House of Commons
Thursday 8 February 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Sporting Venues: Plastic Recycling
I have held discussions with the Environment Secretary on reducing plastics, including at sports venues, and further work is ongoing as part of our wider environmental agenda.
I thank the Secretary of State for that very helpful answer. People just have to go to any sporting venue to see a massive amount of single-use plastics. This is an area where there are opportunities not only for improving recycling, but for raising awareness. Will the Secretary of State continue to use his office to that end?
Yes, absolutely. I strongly support the work that the Environment Secretary is doing in leading on reducing single-use plastics. In fact, he was in Scotland this weekend, including at Pittodrie—I believe also that the right hon. Gentleman is a graduate of Aberdeen University—so the Environment Secretary is talking to venues about how they can reduce plastic waste. Of course, the London 2012 Olympics was an exemplar, but there is clearly more to do.
As we have just heard, in 2012 this country set new high environmental standards at the London Olympics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital we continue to show environmental leadership, not just sporting leadership, at other major sporting events, including the Commonwealth games in Birmingham in 2022?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that continuing improvement must be seen. While the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games set a new standard, we have to make sure that these standards keep advancing, and I hope to see that at the 2022 Commonwealth games.
Fixed Odds Betting
I have held discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the issue of gambling. The Government’s consultation on the gambling review closed on 23 January and we are considering the responses.
Vile machines are cynically clustered by shameless and irresponsible conglomerates in the poorest communities, where they destroy hard-working families. They are a magnet for crime, and they launder the proceeds of crime. Tawdry and soulless high street outlets drive decent shops away and repel family shoppers. Will the Secretary of State now call time on this racket, with its £1.5 billion a year welfare burden, and cut the maximum stake to £2?
I know that the issue of fixed odds betting terminals raises strong emotions in the House and around the country, and it is very important that we approach it properly. Especially coming from the right hon. Gentleman, who is widely respected across the House and was a member of the Government when the expansion of FOBTs happened, that is a telling statement.
It is not like the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) to give the House an ill-informed rant, but that is what we heard. I notice that the Secretary of State did not actually answer the question on the Order Paper, which is about the cost to the public purse of a reduction in the stake. Will he indicate what the cost to the Exchequer would be of the lack of tax receipts, increased unemployment benefit to pay to all the people who would be put out of work by a substantial reduction and the lack of business rates? Will he total up all those amounts and tell us how much it would actually cost the Government if they went for a drastic reduction in the stake?
Impact assessments on the question of FOBTs were of course published alongside the Government consultation in October. All the consequences of any changes in this area—we are committed to reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs—will be worked through, and that is part of the work we are doing right now to determine the appropriate response.
Further to the excellent points made by the right hon. Member for East Ham—not so much to those from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—with the consultation completed, it is time to get on with it. My Scottish National party colleagues have continually called for a £2 maximum stake. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this will finally happen, and if not, will he devolve these powers to Scotland so that we can finally take action?
I confirm that we will respond to the consultation in due course. I said in answer to an earlier question that this raises high emotions, and we have seen a demonstration of that today.
We send our best wishes from across the country to our Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
With the gambling review just two weeks away, we need the Secretary of State to ensure that the Government take action against FOBTs, and they must intervene to stop these machines ruining lives and tearing families apart. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham is absolutely right, so will the Secretary of State answer my simple question and commit today to reducing the maximum FOBT stake to £2 a spin?
What I will do is commit to reducing the maximum FOBT stake, and to responding to the consultation in due course and in the proper way. We must ensure that we come to the right answer on this question.
Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage: Rural Areas
Our ambition is for the UK to have better digital connectivity wherever people live, work and travel, which very much includes rural areas. Superfast broadband is now available to 95% of UK premises, and roll-out will continue to cover the majority of remaining premises. By 2020, the universal service obligation will give everyone the legal right to high-speed broadband at 10 megabits per second or faster.
I thank the Minister for her response, but around 33% of my rural constituency of Copeland is still not covered by fast internet, which is holding back our villages and farm businesses. What can be done, as soon as possible, to help those businesses and communities?
We are doing a great deal to help businesses and people in rural areas. My hon. Friend might like to campaign for greater awareness of the access that people in her constituency have to the internet, because it is now at 93%. As in many other constituencies, however, people are not taking that up, and I urge those who live in rural areas, where the access is there, to take it up.
Last week, I held a meeting of larger employers in my constituency, and it became clear that one thing they feel is holding them back is the lack of a mobile signal between junctions 10 and 11 of the M40. Will the Minister work with me to improve that?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that problem about the M40, which I experience regularly on my way to my constituency of Stourbridge. Current coverage on UK motorways is 97% for telephone calls, but that is no comfort to those travelling on the stretch she has identified. I will work with her to bring about a solution as swiftly as possible.
May I urge the Minister to be much more sceptical about the figures given out by mobile phone companies and operators? In all honesty, looking at their maps on the ground, they have nowhere near the figures of which they boast.
The Ofcom “Connected Nations” report contains new measures that reflect truer consumer standards, and it is opening the new 700 MHz spectrum band, which will be suitable for wider area coverage. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, and we are working to get better consumer measures on those matters.
Although there has been an improvement over the years, 63,000 homes and offices in Northern Ireland—8% of properties—remain unable to sign up for broadband speeds. What discussions have taken place with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to ensure a roll-out of the moneys agreed for rural areas through the confidence and supply agreement?
Northern Ireland’s outdoor geographic coverage is better than the UK average, but I recognise that indoor coverage is poor compared with the rest of the country. The new code reforms will help, alongside our desire to extend geographic mobile coverage to 95% of the entire United Kingdom.
Are 10 megabits enough?
My right hon. Friend refers to the universal service obligation that will guarantee 10 megabits per second. According to Ofcom, that is enough for multiple usage in the home, and for downloading film and video.
Villages such as Lixwm, Ysceifiog and Bagillt in rural areas of my constituency are getting increasingly frustrated with the performance of Openreach in delivering broadband. Two years ago, the Government pledged through Ofcom to deconstruct Openreach from BT, but what progress has been made on that objective?
I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to remember that BT and Openreach are no longer a monopoly. I draw his attention to today’s announcement by TalkTalk that it is cutting its dividend and connecting more than 3 million homes to full fibre, building Britain’s full fibre future.
