Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
We are pleased to announce that we will be reviewing the guidance as part of the civil society strategy published last year, and we still anticipate launching the review before the summer recess. In fact, I hope to do it next week.
This Government are committed to supporting youth activities and our young people. In fact, I have had several meetings just this week on the youth charter and our vision for young people over the next 10 years. The National Lottery is supporting positive activities for our young people through £80 million of funding, and of course we have the National Citizen Service.
The Government’s serious violence strategy rightly placed programmes for young people at its heart. Will the Minister assure the House that that strategy is going to start delivering those projects on the ground, to divert young people away from gangs and crime?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. The Secretary of State and I were part of the Prime Minister’s summit on serious violence in April this year. It is right that we take a multi-agency approach to tackling knife crime and serious violence. The Government are investing £200 million in the youth endowment fund to support interventions with young people, and particularly those who are at risk.
On Independence Day, may I congratulate all my American cousins on this fine day when they broke away from Britain? I still have my green card from when I emigrated.
Youth services should learn from what is done in the best cities in the United States. It is high time that we put proper Government resources into youth services and stopped relying on charities, although partnerships are good. The fact of the matter is that in most constituencies, youth services are on their knees.
I thank our charity sector for the work that it does in this area. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should not rely on charities, although we must learn from and listen to them, and listen to young people. In terms of lessons from America, one issue that came up in the knife crime summit was that particular social media platforms are allowing groups to come together, organise and cause more problems on our streets. This Department is determined to ensure that we work together, in both my sector and that of my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, to support and keep our young people safe.
I agree that local authorities have a role to play in youth services, as well as the charitable and voluntary sector, but does the Minister agree that the private sector also has a role? In my neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, a youth zone is being proposed, funded by local entrepreneurs. Does she agree that that is one way forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising entrepreneurship, which seems to be a theme in our party at the moment. Looking again to America, we can and must learn from altruism and philanthropy. I thank people for giving directly back to their community, which we encourage in the civil society strategy.
I am delighted to see so many of my former Whips Office colleagues, including the Chief Whip, in the Chamber to hear me speak at the Dispatch Box for the first time—no pressure.
UK Youth, a leading national charity, estimates that the National Citizen Service underspent by more than £50 million this year. Many organisations are desperate to support our young people. Will the Minister explain what plans the Government have to reallocate the underspend to the many fantastic charities that support our wonderful young people?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I know that she is very passionate about this area and was part of our knife crime summit in April. I met UK Youth and the NCS yesterday as part of our youth charter work. Work is going on with the Treasury to ensure that all our youth sector is supported, including through the underspend of the NCS.
Superfast Broadband: Rural Areas
The Government’s superfast broadband programme has met its target and is now providing superfast coverage to 97% of premises, including 94.8% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In addition, we have just launched the rural gigabit connectivity programme, with £200 million of funding, to begin to deliver even faster, gigabit speeds to the most remote and rural parts of the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, improved access to superfast broadband in places such as Shropshire will reduce the number of car journeys needing to be made. What assessment has her Department made of that improvement in helping us to reach the net zero carbon contribution target we have set?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Although we have not conducted a specific study on the environmental impact of faster broadband speeds, we have considered it as part of a wider evaluation. We have found that the use of cloud computing has an effect in reducing commuting time, and we will be exploring this more specifically in our superfast broadband programme evaluation next year.
May I ask the Minister, in using the word “rural”, not to forget communities in the south Wales valleys that can be quite socially isolated? Will she set out what funding she will put in place to deal with the geography of some of the south Wales valleys, which are still suffering with painfully slow broadband?
I think the hon. Gentleman asked me a similar question last summer, and I am delighted to say that his intervention last year led directly to my recommending to the Chancellor that he include the Welsh valleys in the first pilot of the roll-out of the rural gigabit connectivity programme, so the hon. Gentleman can hold us to that. I also want to mention that the voucher scheme has been enhanced, so that small and medium-sized enterprises in the Welsh valleys will now get access to a voucher worth £3,500 and residents a voucher worth £1,500 to connect on to the public buildings that the programme will connect.
In my hon. Friend’s excellent work in rolling out broadband to rural areas, will she ensure that we do not inadvertently neglect urban and semi-urban areas in the London borough of Bromley? Areas around Down and Farnborough village have woeful access and, sadly, BT does not have plans to roll out the fibre needed to upgrade it. Could she possibly help?
I will certainly help my hon. Friend. He points out that suburban and urban areas have a really worrying lack of access not so much to superfast, but certainly to decent speeds. We are incorporating those via incentives to the private sector to connect. That is now going very well indeed, with Openreach alone connecting 20,000 premises a week.
