Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Tourism Industry: Covid-19
We recognise the impact of covid-19 on the tourism industry, which is why we published the tourism recovery plan to help the sector to return to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as possible and build back better for the future. The Government have already provided over £25 billion of support to the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors in the form of grants, loans and tax breaks. As our plan sets out, we will continue to support the sector as it recovers.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for his visit last week to my beautiful constituency of Eastbourne, where he will have seen no shortage of ambition or potential—only a shortage of new recruits to the hospitality workforce. What plans do he and the Department have to promote careers in hospitality and tourism, which is a vital sector in the UK and in Eastbourne? Would maintaining the 5% VAT rate help employers to offer ever more competitive wages?
It was a joy to join my hon. Friend in her incredibly sunny and warm constituency last week and see at first hand the hard work she has been doing on behalf of her constituents, and particularly those in the tourism sector. I know she shares my view that developing skills and careers within tourism and hospitality is vital for the sector’s recovery. As stated in the tourism recovery plan, we will work closely with the sector to ensure that businesses can employ more UK nationals in year-round better paid, high-quality tourism jobs. Regarding extending the temporary VAT cut, as we discussed last week, including with her constituents, the Government keep all taxes under review. I have noted her suggestion and I am sure that Treasury Ministers have, too.
Inbound tourism in normal times contributes about £28 billion to the UK economy. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with other Departments about reopening safe international travel so that UK tourism jobs can be protected and indeed grown as we go forward?
I know what a great champion my hon. Friend is for tourism and international travel, as we heard at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. He is right that inbound tourism is vital. A lot of talk has been about outbound tourism, which is also a really important sector, but, in 2019, 40 million visitors came to the UK, spent money and had a great time. We are having frequent conversations. I talk to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—the aviation Minister—and others on an almost daily basis. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also has an interest in this area. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that we are having many cross-Government discussions about the importance of the tourism, international travel and aviation sectors.
As more people decide to holiday at home in the UK, we have a golden opportunity to improve the economy of our seaside communities, some of which have high levels of social deprivation. However, to direct visitors to those areas, we need more brown tourist signs on motorways and major trunk roads. What support can my hon. Friend give to the campaign in my constituency to get Highways England to put up a brown tourist sign on the M2 to showcase the many wonderful attractions on the Isle of Sheppey?
I commend my hon. Friend for his work on behalf of tourism businesses on the Isle of Sheppey. The purpose of brown signs is primarily to direct road users to a tourism attraction or facility to aid the efficient management of traffic. They are not meant to be billboards or adverts as such, but, as he articulated, they do fulfil a useful purpose. He will be aware that such decisions are for local authorities and Highways England, but I appeal to them to listen sympathetically to his request.
I have been speaking to leaders in the tourism industry who are distinctly underwhelmed by the Minister’s tourism recovery plan. An inclusivity ambassador, a rail pass and £10 million of vouchers is not the level of ambition that they were expecting from the much vaunted plan. In particular, coach operators, fairgrounds and tour guides missed out on support during the pandemic. What sector-specific support does the Minister plan to give to those areas that missed out on support during the lockdown and pandemic and had to suffer through three consecutive winters with a lack of support from the Government?
To date, as the hon. Member will be aware, the Government have provided more than £25 billion of support for the tourism, hospitality and leisure sector. That may not be appreciated by him but I know it has been by the sector as a whole. We are continuing to give support and that number will go up considerably. In terms of the sectors that have not automatically qualified for assistance, that is precisely why, as I have stated in the Chamber, the additional restrictions grants were out there—more than £1 billion of funding to help those sectors that did not automatically qualify—and we will keep the support under review constantly. Many in the sector welcome the ambition in the tourism recovery plan not only to get back to 2019 levels of tourism activity domestically and inbound, but to go well beyond that, and I hope that the Opposition will work with me and others to achieve that goal.
As part of our ongoing strategic review of the UK’s system of public service broadcasting, the Government are consulting this summer on the future of Channel 4, including its ownership model and remit, and we intend to engage a broad range of stakeholders to inform any decisions taken.
As part of its public service broadcaster responsibilities, Channel 4 does not have an in-house production function, relying on independent external production houses. Former Channel 4 commissioning editor Peter Grimsdale said that over 1,000 such production companies have been supported over the years. How do the Government mean to support those production houses if they sell off Channel 4, or do the thousands of jobs that would be destroyed in the sector not matter to this Tory Government?
