The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the motion: That, from 1 November 2021—

(1) the Information Commissioner shall be paid a salary of £200,000 per annum and pension benefits in accordance with the standard award for the civil service pension scheme;

(2) all previous resolutions relating to the salary and pension of the Information Commissioner shall cease to have effect.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The Information Commissioner’s Office is now one of the most important regulators in the United Kingdom. It is responsible for supervising almost every organisation in the country. We want to invest in its future success and to sustain its world-leading reputation.

The Information Commissioner must play an active role to keep the ICO at the forefront of regulatory best practice, continuing to develop governance, key decision making and other processes to reflect the ICO’s evolving role. There is an opportunity for the UK’s ICO to take a lead internationally, at a time when the establishment and development of, typically, governance structures for data, artificial intelligence and other new technologies are critical. The Information Commissioner therefore has a key role to play to drive the responsible use of data across the economy, to build trust and confidence, and to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing for our society in competition, innovation and growth.

This Government’s ambition is to make the UK the data destination across the world, and to use data to drive growth and innovation and to deliver our levelling-up agenda. Our national data strategy, published recently, sets out that ambition for the UK’s pro-growth and trusted data regime. We want to help innovators and entrepreneurs to use data responsibly and securely, without undue regulatory uncertainty or risk, in order to drive growth across the economy. Data is a strategic asset, and its responsible use should be seen as a huge opportunity to embrace. Getting that right is critical to jobs and growth as the UK economy becomes increasingly digitised and data-enabled.

We want the public to be active agents in the thriving digital economy and to have confidence and trust in how data, including personal data, is used. That will mean maintaining high standards of data protection without creating unnecessary barriers to data use. The opportunity to create a new and independent data regime is one of the key benefits of the UK’s departure from the European Union. We have no intention of dismantling our high standards of data protection, but we are no longer required necessarily to follow every dot and comma of the General Data Protection Regulation. We will be looking to see how we may better utilise data and enable it to flow more freely, while at the same time maintaining those high standards.

We need to attract world-class individuals who have the skills necessary to balance protecting individual data rights while simultaneously ensuring that data enables digital growth and innovation. We also need to attract people who can represent the UK on the international data stage. The Information Commissioner’s responsibilities have increased since we left the European Union; they now include overseeing existing EU adequacy decisions by 2024, as well as strategic engagement with European and international competent authorities. The UK now has a huge opportunity to use data responsibly as a strategic asset that can drive growth.

One of the other opportunities arising from our no longer being a member state is the ability to apply the framework of transfer tools inherited from GDPR in a more flexible way. As the ICO has now left the European Data Protection Board, we are able to be more agile than was possible when we were within the EU. The ICO has a strong international reputation and an influential position in key global regulatory forums. It engages effectively with foreign partners and EU adequacy. Therefore, the next Information Commissioner will not only focus on privacy, but ensure in part that people can use data to achieve economic and social goals. The next commissioner will need to have a deep understanding of how businesses use data in a cutting-edge way.

Data has many societal benefits and, as we emerge from the covid pandemic, the UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of global data-driven growth. The next Information Commissioner will play a critical role in delivering that agenda. We need to attract an outstanding individual to take the ICO forward. They will have a key role to play. They need to build trust and confidence in responsible data use, while also being able to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing.

Since 2018, the salary of the Information Commissioner has fallen below the market averages for comparative roles. Salaries of heads of data protection regulators internationally range up to £270,000. In Italy, the Data Protection Authority chairman and chief executive officer both receive €240,000. We have received some outstanding applicants for this role, but they would potentially need to take a cut of up to 50% of their current salaries if they were to accept even the £200,000 salary that we are debating. Without the motion, the salary of the Information Commissioner would remain at £164,000, and we would risk losing the outstanding candidates we so badly need.

The introduction of GDPR and the rapidly developing data protection landscape have vastly increased the responsibilities of the Information Commissioner. They have increased still further since our exit from the EU. The global position of the ICO, the increased workload after leaving the European Union and the rapidly increasing demands on the sector and the statutory requirements of the organisation mean that it has grown by two thirds to more than 850 employees since 2018.

The ICO has had an increased enforcement role since the introduction of heavier fines and penalties. That is in addition to the commissioner’s increasing role in the regulation of the privacy and electronic communications regulations. In particular, the ICO continues to tackle nuisance telephone calls and texts, which I suspect every Member of this House knows can cause huge distress to the public. In the fourth quarter of 2020-21 alone, the ICO issued fines amounting to more than £1.1 million under PECR to companies that have been sending out nuisance calls and texts.

In summary, we believe that the proposed increase in the commissioner’s salary appropriately reflects the increased importance, challenge and responsibilities of the role. Finding the right candidate to fill that position will be a critical component of delivering our ambition to make the UK the most technologically innovative and growth-driven economy in the world.

The Minister for Media and Data
Mr John Whittindale

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on his work to promote media freedom. I am particularly grateful to him for taking over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which I chaired until February 2020.

