Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
BBC Licence Fee
The Government have committed to maintaining the licence fee funding model for the duration of the charter period. Ahead of the next charter review process, we will undertake a detailed look at the TV licence model to ensure that it is fit for the future.
I warmly welcome the encouraging comments made by the Secretary of State, publicly and in the Chamber, on the BBC. There is the potential to cut or at least freeze the licence fee. It raises over £3.5 billion a year, much of which is used to create quality broadcasts. However, significant sums are used to squeeze out competition from the independent sector. This is the most regressive form of taxation, akin to the poll tax, so does she agree that a freeze or a cut would be not only a welcome boost to hard-pressed families, but a way of facilitating innovation within the BBC and encouraging competition from outside, creating a much more dynamic broadcast provision?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. My priority is to secure a settlement that delivers value for money for those hard-pressed constituents and for the licence fee payer, while making sure that the BBC can continue to provide those very high-quality services to which he just referred. I have been having constructive discussions with the BBC and I believe that we are close to reaching an agreement. I hope he understands that I am unable to comment further while negotiations are taking place and are ongoing.
When the Secretary of State is thinking about the future of the licence fee, will she talk to those in the independent sector that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned? Far from saying that they are being squeezed out, they will tell her that the BBC and the system we have of a mixed economy in our creative industries in this country are underpinned by the quality of the BBC. It exercises a gravitational pull that is the envy of the world. I know she thinks deeply about these things, but let me say that it should not be tinkered with just because of ideology; this should be a practical decision on her part.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments. He is absolutely right; I do speak regularly to the independent sector, including Channel 4 and other bodies within the sector. I take his comments on board and hear what he is saying. The BBC is a beacon for Britishness—for all that is British; it is a beacon across the world for broadcasting excellence. But even the editors of the BBC and those who run the BBC accept that there have been some problems. They are being dealt with and that is part of the ongoing discussions. I know that he is particularly concerned about this, but I am sure that he appreciates that while negotiations are ongoing I am limited in what I can say.
In 2017, the BBC agreed to take over the funding of free TV licences for over-75s in return for increased income from increases in the licence fee and other commercial funding streams. The BBC’s behaviour since, in abolishing free TV licences, shows that it cannot be trusted. For its disgraceful treatment of pensioners, will the Secretary of State use the funding review in 2022 to scrap the licence fee altogether and let the BBC compete on a level playing field with other broadcasters?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On the charter review, the mid-term review does begin—and we will start discussions—next year. The charter renewal, which is the point at which the future of the licence fee will be decided, does not take place until 2027. As I have just said, in those discussions the editorial perspective and a number of layers and things recently highlighted during the response to the Serota review are all under consideration, and my hon. Friend’s comments have been noted.
We have spent much of the past two weeks talking about standards in public office, and on this side of the House we care deeply about the independence and impartiality of the BBC. I know that the Secretary of State also cares, to the extent that she actually has the time to police the BBC political editor’s tweets and publicly rebuke her. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be highly inappropriate for a Government Minister overseeing licence fee negotiations to seek to influence editorial decisions, including how the Prime Minister was interviewed, and use the threat of reducing BBC licence fee funding while doing so?
There were four elements to that questions. On the tweet, I did not rebuke Laura Kuenssberg, somebody who is perhaps the best in the business—very professional; a very polite tweet. Some people, particularly some Opposition Members, do seem to have a problem understanding a composition of 240 characters; the tweet was completely misinterpreted. I was not rebuking Laura Kuenssberg and I never would.
LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Sport
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that sport is for everyone and inclusion is vital. We continue to see some progress in this area—for example, I pay tribute to Josh Cavallo for his leadership in becoming the first top-league male footballer to come out as gay while still playing professionally. I hope that we see others follow his lead.
At the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we work closely with Sport England and UK Sport to ensure that people from all backgrounds feel included in sport. As part of that work, the updated code for sports governance will soon require sports governing bodies to agree a diversity and inclusion action plan. That will further support LGBT+ inclusion in sport throughout the country.
I very much share the Minister’s sentiments regarding Josh Cavallo, who has bravely come out, but he is still the only male gay footballer in the professional game in the world. Given the fact that we still do not have any other openly gay male footballers, what message does the Minister think it sends that Qatar—a country that strictly represses homosexual people, with homosexual acts punishable by a decade in prison for non-locals and death for local Muslims—is set to hold the next World cup? Does he agree that nations that treat LGBTQ people in such an abhorrent way should not be gifted international competitions like the World cup?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have frank conversations at international level with our counterparts around the world on issues such as human rights and, indeed, gay rights, and we will continue to have those conversations. I would also like to focus on the power of sport to highlight inclusion and diversity and to bring us together. I will focus on the positive things that sport can do over the major sporting events in the coming year, as will, I am sure, the whole House.
