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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Culture Recovery Fund

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (911814)

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (911816)

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (911820)

What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. (911823)

Over £1 billion-worth of funding from the culture recovery fund has already been allocated across all four nations of the UK. The funding is supporting over 3,000 arts and heritage organisations in England alone and more than 75,000 jobs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. It is great that the Government are taking the theatre sector seriously, as demonstrated by this fund, but there is so much more that we can do to help our cultural offer that is not just cash injection. I implore him to push the Government to re-engage with the European Union on visa and carnet-free travel for performers, their kit and their support teams. I know that the EU walked away from our offer, but it must be brought back to the table. Touring performers will be left with a double whammy of an industry devastated by covid and the loss of an entire continent as a venue. Will he please bang the table and get the EU back to talk on this?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for banging the table so well for the culture sector over so many years. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture has previously said, the door always remains open should our European friends wish to reconsider our mutually beneficial proposals, which would have allowed UK touring professionals to tour more easily, but they rejected them. In the meantime, where visas apply, our agreement with the EU contains measures designed to make the necessary processes as smooth as possible. A working group has been set up by the Secretary of State to look at any obstacles that might face British performers seeking to tour. We will continue to seek to co-operate with our European friends on this important issue.

The £1.5 billion culture recovery fund has provided a lifeline to the culture and heritage sector during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree, though, that public money should not be spent on ideologically motivated projects by people who hate our history and seek to rewrite it, and will he review funding allocations accordingly?

I thank my hon. Friend for his deep interest in the heritage and cultural sector, which we have talked about on many occasions. He is absolutely right that the culture recovery fund has been a lifeline for heritage and cultural organisations. These grants are intended to help organisations with essential costs associated with operating, reopening, mothballing and recovery. I can assure him that the culture recovery fund money is awarded by our arm’s length bodies according to a strict set of criteria, and the funding goes to organisations in need of serious financial support, not for ideological projects. In addition, any grant award above £1 million is reviewed by the independent Culture Recovery Board to add additional assurance that funding is going where it is most needed.

Because of the nature of the industry, many performers organise their business in such a way that they sometimes fall through the cracks of Government support. What support is the Minister making available to performers who are not in an eligible organisation for the purposes of the culture recovery fund, such as ballet dancers, actors, musicians and many more?

May I first take the opportunity to wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday?

The Government have supported self-employed persons in the performing arts sector through a number of pan-economic schemes, including the self-employment income support scheme. According to the latest statistics, over two thirds of self-employed people have been eligible for this scheme. Tens of thousands have been eligible within the culture sector, and they have claimed during its first, second and third phases. In addition, Arts Council England has given over £47 million in awards to individuals through non-CRF funds in this financial year alone, and that is on top of the 75,000 jobs being sustained through the CRF directly.

Aerospace Bristol in my constituency is very grateful to the Government for the support it received from its successful bid during the first round of the culture recovery fund, which was in excess of £500,000. Like many other museums, it will continue to need revenue support until it can reopen. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the current bid by Aerospace Bristol under round 2 of the fund will be given a sympathetic hearing?

I was very pleased that the excellent aerospace museum in my hon. Friend’s constituency received money from the culture recovery fund in the first round. It is a wonderful showcase of world-class British engineering, and I can confirm that organisations in receipt of grant funding from the first round of the CRF were eligible to apply to the second round. I am sure that the Aerospace Bristol museum will get a fair hearing as he requests, but it is important to say that all decisions on CRF grants are made by our independent arm’s length bodies, which are committed to a transparent and robust decision-making process.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) just now—happy birthday to her—I think I heard the Minister say that a third of self-employed people in the creative sector were not able to access the self-employment scheme, minus those supported by extra schemes made available by Arts Council England, which I think he said was about £47 million of support. Can he calculate for us how many people in the creative sector have been forgotten by the support schemes so far? Will he say what representations he has made to the Treasury to aid that remaining number of people?

I thank the hon. Lady. To clarify, I said that over two thirds of people who are self-employed in the country have been eligible for self-employment income support. Within the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, more than 60,000 people applied for and have received SEIS funding in phase 3. Some 76,000 did so in phase 1, and 72,000 did so in phase 2. As I said, Arts Council England has given additional support to the tune of £47 million of awards to individuals through non-CRF funds already.