A lot of Members have focused on dreadful abuses of media freedom in different countries around the world, and so to some extent Members might have expected a response from a Foreign Office Minister. The Minister who has specific responsibility for the subject is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who is doing a great job championing media freedom internationally. He is obviously prevented from taking part in this debate in our House, but I work with him closely.

It is encouraging that there has been widespread recognition across this Chamber that media freedom is a crucial component of an open, democratic society. We may not always like or agree with what is written about us in the press, but the role of a free media in holding Government to account, in exposing corruption or malpractice and in providing trusted, reliable information and reporting has never been more important. However, media freedom is under increasing threat across the world. A number of Members pointed out that 50 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which does a terrific job of monitoring that and campaigning, already this year 13 more journalists or media assistants have been killed, and there are currently 439 in prison. The summary analysis of its World Press Freedom Index 2021, published in April, said that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in the index; that the coronavirus pandemic has been used by Governments as cover for blocking journalists’ access to information; and that journalists find it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the middle east and Europe.

I join a number of those who have contributed in paying tribute to the courage of journalists working in some of the most difficult, dangerous and challenging parts of the world. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) reminded us of our own Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria along with her photographer, French journalist Rémi Ochlik, in 2012. I am sure he heard, as I have, Paul Conroy, who was also badly injured at that time, talk about how the shelling that killed Marie Colvin and her colleague was deliberately aimed at them because they were journalists.

The Minister for Media and Data 

(Mr John Whittingdale)

Lord Dyson’s report makes shocking reading. It details not just an appalling failure to uphold basic journalistic standards but an unwillingness to investigate complaints and to discover the truth. That these failures occurred at our national broadcaster is an even greater source of shame. The new leadership at the BBC deserve credit for setting up an independent inquiry and for accepting its findings in full. However, the reputation of the BBC—its most precious asset—has been badly tarnished, and it is right that the BBC board and wider leadership now consider urgently how confidence and trust in the corporation can be restored.

It is not for the Government to interfere in editorial decisions, but it is the job of Government to ensure that there is a strong and robust system of governance at the BBC with effective external oversight. It was to deliver that that we made fundamental changes when the BBC’s charter was renewed in 2015-16. Since then, the BBC Trust has been replaced by a more powerful board with an external regulator, Ofcom, responsible for overseeing the BBC’s content and being the ultimate adjudicator of complaints. We also made provision at that time for a mid-term review by the Government to ensure that the new governance arrangements were working effectively. That review is due next year but work on it will start now. In particular, we will wish to be satisfied that the failures that have been identified could not have occurred if the new governance arrangements had been in place. The BBC board has also announced today its own review, led by the senior independent director and two non-executive members, of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards committee. That review will examine editorial oversight, the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes, and the wider culture within the BBC. It will take independent expert advice and will report by September.

In an era of fake news and disinformation, the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger. The BBC has been, and should be, a beacon setting standards to which others can aspire, but it has fallen short so badly and has damaged its reputation both here and across the world. The BBC now needs urgently to demonstrate that these failings have been addressed and that this can never happen again.

Mr Richard Holden
(North West Durham) (Con)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure fair competition for the fourth national lottery licence.

Mr John Whittingdale

The national lottery is a national treasure that enhances the cultural and sporting lives of millions of people across the UK, and it has funded over £1 billion in projects supporting the response to covid-19. The Gambling Commission is running the competition for the next licence and is following best practice from across the public sector for competitions of this nature.

Mr Holden

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is vital that the national lottery competition is not just open and transparent but seen to be open and transparent by everyone involved. One of the biggest funds that the national lottery supports is grassroots sport. This week, Consett AFC heard that its FA Vase final will have to be played without any supporters at it, despite the FA cup final just a couple of weeks later being played with supporters. May I urge the Minister to speak to colleagues and the FA to see whether there is any possibility that this vital final—the first time Consett has been to Wembley in over 120 years—might be played with fans?

Mr Whittingdale

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a huge fan of Consett AFC, and of course he and his fellow fans are very excited about this historic match, which is due to take place in Wembley. We are working to try to get spectators back into stadiums as soon as possible. I fully understand his disappointment that it does not look as if it will be possible in time for the match, but I have no doubt that he and thousands of others will be cheering on his team from their sofas.

Alex Sobel

I will ask a question more directly to do with the national lottery. The national lottery helps to fund many charities, cultural organisations and heritage sites, and whoever is awarded the new licence must be beyond reproach. Conservative party donor Richard Desmond—who persuaded the Prime Minister to raise the jackpot limit to benefit his own lottery and then successfully lobbied the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government over the controversial Westferry development, saving himself £40 million, resulting in an unlawful planning decision that was followed soon after by another donation to the Conservative party—wants to run our national lottery. Does the Minister believe that Mr Desmond is a fit and proper person to do this?

Mr Whittingdale

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the national lottery. Indeed, I point out that his constituency has received over £6 million in funding over the last five years. Which applicant should take on the franchise is determined by the Gambling Commission, and of course it will want to be satisfied that the successful applicant meets the highest standards of probity and integrity, but it is a matter for the Gambling Commission.