As more and more of our banks are closing branches across the country, it is becoming vital for people, particularly in rural areas, to have access to online facilities and good broadband. The way this has been rolled out, particularly in Scotland, has not suited rural communities. Can the Minister assure me that there will be discussions with the Treasury, the Scottish Government and the local authorities that will be involved in the future to ensure that our communities in Scotland actually get a better service and are able to access finances?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady. Unfortunately, there have been appalling delays to the procurement system underpinning the Scottish Government’s R100—Reaching 100%—programme. I am reliably informed that they are almost at the end of that process and that they are about to award contracts this autumn. It has been a painful process, but my officials have been discussing it with the Scottish Government, and I am confident that it will be improved. We also have programmes from my Department that are already rolling out in Scotland.
The Minister will be aware that, under the confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party, the Government have set aside some hundreds of millions of pounds for rural broadband across all of Northern Ireland. What discussions has she had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to ensure that that rural broadband roll-out is completed?
I know that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in the rest of Northern Ireland there has obviously been a delay in deploying that budget on account of there being no Government in Northern Ireland. My officials are in discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ameliorate that situation, and I will write to him with the latest details.
Algorithms: Inappropriate Use
We have asked the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to review the potential for bias in the use of algorithms, and it is considering usage in both the public and private sectors on crime and justice, financial services, recruitment and local government. The centre will publish an interim report later this month, and it will make recommendations to the Government early next year. We will then decide how to proceed.
The past 10 years have seen the most revolutionary and rapid changes in how technology is used in public services, politics, work and leisure, yet the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to implement the most basic digital protections, and they are behind even Google and Facebook in calling for regulation. The Secretary of State talks about another review, but algorithmic bias is a threat to all our citizens in the form of algorithmic rule. Will he take the opportunity to get on the front foot and put in place regulations to protect our citizens?
We are on the front foot, and the hon. Lady’s characterisation is entirely wrong. The world looks to the UK as a leader in this field. I talk to counterparts across the world about the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and they are interested in a move that we are making that no one else has yet made. As the hon. Lady knows—she has looked carefully at this issue—the online harms White Paper will deal with a range of issues and produce regulation that is, once again, world leading.
TV Licences for Over-75s
The Government are disappointed with the BBC’s decision on the licence fee concession for the over-75s. Taxpayers want the BBC to use its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way, to ensure that it delivers for UK audiences. The Government expect the BBC to consider further ways to support older people, and I recently met the BBC management to discuss what more it could do.
The BBC is not a benefits agency. Both Tory leadership contenders have condemned the proposal to remove free TV licences from the over-75s, and stated that that must be reversed. The director-general has rightly said that the Government are responsible for the TV licence proposal, and that he would be open to conversations about reversing it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when further conversations may happen, and when will that benefit cut be reversed?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to transfer that responsibility to the BBC was taken in 2017 by this House in the Digital Economy Act 2017. I assure him that conversations about what more we expect of the BBC will continue, and we expect it to do more.
Without hiding behind the BBC again, will the Minister explain to my constituent, who rang up incensed, why his 86-year-old neighbour, who is a veteran and relies on his TV for company, should have his TV licence taken away? Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ellwood), who opened the debate on Armed Forces Day, thought that was unfair—does the Minister?
Nobody is hiding behind the BBC. Legislation has now provided that this decision should be for the BBC to take, and if the hon. Lady listens to the BBC, that is exactly its message—it is its decision and responsibility. She makes a good point about veterans, and I have raised that issue with the BBC. I expect it to be able to do more for veterans, and it should.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) the Secretary of State referred to 2017, but in that year his party’s manifesto stated that there would be no cut to free TV licences. On Monday, people in Duke Street were infuriated by that move. There are 6,500 over-75s in my constituency. Will the Minister come and visit and tell them why he is planning to cut their free TV licence?
I am happy to send the message that I share their disappointment, and I have made that clear on a number of occasions. In fact, we can go back further than 2017, because in 2015 the arrangement was made with the BBC that this responsibility would transfer to it as part of the charter settlement. The BBC has known about this for some time, and it had the opportunity to prepare for it. In our view, it needs to do better.
In my constituency of Canterbury, there are some 6,250 households at risk of losing their free TV licence. Why are the Government failing to live up to their responsibility to older residents? Is it simply the case that they are entirely complacent about receiving their support in any upcoming general election?
No, I do not accept that for one moment. The Government’s record on support for older people has been remarkable. We have been able to provide £1,600 more per year for those on the state pension than was managed in 2010 under a Labour Government. We have done more on loneliness than any Government before us. We introduced a Minister with responsibility for tackling loneliness. For the first time, we have a strategy on loneliness and we have put our money where our mouth is with £20 million of investment. I am afraid the Labour party in government did none of those things.