Mobile Web: Improved Access
As we have just been hearing, improved digital connectivity is a priority. We have reformed mobile planning laws in England to provide new rights—for example, to build taller masts to improve coverage.
Parts of my central London community have the lowest mobile internet data broadband speeds, including in Rotherhithe, Surrey Docks and south Bermondsey, deeply troubling my constituents who are trying to get the latest “Hanky” app from the Secretary of State’s own provider. Will he guarantee that those areas are included in the roll-out of superfast broadband? Will he confirm whether he supports my council’s bid for Government-funded broadband improvements in Rotherhithe?
I will certainly look at the bid the hon. Gentleman mentions. The point he raises is that the areas in the final 5% that do not have superfast broadband are not all rural. Some are urban. There are complicated reasons for that, in many cases to do with wayleaves and access, especially to multi-dweller units. We are working very hard on this and I will certainly look at his bid for funding.
The broadband network coverage in some of the Blackdown hills is absolutely appalling. The key to getting broadband and the mobile phone network is combined in those hardest-to-hit spots. We have to get more done.
My hon. Friend is dead right.
A recent witness at the Scottish Affairs Committee described the Government’s mobile infrastructure project as a disaster. What are the UK Government doing to address that failure?
We had a commitment to reach 90% of the UK landmass with mobile coverage by the end of last year. Ofcom is assessing whether that has been met. We now have a commitment to get it up to 95%. We are doing that largely through a commercial roll-out. There is no doubt that mobile phone coverage is going up. It is just a question whether it is going up fast enough.
The Government’s tourism action plan outlines the ways in which we support tourism, both domestic and international, throughout the UK. The £40 million Discover England fund supports projects throughout England and aims to encourage visitors to spread beyond London and experience more of the country’s tourism offering. Visit Britain and Visit England work hard to promote the United Kingdom as a domestic and an international tourist destination.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I am sure no one in the Chamber will need persuading that Dorset is a beautiful county. It is an excellent place in which to live and work, and of course to visit, but it is a significant distance from London and the tourist attractions there. What more can he do to ensure that Dorset and constituencies such as mine benefit from increasing tourist numbers?
Dorset is a beautiful county. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport manages the £40 million Discover England fund with Visit England, one key aim of which is to encourage visitors to explore all over England and experience the wealth of attractions we offer. There are many projects in rural and coastal destinations, including the seafood coast and the south west coast path.
Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend has just said about Dorset, may I say that tourism is also incredibly important for the Peak district? We get more than 20 million visitors each year. What is Visit England doing to support tourist attractions in those areas and to show what is available?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Peak district and our other national parks are real jewels in our tourism crown. We are working closely with Visit Britain and the GREAT campaign to draw attention to our amazing countryside. I mentioned the Discover England project a moment ago. In the Derbyshire area, it is supporting projects based around our great walking trails and England’s national parks.
As St Helens celebrates its 150th anniversary, Ministers, those on the Front Benches and perhaps you, Mr Speaker, might like to visit at some point this year. Will the Minister’s Department and tourist authorities help us to use this special year to show that, with our fantastic arts and culture programmes, rugby league and horseracing, historic sites and proud industrial heritage, we are much more than a place to pass by—we are a place to go to?
I agree. St Helens is very much a place to go to. I wish it very well with its 150th anniversary.
The Minister will know that Discover England does a wonderful job in England, but one of the best things it could do is encourage people to visit Northern Ireland. Given that the question is about what we can do to promote tourism across the United Kingdom, does he recognise the unique attributes of many and various parts of the United Kingdom and does he encourage people to go there?
Indeed I do. Northern Ireland has seen a great increase in attractions, with the “Game of Thrones” activities and the set there. There is more to come.
Leaving the EU: Film Industry Funding
The UK film industry is worth £4 billion a year to the UK economy. The Government are committed to supporting the industry and are consulting stakeholders to ensure that the sector continues to thrive after we leave the EU. The Prime Minister has made it clear that, where possible, we will continue to participate in EU programmes where there is mutual benefit to the UK and the EU, as there is in the case of Creative Europe, for example.
Blaenau Gwent’s stunning scenery makes us an ideal location for UK films and television series, and the Creative Europe programme has supported the cinema distribution of more than 100 UK films in European markets in recent years. Will the Government ensure our continued participation in Creative Europe after we leave the EU, because it has been such a success?
I agree that Creative Europe has been a success and that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Blaenau Gwent is a wonderful location, which has been used for many broadcasting opportunities. We are very committed to our role in Creative Europe. We recognise its value, and the Treasury has committed to honouring all applications, even those that are likely to require funding post-Brexit. We can be optimistic, although of course during negotiations there can be no guarantees.
Amid this tour of the UK, Derbyshire and Dorset, may I remind the Minister that the county of Sutherland in my vast and remote constituency offers huge potential for the UK film industry? We have some of the most majestic scenery and Dunrobin castle. What “Downton Abbey” did for Highclere, a new show could do for Dunrobin castle.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good case for Dunrobin castle, and I am sure he will be able to make the most of that as he lobbies for broadcasters to beat a trail to his constituency.
A Cook’s tour of the United Kingdom awaits the Minister. I am sure that she looks forward to it with eager anticipation and, I hope, bated breath.
The Government are deeply committed to our world-leading museums sector. The recently published Mendoza review of museums in England looked in depth at museums and the challenges and opportunities they face. The review found a thriving sector, supported by more than £800 million of annual Government funding from a variety of sources.
South East Cornwall has wonderful heritage and fascinating museums, supported by amazing staff and volunteers. More visitors are always welcome, so will my hon. Friend encourage loans of national importance to smaller museums, such as those in Liskeard and Saltash in my constituency?
Before I do just that, may I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend, because I understand that she has just got engaged? I also understand that it was her birthday in the last few days, so double congratulations.
It is Valentine’s day next week!
It is Valentine’s day next week as well. To answer the question, the national museums have a strong track record on this issue. Last year, the national collection was lent out to more than 1,300 venues, with long-term loans and partnership galleries, multi- object exhibitions and one-off star loans. To help encourage further loans, Arts Council England has provided £3.6 million to regional museums to help to improve their galleries to protect and display objects.
I join in congratulating the hon. Lady and say to her: engagement, birthday and a tribute from the hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench—her cup runneth over! It does not get any better than this.
