Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Mobile Phone Coverage
The Government are committed to ensuring that there is high-quality mobile coverage where people live, work and travel. We welcome the opportunity that Ofcom’s forthcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction offers to extend coverage across all parts of the UK, and we continue to work across Government with Ofcom and the mobile network operators to support investment and deliver coverage to 95% of the UK’s land mass by 2022.
That all sounds very well, but it would appear that we still have some way to go. Recent research from Which? and OpenSignal showed that 4G phone users in Scotland can get a 4G signal only 50.4% of the time on average, compared with 69.7% in London. In Wales, that figure is as low as 35%. What are the Government doing about that?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is considerably more progress to be made—I do not need to explain to him the particular geographical difficulties in Scotland—but it is worth recognising that considerable progress has been made. He quoted those figures, but there are slightly different figures when one looks at 4G coverage from at least one mobile network operator. The increase from last year to this year is considerable. In June 2017, about 50% of Scotland was covered by one mobile operator at 4G level; that figure was up to 75% in May 2018. I agree with him entirely that there is more work to do, and we intend to do it.
It is good to hear the Secretary of State say that there is more work to do because there really is. My constituency runs along the M4 corridor. Some villages just two or three miles from the M4 simply have no coverage—not just no 3G or 4G. Will the Secretary of State set out what additional investment he will provide to ensure not just that there is 4G, but that there is basic mobile phone coverage for many of the villages in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is more that we can do in relation to the road network. The aspiration is to get to a point, in 2022, where all major road networks are covered. As he mentioned, there will then be a knock-on benefit to areas near those roads. One way in which we can do that is to make maximum use of the emergency services network that is being rolled out by my colleagues in the Home Office that is producing increases in coverage, but as I said to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—I make no bones about it—there is a good deal more work to be done.
We have some of the worst networks in the advanced world. We heard yesterday that download speeds in Gloucestershire, for example, are 2,000 times slower than they are in Birmingham. Frankly, it adds insult to injury for those struggling to get on to universal credit, which is of course a digital-only benefit. The National Infrastructure Commission and Ofcom think that it is going to cost something like £11 billion to bring our networks into the 21st century, so will the Secretary of State assure the House that that is the full sum that he is seeking from Her Majesty’s Treasury?
The right hon. Gentleman has gradually shaded into the subject of broadband from mobile coverage, but it is certainly right to point out that considerable progress has been made on digital connectivity of all kinds—both mobile and broadband—over the last few years. There is a radical difference between the position that we are in now and the position we inherited in 2010 but, as I have said a number of times this morning, there is a good deal more to be done; the right hon. Gentleman is right about that. We will ensure that we are making full use not just of the market roll-outs, but of the extra support that needs to be provided to the parts of the country that will not be covered by a market roll-out. The right hon. Gentleman will have carefully read the future telecoms infrastructure review that we produced in the summer, which deals exactly with how we reach parts of the country that will not be reached by a market roll-out.
Fixed Odds Betting Terminals: Maximum Stake
We are taking decisive action to ensure that we have a responsible gambling industry that continues to contribute to economic growth while protecting the most vulnerable in our society from gambling-related harm. Such commercial arrangements are a matter for the industry and were not a factor when the Government determined their policy to reduce the stakes on B2 machines.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate her on her well-deserved promotion. When the offshore gambling company GVC bought Ladbrokes for £3.9 billion, £700 million was contingent on the date on which statutory instruments were submitted by the Government on reducing the odds on fixed odds betting terminals. Does she think that the shareholders of Ladbrokes, including UK pension companies and employees, should get that £700 million, or should the offshore gambling company GVC pocket it and use it for irresponsible gambling adverts?
I thank my hon. Friend for making an important point about being responsible in this industry. We have been very clear that we were going to be acting in this space. As the Secretary of State said during an urgent question on 1 November, when determining policy in this area, it would not be
“proper for Government to take account of such commercial arrangements”.—[Official Report, 1 November 2018; Vol. 648, c. 1064.]
The Government take the protection of data extremely seriously and want the UK to be the safest place to live and work online. The Data Protection Act 2018 makes our data protection framework fit for the digital age, with increased powers and funding for the Information Commissioner. Additionally, we have invested almost £2 billion in our national cyber-security strategy and opened the world-leading National Cyber Security Centre to protect the public and industry.