Inclusivity applies not just to the LGBTQ+ community, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) rightly highlighted, but to people of south Asian and, in fact, all minority heritage. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend share my consternation that the former chair of Yorkshire county cricket club had not even read the seminal Fletcher report on the lack of inclusivity at the county? Does he agree that the response to Mr Rafiq’s brave testimony given in this House must be not only to clear out the Augean stables at Yorkshire but to ensure that the institutionally racist blocking of minority-community talent is stopped forever? We need a Kick It Out for cricket, right now.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. I applaud his Select Committee’s work this week in giving Azeem Rafiq a platform to make the comments that he made. It was difficult to hear because it was harrowing testimony. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Fletcher report, which is pretty old, was clearly not acted on and should have been. I assure him that we have had frank conversations over the past couple of weeks with the England and Wales Cricket Board and others involved in cricket. I have had reassurance that the ECB takes the issue seriously and will act, and Tom Harrison has promised me that, with every fibre of his being, he will take action. But he and I know that we will judge the ECB on its deeds, not its words, and if it fails to act appropriately, we will not hesitate to intervene further.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join the Minister in congratulating Josh Cavallo, the only top-tier footballer in the world currently playing to have come out publicly as gay. He will be an inspiration for LGBT kids everywhere who love football. Does she agree that it is a damning indictment of football in this country that no professional player in the game who is currently playing has felt safe enough to come out publicly? Will she join me in calling on football bodies on these islands to look urgently at why that is and to do all they can to create an environment in which players feel safe to come out and be the role models we all need?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; we investigated these very issues when we worked together on the Select Committee. It is a sad indictment of football that there has been an environment in which so many people do not feel they can express who they are—that is a terrible situation to be in. I agree that we all need to work together across all sports, not just football, to ensure that people feel comfortable in who they are.
Sports Bodies’ Bids to Host Major Sporting Events
The Government are fully committed to working with event organisers to bid for and host major sporting events. Over the past 15 years, some of the world’s most iconic events have taken place in the UK. That has cemented our position as a global home for these events, and we have an exciting programme of events in 2022, including the Commonwealth games, the women’s UEFA European championships, and something close to your heart, Mr Speaker, the rugby league world cup.
I thank the Minister for that response. It was great to see that the Department was successful in two of the bids in the spending review, but, as the Minister is aware, there was a third unsuccessful bid, which was to bring the Ryder cup back to England for the first time since 2002. Will the Minister confirm that it is still very much his ambition to continue with this 2031 Ryder cup bid? If it is, would he like to visit the Belfry in my constituency, which would be a perfect location for the event, so that he can see for himself the fantastic facilities that are on offer there?
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for all the work that he does with the all-party group for golf. As he mentioned, there is ongoing work to explore the potential of a possible English bid to host the 2031 Ryder cup for the first time in England since 2002. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and UK Sport are in close contact with the key partners and venues, and our collective teams continue to work together to conclude this feasibility work and decide on the next steps. It is about the work as well as the finances here, and we will continue to work on this matter in every way that we can. I would be more than happy to visit his constituency and the Belfry and perhaps get round quite a few holes, including the last one.
Mr Speaker, you and I both support major sporting events coming to the UK, but I want to return briefly to the situation in cricket. The lesson for all sports is that those who fail to deal with cultures of racism and prejudice will ruin our country’s reputation, not build it. I know, Mr Speaker, that you and I, and all Members, Ministers and shadow Ministers in this House were heartbroken listening to Azeem Rafiq yesterday, but, as the Minister has said, it is deeds not words that will make a difference, and that goes for the Government as well. Will the Minister place in the Commons Library any and all correspondence that he has had with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and can he tell the House what discussions he has had with it about its powers and resources and whether they are enough to deal with what we know, and have known for a long time, are chronic problems in sport?
The hon. Lady and I are at one in terms of the intent and what she said there about the abhorrence of what we have heard in cricket this week and, indeed, over a period of time. She is also absolutely right about issues in broader sport. I will happily place whatever documents are appropriate in the Library—I cannot promise to do so with every single document or discussion, because, as the hon. Lady knows, there are sometimes confidentiality and frank discussion concerns that inhibit our ability to put out every single piece of correspondence, but I will happily talk further with the hon. Lady, one to one, about this issue.
Harmful Content Online
The draft Bill was published in May 2021. Pre-legislative scrutiny is under way, but we expect the Joint Committee to report by 10 December. This scrutiny is a vital part in ensuring that the Bill delivers what we need to protect people online. I look forward to hearing the Committee’s recommendations, which we will consider fully.
A Facebook whistleblower recently revealed that hateful political ads are five to 10 times cheaper for customers in what has been referred to as subsidising hate. Facebook has since banned companies from targeting ads based on users’ political beliefs, sexual orientation or religion, but these decisions should not be left to tech billionaires who could change their mood at any time. It is the Government’s job to regulate, so what proposals can they come up with to take account of the views of the whistleblower in calling for further action to end subsidising hate online?