Burton Latimer, Desborough and Rothwell are small towns in the borough of Kettering that all have excellent local heritage centres run by volunteers. In small communities that are going through rapid change, is it not more important than ever that we encourage such heritage centres?
It is extremely important that we do that, and my hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituency. He is absolutely right about the importance of the work that our volunteers do to encourage footfall.
Internet Safety Strategy
We are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online. In October, we published the internet safety strategy Green Paper. On Tuesday the Prime Minister confirmed that we will bring forward the social media code of practice and an annual internet transparency report, as proposed in the Green Paper, and we will publish a full response in the spring.
It is clear that teaching internet safety in schools will be a crucial part of all that the Government are doing for the future. At the moment, there is a huge number of disparate endeavours from a range of sources. It seems to me that they are in some ways less than the sum of their parts. I wonder whether the Government would consider backing a body such as Internet Matters to really deliver gold standard education in this area.
As my hon. Friend says, there is a lot going on in this space. Last Friday, I visited the parent zone at Coupals Primary Academy in my constituency and saw a brilliant presentation teaching 8 to 11-year-olds how to be safe online. There is a lot more to do in this area, so that young people grow up resilient and able to use the opportunities that the internet presents safely. I pay tribute to Internet Matters for its work.
In the internet safety strategy, the Secretary of State proposed that there would be specific measures to protect children, yet when the Data Protection Bill came to the other place there was a hopeless deficit of any specific measures to protect children. It fell to Baroness Kidron, supported by us, to remedy the gap. When the Bill comes to the Commons, will the Secretary of State agree to work constructively with us to ensure that proper digital rights for children, who make up a third of users, are included in the Bill, like the very good five rights framework proposed by the Baroness and supported by us?
That is an interesting proposal. We supported the Baroness Kidron amendment. I welcome it and I think that we have made some progress. Of course, this issue is broader than just data protection, so we have to ensure that we get the legislation right. That Bill can only cover data protection, which is not the whole issue. Also, it would be a backwards step if the Bill gave the impression that the generality of measures did not apply to children because we have specifics that do. I am happy to talk further to the right hon. Gentleman and to work on this because it is clearly an area on which we need to make progress.
£1.7 billion of public funding has been invested to deliver superfast broadband across the UK, and a further £1.1 billion to support the next generation of digital infrastructure, including 5G test beds and trials and a fibre infrastructure challenge fund. We have also reformed mobile planning laws in England and reformed the UK electronic communications code, removing barriers to deploying infrastructure.
Given the Government’s commitment to deal directly with local authorities in Scotland in the near future on digital infrastructure, would the Minister agree to meet me, the local authority and, more importantly, disruptive local providers who may be able to give answers to some of the problems that we face?
We do need to reduce obstacles and costs in the commercial deployment of digital infrastructure. That is what our reforms to the code were about. The Scottish Government have introduced the first stage of their planning reforms. I hope that they can build on that and introduce reforms for their designated areas, albeit they have fallen behind Wales and England and indeed Northern Ireland. I agree to meet the hon. Gentleman and his local authorities.
We take problem gambling very seriously. In the gambling review, we consulted on measures to strengthen protection against problem gambling. We are considering all the responses.
I am grateful for that response. In addition to that, I have been approached by concerned lone workers who are working in betting shops on high streets in my constituency. There has been a series of incidents of serious sexual assault and violent acts committed against those lone workers. What is the Secretary of State doing to engage with the industry to reduce lone working in betting shops and improve the safety of those staff?
There is full consideration of these issues in the gambling review. It is important that all evidence is brought to bear. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who apologises for not being able to be here, has been working on the review very closely. I am sure that we should take this evidence into account.
Equal Pay: Television, Film and Radio
The Government are making great strides towards ending the gender pay gap in broadcasting and in the rest of the economy. The new legal requirement for companies above a certain size to publish their gender pay gap details reinforces the requirement by our former Secretary of State for the BBC to publish the salary details of those earning more than £150,000 a year. I hope the hon. Lady agrees that that has been very revealing.
I thank the Minister for her response, but it is clear that pay in the BBC has not been managed properly. There is too much individual pay bargaining without any clear guidelines or justification. It is a system that has been advantageous to men at the expense of women. What will the Minister do to ensure that there is transparency and fairness in the future?
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s comments, but I draw her attention to the fact that there is an independent regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I understand that it has already approached the BBC following the many concerns raised by journalists and broadcasters in the corporation. We rely on the BBC to set a lead in this regard. I hope very much that the EHRC will call it to account, and that real and lasting change will be the result.
Leaving the EU: Computer Games Industry Recruitment and Retention
The games industry makes a crucial economic and cultural contribution to the UK’s games market, which in 2016 was the fifth largest in the world. We are committed to supporting the video games industry so that it can continue to recruit and retain top talent, both from the UK and internationally. We are working closely with the sector to understand the impacts on and opportunities for it as we prepare to leave the EU.
What representations has the Minister made to the Home Office about the effect on the UK tech sector of the tightening of the tier 2 visa regulations?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. We have asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the economic and social impacts of our exit from the EU. We are also speaking to the sector and its key trade bodies, such as Ukie and TIGA, as well as individual businesses such as Ubisoft and CE Europe, to ensure that top talent continues to be available to the sector.
Channel 4: Relocation
Thank you for reaching me. (903838)
It is always a pleasure to reach my hon. Friend. [Laughter.]
Channel 4 does an amazing job. We want to see it do even more to reflect and provide for the country as a whole. We are clear about the need for the company to have a major presence outside London and I am working with it to ensure that that happens.
The Mayor of the West Midlands has cross-party local support in trying to attract the Channel 4 headquarters to the region. Will my right hon. Friend outline in more detail how he thinks—and, more important, when he thinks—Channel 4 will move?
But not in too much detail.
I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels about this issue and I have noted the verve with which the Mayor of the west midlands has campaigned for Channel 4 to move there. We believe that the company needs to do more outside London and I can certainly see the arguments for it to move its headquarters.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to congratulate Bristol on being designated UNESCO city of film, which is yet another good reason for Channel 4 to choose to relocate there, but does he agree that, wherever it relocates, this is about commissioning and it will be necessary to ensure that there is a regional spread of commissioning services across the country?
Yes, of course. A lot of this is about where the broadcast production is commissioned. However, the location of the commissioners will undoubtedly help to determine some of that.
It is a pleasure to take my first session of topical questions as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for the things that make life worth living.