The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Government. As the Minister for Digital and Culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said at the beginning, this has been a hugely challenging year for the entertainment and cultural sectors. Although the vast number of businesses in this country have suffered from the restrictions of lockdown, it is perhaps, as my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden) said, the entertainment and cultural sectors that have been hit among the hardest in the economy.

I would like to thank all those who have participated in the debate. We have had 55 Back-Bench speeches during the course of the debate, and I know, as you indicated, Mr Deputy Speaker, that more wanted to speak but were unable to do so. The passion shown today is a demonstration of how important culture and entertainment are not just to our economy and our heritage, but to our wellbeing as a nation. A number of speakers emphasised that by pointing out the economic contribution that the creative industries make, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for Bury North (James Daly) and for Bolton West (Chris Green), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). They all pointed to the vast contribution—£116 billion—that the creative industries make, supporting 2.1 million jobs. However, they also went on to point out that the contribution is not just economic.

The cultural industries and entertainment sector are critical to the wellbeing of the nation. They bring joy to us. Although many have been unable to operate over the past year, I pay tribute to those who have sought to fill the gap, in particular the broadcasters who have done a fantastic job in keeping us entertained and keeping up the morale of the nation. However, it is not the same as being able to enjoy at first hand the cultural interactions that bring so much value to our lives. I think we all yearn to be able to walk through a museum again, to sit and watch a play or, in my case particularly, to go to the cinema and to enjoy live music. As the hon. Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, live music brings an enjoyment that all of us feel is absent from our lives. I have taken particular note of the recommendation from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) to look up Deco and their mash-ups as soon as I am able to do so again.

A number of Members have spoken with great power about the cultural institutions in their own constituencies. We are, of course, familiar with west end theatre, which is famous throughout the world, but there are other theatres in London, including the Theatre Royal at Stratford, mentioned by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and the New Wimbledon Theatre, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said, it is not just about London. We should recognise that the cultural institutions of our country are strong right across all our nations. One of my regrets is that I was appointed to this job just three weeks before lockdown started, and I wish for the day when I can go out and visit some of the places that have been mentioned, including the opera house in Buxton, the railways of Darlington, the zoo in Dudley, the castle in Dover and even Funny Girls in Blackpool.

The best support that we can give to all these cultural institutions is an assurance that the time when they can reopen is coming. That is why the road map is so critical, as my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) pointed out. We now have a clear plan, which is irreversible. We have a certainty that we can give as to when these institutions can start to operate again. Of course I understand that people would rather this happened sooner, but I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that grass-roots sport, including golf, will be able to resume from 29 March. The reason that we have been able to offer that assurance has been the success of the vaccination programme, as my hon. Friends the

Members for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) pointed out, and I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard to roll it out and continue to do so—including, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North, who told us that he was a volunteer in his local vaccination centre.

The worst thing that could happen to our cultural institutions would be to give them a date on which they could reopen and then have to reverse it again. We all know the huge disappointment and, indeed, cost to many who had planned to reopen. An example was Bill Kenwright’s “Love Letters”, which was due to reopen at the beginning of December but, just a few days later, London was put back into tier 3 status and it was unable to go ahead. So we need to be relatively confident about those dates.

Several hon. Members mentioned the work that the Department is doing, particularly to explore how large events can return, preferably without social distancing and restrictive capacity caps. I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon that we have established the events research programme to look at how those large events can resume. In doing so, we are looking at the pilots that were conducted last year to consider the effectiveness of various measures to reduce the transmission risk in larger venues, including testing. Officials from my Department and from the Department of Health and Social Care are working closely to combine the existing workstreams into one overall research programme, and that programme will start with events such as Project Encore, which will hopefully set out the road map for when those larger events, which are perhaps the most challenging, can start again.

A number of my hon. Friends have recognised the huge commitment that the Government have made to the cultural sector through the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund. I would like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) for recognising the strength of that commitment, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who pointed out that, on top of the £1.57 billion, we have the £500 million film and TV production restart scheme. And of course the Government recognise the need to continue that support until these institutions can reopen once again. I cannot give details of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the Exchequer will announce tomorrow, although there have already been some indications that he will be giving further support to the cultural sector. As I have said, the sector has benefited and should continue to do so, and I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) that that includes nightclubs and music venues, which have been eligible for support.

As many Members have recognised, our cultural and entertainment sectors are world-leading. They are a major contributor not just to the economic growth of this country but to our standing around the world. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt): I am confident that when we resume, those sectors will come back even stronger. 

Martyn Day

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the retention of (a) the GDPR and (b) other EU regulations on data protection after the transition period.

Mr John Whittingdale

The general data protection regulation regime will be retained in domestic law after the transition period through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The UK remains committed to maintaining high data protection standards now and in the future.