The culture recovery fund was a great advent, but it will only go so far. It was never intended to cover three lockdowns and potentially 18 months of disruption. The news that the Lowry in Manchester has relaunched its emergency public appeal is a warning beacon blazing in our cultural landscape. Does the Minister recognise that more targeted help will be needed for our world-leading arts and cultural sectors? What plans are in train to deliver that help? Is a culture recovery fund 2 necessary?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I take the opportunity to recognise what a champion he is for our country’s cultural and creative industries. Some £400 million of CRF funding was held back from the first round of funding as a contingency to support cultural organisations later on in the pandemic. That now forms the basis of the second round of grant funding, which is currently being processed. I can assure him that we will continue to work with organisations to support flexibility in their plans, should the wider context change following awards being made. We have already extended the time period over which some of the original funds can be spent, and we are always in conversations with the Chancellor and the Treasury.

Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

We remain on track to deliver a fantastic games on time and on budget. It will bring lasting benefits for Birmingham, the west midlands and the whole country. The west midlands region will benefit from a £778 million investment to stage the 2022 Commonwealth games in Birmingham, including £594 million of funding from central Government. Along with our partners, we continue to work hard to deliver the games in what are obviously very challenging circumstances.

I know many people, including me, are looking forward to the Commonwealth games next year. I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but does he also agree that the games will give a much-needed boost to the tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as providing excellent opportunities and a lasting legacy for people and businesses in Staffordshire and across the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Birmingham 2022 will be largest sporting event ever held in the west midlands, delivering a wealth of excellent opportunities, including £350 million in procurement opportunities for local businesses, world-class sporting facilities, a comprehensive volunteering programme and a vibrant cultural programme. The organising committee has created a dedicated business portal called “FinditinBirmingham”, where any business can register to be informed about procurement opportunities. To date, more than 40 opportunities worth around £250 million have been listed on the portal. In addition, our excellent, top-calibre West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has championed a £24 million business and tourism programme to help maximise the considerable long-term opportunities for the games.

EU Travel: Performing Artists

What recent steps his Department has taken towards establishing cultural visas for (a) performing artists, (b) musicians and (c) support staff with the EU. (911817)

What recent steps his Department has taken towards establishing cultural visas for (a) performing artists, (b) musicians and (c) support staff with the EU. (911837)

The UK’s creative industries are the finest in the world, and this Government are, of course, determined to support them. I deeply regret that the EU rejected our proposals, which would have enabled performers, artists and support staff to work freely across Europe. In recent weeks, I have discussed our approach with leading voices from music, including the head of Universal Music globally and, yesterday, Sir Elton John and his manager, David Furnish. We are working urgently to develop a plan to make it easier to tour across all of Europe.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, such as it was. This Government’s Brexit reality has the live music industry staring into the abyss and sports such as Formula 1 unable to operate sufficiently. Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, has said that his industry has been dealt a no-deal Brexit due to the UK Government’s refusal to get a deal on touring visas with the EU. Will the Secretary of State assure the music industry, F1 and others that he will put their livelihoods before anti-free movement platitudes and go back to the negotiating table with the EU?

Of course we continue to engage with the EU. As I say, I deeply regret that it rejected our offer. It is worth noting that what we put forward was what the music industry had asked for. We will continue to engage with the music industry, and there are opportunities both with individual member states and with the Commission directly.

One of my constituents is the orchestral leader of two major British orchestras. More than 50% of her work with British orchestras is touring abroad in the EU, but she is a self-employed musician, so she does not have anybody to wade through all this new red tape for her. Putting covid to one side, by what specific date does the Secretary of State hope to fix this absurd, bureaucratic, self-defeating situation, so that self-employed musicians can enjoy visa-free travel in the EU?

I agree with the hon. Lady: it is absurd and self-defeating. It could have been solved, and it could still be solved today by the EU matching the offer that we have unilaterally made to EU nationals. She talks about support. I know her constituency well; it neighbours mine. For example, The Horn music venue in her constituency, which is a home to emergent artists, has received a quarter of a million pounds under the culture recovery fund. The Goblin theatre has received £51,000. Wind and Foster has received £63,000. We are demonstrating as a Government through our actions that we are standing behind culture in this country.

The Government are very keen to blame the EU for the barriers being put in place for touring musicians, but Brexit was born and bred in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that the onus is on this Government to fix the abject failure in statecraft, and can he confirm what urgent steps are being taken to ensure that touring musicians do not become yet another example of the collateral damage of Brexit?