If it was a decision for the BBC, why did the Government put it in their manifesto? Does the Minister not think he has a moral obligation to make up the difference if the BBC has a problem? Many pensioners suffer from loneliness and for them the BBC is a lifeline to the world.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of loneliness, and I will repeat the points I have just made. The Government have done a huge amount to combat this very substantial social problem. The truth is that we still expect the BBC to do better in this area, but it is the BBC’s responsibility. The responsibility was transferred to the BBC in 2017, after it was agreed with it in 2015. The BBC itself has made it clear that this is now its responsibility.
In the London Evening Standard on 11 June, there was a very interesting headline on page two, stating:
“Tax campaigners defend axing of free TV licences for wealthy OAPs”.
Wealthy old-age pensioners? Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the slippery language used by the editor of the London Evening Standard, an architect of this debacle? My 5,000 pensioners who risk losing their free TV licence in Cambridge are not wealthy.
As the hon. Gentleman says, wealthy pensioners are not the only ones who will lose their TV licence. That is certainly right. That is exactly why we continue to say to the BBC that it needs to do better than it is doing at the moment.
There are some very interesting statistics that I should perhaps share with the House at this point. Last year and this financial year, the BBC has been sharing with the Government the cost of the over-75 licence concession. Last year, the cost of the concession was £677 million. The Government paid £468 and the BBC paid £209 million. This financial year, the cost is £700 million. The Government paid £247 million and the BBC paid £453 million. The cost of the concession as the BBC intends to operate it from 2020 onwards is, by its estimate, £260 million. That is substantially less than the BBC is paying towards to the concession this financial year. The BBC would say, and I would agree with it, that it is able to supply a good service this year while still paying £453 million towards that concession. That seems to be an interesting statistic.
Why not get rid of TV licences altogether for everyone and force the BBC to compete for its revenues like every other broadcaster? The supermarket equivalent would be forcing everyone, under threat of criminal sanction, to spend £150 in Tesco even if they shop at Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Co-op or elsewhere.
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. As I have said, it is of course a matter for the BBC to decide how this concession should be structured. It is open to the BBC, as it has demonstrated, to choose a model that does not offer a free TV licence to every over-75 year old. The question of enforcement is an interesting one that we will go on considering. I would hope very much that the BBC will take seriously the comments of my right hon. Friend and others about how this obligation should be properly enforced in the future.
Perhaps the most difficult part of growing old is the loss of a husband, wife or partner—the person you have shared your every day and every thought with, often over a lifetime. There are nearly 600,000 widowed men and 1.5 million widowed women over the age of 75. An estimated seven out of 10 widows and widowers will lose their free TV licence. That is nearly 1.5 million people who have lost their life partner who will now be stripped of the comfort of their television by this Conservative Government. Can the Secretary of State live with that?
The decision that has been made is to transfer that responsibility to the BBC. How the BBC chooses to exercise its responsibility is, as it and we say, its responsibility. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a fair one, and it needs to be heard by the BBC as it decides what more it can do to help those who are in particular need or are particularly vulnerable. That is exactly the conversation that I am having with the BBC at the moment, and that we will continue. The decision for the hon. Gentleman is how he intends to back up the pledges that he has so far made to take that responsibility back to the taxpayer, and how he intends to fund that change.
I am excited and proud to be working cross-Government, with this Department leading, on developing a new youth charter for our young people—the Government’s vision for the next 10 years—and that work has continued this week. The Government invest in the Centre For Youth Impact to support sector-led evaluation and to build evidence of the impact of local youth services, and we are working with the National Youth Agency and partners to renew the youth worker qualifications and review that curriculum.
“Positive for Youth” was the Government’s last comprehensive youth policy document. It contained many good examples of joint project working between local authorities and charities and philanthropic businesses, a pledge to youth-proof Government policy, and a pledge to publish annually a set of national measures to demonstrate progress in improving outcomes for young people. When does the Minister plan to update the House on that progress?
I thank my hon. Friend for his pertinent reminder to the Government and the House to focus on our youth. I believe that the youth charter will reaffirm the Government’s commitment. It will state that our young people should have a strong voice, and that we must listen to it and take note of the issues that they care about. It will set out how we should act on what they tell us and, more importantly, it will state that we are actively involving them in key policy making. It is vital that we do that. I had the youth steering group in with me just this week. So the sector is very much being heard, and will be reported back and listened to.
Commercial FM Radio
The UK’s independent broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, is responsible for radio spectrum planning, and Ofcom’s view is that due to the general scarcity of FM spectrum, the scope for additional frequency resources to be made available to commercial radio is extremely limited. Ofcom’s current priority for the use of remaining FM spectrum is community radio, and I hope that will be of benefit to Morecambe Bay.