Martyn Day

The EU has been a world leader when it comes to the protection of citizens’ digital rights. This is evidenced by the large number of countries, such as South Korea, Japan and Brazil, that sought to emulate its groundbreaking GDPR policy. As the end of the transition period looms, how will the UK Government ensure that digital rights law not only lives up to the EU’s high standards but exceeds them?

Mr John Whittingdale

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the GDPR has ensured that we have high standards and, as I say, we are absolutely committed to maintaining them. We have no intention of diverging substantially from GDPR, but obviously we will be looking to see whether there are ways in which we can improve our regime while maintaining those high standards.

John Nicolson

The independent Information Commissioner recently revealed that the Conservative party had racially and religiously profiled 10 million voters at the last election. I was shocked to learn that it did this by buying data that "identified a person’s…ethnic origin and religion based on their first and last name.” Can the Minister explain to the House why his party does this?

Mr John Whittingdale

As I recall, the Information Commissioner examined the practices of all political parties and made comments against all of them. However, it did not find that any breaches of the law had occurred.

 
 
The Minister for Media and Data 
(Mr John Whittingdale)
 
I am not sure I can claim that title, particularly having listened to the contributions this evening. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on obtaining the debate and managing to unite the House. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with real admiration and affection for what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest soap.

I am delighted to join others in congratulating “Coronation Street” and ITV on the 60th anniversary. At the beginning of this year, the programme transmitted its 10,000th episode, and the 60th anniversary is next week. It is the world’s longest running soap opera, and it is still the most popular. It also demonstrates the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the media landscape over those 60 years. Today, it is still bringing in the biggest audience of any soap, but that is around 7 million, whereas in the ’90s, it was regularly getting 20 million. Indeed, the departure of Hilda Ogden in the 1987 Christmas episode had an audience of 26.65 million. It is still getting something like a third of the audience share. This just shows how linear television has changed during that time, but nevertheless, “Coronation Street” has maintained its position at No.1.

I cannot claim the encyclopaedic knowledge that has been displayed by so many Members, but I, too, have twice visited the set of “Coronation Street”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, the first time I did so was with Margaret Thatcher in January 1990, and it was indeed the case that I had to brief her on the way to the set on the characters who were stars at that time. I did indeed go through all the various storylines, and she was particularly keen to visit Alf Roberts’ corner shop, because of course her own father was Alfred Roberts, who ran the grocer’s shop in Grantham. She arrived on set and was very upset to see that Alf Roberts’ corner shop had the sign saying, “Licensed to sell alcohol”. She said that that would certainly have never been allowed in her father’s shop, as he would not have dreamt of selling alcohol. Having said that, she did then visit the Rovers Return, but she was very clear that she would have a bitter lemon from behind the bar.

Some 24 years later, I was lucky enough to visit the set again. This was organised by the redoubtable Jane Luca, of ITV, whom I suspect was responsible for the visits of most of my hon. Friends who have spoken of their own experiences. She organised for the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I was Chair of at the time, to visit the new set. This was in 2014, after the set had been transferred to the new location in MediaCityUK in Salford. I was indeed accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, whose excitement at going to the new set I remember. We met a number of cast members, including Michelle Keegan and Sam Aston. One thing that struck me was that the set had been made slightly bigger so that two cars could drive down the street and pass each other, and 54,000 cobbles had been laid, with extraordinary attention to detail. Each cobble was both positioned and weathered in order that it remained absolutely authentic. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) referred to the extraordinary amount of ancillary occupations involved and jobs created on a major TV production—I suspect that the 54,000 cobbles employed quite a lot of people.

Over the years, “Coronation Street” has had a number of famous visitors. There is a wonderful picture of Alfred Hitchcock peering around the door of the Rovers Return, and a young Prince Charles visited. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen and one or two others have said, many great actors started their careers in Weatherfield; as well as the hon. Lady, we have the trio of theatrical knights, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, as well as Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Lumley. As well as the actors, screenwriters such as Jack Rosenthal and Russell T. Davies started off in “Coronation Street”, and directors such as Paul Greengrass, Mike Newell and Michael Apted all directed episodes.

A number of the speakers in this debate have referred to the willingness of “Coronation Street” to confront difficult issues, and we have heard a number of examples of that, starting with the issue of racism in the very early episodes in the 1960s. Since then, it has addressed teenage pregnancy; domestic abuse, of both males as well as females; and transgender issues. It has even covered the challenge of someone having to try to find the money to pay the TV licence and failing, with this resulting in imprisonment. I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that almost nobody now goes to prison for a failure to pay the TV licence or meet the fine. I am sorry that in her case this came at a time when that was not true.

Tracy Brabin 
 
It was pressure from this place that changed that law and a subsequent “Panorama” programme that unearthed all these cases of women who were sent straight to prison for non-payment. So I would like to thank the predecessors of MPs in here who saved so many women from experiencing that.
 
Mr Whittingdale 

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. It has been some years since anyone was sent to prison for that and I hope it does not happen again, but it was disproportionately women who suffered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) talked about the issue of raising awareness of sepsis. It is perhaps worth observing that there cannot be another street in Britain that has experienced so many disasters and so many tragedies in such a short space of time.