The hon. Lady is right that Channel 4 does not have an in-house production company, which means that it is entirely dependent on advertising revenue, which is one of the reasons why we think it right to look at the ownership model, but it does support independent production right across the United Kingdom. That is part of its remit and we intend to preserve the remit, although we will be examining whether that needs to be changed—indeed, possibly strengthened in some areas—as part of our consultation.
Channel 4 is a great British success story and an iconic institution. It has invested £12 billion in the independent production sector and regional TV, given voice to local communities across our country, and exported content around the world; and it has recorded a record £74 million financial surplus. Despite all those successes, for the sixth time, the Conservative Government are seeking to privatise it, even though they concluded just four years ago that that was a very bad idea. Could that possibly be because “Channel 4 News” is doing a solid job, in particular, of holding an incompetent and crony-connected Government to account?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that Channel 4, which was, of course, the creation of a Conservative Government, has done an excellent job and it is our intention to sustain it into the future. That is why we believe that now is the right time to look at its future ownership, because it is coming under increasing pressure due to the changes taking place in the way in which television is consumed. While I may not always agree with “Channel 4 News”, I do believe it does a good job. I very strongly support plurality of news providers and would expect that Channel 4 will continue to feature a news service as part of its future offering, and that would remain part of its remit.
John McVay, the chief executive of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, has described Channel 4 as
“a catalyst for generations of entrepreneurs”,
“plays a critical role in the UK’s broadcasting ecology”,
“invested in hundreds of independent production companies over the nearly 40 years of its existence, enabling and improving access, skills, international activity and diversity.”
Would the Minister agree with me that selling off this precious public asset to an overseas competitor with no remit for commissioning innovative British content would be a body blow to the UK’s creative economy?
I agree that selling off Channel 4 with no remit would be a mistake and that is certainly not our intention. John McVay, who is somebody I know well and have a great deal of respect for, is right that Channel 4 has done an excellent job in investing in independent production, but it is up against competition from big streaming services that can make 10 times the kind of investment that Channel 4 is capable of. That is why we think it is the right time to look at its ownership in order that, potentially, it can have access to much greater capital, which it will need in order to have a thriving future.
My own personal view, and I stress that it is my personal view, is that the recovery of Channel 4 and the evolving media landscape warrant close consideration of privatisation and sale. Four years is a lifetime in the modern media marketplace. Does the Minister agree that this would be a good juncture at which also to consider whether Channel 4 could be bolstered by a merger with ITV or even by hiving off BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, which has often underperformed but has tremendous international potential to build scale for Channel 4?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I commend him and his Select Committee for the excellent report on public service broadcasting that they produced recently, which drew attention to the fact that the way in which we consume television is changing fast and that the switch from linear to digital is taking place even more quickly than some people anticipated. We have reached no conclusion as to the appropriate future ownership model for Channel 4—we maintain a completely open mind—but he raises a number of interesting possibilities and we look forward to seeing what submissions we receive as part of the consultation.
The case for the privatisation of Channel 4 was, of course, debunked by the then Secretary of State last time the issue reared its head. I think her assessment was that it would be too much grief for too little money. Privatisation would see profit put first, a slash in the £500 million that goes annually to independent production companies, a centralisation of headquarters—the antithesis of levelling up—and likely cuts to Channel 4’s brilliant news and current affairs programming. Channel 4 recorded record profits last year and it does not cost the taxpayer a penny. Given that this much-loved institution is profitable and free, why do Ministers want to do down Britain and sell it off to avaricious American investors?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on several counts. It is the case that Channel 4 recorded a profit last year, and I commend the management for taking the action that made that possible, but the reason they did so was because they cut the amount of money that they spent on content by £140 million in anticipation of a big fall in advertising revenue, which indeed took place. It is to sustain Channel 4 going forward that we are looking at the possibility of alternative ownership models, and it would certainly be our intention that Channel 4 would do more outside London and across the United Kingdom, not less.