First, I would like to reassure touring musicians and all those in the creative industry. I know how important the opportunity to tour is for them; it is something I discussed just yesterday with Elton John, and I have discussed it with many others. It is a vital part of them building their careers. That is why we have set up the working group with musicians, so that we can find ways of supporting them to continue to tour not just in Europe but across the whole world. There are huge opportunities for the industry.

Sorry. I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is working with the EU on this. Music is worth £5.8 billion to the UK economy, and I have been surprised at how many Putney residents and businesses rely on touring. I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is working on a future plan. Will that plan be across the EU, not requiring red tape for each individual country, which will be a huge barrier? What is the Government’s plan to ensure that creative workers do not miss out on vital earning opportunities and a chance to represent Britain on the global stage?

I share the hon. Lady’s passion for the creative industries. That is why we have put the support in, including in her own constituency. For example, the World Heart Beat Music Academy has received over £100,000, and the Exodus track and the Deptford Northern Soul Club have received over £50,000. On what we are doing to promote touring, there are basically three threads to it: first, we are working with the industry to help it overcome barriers. Secondly, we are working across Government to overcome barriers; and, thirdly, we continue to engage both with the Commission and member states to see what further support we can provide.

I deeply regret that Ministers have rejected the EU’s offer. Like petulant weans, Ministers have walked away from negotiations on musicians’ and artists’ visas. The Government did not get what they wanted, and have given up. Stating that the UK’s door remains open is simply not good enough for the people who desperately need visa-free travel in the EU. Without it, there will be disastrous consequences. British haulage firms go on tours, but they will go bust. British crews will lose out to cheaper competitors from the EU, and all but the most successful bands will struggle to tour in Europe. The result will be bad for the economy and bad for culture. Surely the Secretary of State must now realise, as so many Tory MPs do, that renegotiations are the only option. Going off in a huff is not the answer; this is all far too important.

To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the reason why we rejected the offer from the European Union, which he seems so keen to accept, was that it was not binding, it did not cover touring, it did not cover technical support staff and, crucially, it did not cover work permits. Of course, we continue to engage with it, but I must say to him that the most devastating consequences for musicians in Scotland would be to rip our precious shared cultural heritage apart by pulling Scotland out of our Union—I would note that £450 million a year is generated in Scotland through domestic music tourism; 90% of the revenue is through domestic markets—and that would be terrible for Scottish musicians.

Far-right Online Conspiracy Theories

The Government take the issue of disinformation, including far-right conspiracy theories, very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle this. Our counter-disinformation unit brings together monitoring and analysis capabilities across Government, and we work closely with social media platforms to ensure that swift action is taken and authoritative sources of information are promoted.

To tackle far-right extremism and conspiracy theories that undermine our vaccine roll-out, new legislation is urgently needed. Social media companies must take responsibility for the content shared on their platforms. Can the Minister therefore update the House on when the online harms Bill will be introduced, and give her assurances that the Bill will achieve this vital aim, which will keep our country safe?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I have said, tackling disinformation in all its forms, including vaccine disinformation, remains a key priority for the UK. As we set out in the full Government response, the online safety Bill will introduce a duty of care that requires companies to address online harms such as harmful disinformation that could impact on people’s health and safety on their platforms, and that legislation will be put forward this year.

Mr Speaker:

“No one should have to accept racist abuse as the price to pay for being in the public eye”,

the Secretary of State assured footballers. No one should have to accept racist abuse full stop, and no one should be subject to extremist grooming or have their lives endangered by anti-vax misinformation, but they are, and for 10 years Conservative Governments have refused to act. As the head of UK Counter Terrorism Policing tells us, extremism has become so widespread online that it “cannot be policed”. Will the Minister say what steps she has taken to protect us and, please, no more vague assurances for the future?

Of course, we want the internet to be a very safe space for all users, and we are very clear that what is unacceptable online is just as important as what is unacceptable offline. That is why we are absolutely committed to tackling extremist views, racist views and views that promote violence, hatred and division against individuals and against communities. We want the internet to be a safe space for all users, which is why the online harms framework will require companies to have very clear terms and conditions about how they would respond to such hateful content, and they will be expected to implement those conditions consistently and transparently.