Of course, most recently, the programme has had to wrestle with the challenges of covid, both in terms of production and also as a storyline. Covid stopped production of “Coronation Street” in March, but it was able to resume in June under the protocols to ensure safety. I want to pay tribute to the ITV health and safety team and to Magnus Brooke of ITV who played a very large part in helping to draw up those protocols so that not just ITV Studios productions could get going again, but all the other broadcasters and film companies could, too.
 
I have been chairing the broadcasting, film and production working group, which has brought together representatives of all the broadcasters, film companies and production companies to discuss how we could get production going again. We have now put in place very strict protocols to ensure that production can take place safely. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen mentioned, we have also put in place the £500 million film and TV restart scheme. She is absolutely right that one obstacle was the difficulty in obtaining insurance of productions against the possibility of their having to stop because of covid. I am glad to say that that is in place and, as a result, productions have been resumed by most of the major broadcasters and film companies, but it has required some quite inventive solutions.

I understand that, on “Coronation Street”, furniture is quite often placed between characters in order that they can remain apart and socially distanced. Indeed, in a particularly inventive way, filming of romantic scenes takes place with one actor sitting on one end of a sofa looking longingly at a tennis ball suspended from the ceiling and then, once that section has been filmed, the other actor takes their place at the other end of the sofa and stares at a different tennis ball longingly and the production crew then splice the two together so that no one can tell. It is very important not just, obviously, that production is done safely, but that a show like “Coronation Street” gets across the public messaging about the importance of maintaining social distancing and mask wearing. “Coronation Street” had the socially distanced wedding between Maria and Gary.

I fear that it is almost certain that Weatherfield would still be in tier 3 at the end of the national lockdown, which would mean that the Rovers Return would be able to supply only a takeaway service, but I hope that it would not be long before the Rovers Return would be in tier 2, which would, of course, allow the sale of alcohol with a substantial meal such as Betty’s hotpot.

The hon. Lady also rightly referred to the importance of the UK production sector and our creative industries and the need to ensure that every region and every nation of the UK benefits from them, and we have been very keen to ensure that more production is done outside London. The BBC now has a major centre in Salford at MediaCity. ITV is now located with the “Coronation Street” set there. I have also had the pleasure of visiting the “Emmerdale” set in Leeds. ITV still has a presence in Leeds and Channel 4 has now established its headquarters in Leeds. I am absolutely clear that it is very important that we continue to encourage production to take place right across the UK, because it brings enormous economic benefits in terms of jobs and wealth creation.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to the importance of public service broadcasting. We are living through extraordinary changes in the media landscape that have brought huge extra opportunities for viewers in the range of content available through a number of streaming services that did not even exist two or three years ago. Now we have a choice of Amazon, Apple, Disney and Netflix, as well as Sky and the public service broadcasting companies. The PSBs have a tremendous role in supporting the UK creative industries, and while some of the streaming services are now commissioning content in this country, because we are so good at it here, the PSBs nevertheless still represent the major commissioners of UK content. We have recently established the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel to examine the way in which PSB needs to adapt to this new landscape, but I am absolutely clear that there is still a role for public service broadcasting, and we will be looking at the issues and challenges facing public service broadcasters, such as the issue of prominence that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised.

I would like to conclude by joining all those who have spoken in paying tribute to a show that has not only brought pleasure and entertainment to millions of people over the course of the last 60 years, not just in the UK but in many other countries around the world, but also played a vital role in raising awareness and affecting attitudes on so many important public issues. As several people have said, I look forward to at least another 60 years. Mr Deputy Speaker 
(Mr Nigel Evans)
 
I am not going to let the moment pass without saying a few words. This is rare and exceptional, but we are going to do it, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing me to chair this part of the Adjournment debate. Congratulations, Tracy, there is nobody more appropriate than you to have this particular debate. I have to say, as well, that I have seen many Ministers answer Adjournment debates with speeches prepared by their own Departments, but John, you wrote every word of that speech. I was looking at it, and that is your handwriting. I do not know if you could read it, but none the less it is your handwriting. You have grown up with the series, as we all have in this Chamber.

I know that Mr Speaker would have wanted, in normal circumstances, to have done a big reception at the end of this debate and had many of the stars past and present in his state rooms, but I am afraid covid has meant that that cannot be. We cannot even go into the snug in the Strangers Bar, because that is closed. None the less, I am sure that at some stage we will be able to properly mark the 60 years of “Coronation Street” in the Palace of Westminster. I know that that Chamber would have been full of some of the stars looking down before we went on to the reception.
 
I grew up in the 1960s watching “Coronation Street” on the huge TV we had in the corner—a small screen, but a big TV—all in black and white. I lay on the floor and listened to the haunting melody on a Monday and Wednesday. My father would close the shop early in order to watch “Coronation Street” because he loved it so much. Little did I think, watching that series, that I would be chairing a debate on “Coronation Street” in the House of Commons as Deputy Speaker.