“Countdown”, “Derry Girls”, “Gogglebox”, “The Word”, “It’s a Sin”, “Chewing Gum”—which gave us the astonishing Michaela Coel for the first time—“Educating Yorkshire”, “24 hours in A&E”, “24 hours in Police Custody”, “Location, Location, Location” with Phil and Kirstie, “Friday Night Dinner”—
I will simply finish with “Hollyoaks” and “The Secret Life of the Zoo”, Mr Speaker, which as you know have something in common with me—[Laughter.] They were both filmed in Chester. For four decades, Channel 4 has reflected and given voice to the diverse parts of the United Kingdom. Why do the Minister and the Government want to take that voice away and, as other hon. Members have said, sell it off to foreign tech companies that have no loyalty to the United Kingdom?
I am extremely impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s viewing habits, although I notice he left out “Naked Attraction”, which certainly does appeal to diverse tastes. However, I absolutely agree that Channel 4 has been responsible for some great programmes over the years, and it is our intention that it should be able to continue to do that in the coming years. It is precisely because it is going to need access to investment capital in order to maintain that record that we think now is the right time to consider alternative models, but we have not reached any conclusion yet.
Important Historical Documents
The UK’s export control system provides a safety net to protect our national treasures from being sold abroad, whereby Ministers can delay the issuing of an export licence to allow an opportunity for a UK buyer to acquire it. Between 2008 and 2018, 62 items were saved for the nation in this way. A recent example was the notebooks of Sir Charles Lyell, the renowned Scottish geologist who influenced Charles Darwin, which were acquired by the University of Edinburgh in 2019.
May I declare an interest as chair of the John Clare Trust, a charitable trust, and of course one of my daughters is a poet? May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that we have discovered in recent weeks a beautiful treasure trove of letters from the Brontës, Jane Austen and Robert Burns? It is unique. If we cannot act now and raise £15 million to keep it in this country, it will be broken up and sold at auction in New York. Will the Minister and the Government help us? Could the National Trust, which has huge reserves, help us to keep it in Britain? Most of the literary houses have had a year of no income and are struggling to help and raise this money. We desperately need this collection kept in our country. Will she help and help soon?
The Government are delighted that a public consortium led by the Friends of the National Libraries has come together to seek to acquire the Honresfield library. We hope that the fundraising campaign is successful and is able to realise its plans to allocate parts of the collection to libraries around the UK, for the benefit of the public. We will, of course, keep a very close eye on this and I know that the Secretary of State is planning to meet the group shortly.
Electronic Communications Code
The Government are currently considering the responses to the consultation on the electronic communications code, which closed in March, and we will, of course, carefully consider the impact of our proposals on all stakeholders, including community organisations, which we all value so highly.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that thousands of farmers, churches and community groups who host mobile telecoms infrastructure on their land have faced financial hardship because of the 2017 ECC reform, with some seeing enforced rent reductions of up to 90%, as has happened in my constituency. What measures is he planning to support those who face losing these critical sources of income? Will he kindly agree to meet me and representatives of these impacted groups as soon as possible?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this. It is important to be clear that those 2017 reforms were intended to cut the amount paid by operators and put them on a similar footing to other utilities, and that supports the roll-out of connectivity that we all want to see. However, it is important that the negotiations that take place are fair commercial ones and that landowners ultimately receive a fair price. The reason we are consulting as we speak is to make sure that the system works effectively and that those fair prices are delivered.
Digital Connectivity: Rural Areas
The Government are focused intently on improving digital infrastructure and connectivity in rural areas, both through the £5 billion Project Gigabit programme and the £1 billion shared rural network. That will deliver huge increases in connectivity across the whole country, while Project Gigabit provides fibre to at least 85% of the country.
I very much welcome Tuesday’s announcement on the shared rural network and the news that 98% of my constituency will receive some form of coverage. However, those who visit Great Snoring and many other villages in my constituency will find that they have to go outside to get a signal, if they get one at all. Will the Minister confirm to me that in order to claim this coverage people have to have a signal sufficiently strong to penetrate a normal building, so they can have a conversation inside and not only in the garden?
The target of the 4G shared rural network is based on outside coverage, but of course the effect of that outside coverage is a huge halo that brings signals indoors: into, as my hon. Friend puts it, normal homes and beyond. I think we will see a really significant improvement in indoor coverage, alongside an improvement on 45,000 km of roads and in 1.2 million businesses and homes across the country.