Covid-19: Leisure Centres

Sport and physical activity are incredibly important for our physical and mental health and are a vital weapon against corona- virus. The Government recognise the integral role local leisure centres play in providing vital facilities within their communities, and last year the Government announced a £100 million national leisure recovery fund to support public sector leisure centres to reopen. Applications to the scheme have now closed, but I am pleased to say that over 99% of local authorities that were eligible for the scheme have applied, and funding decisions are currently being made and will be announced shortly.

Dalton community leisure centre in my constituency is badly in need of support. It is a fantastic organisation—a community-run charity with a devoted team led by Bernard McPeake—but covid has hit it very hard, with losses running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. It supports 17 schools and the national leisure centre recovery fund offers a ray of hope. What comfort can my hon. Friend offer organisations like Dalton that they will be supported by this scheme?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the pivotal role played by Dalton community leisure centre, and indeed leisure centres up and down the country, in sustaining physical and mental health in their communities. That is precisely why we announced the fund. I cannot pre-empt the award that my hon. Friend will be getting locally at this moment in time, but of course we know it will make a real impact for the reasons he articulated. Also, as we have said before, reopening sports facilities overall will be an absolute priority when the time comes to begin easing some of the current restrictions.

Digital Divide

Now more than ever it is obvious that the value of closing the digital divide is great. That is why we have worked with industry to provide the connectivity for vulnerable users that they need, why we will continue to encourage providers to offer social tariffs, and why, to boost digital skills, adults can undertake specified digital qualifications up to level 1 free of charge.

Coronavirus and lockdown has sped up society’s reliance on online services, but 42% of those aged 75 and above do not use the internet and Age UK says that

“there is little evidence that the pandemic has led to significant numbers of those previously digitally excluded getting online”,

so what are the Government doing to help older people access the equipment and training they need to get online, and to ensure that essential services such as NHS services and banking continue to be delivered equally to those who remain offline?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the need for that equality of access. The Department continues to work across government to make sure that, whether for supermarkets or banks, there is that equality of access, and of course the NHS makes all the efforts it can, as it has recently in the vaccination programme, to ensure that people are contacted in a way that suits them. But the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the issue, and it is why the Department will also work with organisations such as Citizens Advice to tackle what is a perennial problem.

Anti-Vaccination Content Online

The Government take the issue of vaccine misinformation very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle this through the counter-disinformation unit. We are working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and take action to remove incorrect claims about the virus, including anti-vax content that could endanger people’s health.

My sister is bravely battling cancer for the second time, so I was excited to tell everyone who has supported her on social media last night that she would be receiving her vaccine on Saturday. Within minutes, some very special individual was spouting anti-vax nonsense on that post. In six months last year, Facebook removed 12 million pieces of content and put labels on 167 million more that failed fact checking. Anti-vax rhetoric puts lives at risk. What practical steps can my hon. Friend take to work with social media platforms to make the point that freedom of speech is not absolute if it leads to societal harm?

It is lovely to see my hon. Friend in real life. I am very sorry to hear about his sister’s health concerns. I wish her a very speedy recovery and I am really pleased that she has got her vaccination.

Freedom of expression is an essential quality for a thriving democracy, but the act of sharing misinformation should not be confused with well-intentioned citizens asking perfectly valid questions about the safety of the vaccine. Of course, it is really important that harmful disinformation that is designed to undermine people’s confidence in these vital vaccines is addressed and removed as quickly as possible. That is why we are working so closely with social media platforms and have secured a commitment with them to ensure that authoritative messages about vaccine safety reach as many people as possible.

Topical Questions

Last week, I met a number of footballers to discuss the issue of racist and misogynistic abuse on social media as part of a series of roundtables on the future of football. To be clear, we will not tolerate racism in any form, and we are committed to holding platforms to account through our new online safety laws, which we set out to the House in December. I also held a roundtable this week with players and campaigners across a number of sports to discuss the issue of concussion and what more can be done to improve player safety. Of course, in the meantime, we continue to work across Government on a road map for the recovery and reopening of our sectors.

The hopes and ambitions of thousands of Newcastle United fans for their great club are caught in limbo due to the ongoing takeover saga that the English Premier League helped to create. Can there be a more pressing reason for the Secretary of State to deliver the fan-led review of football governance promised in his party’s 2019 manifesto?