Last month, I held my first ScamSmart event in my constituency, bringing together police, charities and banks to inform residents and discuss with them the dangers of online scamming and the importance of data protection. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that my constituents’ data is safe from these unscrupulous companies and that they are informed about how they can protect themselves?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on holding that event, which is a very important thing to do. The new legislation strengthens people’s rights to access their data, to object to the way it is being processed, and to seek erasure of data where appropriate. For those that break the rules, we have increased the fines to 4% of global turnover—a dramatic increase. We have also substantially increased the resources available to the Information Commissioner to investigate scams like those that she seeks to eradicate.
Some years ago, the addresses of my staff in this House were released due to a data breach. The danger to safety posed by these breaches demands that we address this issue, so will the Minister do so in the strongest terms? Will she also outline the funding that has been allocated to cyber-security and to the personal safety and security of people in this House?
The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that had that breach occurred since the Data Protection Act was put into law, the Information Commissioner’s Office would have had substantially increased additional powers to take measures to address it. The Government are investing almost £2 billion in cyber-security, and the National Cyber Security Centre is there to help individuals, Members of Parliament and businesses.
Documents published last week by the Select Committee show that Facebook was offering privileged access to user data to some commercial partners without those users’ knowledge, and was cutting off some other companies’ access to data altogether. Does the Minister feel that this should be a matter of investigation not only for the Information Commissioner but for the competition authorities?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I congratulate him and his Committee on the work that they have done. His exposure of the information that Facebook engineers have reported the mass harvesting of data since 2014 is certainly worthy of continuing investigation.
Libraries support people, communities and society as a whole by providing access to books and literature, and, increasingly, to modern technology. My Department, DCMS, established and funds the Libraries Taskforce to implement the Libraries Deliver strategy, which helps to support and reinvigorate England’s public libraries service.
I thank the Minister for that answer. There is considerable concern in Shenfield in my constituency that the local library will close, and residents have already put together 1,000 signatures. What steps is the Department taking to ensure the future of local libraries?
Local authorities in England have a statutory duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. I caution all local authorities that I will challenge them about their proposed library service reductions in each case, before deciding whether a local inquiry is needed, as it may be in some cases.
Will the Minister take a trip up to Matlock, where the county offices are for Derbyshire? The Tory-controlled council there has recently announced the closure of 20 libraries and a reduction in the hours of every librarian in the whole county. Something needs to be done urgently. Get up there to Derbyshire and sort it out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his charming invitation to Derbyshire. I am always pleased to visit. It is a beautiful county, and I look forward to my visit. I would say to local authorities of any political party that they have a responsibility under the 1964 Act, which this Department takes seriously and has proven so in the past.
When the library in Lichfield was too costly to maintain, the Tory-controlled Staffordshire County Council sold it and moved the library to a museum in the centre of Lichfield. It will now be bigger and better than before. Will the Minister congratulate t’Tory-controlled Staffordshire Council?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his council. In fact, councils of all political hues around the country are investing in libraries, building new ones and reinvigorating them. I have opened several myself and visited others that have been renovated. Local authorities are doing that across the country.
I can give the Minister the example of Glasgow City Council, which has a multimillion-pound investment programme in refurbishing libraries, including the 93-year-old Partick library, which has served communities in my constituency for that length of time. Does he agree that that is welcome investment and shows that it is important to protect libraries and reinvent them, so that they can continue serving communities into the 21st century?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his local authority. I am pleased to say that I have visited Glasgow. The reality is that many libraries need reinvigoration, which needs investment. Local authorities have the resources to do that, and they need to make those choices. We know in this House, across the political divide, that libraries have a high value in our communities and our society, and they should be invested in.
Mobile libraries are a vital lifeline for rural communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that when he is considering whether to push local authorities further in their provision of services, he will consider that the provision of mobile libraries is essential?
We know that the roll-out of universal credit and the shutdown of many jobcentres has put a huge amount of pressure on libraries. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the impact on libraries of the UK Government shutting those jobcentres?