Tourism Recovery Plan
The Government have provided more than £25 billion in support to the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors over the course of the pandemic. We are continuing to support travel agents with, for example, restart grants and the extended furlough scheme. Our tourism recovery plan sets out a range of measures to support the sector, with the aim of recovering domestic tourism to pre-pandemic levels by 2022 and international travel by 2023, both at least a year faster than independent forecasters predict.
The headline numbers—that £25 billion—tell only part of the story. Unfortunately, because of the asymmetry of the Government support and the asymmetry of the travel recovery plan, much of that money has not found its way into the hands of travel agents such as Moorelands Travel and Travel Your World in my Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency. These family-run small and medium-sized enterprises have, like many others across the country, kept the lights on for the travel industry. They have given their all and sold the silver, and there is nothing left to give. They now face the possibility of going under. That will disrupt holidays and the travel recovery itself, so will the Minister explain to them—not to me—why their efforts and their businesses no longer matter?
The hon. Gentleman’s final comment is an unfortunate characterisation. He will be aware that many elements of the tourism sector are devolved matters, but we are working co-operatively with the Scottish Government on many issues. The Scottish Government have developed their recovery plan and we have developed one as well, and it does have UK-wide implications. For those sectors in England that have been unable to get grants and support automatically, we have put in place measures to help them, such as the additional restrictions grant. We will continue to assess support measures.
The Paralympic games are one of the highlights of the sporting calendar. In recognition of their special national significance, we added the Paralympic games to the listed events regime in 2020, meaning that they will remain available on free-to-air television. I wish all our athletes every success in Tokyo and very much welcome Channel 4’s plans to broadcast live coverage of the Paralympics throughout the games.
New research by Scope has shown that 69% of people with disabilities believe that the Paralympics help to tackle negative attitudes. This comes as three in four people with disabilities believe that the public’s perceptions of disabled people have worsened or not shifted during the pandemic. Scope and ParalympicsGB have teamed up to call for the Paralympic games to be a catalyst for change. The all-party group on disability, which I chair, asks the Secretary of State and the Government to commit to work across broadcasting to champion inclusion in sports and employment for people with disabilities, alongside celebrating the fantastic achievements of our Paralympians.
The Government absolutely share the ambition of the hon. Lady and her all-party group to increase the participation by disabled people in sport. The Paralympics have been an extraordinary success in demonstrating the remarkable achievements of disabled athletes. I share her hope that the Paralympics will again receive record viewing figures and that the UK Paralympic athletes will continue to do as well as they have in recent times.
Cultural and Sporting Sectors: Covid-19
We have provided unprecedented support for arts and sports and have only just opened up applications for the latest round of the £2 billion culture recovery fund. That will focus specifically on helping sectors to reopen fully. Our aim is, of course, to get everything—sports, live music and cultural events—back at full capacity from 19 July, and we are making good progress towards that goal.
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that, if the direction of travel in respect of covid data is maintained, we will be able to have our terminus day on 19 July. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that terminus day means an end to social distancing, an end to compulsory mask wearing and a full return to normal, not just for the end of July but permanently?
As my hon. Friend rightly says, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has said, we are making very good progress towards 19 July. We are hopeful and, indeed, confident that we will be able to remove, as planned at stage 4, all the remaining legal limits on social contact, reopen the remaining closed settings and remove all limits on weddings and other life events. That is very much what I am working towards.
National Lottery Licence: Procurement
The Gambling Commission is running the competition for the next national lottery licence, which will come into force in August 2023. The Gambling Commission has undertaken several rounds of market engagement with prospective applicants, and I was pleased to note that the commission received the expected number of applications. We expect to announce the preferred applicant at the end of the year.
The Gambling Commission has turned down an invitation to appear before the gambling-related harm all-party group to discuss the upcoming national lottery licence procurement and the performance of the current provider. Many products developed by the current provider, such as online instant win games, have potential to cause serious harms, so will the Minister reassure the House that there will be proper scrutiny of the next provider and that appropriate harm prevention measures will be introduced?
The incidence of problem gambling is lowest among players of the National Lottery, but nevertheless the need for protection of players remains of paramount importance. It was for that reason that the Government recently increased the minimum age for purchase of national lottery tickets from 16 to 18, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to monitor, as will the Gambling Commission, whether any further measures are necessary.
I have announced ambitious proposals for broadcasting reform, including the equalisation of regulation of video on demand services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, prominence for public service broadcasters, and the potential change in ownership of Channel 4 in order to secure its long-term success.