Will the Minister carry out an investigation of the audit suitability for FM spectrum in the north of Lancashire as soon as possible, to free up any spectrum service that should be licensed, to facilitate a new local service, as we need more local services in that region?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need more local services, but there is more than one route to that. I cannot undertake to commence a review of the north-west specifically, and it is for the independent regulator Ofcom to distribute remaining FM frequency, but I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that the development of small-scale DAB multiplexes will provide many opportunities for community radio stations, not least in the Lancaster and Morecambe area.
As we have heard this morning, the UK is a world leader in tackling loneliness, and the first Government loneliness strategy was launched last October. It has been globally recognised, and includes the £11.5 million building connections fund, announced over Christmas, which is a partnership between the Government, the National Lottery and the Co-op Foundation. The first progress report is due later this year. Last month, we launched the Let’s Talk Loneliness campaign, which is all about reducing stigma. The hashtag alone has had 5.5 million impressions globally.
I am proud of the work that the Government are doing on loneliness, but according to Age UK more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone. Loneliness is thought to be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In Chichester, we have some fantastic projects such as the Rotary Club’s Building A Generation, in which every two weeks older people go into Chichester College and meet, and share experiences with, college students. What more support is available to encourage such innovative, community-based solutions for tackling loneliness and to help to spread them more quickly across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work done by all the great charities in her community to tackle loneliness at all ages. Support is available for community-based projects, including two pots of Government funding. There is £1 million for the Tech To Connect challenge—I know my hon. Friend is interested in tech—to address social isolation, and the fund will be managed by Nesta. We also have the Space To Connect fund, which will be part-managed by the Co-op and will have £1.6 million to open up community spaces. Everything happening in Chichester is helping people come together, and I welcome that.
Earlier this year, the Minister was good enough to come to a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention and speak to us about the loneliness strategy. What steps will she take in response to the Samaritans’ paper on loneliness in young people, which is a particular concern?
I particularly remember that meeting and I welcomed the opportunity to join her. We currently have 60 different policies across nine Departments, but I would like to point out that loneliness and isolation can affect people at any age and at any time—including young carers and care leavers. We need to support everybody of every age and every gender. I hope that the new policies that we are working on and will announce later this year will have a youth focus.
Commercial Local Radio
The regulatory framework for commercial radio on FM and AM set nearly 30 years ago has not kept pace with market changes, and we have taken steps to address that. I welcome Ofcom’s October 2018 changes to the localness guidance, which will reduce the burdens on commercial radio while maintaining requirements for local stations to provide local news and other content.
Given that media giant Global has cut no fewer than 11 local radio studios in England, despite making massive profits, is there not a danger that under those weaker Ofcom regulations commercial local radio will increasingly lose its localness, and broadcasts will be made from London or several regional centres?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the localness guidelines are strict and tough, and will require large commercial radio corporations to have local studios. They will have to provide a serious amount of local news content, weather, driving information and so on, so I do not share his concern. It is up to Ofcom to police this, and it is doing a good job. We must remember that for local commercial radio, and indeed community radio, to be sustainable, they needed a lighter touch regulatory regime.
May I briefly beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker, to congratulate St Fagans Museum in my constituency on winning the museum of the year award, which was presented last night in a ceremony at the Science Museum?
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) said earlier that we needed more local radio, but the results of this deregulation have been job cuts and fewer stations in what is a profitable commercial sector. Is it not time for the decision to be reviewed to assess its impact on localness, and to ensure that local radio does not just become national commercial radio?
The localness guidelines were published as recently as October last year, so I think it would be premature to announce a review of their impact, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that they were welcomed by both commercial and community radio stations. Ofcom has received about 700 expressions of interest in the small-scale DAB multiplexes for which we legislated last month. We hope to be able to complete that legislation by the end of the year so that Ofcom will be able to start issuing licences to hundreds of community radio stations up and down the country. I think that we will see a great growth in this fantastic sector.
2022 Commonwealth Games
The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham will be the biggest sporting event ever held in the west midlands. Last week the Government announced that the region would benefit from nearly £800 million of investment. The venues for the games will extend from Royal Leamington Spa to Coventry and to Cannock Chase. There will be 11 days of sport across the west midlands, along with cultural and business engagement, trade and volunteering. The hon. Gentleman should keep his diary clear, because the event will be showcased at the Walsall shopping centre on 20 July.
The available training venues are currently being reviewed. I understand that there has already been an initial meeting with representatives of the British judo Centre of Excellence and the University of Wolverhampton regarding the possible use of their facilities. Many great sporting facilities in the west midlands and, indeed, across the United Kingdom will want to host training events, and I am sure that they will receive a very warm welcome from my hon. Friend.