We at the DCMS are focused on building Britain’s digital future, growing our nation’s brilliant creative and cultural life, backing a free media fit for the modern age, and supporting sport. With that in mind, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing good luck to Team GB at the Winter Olympic and Paralympic games in PyeongChang. I am sure that our Olympic athletes will do us proud and we wish them all the very best of British.
I join the Secretary of State in that wish.
I hope you do not mind, Mr Speaker, if I ask the question I asked earlier, because it was not answered. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister answer this question simply: when do they expect the split between BT and Openreach to occur?
Last year, Ofcom agreed with BT the outlines of the legal separation and the work to ensure that that happens is ongoing. The deadline set by Ofcom was April this year and it is for BT to take the action with the regulator.
We are all very happy for my hon. Friend.
Progress has continued to bring superfast broadband to Cornwall: access coverage is now 91%. A further 3% of premises in Cornwall will be covered by December 2019 through the current broadband contract between Cornwall Council and BT. I also draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the rights of her constituents under the universal service obligation.
Order. Today Front-Bench Members will have to be particularly brief as there is heavy pressure on time and I am trying to accommodate a lot of colleagues.
What action does the Secretary of State think should be taken against an app that breaches key provisions of the Data Protection Act and the privacy and electronic communications regulations, and that is not GDPR—general data protection regulation—compliant?
I think that all apps should be compliant with the law, and I am delighted to say that the Matt Hancock app is.
Exactly, because the app I am talking about does not just belong to the Secretary of State, but is named after him, and the general public need to be protected from their privacy being invaded by Matt Hancock, their personal information being shared with third parties by Matt Hancock and their private photos being accessed by Matt Hancock. Will he undertake to ensure that Matt Hancock complies fully with all data protection regulations in future, and explain why he thinks other people should abide by their legal obligations with regard to data protection if Matt Hancock does not?
I must say that I am surprised the Secretary of State did not call his app “Hancock-Disraeli”.
Very good, Mr Speaker.
Of course the app does comply but, more importantly, I think we should use digital communications in all their modern forms to communicate with our constituents. I am delighted by the response the app has had—it has been far bigger than I could possibly have imagined—and I look forward to communicating with my constituents over Matt Hancock for many years to come.
The message I can give those households is that the cavalry is coming: this House has legislated so that everybody shall be able to get 10 megabits per second as an absolute minimum by 2020, and the Minister of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is driving the secondary legislation through necessary to make that happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course making sure we have a healthy and buoyant advertising market in the UK is important, but it is also absolutely critical that we do what we can to reduce the amount of obesity in the nation. This is a matter on which I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I am very happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman in more detail.
A huge amount of work is ongoing. We have managed, through the sugar tax, to double the amount of funding for school sport. I pay tribute to the Minister for Sport for all the work that she has done on this—she cannot be here today because she is flying to the Winter Olympics—and I am sure that she will be happy to work with my hon. Friend to see what more we can do.
The gross yield of the gambling industry is £13 billion a year, yet GambleAware has been able to raise only £8.6 million through the voluntary levy. Come on, Minister—we have to do better than that.
I will take that as another consideration in the gambling review, the response to which we are looking at right now.
I can assure my hon. Friend that I have not stopped and I will not stop communicating with my constituents, which is what this is all about.
Is the Minister aware of the recent estimate by the Centre for Economics and Business Research that 121,000 users of fixed odds betting terminals could be classed as problem gamblers, and that each suffers an average annual loss in welfare of nearly £10,000?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she has done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on FOBTs. She has raised the issue repeatedly and I look forward to working with her on it.
The Secretary of State will know that climbing will be a new Olympic sport in Tokyo in 2020. Outfit Moray, a great group in my constituency, is encouraging local kids to get involved. What can the Government do across the UK to ensure that we have enough facilities and coaches for this new sport?
Climbing is a cracking new sport. In fact, last week I went climbing, as we celebrated funding some of the athletes, including the world champion female climber, who is British and looking forward to competing at the Tokyo Olympic games.
It is a fact that, when it comes to the 95% broadband target, the UK Government underfunded the Scottish Government, who had to make up the shortfall. When it comes to 4G coverage, England has 60% landmass coverage and Scotland has only 17%. What are the UK Government doing to make up for this double deficit?
Of course, we have increased mobile phone coverage in Scotland more as a percentage than elsewhere in the UK. When it comes to fixed broadband, I will not take that from the Scottish National party. We gave the SNP £20 million over three years ago and it has not spent it yet. Every single person in Scotland who does not have superfast broadband knows that they could have got it if the SNP had got on with it instead of just worrying about independence.
On a similar topic, a Scottish Government report found that in 2012 over half of my constituents did not even receive 3G service. Six years later I do not feel that enough progress has been made. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that more is being done to ensure that rural constituents are not being left behind?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The roll-out of mobile phone coverage needs to go further. We have made very good progress, but a lot more needs to be done. I commend her constructive tone, which is so much more useful.
Order. I am sorry, but demand exceeds supply. We must move on.
The Attorney General was asked—
Bribery Act 2010
In the Bribery Act 2010 the UK introduced world-leading legislation on bribery, making it a criminal offence for a company to fail to prevent a bribe being paid. We are starting to see the effectiveness of the offence in holding large companies to account, through the first conviction of a corporate entity and three deferred prosecution agreements.
Does the Attorney General agree that corruption is still embedded in the business culture of many developing countries, particularly in Africa, and that it is always the poorest in society who suffer most? This is being encouraged by a number of major trading countries that have not followed our lead. What is he doing, particularly in the OECD, to ensure that those countries come into a line with the UK?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is the poorest who suffer most when corruption occurs around the world, and it is important that the UK plays a leadership role, not least by setting an example, and we have done that through the Bribery Act and what has flowed from it. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend. In his role as a distinguished Foreign Officer Minister, he was also able to do some of this work, and the work must continue.
Does the Attorney General believe that his Department can provide more clarification on foreign public officials, hospitality and facilitation payments, self-reporting, sentencing and fines, adequate procedures and the meanings of “associated person” and “relevant commercial organisations”? How can that be done?
The hon. Gentleman is right that clarity is important. The Bribery Act and the prosecutions that flow from it are not all that matters here. We need to change corporate culture, and that is happening. It is important that corporations understand their responsibilities, and he is right that if they are to do that, they need to be clear about what they can and cannot do. We will always seek to give greater clarity, but it all depends on the circumstances.