I understand that the DWP made that decision with regard to jobcentres in order to rationalise, with larger jobcentres rather than smaller ones. Libraries are used by our communities for myriad reasons, and that is a positive thing. We want to encourage multiple uses of libraries. They are important community hubs and centres. It is important that they are for the loan of books but are also used for a multiplicity of reasons.
Northamptonshire County Council previously planned to close most of its libraries but has now announced ambitious plans to maintain county-wide library provision. Will the Minister welcome that development and offer the county council whatever support his Department can provide?
Yes, I will. I welcome the county council’s position. It has an ambition to save all 32 libraries in the county, which I am pleased with. I appreciate that there are challenges, but it is right that the council saves those libraries. I have recused myself from making a decision under the 1964 Act, for obvious reasons—it is my home county—but the reality is that libraries around the country should be supported.
The Government are working with industry and regulators to ensure that consumers receive clear and accurate information to help them make informed choices about their broadband. The Advertising Standards Authority has recently strengthened its rules on broadband advertising to ensure that speed claims in adverts are not misleading. A new Ofcom code of practice on broadband speeds will come into force next March.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but a High Court case has been raised today to try to overturn the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to allow broadband to be advertised as fibre when large parts of it are of copper. Given that Edinburgh, where my constituency is, has just become a fibre city and that the Minister herself has called this advertising “misleading”, what can the Government do to ensure that when fibre broadband is advertised, it is indeed fibre end to end and does not have copper?
I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. As we know, the judicial review of the ASA’s decision, brought by CityFibre, is expected imminently, and we will continue to monitor that issue. In the meantime, however, I hope he can take comfort from the new Ofcom code that comes into effect next March, which will considerably strengthen the situation.
Good broadband services are essential for so many businesses throughout Taunton Deane. Sadly, however, owing to the difficulties with Gigaclear, many are still not getting the services they deserve. While Infracapital has revised the plan for the roll-out, it is going to be much longer and slower. Its success will depend on extending the rate for state aid beyond the March 2020 deadline. If we do not do this, many businesses will be jeopardised and homes affected, so will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue?
We are aware that, no matter how successful our full fibre programme—and we have our target, as my hon. Friend will know, of full fibre coverage across the UK by 2033—there will be premises for which fibre will never be the optimum route of connection. We will of course consider and urge others to consider wireless technologies where full fibre is not effective.
Women’s Sport: Broadcasting
Broadcasters have made significant progress in increasing coverage of women’s sport in recent years. The events covered include the women’s football World cup and Euro championships, the women’s rugby world cup, cycling and tennis. With the success of so many of our women’s sports teams, we should be looking at how many more events can be broadcast to inspire future generations. I will meet broadcasters in the new year to discuss exactly that.
While it is good to hear that UEFA has pledged a 50% increase in funding for women’s football from 2020, particularly in view of the terrific news that the English and Scottish women’s football teams have made the World cup, that translates to only €50,000 extra for each of the 55 member associations. Will this Government commit to match funding that amount for the UK’s associations, with the specific aim of broadening the appeal of women’s football to the broadcast networks?
Of course we will consider that. I know the hon. Lady will be just as excited by the fact that, on 9 June, England and Scotland will play each other in that World cup; all of us will be looking forward to that. She makes the good point that we must make sure that the attractiveness of women’s sport—and, may I say, of disability sport as well—to broadcasters and to everyone is increased, so that we can inspire those who can then see themselves or people like them playing sport and doing so at a high level. That is exactly what I will discuss with broadcasters in the new year.
We will certainly consider that. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advocacy for the game. He is right to say that women’s cricket is starting to take off, and he will know that recently, viewing figures for women’s cricket have increased substantially. It is important that the Commonwealth games showcases in the United Kingdom—and more specifically, he would want me to say, in the west midlands—all such sports in any way we can. He will recognise that decisions on which sports are included are not solely—or indeed at all—a matter for the Government, but I understand his point of view.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her constituent. It is important that in gymnastics, as in many other sports, we demonstrate to girls and women that they can participate at a high level, and they should be granted equal coverage and respect for what they do. Broadly speaking that happens in the Olympics, the Commonwealth games and elsewhere, but as I have said, I shall ask broadcasters and sports representative bodies what more we can do to increase the prominence of women’s sport.