I take this opportunity to thank the Joint Committee for the work that it has undertaken, particularly gathering the evidence from Frances Haugen and others. We have taken a huge body of evidence. The Joint Committee is doing that very work at the moment. I am confident that every one of the examples that the hon. Gentleman has just highlighted will be legislated for in the regulatory framework, which will be given to Ofcom, to regulate those online platforms once the Bill becomes law. I appreciate his interest. I would also appreciate his input when the Bill passes through the House.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the key principle of the online safety Bill should be that offences that exist offline should be applied online—not only to those who post content with the intent of harming others, but to the platforms that host such content—and that we need to have ongoing close parliamentary scrutiny of which offences should apply and how?
This is a novel and groundbreaking Bill that will legislate in a way that has never been done before, in a new sector and a new environment. Ongoing scrutiny on a regular basis once the Bill becomes an Act will be extremely important. We will look at how we are going to manage that within the Bill.
Gambling Review White Paper
I thank and commend the hon. Member for her energetic campaigning and leadership on this issue over many years as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling related harm. We had a constructive meeting, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and a Member for a fine constituency in Scotland—the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan)—just yesterday. We are in the process of preparing a White Paper that will set out our vision for gambling regulation in the coming months. I look forward to working closely with members of the APPG on this issue in the weeks ahead.
The recent Public Health England report into the impact of gambling harm found that at-risk gamblers were twice as likely to gamble online than the rest of the general gambling population, so can we be assured that the forthcoming gambling White Paper will protect those most vulnerable to gambling harm by ensuring that restrictions to online stakes are introduced at the same level as those to on-land stakes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to those who suffer acute harm. Yesterday I met many people whose relatives have committed suicide, or who have lost their homes and whose families have been destroyed, to discuss the issue. I agree with the PHE report that online gambling can often be a lot more pernicious and addictive than in-person gambling. We will certainly be looking at that. We are acutely aware that the restrictions introduced to land-based stakes for fixed odds betting terminals could be applied online in some way, and are carefully studying how that could be calibrated.
Will my hon. Friend look seriously in the White Paper at the abusive use by gambling companies of VIP rooms, through which companies deliberately target those who are gambling massively and losing massively to encourage them to gamble more and lose more? It is an immoral practice. Will he make certain in the White Paper that the Government will deal directly and immediately with this issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend again for our meeting this week. I agree that actively encouraging—indeed, even inciting—people to gamble more without reference to affordability or their ability to pay is a damaging practice. We certainly intend to address that through the White Paper.
Football Index Collapse
The Gambling Commission has revoked BetIndex’s operating licence and senior members of that company have surrendered their personal management licences. The Gambling Commission has also referred the company to the insolvency service to consider whether the directors breached insolvency or even fraud laws. We look forward to the Insolvency Service’s report on the conduct of those directors.
Too many of my constituents have been in touch to say that they have lost substantial amounts of money on the Football Index, so will the Minister explain further what is being done to help the Gambling Commission to understand these complex betting propositions in order to ensure better protections for customers, such as my constituents?
The Government commissioned a detailed report by Malcolm Sheehan QC that was published towards the end of September. The report looked to ensure that all the relevant lessons are learnt, so that people who gamble are protected. Regarding those who lost money to BetIndex, the wind-up proceedings are ongoing at the moment and it is likely that some amounts will be available to be reimbursed to creditors, which would include customers. We should obviously let that process unfold.
Touring Musicians: Support to Work in Europe
We are working hard to help touring musicians to work in Europe. Arrangements are, in many areas, much more workable than has been reported. I am pleased to say that after this week’s very good announcement from Spain, 21 member states now offer visa and work routes for musicians and performers. Accompanied portable musical instruments do not require a carnet and splitter vans are not subject to EU cabotage rules. We recognise, however, that challenges remain. I had a very productive meeting with the sector yesterday to work through remaining concerns. We also continue to work with the remaining six member states that do not allow visa and permit-free touring.
I appreciate what the Minister says in terms of Spain, although it should be pointed out that the industry is saying that it has been working with its counterparts in Spain and actually the Government have not been terribly helpful, so it has been up to the community themselves. The Minister mentions cabotage rules. As she has been working with the industry, will she set out when these issues will be resolved? It is all well and good having meetings, but if things are not resolved, we are destroying options for our talented musicians to travel around Europe. They cannot take their speakers and mics and all the other things that they need in order to do their jobs. The Government really should be doing so much better on this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising his concerns. I reiterate that there has been a real team effort on this. We have had fantastic working with our embassy in Madrid, with the industry and with Ministers from across Government, so I would push back on that. We discussed some of the technical issues on transportation only yesterday with the Department for Transport, and there are various things that I am going to take away and discuss with the Secretary of State for Transport. These are very live issues. There is a debate later today where we can discuss these things in more detail, should he be minded.