Do we have enough specialist expertise in our prosecuting authorities to enforce the Bribery Act effectively?
Yes, I believe we do. For some of the most substantial cases under the Bribery Act, it is the Serious Fraud Office that prosecutes and investigates, and it has a good deal of expertise. In relation to both convictions and deferred prosecution agreements, my hon. Friend will recognise, as I have said already, that we are presenting good cases and securing convictions.
Female Genital Mutilation: Prosecution Rates
FGM is a crime. It is abuse against children and women. The Crown Prosecution Service has introduced a series of measures to improve the handling of such cases, including appointing a lead FGM prosecutor in each area and delivering training to police and prosecutors across the country.
I welcome this week’s announcement of extra funding to tackle FGM in Africa and beyond. With over 5,000 cases reported in a year in this country, does my hon. and learned Friend share my concern that we are still to bring a successful prosecution?
My right hon. Friend is correct to raise some of the obstacles that prosecutors have faced over the years, and barriers have caused real issues in the investigation of such cases. I am glad to say that a case is currently before the courts—I will not comment on it—but it is also important to remember that protection and prevention is vital, and our FGM protection orders are being used to good effect, with 179 having been granted to the end of September last year.
Bristol is recognised as being at the forefront of some of the community involvement in trying to prevent female genital mutilation, but the fact that we have not yet had a single conviction is still a sticking point. What more can the Solicitor General do to liaise with the police? Local prosecution services tell me that they are being prevented from taking things further because the police are not bringing cases to them.
The hon. Lady is right to press me on this issue. With the appointment of lead FGM prosecutors in each CPS area and agreed protocols with local police forces, I am glad to say that there should be a greater and deeper understanding among officers, police officers in particular, of the tell-tale signs of female genital mutilation and of what to do about them. Getting early investigative advice from the CPS is vital in such cases.
The Solicitor General is right to identify specific issues that need to be tackled on FGM. However, if we are to increase prosecution rates right across the range of offences, we need a properly resourced and robust disclosure system. The former Conservative politician and barrister Jerry Hayes has said:
“The CPS are under terrible pressure, as are the police. Both work hard but are badly under-resourced.”
He is right, is he not?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I was directly involved in the prosecuting and defending of serious criminal cases for over 20 years, and I am well familiar with the long-standing challenge of disclosure. Prior to recent revelations, I am glad to say that the Attorney General and I instituted a thoroughgoing review not only of our guidelines, but of the entire culture. The police and prosecutors—everybody involved at all stages—have to realise that disclosure must be achieved early and efficiently to protect not just defendants, but victims.
I appreciate that there is a review, and I appreciate that there are long-standing issues, but there is also no doubt that social media—things like WhatsApp—and the examination of mobile telephones present new challenges that are time intensive and resource intensive. Surely it is the case that, without proper resources on those things, we will not have the system of disclosure that we need.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the main issues in this area has not been that these items have not been obtained but the timeliness in which they are eventually disclosed. That is the issue, and bearing down on that factor will encourage and increase both police awareness and the priority that the police need to place on making sure that all this material is gathered at the earliest opportunity.
Leaving the EU: European Arrest Warrant
The European arrest warrant offers a more effective means than non-EU alternatives of surrendering individuals wanted by other EU member states and of ensuring that those who have fled the UK are returned to face justice. Agreeing continued extradition arrangements will therefore be an important part of negotiations with our European partners and is of mutual interest to both the UK and EU member states.
Does the Attorney General agree with the Director of Public Prosecutions that the European arrest warrant is vital to ensuring quick and effective cross-border crime and justice measures? Will the Government commit to remaining in the European arrest warrant?
I certainly agree that the European arrest warrant is the most efficient means we have available both to bring people back to the UK and to send foreign criminals home to face justice. It is our objective to be part of those arrangements in the future. Precisely how we do that will depend on negotiations that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are ongoing.
Will not these arrangements have to function on the basis of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Which is more important to the Government, their heavy red line on the ECJ or the ability to work effectively with our European partners to tackle crime? Does the Attorney General agree with the House of Lords report that the safety of the people of the UK should be the Government’s overriding consideration?
I certainly agree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do not accept that there is necessarily a contradiction between restricting and excluding the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union in this country and being able to have good and productive arrangements for combating crime across the European continent. That is what we seek to do, and we believe it is in the mutual interest not just of the UK but of the rest of the EU, too. That is why we are optimistic that we can negotiate.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the European arrest warrant is just as important to our EU friends and partners as it is to us?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and he might like to know that, as far as the statistics go, since 2010, under the European arrest warrant, 1,079 people have been surrendered back to the United Kingdom but 8,826 people have been surrendered from the UK to the rest of the European Union. This is an advantageous arrangement for both sides.
Since 2010 thousands of criminals have been removed from the United Kingdom to face trial abroad thanks to the European arrest warrant. Does the Attorney General agree that such agreements are an integral part of our justice system here in the United Kingdom?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is important that we negotiate a settlement that will enable us to carry on sending people back and, just as importantly, to carry on bringing people back from other European nations to face justice here. As I have said, I am optimistic that we can do that.
The Irish Supreme Court recently refused to extradite a company director accused of fraud to the UK, despite a request through the European arrest warrant, citing Brexit as the reason, so we are having problems enforcing EAW requests even before we leave the European Union. What discussions are the Government having with EU partners to ensure this vital co-operation continues?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that case has not yet concluded, so I will say nothing about it specifically. His point is that we need to ensure that there is continuity of these arrangements beyond our departure from the European Union, which is exactly what we seek to negotiate. As I have said, this is not a pie-in-the-sky hope but something that will benefit both us and the rest of Europe. This is two-way traffic, and it is important to everyone that we negotiate continuing arrangements.
Drug Trafficking Gangs: Prosecution Rates
These types of crime are often committed over county lines and involve the exploitation of vulnerable people by violent members of drugs networks and gangs to move and sell drugs across the country. The CPS has recently developed and published guidance that sets out its approach to such crimes.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Many more people, particularly although not exclusively young women, are trafficked for prostitution. What steps are being taken within the justice process to give them support and help them exit this abusive trade?
In the new guidance, the CPS has emphasised the importance of safeguarding vulnerable people. Of course, we have organisations such as the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which is a central point of contact for all agencies that work with victims of sex trafficking—for example when a victim is co-operating with an investigation to ensure that if they are of a foreign nationality their status in the UK is preserved during the course of the investigation.