I reassure the hon. Lady that I remain firmly committed to the fan-led review, and events such as the meetings to discuss racism that I mentioned will help to frame it. Certainly, the events relating to football finance over the past year have demonstrated the need for that, and we will be making further progress on it this year.

If I were to make a report of online abuse to a social media company, it is likely that a team halfway across the world would look at it and that I would not get a response for a few weeks. It may even not be classed as abuse, because the team may not understand nuances in the English language. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be better for social media companies to use UK-based teams that understand nuances in the English language—what is abuse and what is not—and are therefore quicker in responding and perhaps more effective in stamping out online abuse and racism? (911775)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and that is something that I have raised with social media companies. I know that many people are concerned that the moderators are not actually based in the United Kingdom, and speed of response is crucial. Through our online safety Bill, we will require social media companies to take swift and effective action against criminal abuse online, and as part of that we will put in place effective user reporting and redress mechanisms.

I am not quite sure about that yet, Mr Speaker, but thank you for the introduction.

The Minister for Media and Data, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is not in his place this morning, has rightly won praise for his work on journalistic freedom and the protection of journalists, so may I ask the Secretary of State what advice he would give to fellow Ministers who respond to standard queries from journalists with public attacks and Twitter pile-ons?

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place and, on behalf of the whole Conservative party, wishing the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) a swift recovery? I know that she is doing very well.

The hon. Gentleman mentions press freedoms. I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Media. We will shortly be publishing the material to which the hon. Gentleman refers—that is to say, the action plan to provide safety for journalists. That will be coming forth very shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens); she will be watching and will be very grateful.

Ofcom is to become a super-regulator with a huge breadth of responsibilities and all their technical complexities, particularly in the digital sphere: online harms and safety, the BBC and broadcasting in general, security of telecoms infrastructure against hostile threats, broadband, and the Post Office. Does the Secretary of State agree that the new chair of Ofcom should have at least some knowledge of and experience in those complex sectors in order to be appointed?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the position of Ofcom chair is vacant. I can update the House that I will shortly be launching the competition for that new role, and a number of excellent candidates have already expressed an interest.

I have grave concerns about restricting the advertising of products that are high in fat, sugar and salt, because I am not convinced that a level playing field on enforcement can be achieved between broadcasters and online platforms. How does my right hon. Friend plan to make such platforms legally responsible under statutory rules for ensuring that advertising for food and drink that is high in fat, sugar and salt does not appear online? (911777)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Covid has been a stark reminder of the importance of reducing obesity, and that is why it is right that we look to restrict the advertising of those products. I have been clear from the beginning in my discussions with the Prime Minister and others that we must ensure equivalence between the approaches to traditional broadcasting platforms and online. Any restrictions should not disproportionately disadvantage broadcasters over online providers, which is why we will bring in reforms to both media at the same time.

In the light of the arrest of freelance photographer and National Union of Journalists member Andy Aitchison following his reporting on a demonstration at Napier barracks in Kent, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to prevent undue interference with the freedom of the press to freely report on the conditions in which asylum seekers are held? (911776)

Freedom of expression is one of the cherished liberties that we have fought for, and one that Members of this House have defended for generations. I fully intend to continue to promote freedom of expression. As part of that, we will be publishing the plan for the protection of journalists, which will be coming forward shortly, as I said to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)

Many people, including those with very limited resources, suffer online harms as a result of financial scams promoted on the likes of Facebook and Google. Will my right hon. Friend consider including protections and provisions against that in his forthcoming online harms legislation? (911780)

Like my hon. Friend, I am deeply concerned about the growth of online fraud, and we are working closely with industry and law enforcement to disrupt those committing crimes online. While the online harms legislation will focus on user-generated content, we are also determined to tackle fraud such as phishing and fake websites. The Government’s “Cyber Aware” campaign has been set up to inform the public about how to keep safe online.

I hope the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the team at Celtic Connections on an amazing virtual festival over the past few weeks, but the artists performing there are desperate to get back in front of live audiences, including many of my constituents. Instead of indulging in a blame game with the European Union, when will there be actual progress on ensuring visa-free travel for our world-class artists? (911778)

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Celtic Connections on the huge success of its first wholly virtual festival, with more than 27,000 tickets sold and audiences tuning in from over 16 countries. That is testament to the strength of our United Kingdom. Of course, I will continue to work to provide ways to ensure that artists can continue to tour, but it is a bit rich for the Scottish nationalist party to talk about blame games; they are virtually its raison d’être.