I wholeheartedly welcome the news that musicians will no longer need visas to go on short-term tours in Spain, and I am hugely grateful to those in the sector, particularly the Association of British Orchestras and Live, who have worked so tirelessly on the matter. This just goes to show that these problems are not insurmountable and can be overcome. However, as the Minister stated, there are still six member states where problems persist. Will she provide an update on the discussions she is having with those six member states so that musicians and touring bodies are able to carry out their work overseas?
Internet Connections: Rural Communities
Thanks to the work of the industry and record Government investment, we are making phenomenal progress to deliver the biggest broadband roll-out in UK history, and also tackling the digital divide between rural and urban areas. Some 60% of UK homes and businesses can now access gigabit-capable speeds, and over 97% can access superfast broadband. But there is much more to do, and I recently updated the House on our Project Gigabit delivery plan to target early coverage of those without superfast.
I still have constituents in North Devon who are not part of either the rural roll-out programme backed by Building Digital UK or any commercial roll-out. However, some villages with commercial gigabit-capable fibre are being over-fibred by taxpayer-funded BDUK contracts. Will my hon. Friend work with organisations such as Connecting Devon and Somerset to give them more powers to edit contracts so that taxpayers’ money is not used to over-fibre?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a formidable campaigner for her constituents in North Devon. I was glad to respond in more detail to some of her concerns in a debate we had last week. The telecoms market is thriving, as she knows, and there is a lot of movement on the ground. I assure her that officials in BDUK are working extremely closely with Connecting Devon and Somerset and local suppliers in Devon so that we can avoid over-build where possible. I am sure that we will be in touch very closely throughout this process to make sure that her constituents get what they need.
The digital divide between cities and valleys is getting wider in south Wales. Gigabit broadband is essential for our economy, yet it has barely begun in Blaenau Gwent and we are being left behind. Will the Minister prioritise working with the Welsh Government and Ofcom to deliver better internet so that levelling up is not just a hollow slogan?
I am very keen to work with the Welsh Government, in so far as I can be helpful, with their roll-out. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of tackling the digital divide. This is going to be a real issue. We are very cognisant of it and looking to do all we can to make sure that there is not that disparity between those with great internet access and those who do not have it.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his continued active advocacy on behalf of British horse racing and Newmarket in particular. I am pleased to tell the House that racecourses are accessing £21 million from the sport survival package. They have also had £28 million in cash-flow and hardship funding, in addition to which the Horserace Betting Levy Board provided £97 million in 2019-20 to support the sport.
I am very grateful for the work that the Department and the Minister have done in the pandemic to support horse racing, but as a major contributor to the economy and soft power, and with one in three jobs in Newmarket in my constituency connected with horse racing, is it not vital that we strengthen further the horserace betting levy to ensure that all betting makes a contribution and to ensure that we get the support for horse racing, which is such a glorious sport?
I agree entirely about the importance of horse racing to the UK, both economically and more generally. As I have said, the levy contributed £97 million in the year before the pandemic, about 10% more than the forecast. Even in the pandemic year 2020-21, it contributed £80 million, so generally speaking the levy has returned more money than was initially expected. However, we are always willing to look at evidence, so if there is anything that my right hon. Friend would like to send in that we could carefully consider, I would be delighted to look at that.
Our world-class arts, culture and heritage received another huge boost in the Budget and spending review, with more than £850 million to protect museums, galleries, libraries and local culture in every corner of the country. The Budget also contained a number of measures to back our booming tech sector. The Budget also contained measures for football pitches and tennis courts, to the value of £205 million of investment across the country. In the meantime, we continue to make good progress on our trailblazing online safety Bill. I met the Joint Committee two weeks ago, and I look forward to receiving its report.
Culture and heritage are so important to our local communities, and that is particularly the case in my constituency of Burnley and Padiham. We have some real gems, like Townley Hall and Burnley Empire theatre. The latter would be a real benefit to our town centre, but it is in need of regeneration and restoration. What is the Department doing to help communities restore some of these assets so that we can make them better?
My hon. Friend raises an important question. Historic and cultural buildings, such as the Empire and Townley Hall, are at the heart of their communities, and we are determined to protect them for future generations. I am pleased that eight organisations in my hon. Friend’s constituency received just over £1 million from the culture recovery fund, as well as £20 million from the levelling-up fund, and a grant of more than £1 million from Historic England’s high streets heritage action zone initiative. I urge my hon. Friend to contact Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to explore further funding opportunities.
After the Owen Paterson scandal, where the Government did not like the fair process that was set up and just ripped up the rules, now the Government have changed the job description for the chair of Ofcom to give failed candidate Paul Dacre another go and put a lobbyist whose firm has represented Facebook, Apple and Sky on the panel to scrutinise candidates. Will the Secretary of State restart the process with the original job requirements and an independent panel free of any conflict of interest, and confirm that she will accept the recommendations of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport when it reports on the prospective candidate?