My hon. and learned Friend is right about these crimes crossing county lines. I also think that vulnerable people are too often prosecuted, and not enough consideration is given to their vulnerability when the cases are being looked at.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 contains provisions to protect people who are compelled into acts of criminality. Choices must be made at an early stage by police and prosecutors whether to treat them as defendants or, where appropriate, encourage them to co-operate. Many of these people are, frankly, victims.
The National Crime Agency just showed its “Invisible People” exhibition in Belfast. It is a harrowing portrayal of what individuals go through when they are exploited through prostitution or for drugs and forced labour. Are we winning the battle?
The hon. Gentleman graphically illustrates that this fact of life is in every town and city across our country. The idea that slavery ended many centuries ago is a fallacy and, once we face up to that—I think the police and Crown Prosecution Service are facing up to it—we are halfway towards dealing with this scourge. More needs to be done.
Crimes against Older People: Prosecution Rates
Although many older people are not and do not consider themselves to be vulnerable, they can often be perceived as an easy target for criminals. To address this, the CPS has committed to refreshing its legal guidance and public statement on crimes against older people within the next year.
We all have constituents and relatives, elderly people, who are the victims of telephone scams. This is a particularly horrible form of crime where people pretend to be banks and it causes acute distress. Often the police shuffle off responsibility to Action Fraud, so can we have real action on this and real resources committed to it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue and I commend financial institutions such as Nationwide that have already created much more secure specialist phone lines for elderly people and, in particular, for carers for those who are unwell, to conduct their transactions. That is an excellent example of how the financial services sector can drive and design out this type of fraud.
Prosecuting Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery: Global Co-operation
Later this month, the Crown Prosecution Service will host an international summit for senior prosecutors from 21 countries around the world. It is an ambitious summit that aims to identify better ways to support victims and witnesses and to establish a strong, active international network to tackle more actively the crime of modern slavery.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that modern slavery and human trafficking are international problems that require the collaboration of the Crown Prosecution Service and similar judicial systems from many countries to address them?
I do agree and it is important that we work with partners around the world. The CPS has 30 prosecutors located in other countries and, of course, we agreed last year at the United Nations to double our spend overseas in combating modern slavery.
Will the Attorney General welcome the work of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and support the Home Office in dealing with this issue in particular? Will he help to look at identifying the eight or so countries we are dealing with and give support from his office?
Yes, I do welcome that work. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a huge amount we can do in this institution to back up the fight against modern slavery and, of course, to focus on where the majority of those who are trafficked tend to come from. Of course, as he will recognise, it is not just those eight countries. Those who were identified as victims of modern slavery arriving in this country last year came from some 108 different countries, but he is right that there are particular countries to focus on.
How much money have the UK Government committed to tackling human slavery around the world?
At the UN General Assembly last year, the UK Government agreed that we would spend £150 million overseas to combat modern slavery. As my hon. Friend will recognise, that is in addition to the substantial sums already committed in our domestic budgets to deal with the problem.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018
Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on executive pay and cash reserves held at Motability.
I am here today to address the concerns that have been raised about the structure of the Motability scheme. Let me first say that the scheme provides important support for more than 600,000 disabled people and has improved and extended its offer over the past few years. For example, in 2013, in my role as Minister for disabled people, I summoned the chief executive and chair to explain the excessive pay and bonuses of Motability scheme staff and the sums of money held in reserves. Despite being told that the charity needed such money for capital reserves, and the Charity Commission agreeing with that, I pursued the matter with the Department and ensured that the funds were used to benefit disabled people. The result was that £175 million was used for transitional support for claimants.
In April last year, after firm encouragement from the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), Motability extended that transitional support. After direction from the Department, the charity is now piloting a Motability scheme to help children under the age of three who are not eligible for the mobility component of child disability living allowance but who rely on bulky medical equipment. The scheme has the potential to help up to 1,800 families.
I must emphasise that Motability is an independent charity that is wholly responsible for the strategic direction of the Motability scheme. It has oversight of Motability Operations, the commercial partner that operates the scheme under contract to the Motability charity. As a company, Motability Operations is an independent commercial business regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Although the remuneration of its directors and managers is a matter for Motability Operations to decide, from the outside one has to question whether it is really right. That view is endorsed by the Charity Commission, which said yesterday that the Motability trustees may wish to consider the reputational issues raised by the salaries being paid to its commercial partner’s executives.
Motability was set up 40 years ago, with cross-party support. It has done much good in that time, but today, anybody who looked at the size of the reserves and pay packages would question the direction that Motability has taken in allowing that to happen. Motability must listen to the criticisms it has faced, not only in the media this week but over the course of several years, and be receptive to change. As Secretary of State, I want to see a clearer commitment from Motability that it will maximise the use of funds to support disabled people’s mobility and independence.
As we have seen in so many instances, what was deemed correct in the 1970s is not necessarily correct by today’s standards. In the light of the current focus on corporate governance issues and the use of public money, I have today asked the National Audit Office to consider undertaking an investigation into this matter. I am keen for the NAO to look at how Motability is using taxpayers’ money.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and the Secretary of State for her initial response.
It is grotesque that this registered charity, which is funded by the taxpayer through a direct grant from Government, is carrying cash reserves of £2.4 billion and has been underspending its budget by £200 million a year, and it is grotesque that this charity is paying its chief executive £1.7 million a year. Will the Secretary of State commit to an urgent review of executive pay at Motability and to publishing its results? Will she commit to urgently examining the finances of Motability and the audit arrangements made by her Department in previous years, and again, will she publish that review?
The point is that there is no risk; this is a no-risk situation. It is a very good scheme for the disabled, but there is no risk. The reserves are only half the picture—the banks are also profiting, possibly to the tune of billions over the years, because they are bearing some of the risk. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the lack of competition in the financing arrangements with the banks, which see the large four banks making huge amounts of profit out of this scheme? How can the banks be allegedly covering the risk, when Motability has £2.4 billion in reserves allegedly to cover that risk? It is the same risk, yet in fact there is no risk at all because the taxpayer is guaranteeing the scheme.