The Six Nations rugby tournament starts this weekend, with England playing Scotland at what will be a sadly empty Twickenham stadium, but at club level matches are not permitted. What plans does the Minister have to encourage players of all sports, just as soon as it is safe to do so, to get back on to the pitch? (911783)

Like my hon. Friend, I very much regret that there will not be fans in the stadiums for the Six Nations, particularly after the interrupted tournament last year, but we in this House all understand the reasons why. We have had to take decisive action to maintain this national lockdown, but we will be working to get fans back in stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service: Apprenticeships

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of apprenticeship opportunities with the Crown Prosecution Service. (911864)

The Crown Prosecution Service offers a range of apprenticeships across the legal, human resources, finance, project management, leadership and management professions and has launched a flagship solicitor apprenticeship. The CPS has consistently exceeded the Government’s apprenticeship target. It currently employs 287 apprentices and a further 94 are about to enrol on a programme. This year, the CPS will also launch a pilot programme recruiting apprentices from low socioeconomic backgrounds to meet its diversifying law agenda.

I am grateful for that answer. It is encouraging to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service is offering lots of apprenticeships. However, it is really important that those opportunities are based not just in London but across the whole country, so I ask the Minister: what apprenticeships are being offered in places such as the High Peak?

A very good point. The CPS is actively contributing to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, offering apprenticeships across the board in a number of professions across England and Wales. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands, where High Peak is, covers my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it has had 30 apprentices since 2016 and currently has two members of staff undertaking a solicitor apprenticeship. Upon completion of that, the solicitor apprenticeship results in fully qualified solicitor status and a role as Crown prosecutor.

There is a backlog of 55,000 cases in our Crown courts, victims are waiting years for their cases to be heard, and CPS letters fail to be of standard nearly 50% of the time. While we welcome apprenticeships in the CPS, staff levels were cut by 31% between 2011 and 2019, so why have the Government Law Officers failed to get to grips with the fundamental crisis facing the CPS and our criminal justice system?

I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Lady puts on the Crown Prosecution Service. Indeed, it is performing very well and the inspectorate confirms that. The position, of course, is—it is National Apprenticeship Week next week—that I and the Government very much support apprenticeships, and it is right that the CPS does the work that it does to support young people and people from other socioeconomic backgrounds in getting apprenticeships. I hope that she is as supportive as we are of apprenticeships. The reality is that the apprenticeship programme has meant that currently at the CPS, 3.8% of the workforce are apprentices, and that is compared with a national target of 2.3%. This is another parameter in which the Crown Prosecution Service is actually doing very well.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The unduly lenient sentence scheme is a vital safeguard in our criminal justice system. It permits me to intervene personally in a case where I consider that a sentencing judge has fallen into a gross error and imposed a sentence that is outside the reasonable range. Sentencing judges do get it right the vast majority of the time, but in those rare cases where they get it wrong, this is a very good scheme that ensures that justice is served.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is my constituents’ view and, I think, the view of constituents up and down the country that too many sentences are too lenient. Do the Law Officers and the Government have any plans to ensure that sentences are at a level that ensures public confidence in the judicial process?

I know that my hon. Friend speaks for his constituents and always has done. It is right to say, though, that our judiciary is admired around the world for its impartiality, intelligence, independence and intellectual rigour. It is of essential importance to the rule of law. I can, therefore, reassure my hon. Friend, and reiterate to him that it is rare for judges to get sentencing wrong. It is, of course, important that sentences reflect the seriousness of offending, and I have gone to court myself on several occasions to seek referral of sentences where we have felt they have been too low. However, generally speaking, he will find that sentences meet the gravamen of the crimes.

Serious Fraud Office

I regularly meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office and her senior leadership team to discuss the SFO’s progress in tackling the top level of serious and complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The SFO takes on some of the most complex and difficult cases, and it has delivered significant successes. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the SFO’s successful judicial outcomes rate was 95% by case and 62% by defendant. To date in this financial year, the SFO has agreed two deferred prosecution agreements, making a contribution to Her Majesty’s Treasury thereby of over £44 million, including its costs, demonstrating significant value for money.