It is notable that there are no women’s team sports on the list of protected events that must be offered live to free-to-air TV? Should not events such as the women’s World cup, which is on the BBC next year, be protected so that the whole nation can watch women’s World cups in the future?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and as he says, the protected list is designed to ensure that people have access on free-to-air television to these important sporting events. As he pointed out, that is already the case for the next women’s World cup, but we must keep such matters under review, and ensure that if there is a risk that big sporting events will not be covered in that way, we do something about it.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), to her place. She has big shoes to fill, but I am sure she will do the job well. I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s positive comments, but only 7% of sports media coverage is of women’s sport, which I am sure he will agree is a disgraceful statistic. Will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) to discuss what more can be done to get perhaps 50-50 sports coverage for women’s sport by 2020?
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, and I share that ambition, as do many broadcasters. Let us take the BBC as a good example. She will know that the BBC has committed to broadcasting 500 extra hours of sport next year, 50% of which will be women’s sport. It is important to recognise that progress is being made, but there is further to go and I am happy to discuss with her what we can do.
Free Television Licences
I meet the BBC regularly to discuss a range of issues, including the licence fee concession for the over-75s. The BBC has published a consultation that includes a range of options for the public to consider on the future of that concession, and we expect it to make a decision by June next year. I have made it clear that we expect the BBC to continue the concession after 2020.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, because that popular initiative was introduced by the Labour Government in 2000, in recognition of the fact that that TV is a lifeline for many elderly people, and to give them something back for their contribution to this country. Does the consultation so far indicate that the cost of administering a new system that might include means-testing would far outweigh the savings that the BBC seeks to make?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point about means-testing, and whenever means-testing is proposed, that consideration must be accounted for. The right approach is to allow all those who wish to do so to comment on those consultation options, and for the BBC properly to consider them and decide what to do next. That is now its responsibility. The Government’s expectation is clear as, I suspect, is that of many Members across the House.
Mr Speaker, this will probably be the only chance I get to wish you, your family and the staff of the House a happy Christmas. We are very grateful for the work you have done for us this year. Thank you. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), to her new position. I am sure she will fill the big shoes.
The Campaign to End Loneliness found that four in 10 older people say that television is their main company. That is a sad Christmas story indeed. Is the Secretary of State aware of how many older people in his constituency are set to lose their free TV licence if the provision becomes linked to pension credit?
It will not be my last opportunity to wish you a happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. I will get to that later.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is about to tell me the answer to the question he has just asked, which of course supposes a certain outcome to the consultation and the decision-making process at the BBC. I do not think we should make that supposition. It is right for the BBC to consider its options. It is now its responsibility to decide what to do on this matter. It is right for it to consider its options and then propose what it wishes to do. We will all have the opportunity to contribute to that discussion. I know he will do so, and I will too.
As the Secretary of State does not know the answer I will tell him, because I think he needs to know: 6,060 households in his area could lose their free TV licence if it is means-tested. Many thousands of people in Kenilworth will lose their TV licence despite a Tory manifesto, on which the Minister stood for election, promising that a Tory Government would maintain all pensioner benefits, including free TV licences for everyone over 75. The Government may have devolved welfare cuts to the BBC, but the Secretary of State will not be able to devolve responsibility for this impending policy disaster. Will he now admit, on the record to this House, that the Government have broken a manifesto pledge and he has broken his promise to all those people in his constituency?
No, of course not, because that has not happened. Let me just say again to the right hon. Gentleman that he is positing a hypothetical situation. It has not happened. It is important that the BBC gets the chance to consider the right way forward. All that he says about the importance of television to those who are elderly, particularly those who are lonely, is quite right, but no decision has been made yet. It is right to give the BBC the space in which to make it. That is the right way forward.
Tourism is an incredibly important part of the UK’s economy, generating approximately £68 billion and employing over 1.5 million people. Visit Britain and the GREAT campaign, backed by Government support, continue to successfully promote the UK internationally. The House will know that the Government will now take forward into formal negotiations a tourism sector deal which will benefit tourism across the country. That is the result of a good deal of hard work by people across the tourism sector and, if may I say so, others including my hon. Friend the tourism Minister.