I remember once meeting Jean Alexander, the great Hilda Ogden, and I could not get over how posh she sounded when she was not being Hilda Ogden. She was such a great actress, and that is part of the thing about “Coronation Street”: the great actors and actresses—yourself included, Tracy—who have performed in the amazing, longest running soap opera in the entire world.

In the 1960s, Bill Roache opened Swansea carnival. My mother dragged me down to the front to watch Bill in the back of an open-top car. I thought I was looking at a Hollywood actor—that is the height of the fame of people who starred in “Coronation Street” in those days. Little did I think then that I would represent the Ribble Valley, in the north-west of England, in Lancashire, or that in the village I bought a house in, Pendleton, I would be living opposite Vicky Entwistle—Janice Battersby—who is now a personal friend. I went to her wedding in Manchester, when she married Andy Chapman. Lots of stars of “Coronation Street” were there.

Bill Roache, too, has become a personal friend of mine over the years—a wonderful man. He has helped me out in a couple of general election campaigns, as he has a number of people who became MPs. Bill is the longest-serving actor in the longest-serving soap. What an amazing accolade! John, you mentioned Jane Luca, and she helped me to get on to the set of “Coronation Street” as well. We are all grateful for the fantastic facilitation that Jane has given many people over the period. 

Another thing that has come out about “Coronation Street” is the humour—yes, the drama, and the fact that it treat difficult subjects, but it is one of the most humorous things on TV, more than some of the other soaps on at the moment, where you feel a bit depressed at the end. With “Coronation Street”, humour runs through the entire series, the entire 60 years of its production. For me, as far as broadcasting is concerned, you can stick your “Crowns”; I am going to stick with “Corrie”, as I have for the past 60 years, and as I am sure we all will in the future.
 
It is a real shame that at the end of this debate, we cannot have that haunting melody of “Coronation Street” playing, which I am sure we are all thinking about now. 

It is the thing that got us there to watch the show and, even at the point of highest drama, there would be silence in our living rooms as we listened to that closing melody. So thank you, “Corrie”, for everything that you have done over the past 60 years.
 

Alun Cairns
(Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)

What assessment he has made of the potential effectiveness of the proposal to ban the advertisement of products high in fat, sugar and salt online and on television. (908265)

The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

The Government published an impact assessment alongside the 2019 consultation on HFSS advertising that considered both the health benefits and the costs. We will publish the Government’s response to that consultation by the end of this year, and hold a short consultation as soon as possible on a total ban for advertising online.

Alun Cairns

No one would question the Government’s wish to reduce childhood obesity, but influencing this is a hugely complicated task that the Government should take time over. The proposal to restrict advertising products that are high in fat, salt and sugar brings the risk of displacement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any ban will not come into force until all factors have been properly considered, and that any strategy regime will hold online platforms to the same restrictions as broadcasters, along with similar sanctions?

Mr Whittingdale

My right hon. Friend himself is an advertisement for the benefits of healthy living, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to the risk that, by imposing measures in one area, one may simply displace advertising into another. That is why the Government have been absolutely plain that restrictions on post-watershed advertising on broadcasting will come into effect at the same time as a ban on HFSS advertising online.

The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Communications Act (e-Commerce) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to welcome my colleagues who are here in quality, if not in quantity. These regulations were laid in both Houses on 24 September. They seek to end the direct effect of article 3 of the e-commerce directive, which is also known as the country of origin principle, with regard to sections 120 to 124 and 128 to 131 of the Communications Act 2003. If these regulations were not in place, these provisions would become retained EU law after the end of the transition period.

The country of origin principle is an EU internal market measure designed to facilitate digital trade among businesses in the European economic area. It would not be appropriate to retain this measure in UK legislation beyond the end of the transition period. These regulations do not create new policy; instead, they are technical measures to fix failures of retained EU law arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This intervention is essential to ensure that UK rules can be effectively enforced at the end of the year.

Turning to the detail of the regulations, the primary impact is that they will allow a UK regulator—the Phone-paid Services Authority—to enforce its code of practice against online service providers based in the European economic area. At the moment, article 3 of the e-commerce directive inhibits the exercising of the PSA’s powers under sections 120 to 124 against EEA businesses. These regulations will also allow Ofcom to enforce rules under section 128 to 131 of the Act. Again, at the moment, article 3 of the e-commerce directive inhibits Ofcom from enforcing these rules on the misuse of electronic communications services against EEA businesses. This change will allow quicker regulatory action and more efficient user redress. UK regulators will be able to enforce UK laws for the protection of UK consumers.

I should also bring to the attention of the Committee the reports of the European Statutory Instruments Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and I thank those Committees for their work. I will address a couple of the points they raised in a moment, but before I do so, I will explain again why the Government are intervening in this area and give a little more background to the proposal.