We continue to work closely with all our sectors as we plan for the full reopening on 19 July, and our next wave of pilots is helping us to do so safely and permanently. One of those pilots will, of course, now go down in history after England’s glorious win at Wembley on Tuesday, and I know that the whole House will join me in wishing the team the very best of luck in the quarter finals in Rome on Saturday.
I want to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the issue of displaying the Union flag in the Welsh Parliament. As many will know, the Presiding Officer of the Senedd banned the display of the Union flag by Conservative Members last week. Yesterday, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, described it as “vacuous symbolism” by
“tea towel Tories of 2021”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that people across Wales are proud to display the Union Jack because of their pride in the country in which they live and of what the UK stands for? What actions will—
I share my hon. Friend’s pride in the Union flag, because it unites us as a nation and a people. As he well knows, the Union flag is the national flag of the United Kingdom, and it is so called because it embodies the emblems of three countries united under one sovereign: the kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland and, of course, Northern Ireland. It is quite extraordinary that the First Minister should describe it as vacuous symbolism by tea towel Tories. It really does show how out of touch he is with the people of Wales, and the Labour party is with the wider United Kingdom.
I remind the Secretary of State of the election results in Wales in May.
I too wish England all the best for the quarter finals. It was a fantastic game, and I look forward to a repeat of the performance in the quarter finals.
On 23 March, the Minister for Digital and Culture, when asked about Government-backed insurance for the live events industry, said that
“the decision is with the Treasury right now.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 309WH.]
We are three and a half months on, and there is silence from the Government. Can the Secretary of State say today whether the Government are going to underwrite time-limited insurance for live events? The industry just needs to know the answer—a straight yes or no, please.
I very much understand the industry’s desire for insurance, and I have engaged with it. I have said all along that, as with film and TV insurance, the first step is to get all the other restrictions removed. We are making very good progress towards doing that on the 19th. At that point, if there is a market failure, namely that the commercial insurance providers cannot insure for that, we will look at whether we can extend insurance with some sort of Government-backed scheme. We are engaging extensively with the Treasury and other Government Departments to see what that might look like.
Festivals continue to be cancelled, even those scheduled for after 19 July, such as Womad, because the Government still have not published any guidance about sector reopening. They were forced into publishing the results of the events research programme last week after our urgent question, but they are also briefing to the press that nightclubs, for example, are going to reopen with no testing or proof of vaccine requirements. Businesses have had 15 long months of this chaos. The Secretary of State will not confirm insurance now and he will not publish guidance, so will he explain how festivals and live events scheduled for after 19 July can go ahead?
As I have said previously, we are making very good progress towards 19 July. Given that the evidence is suggesting that despite rising infections, we are breaking the linkage to hospitalisations and deaths, I really do hope and expect that we will be able to have that full reopening from 19 July. We have always said that we would clarify and confirm that at least a week in advance, which would be by 12 July. Festivals have benefited from millions of pounds of wider support through the culture recovery fund, and, of course, at least one of our events research programme pilots is in relation to a festival.
The shared rural network will eliminate the partial notspots across huge swathes of the country, particularly in Yorkshire and the Humber; it will take the region from 95% to 99% coverage from at least one operator, and from 81% to 90% coverage from all four operators. I know how hard my hon. Friend has been working on this issue, and I look forward to working with him to continue that progress.
We are 100% aware of the importance of the UK’s creative and cultural industries, and the importance of musicians and performers being able to tour easily abroad. We have moved with great urgency to provide the clarity that they need about the current position. Through our engagement with member states, we have established that at least 17 of the 27, including France, Germany and Italy—some of the biggest economic contributors—do allow visa and permit-free touring. We continue to talk to the others.
I am afraid that I cannot promise the weather—I wish I could! I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in wishing all those participating in the Maccabi 24-hour football challenge the very best of luck. I have no doubt that the time will fly by if they keep top of mind the inspirational example of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling from Tuesday’s success against Germany. This is a fantastic opportunity for volunteers to raise money for their club to refurbish a local pitch, and I understand that the FA will be matching some of the money raised. I wish him the very best of luck.