As the hon. Lady knows, the appointments process follows due process, is in line with the governance code for public appointments and is under the auspices of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We are very careful to follow that code to the letter, and that is exactly what we are doing. As the process has already been launched and is under way, as the hon. Lady knows, I cannot comment further.
It seems that theory and practice just do not add up. As we have repeatedly heard, Government corruption is not restricted to this place. The public appointments process has led to a litany of political appointments, notably Tory peer Baroness Tina Stowell as the chair of the Charity Commission after the DCMS Committee rejected her appointment. Her tenure was marked by political manipulation rather than independent governance. The current process for a replacement is being led by John Booth, who donated £200,000 to the Tory party. Will the Secretary of State recommence the appointment process, removing all political interests and ensuring full independence of the appointment panel, and then—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady mentioned sleaze and this Government about four times: I thought she was going to enlighten us on the earnings from Mishcon de Reya received by the Leader of the Opposition, but she failed to do so. She also failed to mention that this Government appointed Vera Baird, the former Labour MP for Redcar, as the Victims’ Commissioner. The process is fair. It is overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and a code of governance.
Up and down the country, local councils are setting their budgets for next year. Due to the lack of help in this Government’s Budget last month, there will be more closures of leisure centres and swimming pools. When will the sports Minister step in to provide funding to stop these devastating losses?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we have stepped in to support sport to the tune of £1 billion during the pandemic, with £100 million specifically to support leisure centres, to enable them to survive during covid and then remain open. We are always willing to work together with local councils, which also have skin in the game and responsibilities for the delivery of local leisure facilities, to ensure that everybody can swim.
Last night I met the national Girl Guide advocates, who spoke passionately about the need to tackle online abuse and cyber-flashing, which is made much more scary when it is anonymous. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State cares deeply about these issues. Will she meet me to discuss the ten-minute rule Bill I am introducing next week to look at choice of verification?
Channel 4 makes an enormous contribution to job growth and region-based media production. In fact, of the 200 independent media production companies that Channel 4 has commissioned over the past two years, almost 140 rely on the broadcaster for at least half their work. Will the Minister concede that the privatisation of Channel 4 will endanger hundreds of jobs and make a mockery of the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
We are currently looking at all the consultation responses we have received on the question of whether to move ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4. We will look at the question of the independent sector and its health. The sector is thriving at the moment and the impact of the public service broadcasting sector on it is reducing, but it is something we will look closely at.
Joe Nihill, a 23-year-old former Army cadet from Whinmoor in my constituency, tragically took his own life after accessing so-called suicide forums. His mother Catherine and his sister-in-law Melanie are running an inspirational campaign to ensure that what happened to Joe does not happen to other families. As we wait for the online safety Bill to progress, will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Catherine and Melanie on their inspirational campaign and in sending a firm message to tech giants that they will now have to take action to remove these suicide forums that prey on vulnerable people?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating his constituents. He is absolutely right, and the online harms Bill and the regulatory framework that will accompany it will do just what he asks. Those online platforms and online giants have the ability right now to remove those harmful algorithms that direct children and young people to suicide chat rooms. I call on them to start that work, because if they do not, the Bill will be here in the new year and they will be subject to huge fines and possibly criminal action.
The actions of Football Index can only be described as scandalous. The Scottish National party called for an inquiry, and that has been delivered. Can the Minister guarantee that the actions the Government take as a result of the inquiry will ensure that such shameful behaviour by the gambling firms will never be repeated?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. We are taking this very seriously. As I said on an earlier question, a detailed review by a QC is being conducted already to make sure that the regulatory action—whether by the Gambling Commission or, in different circumstances, the FCA—is appropriate. It is important that these gambling firms are looked at very carefully, and it is our intention that the Gambling Commission do that.
Can I reiterate the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the collapse of Football Index, and reiterate the need for Ministers to look at the issues of better redress and the failings in this case, on behalf of my constituents affected?
The Attorney General was asked—
Offences Against the Person Act 1861: Section 24
The recent rise in reports of spiking is incredibly concerning. The Crown Prosecution Service will always treat maliciously administering poison as a high harm offence. In 2020-21, the CPS brought 222 charges under section 24, which was an increase of 22% on the previous year.
It is truly horrendous to see reports in recent weeks about the huge numbers of people who are being spiked and then unable to find any sort of recourse to the criminal justice system. I am sure the Attorney General agrees with that. Does she further agree that it cannot be right to simply wait for the police to tell the Government how they can improve the levels of prosecution and bring about new charges? It really should be now for the Government to review the legislation to ensure that the victims are able to find redress and that those people who undertake spiking are prosecuted with the full force of the law.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I share his concern. I am really pleased that the Home Secretary has asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue. Of note is that there was an increase of 46% in the number of prosecutions brought by CPS Wales for offences under section 24. On the point about the legislative framework, he will know of course that section 24 is not the only avenue for redress. There is section 23, and section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which can be used in appropriate circumstances.