Some of my constituents have bought park homes only to find that they are actually leisure home owners, with very few rights against their landlords who charge extortionate fees and rent rises. I have heard that the mis-selling of leisure homes and the abuse of tenants is happening across the country. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter and take action to ensure that leisure home owners are not subject to the whims of rogue landlords?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important matter. It is vital that anyone engaging in such transactions does so in full possession of the information they need and understands the consequences of their decisions. No one should be taken advantage of in this way. She will understand that this is a matter predominantly for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has policy responsibility in this area, but I will certainly discuss it with colleagues there. We will see what more we can do.
The 2018 Leicestershire Promotions tourism and hospitality awards were held at the end of November. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the almost 800-year- old Loughborough fair, which won the best free event category? Perhaps next November, rather than joining the rollercoaster here, he would like to join the rollercoaster in Loughborough.
That sounds a lot more fun. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and congratulate all those involved in the event that she mentions. As she suggests, the importance of what we are doing on tourism, and I hope that this will be reflected in the sector deal, is that tourism can be a hugely successful career—not just a summer job or short-term employment, but a career, and a satisfying one at that. It is important that we make that position clear to all those who seek to enter the workforce, so that we have a high-quality workforce offering a superb tourism product to a large number of people around the world.
Political Coverage: Broadcasting
The regulation of broadcasters’ political coverage is a matter for Ofcom, the independent media regulator. Any televised material is subject to the provisions of Ofcom’s broadcasting code and Ofcom has strong rules in place to ensure the impartiality and accuracy of political coverage.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Many of my Falkirk constituents complained to me that the now doomed Brexit debate would have placed two leaders in a head-to-head format, with no input from any of the devolved Administrations. At a time when politicians often complain that the public are not getting the full, balanced picture, does the Minister really believe that this helps to dispel or remove that belief?
The debate that the hon. Gentleman referred to did not happen, but it was going to be just between the two main parties—that is true. With regard to Scotland, the BBC will be launching its Scotland channel next year to improve the coverage of Scottish life and Scottish affairs. As regards impartiality, the code will guarantee impartiality across the United Kingdom.
As advertised, Mr Speaker, may I wish you, and indeed, all Members of the House and all the staff of the House, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year?
Last month, we saw a poignant programme of events to commemorate the centenary of the world war one armistice, at the end of four years of moving moments of remembrance. I thank again all those who were involved in the organisation of that programme, including officials in my Department and several Members of the House, including—if I may single him out—my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who played a pivotal role.
I am also pleased to announce today that Black Cultural Archives, the UK’s largest archives dedicated to the history of black people in Britain, will be given a £200,000 cash boost by my Department to help to secure its immediate future. We are continuing to work with the archives, Lambeth Council and others to ensure that there is a sustainable long-term funding strategy to enable its work to continue.
Finally, on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate David Dimbleby on his last appearance chairing BBC’s “Question Time” tonight and on his 24 years of service to the programme, and to offer our best wishes to the incoming chair, Fiona Bruce, who is, of course, the first female chair in the programme’s history.
Growers and farmers in Chichester are very high-tech— we have cows wearing collars that upload real-time health data, and computer-controlled hydroponics—but all that requires high-speed connectivity, and many businesses are now taking a hit. A business recently told me that it had invested £16,000 in connectivity improvements. What is my right hon. and learned Friend doing to improve access to superfast broadband for rural businesses?
My hon. Friend raises an important point and a matter of concern to many of us. She will know that in relation to the existing superfast programme, there is further to go, and some of that additional benefit can be delivered in rural areas. She will also know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has allocated £75 million of grant funding from the rural development programme for England for these purposes. She may also be aware that in relation to further technology, we will seek to test out what can be done in rural areas with a test bed and develop 5G technology, which can deliver further benefits, particularly to agriculture.
I add my congratulations to the new Minister for Sport and welcome her to her place. I look forward to working with her.
Moments of sporting history were made during the London Olympics, with billions of pounds invested in what was meant to be an everlasting legacy. Since 2016, 800 grass pitches have been sold off, 100 swimming pools have been drained, a dozen athletics tracks have been closed, and 350 sports halls have been shut. The Olympic legacy is in tatters and it is fuelling our country’s obesity crisis. We need urgent change, so can the new Minister confirm how many new sporting facilities will be opened in 2019?
