crime.

I thank the Attorney General for that response, but this Government’s inability to prioritise victims is well documented. Today, the final report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will be published. For these victims, their abuse is not historical; they live with it every single day, and they need justice. Will he commit to implement all the recommendations in full?

This Government have repeatedly shown, and rightly so, our support for victims and prioritising the rights of victims. The CPS publishes yearly data—for example, on the victims’ right to review scheme. Nearly 78,000 decisions were made that were eligible for the scheme, under 2,000 decisions were challenged and 270 were found to be wrong—that is 0.35%—but I want to apologise for any decisions that were wrong. Even in that tiny number, it is human lives that are involved. We have focused greatly on the rights of victims, and we will continue to do so.

Can I warmly welcome the reappointment of the Attorney General, and indeed the appointment of the excellent Solicitor General?

It is fantastic news that the number of rape prosecutions is now 30% higher than it was in the last quarter pre covid. Does the Attorney General agree that, if we are going to continue that progress, we need to widen the pipeline of referrals from the police? In that endeavour, we need to ensure that the redaction burden is reduced so that it is proportionate, so that those cases are passed to the CPS and victims get the justice they deserve.

I commend my hon. and learned Friend for his time as Solicitor General. I reiterate, as he has done, that since the last time I was a Law Officer a year-plus ago, the number has increased by 30%, as he rightly says, which is extremely impressive. The CPS has set out its priority areas under the victim transformation programme and we are going to work to those.

I congratulate the Attorney General on what is, this time, his permanent appointment to the role—as much as anything can be considered permanent under this Government. I genuinely hope that he will succeed in restoring to the role of Attorney General some dignity, stability and—dare I say it?—sanity. Will he start by giving me a straight answer to this crucial question: will it be possible to impose real-term spending cuts on the Crown Prosecution Service without making charge rates, court backlogs, and victim support even worse than they are now?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. As she knows, this Government have prioritised crime and the victims of crime, and we are, and always have been, the party of law and order. Whatever measures we have to take, including those we had to take when we first came in in 2010 after the appalling disaster of the previous Labour Government, we are focused on dealing with crime and the victims of crime—hence thousands more police officers now being appointed.

Rwanda Relocation Policy

8. Whether he has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Government’s policy to relocate people to Rwanda and other countries with (a) domestic law, (b) international law and (c) the 1951 Refugee Convention. (901765)

By convention, whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide advice, and the contents of any such advice, is not disclosed outside Government.

Will the Attorney General confirm whether he shares similar views to those of his predecessor, the now former Home Secretary, who recently said that she wanted to see a front page of The Telegraph with a flight to Rwanda, and that that was her dream? Surely it is time to dream another dream, and scrap the cruel, inhumane Rwanda scheme in its entirety.

I cannot speak to other people’s dreams. I know the Scottish nationalists have their own dreams, which I do not think will ever be realised, because the Union of this country is what the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom want to maintain. The convention that I mentioned is important, and I intend to respect it. It protects the ability of Law Officers, as chief legal advisers to the Government, to give full and frank legal advice.

Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in North-west England

9. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west. (901766)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service north-west has consistently achieved a conviction rate that is higher than the national average. The area conviction rate was 84.4%, which is two percentage points higher than the national rate.

It is encouraging that since the CPS published its strategy on rape and serious sexual offences in 2020, the number of rape prosecutions has risen dramatically, with a 62.9% increase recorded. I know, however, that several of my constituents in Hyndburn and Haslingden are keen to see the specialist trauma training for all court staff, police and prosecutors that is being trialled. With such great interest in that scheme, will the Minister please update me on its findings?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of this issue, and more broadly for her support for victims not only in her area, but across the north-west and the country. She should look out for two further specific measures: first, Operation Soteria and its continued roll-out across the country; and secondly the victims Bill. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on both.