Women and girls in pubs and nightclubs understandably feel vulnerable to having their drinks spiked, being spiked by needles or being supplied with dodgy and illegal drugs. The maximum penalty under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is 10 years in prison. How many of those who have been prosecuted have been sentenced to 10 years?
As I mentioned, several legal bases may be invoked in regard to these circumstances. Section 23, which covers poisoning that endangers a person’s life, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. CPS figures show that there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21. Section 61, which is an offence to administer a substance to a person without their consent, again carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Again, there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21.
Chilling reports of women being spiked by injection are just the latest example of the epidemic of violence that has left women and girls feeling unsafe. The latest figures show there were 1,223 reports of spiking under this Act, yet only 88 convictions, so will the Attorney General confirm her Government’s support for Labour’s amendment, tabled in the other place, calling for a wide-ranging review into the prevalence of spiking and the response of the criminal justice system when investigating these offences, or will she continue to allow women and girls to be failed by this Government?
As I mentioned, the Home Secretary has already asked for an urgent review on the scale of this particular problem, about which we are very concerned. We are supporting the roll-out of pilot initiatives to improve the safety of women at nightlife venues. The £5 million safety of women at night fund and the £25 million safer streets fund will support projects that target potential perpetrators, seek to protect potential victims and deliver programmes intended to address offending behaviour.
Supreme Court Judgments: Scottish Parliament Legislative Proposals
I welcome the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to agree with the Law Officers that all provisions raised by virtue of our reference under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 were outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. It is for the benefit of all citizens throughout the UK that both Governments operate within their respective powers, as set out in the Scotland Act 1988. That is why this decision is important.
I thank the Attorney General for her answer. Many, indeed all of our laws are crafted carefully, thoughtfully, and often after vigorous debate, and many offer important protections. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House that any devolved gender recognition legislation will not constrain or reinterpret the protections under the Equality Act 2010?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about our devolution settlement, and the Government are clear on their position as set out in our recent response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. First, the protection of single-sex spaces is extremely important; secondly, we must ensure that transgender adults are free to live their lives as they wish, without fear of persecution, while maintaining checks and balances in the system. Finally—this is not directly related to the GRA, but it is important nevertheless—we must ensure that under-18s are protected from decisions that they could make that are irreversible in the future. Any legislation that the Scottish Parliament may pass in that regard will not affect this Government’s position on our Gender Recognition Act.
To return to the original topic, perhaps the Attorney General should take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Parliament on voting unanimously to incorporate the convention on the rights of the child, and follow Holyrood’s example, instead of trying to stymie it. Three little subsections of the Act were ruled incompetent, as they would limit the powers of this Parliament and reserved public authorities to contravene children’s rights. Will the Attorney General explain why her Government fought so hard for the powers to breach children’s rights, and will she ensure that the powers are transferred to Edinburgh to complete the job? In short, let us prioritise children’s rights instead of this Parliament’s rights to trample all over them.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I take greater instruction from the President of the Supreme Court who stated in paragraph 77 of his judgment that there had been a decision by the Scottish Parliament to draft and enact a provision whose plain meaning did not accurately represent the law. That could not have been Parliament’s intention in enacting the Scotland Act 1998, and that is a decisive and emphatic statement from the Supreme Court. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that if the Scottish National party really cared about children’s rights, it would stop obsessing about constitutional division and instead focus on reversing the plummeting standards in Scottish schools.
Asylum Seekers: Channel Crossings
The traffickers organising these dangerous crossings are putting lives at risk, and it is vital that we do everything we can to protect them and prevent them from operating from France. We must break the business model of criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable people. Our position is clear: people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and they should not risk their lives by making these dangerous journeys across the channel.
There is a duty on ships to rescue persons who are in danger at sea, in both customary international law and in binding international conventions such as the 1974 international convention for the safety of life at sea and the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea. Given the UK Government’s supposed commitment to an international rules-based system, how does the Minister square that with clearly flouting those rules?
The Home Office is taking lawful action in the channel to disrupt the traffickers’ life-threatening and criminal business model, and that really should not be in question. This Government are taking urgent and necessary measures to fix our broken asylum system, stop people traffickers, and deter illegal entry, and I am most disappointed that the hon. Gentleman and his party did not see fit to support that.
The Home Office proposals are immoral, dangerous and, as we have just heard, illegal, because they break international law. This Government want to force others to do their bidding by breaking international law on their behalf. Any QC and Attorney General worth their salt would be telling the Home Secretary to forget her plans and not to break international law. Why will the Attorney General not step up to the plate?
The UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and it discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and to migrants who have a lawful basis to be here. My personal background is one such case of reference. Let me just say this. I have acted for the Government in court on several immigration and asylum cases—many, many of them—and I can tell the House that our asylum system is broken. Our Bill fixes it and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman voted against it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are international rules and conventions, which bind state parties, on our duties when it comes to maritime law and our obligations. We honour those duties and take them very seriously. We also have a domestic regime of immigration and asylum, which we are able to modify and change now that we have left the European Union.