I very much welcome my welcome to the Dispatch Box. I will have to write to the hon. Lady about her question, but I dispute the premise that London 2012 is not delivering a legacy. My Eastleigh games has been going since 2012. You can try out boccia and rugby, and get involved in all sorts of different sports. As a local councillor, I set up a staggered marathon, which is still going on and bringing people into running.
Some of the legacy projects, particularly those in the park, will not finish their benefits until 2020, so the inspirational power of London 2012 continues. We also have the stadium. The legacy of 2012 is there in the fact that so many sporting events are coming to our shores. We are leading in this area, and are perhaps looking at having the Ryder cup going forward. I understand the concern around grassroots and we will look at the new sporting strategy next year—we are three years on. It is absolutely right to question London 2012, but its legacy is there in many constituencies.
I think I know what has driven my hon. Friend’s question. I should like to take this opportunity if I may to apologise to the chairman of the 1922 committee. He apparently issued a rule about last night’s election, news of which did not reach me. It appears that I may have been in breach. I apologise to my hon. Friend if that is the case.
I assure my hon. Friend that many measures are being taken. The forthcoming universal service obligation should ensure that households that have a speed below 2 megabits per second have the right to request high-speed broadband of at least 10 megabits per second. That will come into effect in 2020. There is more to be done through Broadband Delivery UK—there are numerous voucher schemes. If my hon. Friend wants further information, I am happy to meet him to discuss the options available to him.
Britain is rated No. 1 in the world for soft power, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about its importance. Our Department works very closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in this regard. We have a large number of bilateral seasons of culture with other countries, we promote UK culture globally through the GREAT campaign, which is an extremely successful marketing campaign—one of the most successful in the world—and, of course, we visit countries on a cultural basis. For instance, I was in Rome recently, and I have also visited the United Arab Emirates. A great deal goes on.
I have already met representatives of the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and a small analysis is currently under way. This is a hot topic on my desk, and I will make further announcements in January. In respect of sports ground safety more broadly, I have asked the authority to work with those in charge of the Qatar 2022 World cup to ensure that travelling fans also have a safe experience.
The Attorney General was asked—
Contempt of Court
The institution of court proceedings for contempt is by me in relation to each case on its own merits. I institute proceedings when there is sufficient evidence, and when I, as guardian of the public interest, decide that it is in the public interest to do so.
Contempt of court proceedings are very important to ensuring fair trials and the rule of law. Contempt of Parliament proceedings have been crucial in enabling the House to have the information to which it was entitled. Is the Attorney General not ashamed that his Ministers were found to be in contempt?
It is always a serious matter for any Minister to find himself at odds with the House, particularly over an important question of constitutional principle. On reflection, and the opinion of the House having been tested twice, the Government took the decision to disclose the advice, but I must stress to the hon. Lady that successive Governments have defended that principle robustly. I have a list of very eloquent articulations of it by Opposition Members who have defended it against demands for the disclosure of confidential advice. It is an important principle, and I hope that the House will look again at the procedures relating to the motion for a return.
May I perhaps return to the question? [Interruption.] Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a real need to revisit the standard directions that judges give to juries in relation to the use of social media? Generally judges are well alert to the issue, but, as we know, there have been instances in which convictions have had to be set aside because juries have, in effect, researched the case outside the jury room using social media.
Order. For the avoidance of doubt, the previous exchanges were entirely orderly, and I would have ruled otherwise if they were not. That is the position, which, frankly, the Solicitor General ought to take to heart, and upon which he might usefully reflect. I will be the arbiter of what is orderly, not the hon. and learned Gentleman.
The impact of social media on the integrity and fairness of the trial process is obviously of considerable importance, and we do need to grapple with it. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a call for evidence on social media, and I am currently studying the responses to it.
On the subject of contempt, the Attorney General was meant to disclose the full and final legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. What was actually disclosed was a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 November exclusively on the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is the Attorney General seriously saying he did not advise on the remainder of the withdrawal agreement?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, his party colleague the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) refined and defined the request, which was for the final and full advice that was given to the Cabinet, and that is what he has had.
The letter refers simply to the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, but let me then ask the Attorney General this: the Prime Minister said last night on the steps of Downing Street that she is seeking “legal and political changes” to the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, so as a matter of honour if nothing else, if the Attorney General advises on any changes or additions that the Prime Minister brings back, will he disclose that advice to this House?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the principle of the convention applies and must be upheld. Of course the Government will consider very carefully, particularly in the light of the House’s expressed wish for assistance on these matters, what assistance they and I as Attorney General can give.