The e-commerce directive seeks to contribute to the proper functioning of the European internal market by ensuring the free movement of online service providers within the European economic area. However, that directive will no longer apply to the UK at the end of the transition period, including the country of origin principle. That principle applies to online service providers based in any EEA state that operates across the European economic area, and it means that the service provider only has to follow the requisite rules of the state in which it is based, rather than the rules in each state where its service is received. If the state where the service is received wishes to enforce its own laws against the online service provider, it can only do so where certain conditions set out in article 3 are met. That state must also follow a derogation procedure, notifying the European Commission and the relevant member state before enforcing its rules.

While the UK has been bound by the directive, this exemption has been reciprocal between the UK and European economic area member states. UK-based online services have been exempt from relevant laws in EEA states, as provided for by the country of origin principle, and equivalent businesses in EEA member states are exempt from those relevant laws in the UK. The country of origin principle is implemented in relevant pieces of national law. Once the transition period ends, we will no longer be bound by the directive and UK-based online service providers will lose their exemption from relevant laws in EEA states, as currently provided for. If we do not intervene to remove article 3’s effect on the 2003 Act, then online service providers in the EEA will continue to receive preferential market access beyond the end of the transition period, while the same benefit will not be afforded to UK online service providers.

The regulations remove the direct effect of the country of origin principle from the 2003 Act, and they remove the exemption from rules under sections 120 to 124 and 128 to 131 of the Act for businesses based in the EEA. The principle will be removed for all UK legislation in due course, to ensure that businesses in the EEA will be in scope of all the UK laws from which they are currently exempt.

Of course, the loss of the country of origin principle as a result of leaving the EU also means that UK businesses will be newly in scope of certain EEA laws from which they were previously exempt. However, we expect that the impact on UK businesses will be relatively low. The scope of the directive is narrow and we do not expect the regulatory regimes to be markedly different in the UK in comparison with other EEA states. Depending on the nature of the online service, many UK businesses may already be compliant and there will be little to no immediate change that they need to make in order to be compliant from 1 January 2021.

These regulations are, as I say, a technical measure to fix failures of retained EU law to operate effectively, arising from the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. They will ensure that our regulators are able to effectively apply their laws to online service providers based in the EEA and to ensure that UK consumers are protected by UK law.

Gerald Jones
(Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)

What plans the Government has to reintroduce the TV licence concession for people aged over 75. (906485)

The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

The Government remain disappointed by the decision of the BBC to restrict the over-75 concession to those on pension credit. However, the responsibility for that was given to the BBC under the Digital Economy Act 2017, passed by Parliament, and it is a matter for the BBC.

Gerald Jones

For many older and vulnerable residents, losing their free TV licence means losing not only entertainment and a source of news, but companionship, which is hugely important as we go into winter and many people across the country face restrictions on movement. Will the Minister do the right thing, stop hiding behind the BBC, take another look at this policy, stick to his manifesto commitment and keep free television licences for over-75s until 2022?

Mr Whittingdale

The Conservative manifesto did say that we believed it should be funded by the BBC. Those who are on low incomes and are eligible for pension credit will continue to receive a free licence. I hope that all those who may be eligible make sure they receive pension credit. The Government continue to believe that the BBC needs to do more to support older people.

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi
(Slough) (Lab)

What steps his Department is taking to support local, independent newspapers during the covid-19 outbreak. (906489)

The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)

The Government recognise the vital importance of local and regional newspapers, particularly during this pandemic. That is why we designated journalists as key workers and ran a £35 million public information campaign to carry covid messaging in more than 600 titles.

Mr Dhesi

We in Slough are fortunate to have two brilliant local newspapers, the Slough Express and the Slough Observer, which play a vital role in our local democracy, ensuring that the good people of Slough are well informed with reliable and accurate news reporting, but, like many of their counterparts across our country, local journalism is under threat. Their trade body News Media Association has repeatedly called for business rates relief, but those calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The National Union of Journalists has proposed a detailed news recovery plan to ensure the survival of excellent journalism, which is there for all of us. Can the Minister advise us, before we lose even more valued local newspapers, when the Government will finally listen to and support this important sector?

Mr Whittingdale

I have no doubt that the newspapers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are doing an excellent job, and I have had a number of conversations with the News Media Association and other publishing organisations. The Government have extended £1,500 business rates relief for local newspaper offices, but we will obviously continue to look at what additional measures we can take to support newspapers.

Photo of Grahame MorrisGrahame Morris Labour, Easington

What recent discussions he has had with Ofcom on the BBC's compliance with its statutory duties on local and regional news and political coverage for the English regions. 

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The BBC charter requires the BBC to serve audiences across all the UK nations and regions. How it does so is a matter for the BBC, but I share the concern about the recently announced cuts, and I welcome Ofcom’s intention to examine this.