Rape Conviction Rates
The Law Officers regularly meet ministerial colleagues, as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions and others, to drive forward progress on what we all want to see: justice for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. Last week, I went to meet RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—prosecutors at the Crown Prosecution Service west midlands, and was pleased to congratulate them on helping to secure several recent convictions, including that of a double rapist, Daniel Jones, who was later imprisoned for 17 years for his appalling crimes.
A recent report from the National Audit Office states that rape cases are most at risk of collapse as people withdraw. Does the Minister agree that the Government are failing rape victims, who can wait years for their cases to be heard, leading many of them to withdraw from the process? Can he explain why the Government opposed Labour’s proposals, which would have enabled the fast-tracking of rape cases and the pre-recording of victims’ evidence?
That is because there are already active measures to pre-record evidence, as the hon. Gentleman should know. He is absolutely right that we need to speed up the system. That is why “RASSO 2025” was published by the CPS; that is why there is a joint national action plan between the police and the CPS to improve file quality; that is why there is an end-to-end rape review; and that is why the Government have put £80 million into the CPS to ensure that justice can be done.
Local community safety partnerships across Devon and Cornwall estimate that in 2019-20 there were 23,000 victims of sexual assault across the two counties, including in my own constituency. How will the Minister ensure that local leaders are given the powers and tools they need to hold all criminal justice agencies, including the CPS, to account locally for delivering the progress that is so needed on prosecutions?
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question. She is a tireless champion of this issue in North Devon. Every agency, from the police to the CPS to Whitehall Departments, has been mobilised to drive improvements in outcomes for these complex and sensitive cases. As well as launching “RASSO 2025” by the police and the joint national action plan, the Government are investing heavily in the recruitment of ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisors—to support complainants through the court process. I will just say this: it is early days, but initial data is positive. The number of rape prosecutions in the second quarter of this year was 14% higher than in the last quarter pre-covid, and the number of convictions 16% higher over the same period.
The rape review lumps together spending on tackling domestic violence and rape. The headline figure is £176 million, but £125 million of that is for refuge accommodation. That is vital, but it is nothing to do with improving victims’ experience of the criminal justice system or improving rape convictions. Can the Minister explain just how much new funding he has secured from the Treasury to support rape victims to get justice?
I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point. He is absolutely right that refuge accommodation is very important, but it is not everything. One of the things that I am very proud of is that an additional £27 million is going on recruiting 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic abuse advisers. Those individuals can provide critical support to people who, frankly, might find the whole process forbidding. Also, we have done work to publish the victims’ code in April 2021, which provides victims with the rights that they deserve.
I understand the Minister’s response well, but this is not just about cases going to court more quickly to have them processed. It is also about those ladies and rape victims who are very vulnerable and very lonely. What will happen in the time period until the case is heard to ensure that they have the assistance and help that they need, from every point of view?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. One of the other things that we have done is to increase funding for rape support centres by two thirds so that individuals know that they are not alone. The constant refrain from individuals will be, “I didn’t feel supported”, but it would be quite wrong for the message to go out suggesting that there is not that support. This is what victims said after a case recently in my county of Gloucestershire. Victim B said:
“I would just like to say how happy I am with the whole criminal justice system. The support offered is amazing.”
Victim C said:
“The support from the police and GRASAC (Gloucestershire’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre) has been amazing”.
That support is out there and we want to make sure it is there in ever greater quantities.
I welcome the Solicitor General to his place for his first departmental questions. He brings massive personal experience to cases of this kind and has prosecuted exactly these sorts of cases. Does he agree that there has been significant improvement in the treatment of victims, particularly after the revision of the Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance—for example, in the awareness of trauma and the impact that that has on victims—and in getting the right balance in dealing with digital evidence? Is it not important now that we maintain the capacity of the courts system to bring these cases to trial in the timeliest fashion in terms of judges, court availability and quality, experienced advocates to deal with these important prosecutions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. As always, he is absolutely right: we have to strike this important balance in respect of digital evidence to ensure that the evidence to put people behind bars is appropriately obtained without compromising the right to a fair trial. No one here wants to do that. He is absolutely correct about capacity as well. The Lord Chief Justice has made that point very powerfully and it is one to which we are acutely alive.
I also welcome the Solicitor General to his place. When asked by Sky News about rape prosecutions, the Prime Minister said that the CPS is not taking rape prosecutions seriously enough. He also refused to commit to the Government’s promise in their rape review to restore rape prosecution rates to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament. Does the Solicitor General agree with the Prime Minister’s comments? Is this not just another example of victims being abandoned by this Government?