May I remind the Minister that many people believe that the Serious Fraud Office is seriously underfunded and under-resourced? It has just abandoned its inquiry into British American Tobacco. It is not able to take on the big boys and girls that cause the real trouble here, including serious financial misdeeds. When is he going to start again, look at the Serious Fraud Office, and give it the resources it needs to go after these real problems?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the interest he takes in the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Serious Fraud Office in particular. I know that he has a history of doing so, and we are grateful for it.

The reality is that the SFO has proper funding. The Attorney General and I meet the leaders of the Serious Fraud Office on a regular basis, and they know that this Government support them in what they do. They have, after all, obtained guilty pleas for bribery offences in the Petrofac case. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one other matter, but the reality is that they have secured convictions and guilty pleas in the Unaoil case, and agreed deferred prosecution agreements with Airbus and Airline Services. In a whole litany of cases they have secured very good results. Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that there are always more resources that could be utilised, we will continue to support the Serious Fraud Office in its very good work.

May I start by asking the Solicitor General to convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General the good wishes of myself and the members of the Select Committee on Justice, as I know she is due to start her maternity leave before we have the next session of questions to the Law Officers?

Does the Solicitor General recognise that it is not just a matter of resources? Both the current and previous directors of the Serious Fraud Office have pointed out that they are handicapped in dealing with some of the most significant corporate crime, because the United Kingdom’s law on corporate criminal responsibility—in particular, the need to identify those who are the “directing mind” of the company—does not reflect well modern corporate practice. Will he confirm that there will be swift action once the Law Commission, which the Government have asked to look at this matter, reports at the end of the year, so that we come up to speed and be able to tackle serious corporate crime more effectively, in much the same way as the United States can because it has a more modern and effective legal test?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his remarks. I will convey his remarks—in fact, I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will have heard them—wishing her well.

As far as the ability of the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute matters is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, these issues are kept under constant review. They are very complex cases, and it is right that the law must keep up with issues at hand to enable the Serious Fraud Office and, where appropriate, the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct those services effectively. Those matters are always kept under close review.

Crown Prosecution Service: Fraud Cases

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911867)

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911873)

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911877)

The CPS continues to work with the police and other investigators to prosecute criminal cases involving fraud. In 2019-20, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence. It also has a dedicated specialist fraud division to deal with serious, complex and difficult cases of fraud that can often result in huge financial loss to victims.

Constituents in West Bromwich East have made me aware of some of the latest scams that criminals are using to exploit the public at this difficult time. They include text messages about covid-related grants and even criminals going door to door pretending to sell vaccine doses. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update us on any discussions she has had with the CPS about these specific types of fraud cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Crimes where covid is the context for exploitation and fraudulent behaviour are completely sickening. The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear in his interim charging protocol that offences related to covid, including fraud, will be prioritised and that the offenders will be prosecuted. The joint inspectorate report commended the CPS’s response to the pandemic, including its ability to move to remote working without any major service interruption. That was noted as a major achievement.

Those who use this pandemic to exploit vulnerable people really are the lowest of the low. In Redcar and Cleveland, we have had a number of examples of fraudsters trying to trick elderly people in particular with fake vaccines and scam NHS emails. What more can the Government do to crack down on those types of criminals?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this sickening trend. The Government are committed to stopping criminals benefiting from their ill-gotten gains. In 2019-20, the CPS successfully used its specialist prosecutors to seize more than £100 million through confiscation orders across all offence types.

Over the pandemic, we have seen scammers claiming to be from Her Majesty’ Revenue and Customs, Royal Mail delivery scams, NatWest urging scam warnings out to its customers and, perhaps the lowest of the low, an NHS vaccine scam. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline how the CPS is working in partnership with those organisations to tackle fraud?

We are aware that cyber-criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit opportunities around the pandemic, as I have said. That is why the Government have invested in the National Economic Crime Centre, which is leading a multi-agency response to tackle serious and organised fraud during the pandemic. The CPS continues to play a key role in this effort, providing early investigative support in serious fraud cases.

I, too, would like to join the Chairman of the Select Committee in wishing the Attorney General the very best for the birth of her child and maternity leave afterwards.