Five junctions up the M6 from Walsall is the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, which stands ready to play its part. How will the Minister ensure that the benefits to which she has referred are felt throughout our region and not just in the conurbation, and what strategy does her Department have for a long-lasting legacy programme so that those benefits do not disappear once the games have ended?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the joy that will be felt not only in the west midlands but in the whole of our country. We should bear in mind the economic impact of the games in Glasgow in 2014, which brought more than £740 million to Scotland’s economy, and the £1.3 billion boost for the Gold Coast following the games in Queensland. We expect the Birmingham games to bring jobs and opportunities such as volunteering, with up to 45,000 people involved in delivering the event. This is a catalyst for a legacy in terms of facilities and on the ground, and I am working towards that result as we head towards “three years out”.
Semi-finals are dangerous places for England’s sports teams. I am sure that the whole House will wish to offer its commiserations to the Lionesses following Tuesday’s result, but also our huge congratulations on their performance throughout the World cup competition. Although it did not produce the result that we wanted, Tuesday’s match attracted the largest live television audience so far this year, and the team has sparked a significant change in the visibility of, and support for, women’s football and women’s sport generally. That in itself is a fantastic achievement. We also send our best wishes to the England men’s cricket team for their semi-final next week in a world cup that has given people around the world another good reason to visit the United Kingdom this year.
Tourism is a significant but often overlooked part of our economy, and last week we launched the tourism sector deal, the first of its kind. The coming together of industry and Government will mean more investment in accommodation, skills and apprenticeships and data to ensure that we attract even more tourists and business visitors. We also intend to ensure that everyone can visit by making the UK the most accessible tourism destination in Europe by 2025. Tourism matters greatly in many of our constituencies, and the sector deal will give it the long-overdue Government recognition that it deserves.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State about the Lionesses, and also of course wish good luck to the England cricket team?
The epidemic of appalling online bullying demonstrates that the online world is effectively not abiding by the same rules as the offline world, and people are suffering right now, so now that the consultation on the White Paper on online harms has closed, will the Secretary of State urge the new Prime Minister to prioritise legislative time so that we can sort this law out and protect people who are suffering right now?
Yes. I believe that this is a priority, and I believe that the next Government should see it as such, and I believe that we should see legislation coming forward in the next parliamentary Session. The hon. Lady is right; the consultation on the White Paper concluded yesterday, but as she will have heard me say before, I believe that this is a groundbreaking change that we need to get right, so the Government intend to continue to listen, notwithstanding the fair point she makes about the urgency of the situation.
Order. I want to take this opportunity—I hope the House will join me as I do so—to congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and the other three members of the string quartet known as Statutory Instruments on their magnificent performance in Speaker’s House on Tuesday lunchtime; it was a virtuoso display of outstanding music—stirring, inspiring and admirable in every way. If you haven’t heard them, you haven’t lived.
We very much look forward to that prospect. Of course, as my hon. Friend will recognise, there are some technical challenges to be overcome to ensure that the tapestry can be properly displayed and protected, but this is an example of Anglo-French co-operation of which we expect to see a great deal more in the future.
More than 6 million people watched England take on Scotland in the women’s World cup and, as the Secretary of State just said, nearly 12 million people watched England take on the USA, and we send our condolences to the Lionesses. We have had some iconic and memorable moments. Hayley Lauder from my Livingston constituency got her 100th cap, and none of us will forget that magnificent celebration from Megan Rapinoe that made women and girls everywhere across the world say, “You can take up space; you can celebrate and you can be in sport.”
However, a recent study found that 65% of broadcast sport in Scotland was taken up by men’s football alone, and, as the Secretary of State knows, only 2% of print media is about women’s sport. We must do more to capitalise on the incredible results from the women’s World cup to make sure that women’s sport, and particularly women’s football, continues to be recognised in the way it has been.
I agree with the hon. Lady; she has been a passionate advocate for this for as long as she has been in the House, and I am sure long before, and she is right. But I think we should recognise that some significant progress has been made over the last few weeks and months; even six months ago, if we had said in this House that we expected a women’s football match to have the largest live TV audience of the year so far, standing as we are in July, I do not think any of us would have believed it. So significant progress is being made. It was great to be able to see that match on the BBC on Tuesday and for there to be such a large audience for it. It is, as the hon. Lady says, inspiring girls and women to play more sport, and that is exactly what we want to see more of.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point, because it is so important. Nobody walks around with an arrow on their head saying that they are lonely. There are times in our life when we feel lost or isolated and we need someone to turn to, so the 1,000 social prescribers will be very helpful. I know that my hon. Friend has done something directly in his own constituency with an older people’s fair—an event around loneliness—to do just that, and I welcome all constituencies doing this.
On behalf of all my colleagues on the Benches behind me, I would like to wish the very best of luck to the England cricket team. We also wish the best of British to all our British tennis players at Wimbledon, and we would like to thank the Lionesses for inspiring a generation.