No, that is not the case at all. The really important thing is to look at the actions. One of the things that I was very heartened by in this year’s spending review is that the additional funding that is going into the CPS is extremely significant—it is £80 million. To put that into concrete terms, that means that there will be an additional 100 RASSO prosecutors. The ones I met in CPS west midlands were incredibly motivated, diligent, decent and determined individuals. The Prime Minister is very clear about wanting to see improvements, and he is getting behind it by providing pounds, shillings and pence.
County Lines Drug Dealing: Prosecutions
The CPS’s early investigative advice on county lines with the police is making a difference. The majority of county lines offending relates to drug convictions and human trafficking. This year—although these figures do not relate to county lines offending alone—the CPS has secured 36,000 drug convictions and 238 human-trafficking convictions.
I want to place on record my thanks to Norfolk police; last month, it arrested 12 county lines drug dealers in a week-long crackdown against drugs across Norfolk. That is to be hugely applauded. I just want to check: do the police have the right support and, more importantly, does the CPS have all the tools that it needs and the resources to prosecute drug-dealing across our country successfully?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I applaud his police team in Norfolk for their great results. In the east of England, Operation Orochi has led to significant terms of imprisonment imposed on 42 offenders convicted. As of October 2021, the number of county lines operations covered by the operation has been more than halved. They work closely with the police, leading to a high volume of convictions since November 2019.
Covid-19: Recovery of Criminal Justice System
The Law Officers frequently meet the CPS and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and elsewhere to progress the recovery of the criminal justice system. It is welcome that the Government have significantly increased the budget for the CPS with an additional £85 million at the 2019 spending review and a 12% uplift over the period of this spending review, to help to recruit and retain prosecutors and modernise digital infrastructure. Court capacity plainly plays a part, too; I commend my hon. Friend for his work to increase the judicial retirement age, which will make an important difference.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that I was delighted that the Government took up the cudgels of my private Member’s Bill—the Magistrates (Retirement Age) Bill—and are now legislating to raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75. On its own, however, that will not solve the substantial backlog that we still have in our courts, particularly our magistrates courts. What other measures can be taken in the meantime, over and above what is already happening, to ensure that we can get through it? Justice needs to be done fairly, but also efficiently.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point. Magistrates courts hear more than 90% of all criminal cases—a point that is not always given the emphasis that it might be. In some parts of the country, magistrates courts have cleared their backlogs completely; indeed, some did so many months ago. To support that recovery, the Government took measures including sitting additional courts on Saturdays and installing plexiglass in more than 450 courtrooms. We want to keep up that momentum with the so-called trial blitz courts planned for later this year. We are fortunate in this country to have dedicated and public-spirited magistrates who continue to do an exemplary job in ensuring that justice is done.
CPS Prosecutions: Hate Crime
Hate crime can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. In the last year, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 such offences; in 79% of those cases that resulted in a conviction, the court agreed to impose a sentence uplift to reflect this important aggravating factor. Let the message go out: those who seek to divide our society through hate can expect a robust response.
Yes, and those resources are growing. CPS London North maintains hate crime co-ordinators and inclusion and community engagement managers to provide a single point of contact on all aspects of hate crime prosecution. It has achieved some of the highest sentence uplift statistics anywhere in the country, with increases handed down in 83% of cases.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
In 2021, the unduly lenient sentence scheme has continued to ensure that the seriousness of offending is properly reflected in the sentence imposed. More than 100 cases have been heard by the Court of Appeal this year. I have personally presented cases, securing an increase in the sentence imposed on a rapist earlier this year.
Along with many in this House, I have become increasingly concerned about unduly lenient sentences for rape, especially in relation to crimes committed against minors. Last month, a man was jailed after being found guilty of six counts of rape of a 14-year-old, two counts of sexual activity with a child, and other sexual offences; he was sentenced to only nine years’ imprisonment. That follows reports that last year a man was jailed after being found guilty of raping a three-year-old in a wood; his sentence, too, was nine years.
Those prison sentences are simply not long enough. Will the Attorney General agree to look at those cases and meet me to discuss what more can be done to ensure that the sentences match the crimes committed?
My hon. Friend raises some very grave cases. I assure her that such offences are within the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and that the Solicitor General and I will consider every such referral to us with the greatest care.
I am proud of our work in respect of offending against minors. In three recent cases concerning child sexual abuse, offenders’ non-custodial sentences were replaced with immediate custody, which I hope sends a clear message about how seriously such offending is taken.
CPS Prosecutions: Serious Crime
Through its three national central casework divisions and 13 regional complex casework units, the CPS continues to work with the National Crime Agency and other criminal justice partners to bring offenders to justice for a range of serious crimes, including serious and organised crime, terrorism, and serious and complex economic crime.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Economic crime is not a victimless crime; it strikes at the very heart of the society that we want to be. I am pleased to see that the Law Commission published its discussion document on corporate criminal liability earlier this year. Both the CPS and the SFO provided input, and took part in a series of events to share their operational insights. The Law Commission is aiming to publish an options paper early next year, and will then work with the Government to implement any next steps.