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Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021

This month’s Budget provided further support to sports, arts, tourism, heritage and creative industries, including an extra £700 million to help cultural and sports venues reopen their doors when restrictions ease, and an extension to our hugely successful film and TV production restart scheme. The Budget also included several measures to put tech and digital connectivity at the heart of our recovery, including half a billion pounds for the Help to Grow scheme, and last week I published our 10 tech priorities for the coming year.

As we move from rescue to recovery, we have announced a number of pilots to help get people back, including at the FA cup final. I met the events research programme again on Tuesday; as a first step, I look forward to the return of grassroots sports on 29 March.

As highlighted earlier by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the FA vase final between Hebburn Town and Consett AFC has been rescheduled to take place behind closed doors at Wembley stadium on 3 May. This is the biggest match in Hebburn Town FC’s history, so I want to add my support on this issue. Will the Secretary of State work with the FA to make the final a pilot event for allowing the safe return of spectators to such sporting events?

I share the hon. Lady’s desire to get sports fans back in stadiums as quickly as we can, as has been highlighted by my colleagues on the Government Benches. We have already set out a road map, and I think it is important to people that we stick to that road map, which would see fans returning socially distanced from 17 May.

We have already set out a pilot for the FA cup final. It is important to understand what these pilots are about. They are about testing fans coming into and out of stadiums; they are not windows to allow extra events to happen. We will of course keep this under review, and if there were a possibility, of course I would grab it.

Despite warm words from mobile phone operators and promises to Government, communities such as Broughton in my constituency are still waiting for companies such as O2 to make good on their promises to give us halfway decent mobile phone coverage. What more can the Government do to push the mobile phone companies to make sure that we get the service we are paying for up here? (913550)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for speed. As he will know, the shared rural network will see the Government and industry jointly investing over £1 billion to increase 4G coverage throughout the UK. On 5G, over 200 towns and cities already have 5G, and our ambition is for the vast majority to have it by 2027. In addition, as my hon. Friend has outlined, building on today’s welcome announcement from Ofcom, I will shortly be providing further details on our plans to make the UK giga-fit.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen an outpouring of grief over the death of Sarah Everard, and we have read and heard numerous accounts of women made to feel unsafe in their daily lives. The Secretary of State will know that words online often translate into actions offline. Last June, he said at the Dispatch Box that the online harms Bill, which was supposed to follow the White Paper published two years ago next month, would be introduced before the end of this parliamentary Session. We are still waiting. Does he accept that the continuing delay has left women and girls at risk for too long, and does he commit to measures to protect them online when he finally publishes the Bill?

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Lady back to her rightful place in the Chamber? She is absolutely right to highlight the issue of online abuse of women. That is why our internet safety Bill will bring forward measures to help protect women online, including measures to enable them to better report abuse, and will also ensure that they should get appropriate responses from platforms. That could include, for example, the removal of harmful content, sanctions against offending users, or changes to processes and policies to support better protection. This is a real priority. We will bring forward the draft legislation at the beginning of the new parliamentary Session, and by the end of the year the full Bill will be before the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his words. I know that he has a very well-publicised interest in the nation’s heritage, particularly in statues, telling museums and gallery experts how to do their jobs through the policy of “retain and explain”, so perhaps he can explain today what input his Department had into the Government’s legislation this week that provides for longer sentences for hitting statues than those that have been given for raping women.

I really wish that Members in this House would take a more temperate approach towards this. The hon. Lady knows full well that the most serious violent and sexual offences, including grievous bodily harm with intent to rape, already carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The purpose of what we are introducing in respect of statues is to help protect statues that have tremendous emotional value—for example, the Cenotaph and others—but that may have quite low financial value.

If it is now the Labour party’s position to oppose “retain and explain”—that may be the case; I have heard from the Leader of the Opposition that he thinks that some statues may need to come down—perhaps she could explain which statues she thinks should be removed from this country’s glorious heritage.

What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to support the recovery of towns with large hospitality and tourism economies from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic? (913553)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I know of his passionate concern about this. The Government have introduced a range of targeted measures to support hospitality and tourism through covid-19, including business rates relief and the new restart support grants, as well as the 5% VAT rate. He will know that his Southport constituency is receiving £37.5 million from the £1 billion towns fund, and that will support the development of new projects there, including a new waterfront conference centre.

Yesterday, the Government announced that superfast broadband coverage was going to be 97%. That is great: well done, Her Majesty’s Government! In my constituency, the coverage is—can you believe it, Mr Speaker?—78% and yesterday Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister responsible, announced that we would not achieve the full figure until 2026, having already promised delivery by this year. My plea is very simple: please will Her Majesty’s Government step in and sort this out? (913551)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The UK Government have provided over £100 million to deliver broadband in Scotland and it really is deeply disappointing to see that the Scottish Government are still failing to deliver the R100 programme effectively. The Scottish National party, I believe, promised 100% superfast coverage by 2021—yet another broken promise. We have already announced that central Scotland will be the very first part of the UK to benefit from our £5 billion investment in Project Gigabit, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be a stronger role for the UK Government in delivering this programme going forward.

The Department has done great work in bringing superfast and gigabit broadband to much of my constituency, but there are still blackspots. Will my right hon. Friend consider asking Ofcom and Building Digital UK to reconsider their decision to exclude properties in the RG20 and RG17 postcodes from the gigabit batches? (913555)

As my hon. Friend will know, we are on a national mission to transform our digital infrastructure, spanning the length and breadth of the UK, and our plans to invest £5 billion in connecting hard-to-reach communities include many rural properties in the RG17 and RG20 postcodes. We will shortly be announcing Project Gigabit, our plan to make the UK giga-fit, and I look forward to updating the House on details.

The chair of the BBC has a responsibility to ensure the independence of the corporation and to uphold its values, so what was it about the CV of a multimillionaire Conservative party donor and close associate of the Chancellor, Richard Sharp, that first attracted the Government to appoint him as chair of the corporation? And do the Government consider the fact that he once managed a firm that funded a property company described by a Conservative MP as creating “modern ghettos for the vulnerable” to be consistent with the values that the corporation ought to be upholding? (913552)

I think that an excellent choice has been made in the choice of the new chair of the BBC. He is a person with considerable financial and commercial experience who is deeply committed to the BBC, and it would be better if the hon. Gentleman refrained from making such slurs against him.