Our children are facing a deadly obesity crisis. Obesity is rivalling smoking as a leading cause of cancer. Being healthy is about keeping fit and having a healthier diet, but the sugar tax has also been very welcome in promoting a healthier lifestyle, especially for children and young people. The Sports Minister has a responsible role to play in tackling obesity, so will she today publicly commit to resisting any call to scrap the sugar tax, even from her favoured candidate for Prime Minister?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She and I share a great passion for getting and keeping our young people active. I hope to announce the school sports action plan, alongside colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, before the summer recess. We are very close to this. All money that comes into PE and sport from the premium—the levy has doubled this—is important. I hope to see Government investment in school sport continue in any way, shape or form.
As this is 4 July, Independence Day, and despite this week’s football result, will the Secretary of State, who like me has an American spouse, comment—positively, of course —on the very many benefits of our special relationship with the US?
The hon. Lady passionately believes, as do I, in ensuring that help gets to those who need it. Those who are affected by problem gambling, and whose lives are ruined thereby, need help as quickly as they can get it. The reason that I think it appropriate to welcome the moves that have been made by those five companies, as she has done, is that this will deliver help quickly and in the sort of amounts that a mandatory levy was always designed to deliver. Having said all that, if those voluntary commitments are not met, the Government will reserve the right to pursue a mandatory route instead. But let’s get the help to those who need it as quickly as we can.
Manned by local volunteers, the local heritage centres in Desborough, Burton Latimer and Rothwell in the borough of Kettering do much to encourage an interest in local heritage in small communities that have seen much change as a result of new housing developments. What importance does the Department attach to encouraging the promotion of such venues?
The answer is huge importance. My hon. Friend makes the important point that heritage is local as well as national. We can transform our communities in a number of ways, one of which is to give people clearer insights into the wonderful heritage around them. The heritage high streets fund will do that, as will many of the other measures that have been referred to.
I will certainly look at what is happening at the Priory centre, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as I do, that £8 million was found in the Budget to support Coventry city of culture, and we both look forward to it being a tremendous success.
We applauded the decision to pass the EU copyright directive, and I have met with bodies from the creative industries to discuss how best to implement it in the UK. That will take a certain amount of time, but we will be looking to protect the intellectual property and artistic creations of our designers and this country’s brilliant creative industries.
The Attorney General was asked—
Victims and Witnesses in Court
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about how the justice system supports those who come before it, and witnesses and victims are an important part of that. One way in which the CPS supports victims and witnesses is through the pre-recording of cross-examination evidence, which takes considerable pressure off vulnerable witnesses. Following a successful pilot in three locations, the scheme was rolled out last month to a further six courts, including in Chester.
The CPS takes seriously its role in ensuring that prosecutions do come before the courts. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a cross-governmental review into rape and sexual offences is under way and has already completed its first stage of collecting evidence. We are now looking at the whole system for rape and other serious sexual offences to see how we can improve every stage, including getting more prosecutions and convictions.
I will not go into the details, but we have had a sensitive local case in which a victim of child sexual exploitation was not supported. A trial did not take place, through no fault of her own. What further action can the Solicitor General take to ensure that victims are supported at all stages of the process?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last month, I visited the CPS areas of London North and London South and talked about those very issues. I also visited SurvivorsUK, a charity that deals with male victims of sexual abuse, to talk about how we can support people before, during and after the process, which is a critical time.
It is indeed shocking that 98.3% of reported rapes are not even charged. In a significant number of those cases, further evidence is sought from the police by the CPS, but it simply is not provided. Has the Solicitor General asked the police and her colleagues at the Home Office why that is happening?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of collaboration between the CPS and the police. I know that they work closely together, because I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is working with the police on matters across the board, including several relating to disclosure. I recently met Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave to ensure that we get people to come forward. The number of recorded serious sexual offences is going up, but we need to improve on that, and steps are being taken by the CPS.
With the greatest respect to the Solicitor General, this is an urgent situation and that is not an answer to the specific question. The reality is that the Crown Prosecution Service is referring matters back to the police, and the police are not coming back to the Crown Prosecution Service with that further evidence.
The Solicitor General mentioned a review in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), but something has to be done about this now. Will she undertake a forensic analysis of why these statistics are so bad, and will she do something about it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that shows how the CPS and the police are working better together. The CPS is sending cases back to the police because it is reviewing those cases to ensure they are ready and will not fall when they go to court. Having spoken to the assistant commissioner, I know that 93,000 police officers have undertaken disclosure training to ensure they are better trained so that these cases are ready for trial and will secure successful prosecutions.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
I know my hon. Friend takes very seriously the importance of getting appropriate sentences for those who are convicted, and he worked closely with my predecessor on extending sentences for those who had received lenient sentences. The ULS scheme remains an important part of the justice system to ensure justice for victims’ families.