Nightclubs actually fall within the responsibility of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I am very happy to answer the question. The key thing is to get them to reopen. We are making very good progress towards doing that on 19 July. Many of the existing schemes—certainly the culture recovery fund—will continue to pay out for the coming weeks and months. Indeed, we have said that claims can be made in respect of the culture recovery fund until the end of this year, so a wide range of support remains available for our cultural institutions.
The youth investment fund aims to level up access to youth provision over the course of this Parliament, but £30 million has already been committed as capital funding in 2021-22. That will provide investment in new and refurbished safe spaces for young people so that they can access support from youth workers and enjoy beneficial activities, including sport and culture. We know how valuable these facilities are, and details of the bidding process for the next rounds will be announced in due course.
The Attorney General was asked—
Court Cases: Media Comment
In order to avoid prejudice to criminal proceedings, I may issue what is called a media advisory notice in order to inform and ensure responsible media coverage. I have launched a campaign called #thinkbeforeyoupost to promote awareness of the risks of ill-judged social media posts. It is critical that the evidence is tested before a jury—any evidence should be tested before a jury—in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion.
In a recent Scottish case, a High Court judge suggested that offences by a blogger were to be dealt with differently from similar breaches by mainstream media. Given that most, if not all, of the recent serious breaches have been carried out by the mainstream media, and given moreover that the press and media are evolutionary, with many of the current mainstream media once themselves having been radical outsiders supporting, for example, universal franchise, does the Attorney General agree that while bloggers rightly require to be held to account, they are equally entitled to the protections that apply to the rest of the mainstream media?
Everyone is equal under the law. In general, the media are responsible and are very much aware of reporting restrictions, the limitations on reporting of active proceedings, and what reporting might amount to a contempt of court. As I said, I do issue and have issued media advisory notices where that is not happening and in exceptional cases. The hon. Gentleman’s point about bloggers and others on social media is a live one. It is right that everyone is aware that whether they have training or not, they are responsible under the law for what they post. Interfering in, prejudicing or undermining court proceedings is a serious matter and can be visited with a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment.
Royal Albert Hall: Charity Tribunal
The disagreement between the Charity Commission and the Royal Albert Hall is long-running and raises complex issues of charity law. The parties have been asked to try to resolve these issues without recourse to potentially costly litigation. That process is ongoing. My officials are continuing to engage with the parties to assist them in working through the contentious matters raised by this case.
A face-value ticket for an Eric Clapton concert in May next year at the Royal Albert Hall costs £175, yet tickets are on sale on Viagogo at a 577% mark-up, at £1,185 per ticket. The seats in question are owned by a party related to a vice-president of the corporation. The Attorney General wrote to me last week to say that he wishes to
“move this matter towards a satisfactory resolution as swiftly as possible.”
Will he therefore take immediate action on this serious and clear conflict of interest at a British institution and permit the Charity Commission to take this to a tribunal?
I am grateful for that elucidation, Mr Speaker. The Royal Albert Hall and the Charity Commission have been working to try to resolve the matter that the hon. Lady refers to without recourse to litigation, and I am awaiting the outcome of that process. I have instructed my officials to continue to engage with the parties that the hon. Lady refers to, to assist them in working through the complex issues raised by this case. I will say, however, that no decision has been taken on whether to consent to the referral to the Charity Commission. I will approach the matter as a neutral umpire, commensurate with my role as Attorney General and as parens patriae.
Criminal Justice System Recovery: Covid-19
I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss this important issue. The covid-19 outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. Recovery is a priority for this Government. I have been proud of the resilience that criminal justice agencies have shown. There is still more to do, but both the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts at this difficult time. I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.
I thank the police, Wrexham and Denbighshire councils and other authorities in Clwyd South, who have done a great job during the difficult days of the pandemic. How can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure my constituents of efforts to continue to deliver justice in Clwyd South, despite the pandemic?
I thank my hon. Friend for his generous question. I am proud that all criminal justice agencies have worked closely together since the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that essential justice services continue to be delivered. The CPS and the court service in north Wales have worked closely together throughout the pandemic to ensure that courts can be run safely and to maximise the flow of cases, while preserving public health. For example, domestic abuse cases in particular have been prioritised in the magistrates courts, so there are no delays or backlogs for those sensitive cases, where victims deserve our protection and support, but that goes in Clwyd South and it goes everywhere.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. In Sussex, we have a backlog of over 800 Crown court cases—one case is now approaching four years without coming to court—and a rising drop-out rate. The Nightingale court in Chichester is making a real difference, but we still need greater capacity and pace. Can he assure me that every avenue is being pursued to address this backlog, so that we can ensure justice for victims in Eastbourne and in Sussex?