At a time when we are hearing about more disturbing cases of fraud, not just against private citizens but against the state and the public purse, will the Attorney General continue to give us information through the House of Commons Library, publicising the success stories of the CPS in following, tackling and prosecuting those fraudsters?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind wishes. He is right to highlight the successes that the CPS has had in tackling serious fraud. In recent months, the serious fraud division has brought three high-value investment scammers to justice. These include Joseph Lewis, who ran a £20 million Ponzi scheme fraud for a decade and was sentenced to five years and four months’ imprisonment, and Freddy David, an authorised financial consultant who was operating a parallel Ponzi fraud which resulted in a loss of £10.4 million to his victims. He was sentenced to a total of six years in prison and was issued with a confiscation order for just over £1 million.

Covid-19: Pro Bono Legal Services

I have heard directly from members of both my pro bono committee and the Public Legal Education Committee on the impact of the pandemic on their work. I know that the legal profession has continued valiantly to undertake pro bono work throughout this crisis, and I would like to restate my gratitude to all those who have volunteered their time and experience during this difficult time. It makes me proud to be one of the Government’s pro bono champions.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend how my constituents can feel confident that they can still access the pro bono support they need, despite the pandemic?

My hon. Friend asks a good question, and his constituents should feel confident. I was heartened to hear of the overwhelming number of legal professionals across the country who have stepped forward to offer assistance during the pandemic. It is a true testament to the very nature of pro bono; as a tool, it is there to give back and help those most in need. I heard from members of my pro bono committee in September about the impact of the pandemic on their services, and the resilience and flexibility that they have shown in the face of such adversity is very impressive and much appreciated.

Domestic Violence Prosecutions

What discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on (a) identifying and (b) publishing the reasons for the change in the rate of prosecutions relating to domestic abuse in the last 12 months. (911876)

The Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown, of course, by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that justice is delivered in such cases. In fact, I personally successfully presented the first unduly lenient sentence case of its kind at the Court of Appeal last year on coercive and controlling behaviour. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between the reporting of these offences and criminal justice outcomes.

About a fifth of crimes reported in lockdown have involved domestic abuse, and there is real concern that the number of specialist domestic violence courts seems to be reducing. Will the Minister commit to strengthen the system and increase the number of specialised courts, so that we can support the hard work of the police and support victims at trial?

That is a very good question. We are always looking at ways in which we can support those engaged in this important work. The Government have recently announced several funding packages linked to domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse. During the pandemic, the CPS has continued to prioritise domestic abuse cases. In addition to the interim charging protocol, a memorandum of understanding on the subject of domestic abuse was agreed in June across the whole criminal justice system. It supports multi-agency pre-hearing case progression for domestic abuse cases that are listed for trial.

Despite what the Minister says, domestic abuse prosecutions continue to plummet. They had already fallen off the cliff edge before the pandemic hit the justice system, with an annual decrease of some 22% in the year up to March 2020. Will he tell me what pre-emptive action is being taken now to stop this freefall and maintain the confidence of the victims of these deplorable crimes?

I hate to focus on this issue, but the reality is that of course all prosecutions have been affected by the pandemic. The whole courts system, as well as most other functioning systems in this country, are necessarily adversely affected by the pandemic. However, the hon. Gentleman has my assurance, and that of the Government, that domestic abuse cases are among the highest priority in the criminal justice system. On joint interim charging, for example, guidance issued by the police and the CPS immediately following the outbreak of covid-19 stated and confirmed that cases should be prioritised where the defendant is being held in custody, and that specifically included high-risk domestic abuse cases. So we are keeping our eye on this. These are extremely important cases and they must and should continue to be given the priority that they deserve.

I, too, offer my congratulations to the Attorney General on her forthcoming maternity leave.

As well as domestic violence prosecutions being down 19%, victims are left waiting for months for their cases to go to court and are increasingly being told to pursue civil cases instead. Despite the Solicitor General’s warm words, it is clear that the Government are letting victims down on every front. With the huge barriers facing victims of domestic abuse, will the Solicitor General join me today in backing the Bar Council’s call for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available to victims in the upcoming spending review?

Of course, I have to leave spending review issues to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer, but the reality is that the CPS best practice domestic abuse framework seeks to address withdrawal rates by delivering a high-quality service to victims, and it encourages more timely court listings. As the hon. Lady knows, we cannot always guarantee immediate court listings, but the CPS does encourage more timely court listings for this type of case. The provision of holistic support for victims—including, where appropriate, the support of an independent domestic abuse adviser—is very important. Funding is going into this issue and it is being given priority. More can be done—the hon. Lady is right and in agreement with Government Members that this is an important area of priority—and we will continue to focus on the issue.

Order. I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.