Will the Secretary of State also make it abundantly clear to the disabled people in receipt of Motability that they need fear nothing and that the scheme and the service that they get will continue as is? What we as Members of Parliament are interested in is the finances behind the scheme, the excessive profits and the scandal that a no-risk scheme has banks profiting so much and the charity itself quite unnecessarily holding £2.4 billion in reserves.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work and for his courage in pursuing the matter. I also thank the media for exposing the situation. Now that I am back in the House as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I can say that the situation needs to come under the spotlight. I would like to work with him on that, to bridge the divide of party politics and do what is right. We need to uncover what is happening in the Motability scheme and to ensure that the money held in the company’s reserves goes to the people that it should be supporting. He quite rightly says that having such an amount of money in reserves is grotesque, and that it should really be going to support disabled people.
As for where we go next, an urgent request has gone to the National Audit Office to ensure that if disabled people choose to spend money on the Motability package, that is a good use of the benefits that they get, and to check how taxpayers’ money is being used. Motability has been a lifeline for many disabled people who have chosen to take part in the scheme. As I have said, it is helping more than 600,000 people, and we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For those whom the scheme is helping, it is an essential lifeline, but if it could be helping many more disabled people then that is exactly where the money should be going.
Order. I granted this urgent question because I thought that it was urgent, and it is, and it is an extremely important matter, but the House will be conscious that we have very, very heavy constraints on time today, so I am looking to those on the Opposition Front Bench to stick to their time, because after that they will be cut off. I appeal to colleagues for short questions, please, and I know that the Secretary of State will oblige us with short answers.
May I commend the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for his customary tenacity in pursuing this issue? Is it not the case that not only has the taxpayer been overpaying over the years, but disabled people have been overpaying from their benefits for this scheme? Surely those disabled people could be getting exactly the same benefits from it for a lower amount per week. The money saved could then be given back to them to help pay for their other living costs. Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing the scheme to progress, but at a lower cost to disabled people so that they can retain more of their benefits? Motability seems to be losing sight of what it was set up to do in the first place.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. This issue unites Members on both sides of the House. The first step is for the NAO to look into the matter, but my hon. Friend’s suggestions seem fair and right, and they are the kinds of points we should pursue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing this urgent question. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
The news that the chief executive of Motability Operations Group plc took home £1.7 million last year and that the group is sitting on reserves of £2.4 billion has shocked people around the country. Particularly shocked are disabled people, 51,000 of whom, according to Motability’s own figures, lost access to the scheme last year after being reassessed for their personal independence payment. More than 3,000 were reinstated on appeal, but many lost their car in the meantime.
From Carillion to Motability, excessive executive pay is completely out of hand. With Motability Operations Ltd paid about £2 billion a year directly by the Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of disabled people in receipt of social security support, there are serious questions for the Secretary of State to answer. When did she or her officials last meet with either Motability or Motability Operations Group? The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ “Report of the Inquiry into Charity Senior Executive Pay and Guidance for Trustees on Setting Remuneration”, published in April 2014, says that charities should include their highest earners in their accounts, regardless of whether they work for a subsidiary company. Does the Secretary of State agree?
Motability Operations Group is sitting on a surplus of £2.4 billion. That is a staggering amount given its VAT exemption from the Treasury, which means that it does not compete on a level playing field.
When the National Audit Office last examined Motability in detail in 1996, it found that the then £61 million reserves
“exceeded the necessary margin of safety”.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the current necessary margin of safety, and what assessment has she made of the £200 million annual underspend that has allowed such a large surplus to accumulate? Given that the funding of Motability effectively comes from the taxpayer via social security payments, what assessment has she made of value for money for disabled people who rely on their cars for independence? Finally, value for money for taxpayers is not currently one of the criteria for Motability’s remuneration committee. Does the Secretary of State believe it should be?
The Department has worked closely with Motability to ensure that disabled people get good value for money for the cars that they choose to spend their money on. The Charity Commission, which recently undertook a detailed review of the charity’s financial accounts and its relationship with the non-charitable company Motability Operations, said:
“That review did not identify regulatory concerns about the charity’s governance or its relationship with the commercial company. It is not for the Commission to comment on the pay of the CEO of a large non charitable commercial company. However, we have made clear to the trustees of the charity Motability that the pay of the CEO of its commercial partner Motability Operations may be considered excessive and may raise reputational issues for the charity.”
It also found
“the level of operating capital held by the company in order to guarantee the scheme to be conservative”,
but said that it should be “kept under continuous review.” I would say that that review needs to start again. The Charity Commission should again look into what has happened.
It is the Government who permit disabled people to have a benefit, but where that money is spent is always the choice of the people who receive it. When the scheme was originally set up in the 1970s, with cross-party support, that was deemed the best way forward, but as I said, the NAO must now look into the matter. When I personally looked into it in 2013, I ensured that Motability paid £175 million more to disabled people, and I will continue with that direct action from my new elevated position.
Only a third of those who can get grants from this operation currently do, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that the eligibility criteria are reviewed? Will she also look into the marketing to those who are eligible, so that people who are disabled and who can get this service actually get it and use the money?
That is exactly what we want to ensure. My hon. Friend is right that the people who could benefit from this scheme should be benefiting from it, but obviously it is their choice whether they want to do so. If we could widen the scheme by allowing the money held in reserves to go to those disabled people, surely that would be right.
These reports of taxpayers’ money being held unused in charity accounts are extremely concerning. It is not the first time that the accounts of Motability Operations have been questioned. Will the Secretary of State launch an urgent investigation into the status of this estimated £2 billion of taxpayers’ money? Will she lay out what discussions she has had with the Charity Commission to determine whether this matter requires further investigation? Will she report her findings back to the House as a matter of urgency?
The hon. Gentleman again pursues the points that we are all trying to pursue. I will do each of those things and report back.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that private companies that indirectly receive taxpayers’ money to operate their services have a particular duty to limit executive pay and excessive reserves? What more can the Government do on that?
My hon. Friend is directed by true compassionate Conservative beliefs. The Government are bringing forward a new review and new law on corporate governance to cover all these matters. We want transparency—that is what will drive correct behaviour. We want accountability, and we want people to do the right thing. If that takes shining a sharper spotlight on their actions, then that is what we should do.
The Work and Pensions Committee will be undertaking an urgent inquiry into this issue. We will be seeking your support, Mr Speaker, so that we can co-opt my hon.—very honourable—Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on to our Committee to pursue the issue. As we are drawing up our agenda over the next few days, will the Secretary of State say which questions she would find most helpful for us to seek answers on?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I will meet him to decide between us, with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), which questions would be best to focus on.