Legal Advice: Public Disclosure
As noted in “Erskine May”, it is a long-standing convention observed by successive Governments that neither the fact nor the substance of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside the Government without their authority. That authority is very rarely sought or given.
Of course, the corrosive effect of the disclosure of confidential advice is that in future Attorneys General will not be able, without risking and fearing its publication, to give frank and robust advice to the Cabinet or the Prime Minister when it is needed, with the point and emphasis that might be needed at that particular time. The risk if it is published is that it is taken out of context, parts of it are seized and plucked and dwelt upon, and the particular moment and context of the advice is ignored. I do think we need to look very carefully at the procedures of the House in this regard while paying due respect to the legitimate desire of the House to have all of the information that it requires.
I think we all understand what the Attorney General’s preferences are in this matter. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), he said that the advice in his letter to the Prime Minister was full and final. It is credible that it is the final legal advice, but it is not credible that it is the full legal advice. Is that seriously what the Attorney General wants us to believe?
The request of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) was for the final and full advice. As I understand it—I read what he said in Hansard—he requested all the final advice. In other words, he requested that it should not be summarised, and it was not. The House had all the final advice given to the Cabinet.
As I have just said, I will of course consider what assistance the House might require. Indeed, I shall listen carefully to the House on any changes that are introduced to the withdrawal agreement and on what the Government should do about publishing legal opinion on it.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change this.
I am proud to say that the Scottish Government announced plans this week to introduce a new statutory human rights framework across Scotland. That will help to ensure that Brexit does not lead to an erosion of human rights in Scotland, while enshrining rights already included in the United Nations treaties. Will the Attorney General join me in welcoming this progressive step? Will he also confirm what measures he will be recommending to his own Cabinet colleagues to ensure that human rights are protected in the event of Brexit?
I am always interested to see the measures that are being introduced in the Scottish legal system, because Scotland has a sophisticated and highly effective administration of justice for which I have the greatest respect. Indeed, we can learn a good deal from Scotland in that regard; the same applies to both traditions on both sides of the border. In England and Wales, we are fully committed to the human rights framework of the European convention on human rights, and we have a proud common law tradition of defending those rights. I would expect that common law tradition to continue to evolve, and I would expect that the courts of this country, freed from the European Union, will start to develop their own jurisprudence, making even more effective the protection of those rights. However, I will look at what the hon. Lady has spoken of today with the greatest interest.
In the hurly-burly of the Brexit debate, there are a number of things to be concerned about. However, this country is very much the creator, cherisher and nurturer of human rights, and we have a proud record in that area both domestically and in leading on the international stage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend therefore agree that this is one area of public policy that Brexit should not create any anxiety about?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. This country was at the forefront of the development of civil liberties and human rights. We have a robust, fiercely independent judiciary, and we have an effective legal profession on which the vindication of those rights often depends. We should be very proud indeed of the tradition that we have inherited.
The Human Rights Act 1998 is one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government, and we will fight to protect the rights and protections that it affords. I noticed that the Attorney General did not mention that in his answer to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Will he join us in making a commitment to preserving the Human Rights Act?
It would be unwise for me to think that any Act of Parliament could not benefit from review and subsequent improvement as time goes on, but I can assure the hon. Lady that this Government—and, I am sure, successive Governments—will be wedded to both the rule of law and human rights in this country.
Article 50: European Court of Justice Decision
The decision of the European Court of Justice clarifies a question of EU law, and it does not in any way change the Government’s policy. The Government’s firm and long-standing policy is that we will not revoke the article 50 notice. The position has not changed and, as is well known, the case will now revert to the Scottish courts for the final decision.
Will the Attorney General take this opportunity to confirm that he advised the Prime Minister that the ECJ’s ruling means that voting against her deal does not automatically mean a no-deal Brexit, and that revoking the article 50 notice and remaining in the EU under current terms and conditions is a third option?