I can tell my hon. Friend that, in 2018, the Law Officers referred a fifth of all eligible cases to the Court of Appeal and, of those, 73% were found to be unduly lenient. In answer to his question, we are looking carefully at the ambit of the scheme.
It has been a long-standing promise of this Government to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme to other offences. Apart from a bit of tinkering, they have basically done very little. May I urge the Solicitor General to get on with it and extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme so that we can have appropriate sentences? That would be good for victims and for restoring people’s faith in the criminal justice system.
I assure my hon. Friend that I am looking at this with the Ministry of Justice, but the increase in the number of offences is more than just tinkering. For example, since its inception, the ULS scheme has been extended to some sexual offences, child cruelty, modern slavery and, in 2017-18, a number of terror-related offences. This is something we are looking at.
Can we have clarity on how the scheme works? I have written to Ministers complaining about too lenient sentences and about too severe sentences, and I never hear back. Can we have an explanatory memorandum on how the scheme works and what the follow-up should be?
I am happy to do so. A few hon. Members have referred cases to me, and I always write back, so I apologise if that has not happened. If any cases to do with my responsibilities come to him, I would like to know about that. We can discuss how the system works in more detail outside the Chamber but, in brief, a large number of people write to us about cases, which have to satisfy a number of thresholds. The cases have to be referred within 28 days, the sentences have to fall within the scheme and they have to be unduly lenient, not just lenient. There has to be a prospect of the Court of Appeal considering this to be outwith the range. I am happy to discuss these issues with him in more detail.
The Government have taken a number of measures in relation to knife crime, not only on which weapons can be carried but on the consequences of such offences, including restrictions on the use of the internet and curfews. The Government take this issue seriously, and I am sure the Ministry of Justice, which is in charge of sentencing, is considering these issues.
Does the Solicitor General believe this scheme is effective enough? We see that, of 943 applications under the scheme in 2017, only 143 were successful in seeing a change to a sentence. Is she prepared to review the scheme in the light of that?
I point out to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that 73% of the cases that were referred by the Attorney General’s office resulted in an increase in convictions. The reason for the disparity between the number of cases that are referred to my office and the number that go to the Court of Appeal is that a large number of them do not fall within the scheme in the first place, either because they are out of time or because the offences do not fall within the scheme. We must always remember that the judge has heard the trial, heard the evidence and read the pre-sentence report. Judges up and down the country are doing an outstanding job to ensure that, when crimes have been committed, perpetrators get the sentences that they deserve and victims get the justice that they deserve.
The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with the police and other Government Departments to prosecute these increasingly complex crimes. In that great county of Northamptonshire, in which the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is situated, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted no fewer than 337 defendants for drugs offences and secured 305 convictions in the year to 2018. The conviction rate for drugs offences in England is over 90%, and last year alone 39,000 convictions were secured by the Crown Prosecution Service for these offences.
Northamptonshire police have done much good work in recent weeks in raiding local cannabis farms and breaking up county lines drug operations linking London with Kettering and other parts of Northamptonshire. Does the Attorney General agree that, when the police catch people doing these awful things, it would help if the Crown Prosecution Service pressed for exemplary sentences to be awarded?
I strongly agree that it is necessary for us to bear down on drugs gangs, and on county lines drugs gangs. My hon. Friend will know that the Government’s serious violence strategy makes that a priority. In just one week in May, in a targeted effort of co-ordinated law enforcement activity, there were 586 arrests in connection with county lines drugs gangs, and 519 adults and 364 children were entered into safeguarding measures. That is a particularly fine record. I also agree that sentencing must be commensurate with the gravity of the crimes. We will continue to monitor and follow the drugs sentencing guidelines that are connected with these crimes.
The Attorney General is well aware that drug trafficking is an issue not just for urban areas, but for rural areas, villages and towns. How is he assisting more rural agencies, the CPS and, for example, West Mercia police in tackling drug trafficking?
My hon. Friend asks a good question in relation to rural crime. We must not forget that drugs offending extends into rural areas—quite often from the larger cities—and particularly into coastal communities such as those that I have the honour of representing. It is important that we do not lose sight of the rural dimension of drugs offences. I can assure him that we will be vigilant about ensuring that in the strategies of the Government, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, rural drugs offending is not omitted from our considerations.
In Chelmsford, we have found that the increased number of police on the ground, coupled with the firm use of stop and search, has led to a large number of arrests and then prosecutions. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is vital that all law enforcement agencies work together to tackle drugs gangs?
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend has said, and it applies, if I may say so, not only to law enforcement agencies, but to other agencies as well. We cannot forget that, particularly in county lines offending, there is a wide range of other dimensions at play and safeguarding agencies are also very important.