I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee. In the recent past, with regard to BHS, his Committee and this House have raised grave concerns about corporate governance in private companies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those concerns are particularly pertinent when private companies are so reliant on the public sector? If she shares those concerns, will she ensure that that is included in the remit of the NAO report?
My hon. Friend pursues this matter with tenacity. I will be getting in touch with the Business Secretary to discuss what additional actions need to be taken in the forthcoming new law on corporate governance.
Yesterday I raised the issue of my constituent, Natasha, who was in receipt of lifetime DLA. That was removed following a PIP assessment, and she was threatened with having her vehicle taken from her on Boxing day—I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but this is particularly pertinent for me. I am grateful that the Secretary of State is having an investigation. Will she pay particular attention to the conduct of the trustees?
The hon. Lady is right to be emotional, because for many people this is an emotional matter, particularly just after Christmas. Again, these are matters that need to be pursued, and the trustees need to be held to account.
Does the Secretary of State agree that while the Government Benches may be full of people who are instinctively pro-free market and respect commercial operations, we have no qualms whatsoever about interfering or raising questions when things have gone wrong? Does she believe that things have gone wrong in this case?
We have to get the results from the NAO, from the Select Committee, and from the Charity Commission. However, my hon. Friend is right. This scheme, which was set up with the best intentions and good purposes, and has helped people, appears to have lost its way. It is only right that we help it to get right back on track to help the people it was set up to support.
The Secretary of State says that she got a concession five years ago, but nothing has changed in five years on executive pay and concerns about reserves. Why is the National Audit Office only now being asked to do this, five years late? Is it just because of newspaper publicity?
It is because of the tenacity of certain Members, for sure, and the freedom of our press, which has aired the case. This has been looked at for quite a few years, and I got concessions from Motability, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North, but now we need to take the matter further.
Motability has been a lifeline, but it is obscene that this money has not been going to the neediest in our society. I appreciate the Secretary of State’s urgent request to the National Audit Office, but what steps will she take to monitor the level of reserves, to ensure that they are not hoarded in this way again?
We have to bring in the correct people to do the oversight, whether that is the FCA or the NAO, and those are the parameters we will use in a cross-party way to make sure we check out what reserves are needed, what reserves are not needed and what reserves need to go back to disabled people.
Given the shocking news of Motability’s £2.4 billion in reserves, does the Secretary of State agree that Motability’s policy of removing cars before constituents’ PIP appeals have taken place is even more reprehensible? Will she urge Motability to reverse that policy with immediate effect?
When we have got the money back from Motability that we believe we should to support disabled people, that is one of the first things it should be used for.
Same-Sex Marriage in Bermuda
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs why he has allowed Her Majesty’s Governor of Bermuda to assent to a Bill that will abolish same-sex marriage in Bermuda.
We are obviously disappointed about the removal of same-sex marriage in Bermuda. The Domestic Partnership Act, to which the Governor of Bermuda assented yesterday, ensures that Bermudians who have been legally married in Bermuda since the Supreme Court decision will retain their married status and enjoy the same legal rights as those in domestic partnerships.
Less than a year ago, same-sex couples had no legal recognition at all under Bermudian law. While the Act withdraws the entitlement for same-sex couples to marry, it replaces it with a provision for domestic partnerships for all couples, regardless of gender. The intent of the Act is to provide domestic partners with the same benefits as married couples, including provision for pensions, inheritance, healthcare, tax and immigration.
After full and careful consideration of Bermuda’s constitutional and international obligations, the Secretary of State decided that in these circumstances, it would not be appropriate to use the power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even then, only in exceptional circumstances. It is important to recognise that the regime for domestic partnerships implemented by Bermuda in its Domestic Partnership Act can also meet the European Court of Human Rights requirement for legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
The Government are committed to promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality globally through projects, partnerships and persuasion. In engaging with the British overseas territories, we have to respect that they are separate, self-governing jurisdictions with their own democratically elected representatives and the right to self-government.
However the Government try to dress this up, it is a backward step for human rights in Bermuda and in the overseas territories. Same-sex Bermudian couples who have been married under the ruling of the Bermudian Supreme Court have now been rendered an anomaly. Gay and lesbian Bermudians have been told that they are not quite equal to everyone else and that they do not deserve—this is the word being used—the full marriage rights that other Bermudians enjoy. Cunard and P&O’s Bermuda-registered ships will be banned from holding same-sex marriages at sea.
Does the Minister not worry that when she tells the Russians to respect LGBT rights in Chechnya, or when she tries to convince India, Pakistan or Indonesia to change the law to benefit LGBT people, those countries will just laugh at her and say, “The first territory in the world to repeal same-sex marriage is British Bermuda, and they did it with your express permission.”
The Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), said last week in the House that the Government were absolutely committed to “promoting equal rights”—a point that the Minister has repeated today—but did the Government make any attempt to persuade the Bermudian Government to accept the ruling of the Bermudian Supreme Court in favour of same-sex marriage? Did the Minister or any Minister—the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister or anybody on behalf of the Government —ring the Bermudian Premier or any of the Ministers in Bermuda to try to change their minds?
Do the Government not see that the Domestic Partnership Act expressly contradicts the Bermudian Human Rights Act 1981? It even states as much in the Act itself. Will the Bermudian Supreme Court not conclude exactly the same now as it did earlier last year, so we will be back to square one? Most importantly, how can it possibly be right that lesbian and gay British citizens in Bermuda—and, for that matter, in Northern Ireland—are worth less than British citizens in this country?
I want to put on the record that I fully appreciate the voice the hon. Gentleman has given to this issue in Parliament not only today, but in his recent Adjournment debate, at business questions and so on. I want to make it clear that we are disappointed that the right to marry has been removed, but we have to recognise that the Act provides legal recognition of same-sex relationships, as required under the European Court of Human Rights. The Secretary of State considered the implications extremely carefully at Bill stage. Without going into the details, Mr Speaker, of the range of conversations that were held, I can say that we are seriously disappointed—
Order. May I say that the Minister is perfectly welcome to go into the detail of those conversations about which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had inquired? There is certainly no prohibition from the Chair.
I was not implying that, Mr Speaker. I was saying that I do not have the full details in front of me, but obviously there were extensive conversations internally—