Yes, indeed. CPS South East in her region is working with all criminal justice partners to support the recovery activity within Sussex, including to ensure court capacity can be maximised and file quality improved—of course, the better the file quality, the speedier proceedings can follow. The latest levels of cases that I have seen flowing through the courts indicate that in recent weeks at least, outstanding case load in the Crown court has begun to reduce. However, there is still more to be done, and I should say at this point that there is no limit on the number of days that Crown courts can sit for the next fiscal year. That will enable Crown court judges to hold as many hearings as they safely can and as is physically possible, as we continue to recover from the pandemic.
As we come out of the pandemic, to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, the public need to know that the law will apply equally to everyone, irrespective of rank, job or title. It is clear from the footage of the former Health Secretary and his aide that the law on indoor gatherings was breached. This very same law prevented Her Majesty the Queen from sitting with her family at the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Does the Attorney General agree that by failing to investigate the former Health Secretary’s breach, this Government are sending the message that there is one rule for Government Ministers and their advisers, and another for everyone else?
The hon. Lady will know that we do not discuss individual cases, putative or otherwise. The reality of the matter is that, as she will recognise, everyone is equal under the law in our system. That has always been the case and remains the case. We have an extremely pressing CPS case load, and a court system that is working very hard to bring justice to all, and that includes victims of serious crime, so I do not recognise the problem she raises. We have a system in this country in which everyone is treated equally, and it is a matter entirely for the independent authorities to investigate each and every case as they see fit, not for Government Ministers.
With a record 60,000 cases in the backlog of Crown court cases, past UK Government austerity is closing legal aid centres and now covid is impacting significantly on access to justice. Does the Attorney General agree that the justice system is vital to keeping cases moving through the justice system, and what does he plan to do to ensure that access to legal aid is available for everyone across the UK?
The hon. Member is right to raise this point. Of course, access to legal aid is very important in the administration of justice, and this Government have maintained funding for that purpose. She is also right to focus on the impact of the pandemic on the system. As I have already indicated, financial matters are being dealt with very generously by the Treasury and the Ministry of Justice. This Government have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds on recovery, as she may know, that has helped to make court buildings safe, including by rolling out new technology for virtual hearings, which of course is less expensive and less time-consuming. There is recruitment of additional staff, and there are Nightingale courts. Whether it be at one end of the criminal justice system or the other, this Government are funding the process so as to ensure speedy, safe and equal justice for all.
The Attorney General rightly referred to the work of the various justice agencies in this regard. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave powerful evidence to the Justice Committee on 15 June about the pressures that the backlog places on the Crown Prosecution Service. Every case that goes to court has to be worked on by CPS staff, and he is concerned that there is a real risk, in his word, of “fatigue” with case levels running at 50% above pre-covid levels. Can we make sure we have a whole-system approach of sustained investment in the Crown Prosecution Service and the rest of the prosecution service so that staff can cope with the demands of getting back on track and having cases brought forward timeously?
I thank my learned friend for his question, and he is right to make this point about the wellbeing of staff in the criminal justice system and, having had Max Hill before his Committee, in the CPS in particular. My hon. Friend will know that Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate’s reports have praised the Crown Prosecution Service and its focus on the wellbeing of staff during this period, because they have continued to deliver essential public service. In spite of the pandemic, staff have continued to attend courts, where necessary, to enable them to fulfil their public duty. I should say that the evidence his Committee has heard is correct: the total live CPS post-charge case load is 51% higher than pre-covid, which equates to 52,000 additional cases. In the magistrates court, there is an estimated increase of 3,800 cases that will require a trial listing, and there is an increase of 11,700—70%—in the Crown courts. So he is right to think about the wellbeing of staff and the fatigue that they are naturally enduring during this time.
Many of my constituents who are small business owners and self-employed are struggling with unpaid invoices and bills for work and services provided, and are threatened with losing their homes. They are not eligible for national support schemes and need to rely on courts to recover their lost money. What will the Minister do to help them get justice as quickly as possible?