Leaving the EU
The priorities of my office are set out in the published business plan for this year. In relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, my priority continues to be to support the successful delivery of the Government’s objectives by giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government. I am of course also engaged in the support of preparations for future international co-operation between the Law Officers’ departments, and with prosecution and other criminal justice operations.
I am pleased to hear that the Attorney General is committed to continuing to provide sound legal advice in the face of fantasy politics, which he has a good track record in. Will he confirm that it is the Government’s position that after a no-deal Brexit, article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade cannot be unilaterally invoked to ensure a standstill in current trading arrangements, and that the EU cannot and will not be compelled to trade on that basis?
If, as appears to be the case, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), of whom the Attorney General is a supporter, does become the next Prime Minister, will the Attorney General support the right hon. Gentleman’s refusal to rule out a Prorogation of Parliament for a no-deal Brexit? Does he agree that that would surely be an act of constitutional vandalism?
Further to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the Institute for Government has noted that if Parliament was prorogued to facilitate no deal, it would not be possible to pass any Bills or the remaining secondary legislation needed to prepare the UK statute book for such an outcome. Does the Attorney General therefore agree that leaving the EU without a deal and with no functioning Parliament would lead the country into a legislative black hole at a time when people throughout the country would be looking to the Government for emergency actions?
The House has been given the opportunity of leaving the European Union with a deal on three separate occasions. I do not recall the SNP ever voting for one of them. The answer is quite simple: we can still pass a withdrawal agreement and leave the European Union in an orderly way, but it is now quite clear that the imperative to leave the European Union is overriding. We must leave, and in my view we must do so this year—on 31 October.
Sexual Abuse Conviction Rates
Sexual offences, especially rape and child sexual abuse, are devastating crimes, and across Government we are looking into how we can improve conviction rates and prosecutions in this area of law. As part of the March 2019 violence against women and girls strategy refresh, we have been collecting evidence to help to inform the making of policy going forward. That collection of evidence is now complete and we are now looking across Government at how we can improve the criminal justice system in this area.
Court business continues to be dominated by historical sex abuse cases, while conviction rates for recent crimes remain depressingly low. Does the Minister agree that the securing of convictions needs more up-front working, with victims, witnesses, social services, Victim Support, the police and other agencies, to make it easier for victims to come forward and to make the court system more user friendly? What discussions does she have with ministerial colleagues to that end?
It is absolutely right that we need to investigate those cases and work closely with stakeholders and inter-agency partners at an early stage, and that is exactly what the CPS and the police are doing. There is an inter-ministerial group on this matter, on which I serve, and we met last month to discuss these issues. A large number of stakeholders are involved in the study we are doing, including Women’s Aid, Refuge, Citizens Advice, the Survivors Trust and the Victims’ Commissioner, and they are all inputting in this important policy area. I am due to meet the Victims’ Commissioner this afternoon to discuss these issues further.
Newcastle’s sexual exploitation hub brings together the police, victim support and social services to provide a wrap-around service for victims of these horrendous crimes, particularly for vulnerable young women who often cannot access the support available for children, which is something that the Spicer review said needed to change. But there is no statutory funding for the hub; at a time when police and local authority funding is under such pressure, it risks losing its funding and ability to provide this remarkable support. Will the Minister look at providing statutory funding for hubs of this kind?
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has raised the important work that is going on in her constituency and am very happy to discuss that with her. I was very pleased to see some joint working when I went to Wales: I saw how the courts and all the inter-agencies were working together—I attended an inter-agency group that was working collaboratively. Collaborative working is essential. I am very happy to meet and to discuss the issue with her.
It is ambition, Mr Speaker.
Fantasists wrongly and unsuccessfully twice accused me of serious sexual offences.
When my hon. and learned Friend attends her inter-departmental group, will she please make sure that each person reads the book “Behind the Blue Line” by Sergeant Gurpal Virdi? It is a deeply shocking account of how one of Britain’s largest institutions brought the apparatus of the state to bear on a campaign to destroy the life of one of its own finest officers.
I would welcome the chance to meet my hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney General, or both, preferably with the Home Secretary there as well, to decide on an investigation into how the CPS and the police did such shocking things.
In relation to conviction rates for sexual abuse trials, I would like to ask the Minister whether she can comment further and perhaps in more detail—perhaps in a meeting with me—on how she is pursuing prosecutions, or how she is helping the court to pursue prosecutions, for women who are trafficked here for the purposes of sexual exploitation. They are often among the most vulnerable and often the hardest to reach as witnesses, but often the ones suffering the most egregious and appalling abuse.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measure:
Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Act 2019
Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019
Church Representation and Ministers Measure 2019.