The Government’s policy is that we do not intend to revoke article 50. We intend to leave the European Union on 29 March, and the fact or otherwise of the irrevocability of article 50 is wholly irrelevant to that question. The truth, however, is that the giving of notice under article 50 would not just be an easy matter of pressing a button and the revocation taking effect.
The Government fought this case tooth and nail through the Scottish courts and in Luxembourg. Will the Attorney General tell us why the Government were so desperate to prevent Members of Parliament and the public from knowing that article 50 could be unilaterally revoked and that we could stay in the European Union on the same terms and conditions that we currently enjoy? Will he also answer a question that Cabinet Ministers have so far failed to answer? How much taxpayers’ money was spent trying to keep this House and the public in the dark?
As the hon. and learned Lady knows, the Government’s position throughout was that the case involved a hypothetical question. It does raise an important matter of constitutional principle as to whether courts should be able to be seized of issues under live debate in Parliament, when Parliament does not ask for an opinion, simply in order to inform debate. The Government took the view that the matter was hypothetical—we still do—but the truth of the matter is that the ECJ has ruled and we are where we are.
The Government are committed to tackling economic crime, and we know that that requires a multi-agency response. That is why both the SFO and the CPS play their parts alongside others, including through their support for the new multi-agency National Economic Crime Centre.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and I was glad to see the recent financial action taskforce report, which reflected substantial progress and referred to the world-leading role that the UK plays in the fight against illicit finance, particularly the risk of money laundering.
Nothing annoys the constituents of Taunton Deane more than people getting away with things they should not, so will my hon. and learned Friend outline some further detail on how we are cracking down on money laundering? It is a priority, and the Government have promised to tackle it.
My hon. Friend will be glad to note the introduction of unexplained wealth orders following the Criminal Finances Act 2017. That is already sending a clear message to those who seek to use the UK to wash their illegal proceeds that we will track them down, ask the right questions and conduct confiscations. Using Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 powers, the Government have recovered more criminal assets than ever before, with £1.6 billion taken from wrongdoers between April 2010 and March 2018.
Crown Prosecution Service: Performance
CPS performance in Northamptonshire is above the national rate in several areas. The latest figures for the first quarter of 2018-19 show that the conviction rate for Northamptonshire magistrates courts was 85.7%, which is above the national rate of 84.8%. Figures also show lower hearing numbers per guilty plea case than the national rate, which reflects the fact that the CPS is putting cases together efficiently.
The CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands, like in all other regions, acknowledges that it should never rest on any laurels it might gather. I urge my hon. Friend to meet the chief Crown prosecutors and staff to focus on particular areas where he thinks the CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands needs to make progress. Recent quarterly and monthly figures show that in many areas, such as burglary, it has been above average, but I am sure it would welcome his constructive input.
Corrosive Substances: Prosecutions
Corrosive substance attacks are unacceptable. There is no place in society for these horrendous crimes. Last month, the CPS successfully secured the conviction of nine men for carrying out a violent attack in which a corrosive substance was squirted at bystanders who tried to stop an assault in the street.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the sad connection with gang offending. Sadly, corrosive substances are sometimes used as weapons by gangs in retribution and as a means of enforcement. The CPS guidance identifies that phenomenon and encourages prosecutors to apply for criminal behaviour orders to prevent such gang-related offending.
Royal Albert Hall
Earlier this year, the Charity Commission wrote to the former Attorney General requesting consent to refer five questions to the first-tier tribunal concerning the registered charity that runs the Royal Albert Hall. Although the Charity Commission has the power to refer questions to the tribunal, it may only do so with the consent of the Attorney General, as set out in section 325 of the Charities Act 2011.
The Attorney General promised that he would make a decision on this matter by the end of the autumn. I am sure we are now in winter, so that decision is overdue. The majority of the Royal Albert Hall’s ruling body own a quarter of all the seats. Those seats are valued at up to £25 million, and they are allowed to sell tickets for the seats on the secondary market, making huge profits. Does the Attorney General not consider that a conflict of interest, and will he allow the Charity Commission to refer it to the tribunal?
The hon. Lady has identified the core of the concern in this case. Before assessing whether I or the Attorney General should consent to the Charity Commission’s request, we invited both the corporation of the Royal Albert Hall and the Charity Commission to make further representations. We have received those representations, and we are in the process of considering them with a view to issuing a decision in due course.