The Government are very conscious of the pressure that businesses of all sizes—small, medium and large—have been put under by the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on small businesses, because losses occasioned by the pandemic and its exigencies put considerable pressure on small businesses in particular. Where they have to recover debts owed to them through the courts, the courts will process those matters, but there are prioritisations within the system. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that, to my knowledge, the Ministry of Justice is working hard to support the court process, so that all matters can be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.
Serious Fraud Office: Economic Crime
I recognise the significant work that my hon. Friend has done to protect victims in this area, both as a constituency MP and in his role on the all-party groups on fair business banking and for whistleblowing. In the past 12 months the Serious Fraud Office had brought a number of individuals and corporations to justice, including successful prosecutions in its Unaoil case, uncovering $17 million in bribes. A conviction against GPT resulted in £30 million of confiscations, fines and costs, and deferred prosecution agreements with G4S and Airline Services Limited have resulted in more than £47 million in penalties and costs.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her answer. The GPT case she refers to was one of the SFO’s rare successes in court in a proven case of corruption. I think there were £28 million of penalties, although it may be £30 million, as she said, including costs. My constituent, Ian Foxley, was a key whistleblower in that case, but he has been completely hung out to dry by the SFO, and has had 10 years without any financial compensation—10 years of lost income. What effect does the Minister think that will have on future whistleblowers, and the likelihood that they will come forward with key evidence? Will she meet me and my constituent to discuss the matter and see what can be done?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the SFO recognises the importance of whistleblowers to its work, and if appropriate I would be happy to meet him to discuss the case and perhaps the issue more broadly. In that particular case the judge concluded that it was not suitable to make a compensation order, and that is why the SFO concluded that it would not be appropriate to put Mr Foxley’s victim impact statement before the court. I hope to discuss those issues more fully with my hon. Friend.
End-to-End Rape Review
I recognise the need to restore the faith of victims of these horrific cases. The recently published rape review outlines the Government’s ambition to ensure that justice is served and more cases progress through the system. The CPS is fully committed to delivering actions under the rape review, and those will result in improved joint working between police and prosecutors, to build stronger cases earlier and with less intrusion into victims’ private lives.
The review includes setting the CPS targets of getting rape prosecutions up to 2016 levels. Labour has said that the Government should return to those levels by next year, not by the end of the next Parliament—something the Lord Chancellor said was “constitutionally illiterate.” Will the Attorney General confirm whether the Government intend to stick to those targets, or have they already U-turned on that?
The matter to which the hon. Lady refers is for the Ministry of Justice, but she is right to raise it because cases involving rape and serious sexual offences are some of the most challenging and complicated cases—I emphasise that—with which the CPS deals. That is why only prosecutors with specialist training manage these incredibly sensitive, time-consuming and complex cases. The CPS is committed to ensuring that specialist prosecutors are equipped to deal with the complexities and sensitivities of those types of case.
For example, in May, the CPS published revised rape legal guidance, following public consultation, including new content on challenging rape myths and stereotypes, and a trauma-informed approach. The reason I raise that is that speed is important, yes, but it is also right that the complexities and sensitivities of those cases are handled by highly trained and professional CPS lawyers. That is what is happening.
The Government’s end-to-end rape review has been a missed opportunity to address the systemic failures in our criminal justice system. In the Attorney General’s own words, rape victims “are being failed” by this Government. After a two-year wait, the review offers only piecemeal pilots, tinkering around the edges and next to no new funding. When the dire rape conviction statistics were raised with the Prime Minister last week in the House, he dismissed that as “jabber”—a disgraceful response. Will the Attorney General apologise on behalf of the Prime Minister?
The hon. Lady is mischaracterising what was said last week. The cross-Government rape review was published on 18 June. It has produced key actions: an initial ambition to return volumes of cases progressing through the system to pre-2016 levels by the end of this Parliament; an ambition to ensure that no victim is left without access to a mobile phone for more than 24 hours; the launching of pathfinder projects to test innovative ways for the police and the CPS to approach rape cases—so much has been included in the rape review.
I very much accept, as I said in the rape review’s opening paragraphs, that a great deal needs to be done and that we are not happy with where the process has been. A great deal of work is going into that, however, and increased support for victims throughout the criminal justice system is important. That is happening, including through increased provisions, for example, with ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisers.
I am disappointed by the number of questions we have got through today. In future, I hope, we might be able to get through quite a few more. I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.