Photo of Grahame MorrisGrahame Morris Labour, Easington

I thank the Minister for that response, and I assume that he agrees that local and regional news coverage and political coverage are a vital aspect of the BBC’s public sector obligation. My concern—this has been raised by the National Union of Journalists—is that the number of staff who currently work on the award-winning investigative programme “Inside Out” will be put at risk of redundancy if the BBC reduces the number of regional production centres from 11 to six. I am pleased by what the Minister said, but is he asking Ofcom to investigate the BBC’s compliance with the public sector broadcaster obligation?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that local and regional news coverage by the BBC is one of the core public purposes of the BBC. I have spoken to the new director-general, and I am pleased that he remains absolutely committed to that. Whether the recent cuts reduce the ability of the BBC to carry out that obligation is a matter that Ofcom is looking at, and it decided to do that without our having even spoken to it.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

First, I congratulate Daisy Cooper on obtaining this urgent question and demonstrating that persistence pays off.

The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging. It has been a constant source of entertainment. It has helped to fundraise for charities through “The Big Night In”, which the Government match funded pound for pound, and it has helped countless families across the UK to educate their children from home through services such as BBC Bitesize.

The BBC has also been a source of comfort to many during this pandemic, and none more so, perhaps, than those elderly citizens who have been forced to shield and stay at home and who are sadly most at risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation as they do so. That is why we welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s, and it is why we were deeply disappointed when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from 1 August. As a result, four out of five of those previously eligible for a free TV licence will now need to pay. That is a decision for the BBC, but the Government regret the approach that it has taken.

In the 2015 funding settlement—a settlement that was widely considered to be a generous one and which the director-general said was a strong deal for the BBC—we agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the over-75s concession would transfer to it in June 2020. The BBC agreed to have both the policy decision and the funding responsibility. That reform was subject to public discussion and debated extensively during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017. During those discussions and the passage of that legislation, Parliament agreed that the future of the over-75 concession and how and when it would be implemented was entirely a matter for the BBC.

The Government’s view is that the BBC should be doing more, given the generous settlement that it received. During the 2015 settlement, we gave the BBC a number of things in return for taking on this responsibility. We closed the iPlayer loophole. We committed to increasing the licence fee in line with inflation, and we reduced a number of other BBC spending commitments. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years to gradually introduce the cost to the BBC.

It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach. While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages.

As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation—both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live—and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions. Let me be clear that both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the Government rightly have no say over the day-to-day decisions that it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee, but as I have said, including during a recent Adjournment debate, the Government believe that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK and the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. It is for the BBC to meet these and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.

While the BBC remains operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we will continue to push it on these issues so that we can ensure that the BBC remains closer to the communities that it serves.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State  7:28 pm, 22nd June 2020 

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on holding this important debate. It is certainly one of the best attended Adjournment debates that I have been present at, as well as one of the longest, but perhaps more important is the fact that there have been a large number of excellent contributions and a large degree of agreement across the House on the importance of the BBC’s regional politics and current affairs coverage. I welcome Christian Matheson, who has been in his place throughout the entire debate. I am delighted to see him in his new role as Opposition spokesman.

I will also take this opportunity to congratulate Tim Davie on his appointment as director-general, and to pay tribute to Lord Hall, who has served as director-general for seven years. He took over the position in challenging times, and I think it fair to say that they have remained fairly challenging throughout his time, but he has done an excellent job in bringing leadership to the BBC. I certainly enjoyed working with him during our debates on the renewal of the BBC’s charter.

As my hon. Friend Andy Carter said, the BBC has also played an extremely important role in the course of the past few months during this crisis. It has provided important factual information and reinforced the Government’s messaging. It has also provided great entertainment, and it has done a great job in providing programming for children unable to attend classes in schools through BBC Bitesize.

I want to start by saying that I am a strong supporter of the BBC and I also believe very strongly in the independence of the BBC. It is not for the Government to instruct the BBC how to fulfil the objectives that it is set in the charter. The Government have three roles when it comes to the BBC. It is to draw up the charter, which sets out the purposes of the BBC. However, the way in which the BBC meets those is a matter for the BBC under the scrutiny of Ofcom. The Government also have a role in the appointment of the chair of the BBC and some Members of the board and, thirdly, in the setting of the licence fee.

Photo of Andy CarterAndy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a test for Ofcom? This is the first time that Ofcom, in its role as a regulator of the BBC, will be able to look at what the BBC is doing in terms of its regional content. It will allow the Ofcom members to take a decision and a view on how the BBC will set those out going forward. This is quite an important time for the regulator to step forward and look at what the BBC is doing.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

My hon. Friend is right in that it has only been since the new charter was put in place that Ofcom has had the role as an external scrutineer of the BBC, and it is the role of Ofcom to ensure that the BBC is meeting its purposes. He quoted in his own remarks one of those purposes from the charter and I want to come back to that, because he is absolutely right that providing regional coverage is one of the purposes that the BBC is required to fulfil. Having made it clear in my remarks that I do not intend to instruct the BBC, because I think it is completely wrong for the Government to attempt to do so, nevertheless, I entirely understand the concern that has been expressed by hon. Gentlemen from across the House about the BBC’s decision to cancel the autumn series of “Inside Out”.

Photo of Neil ParishNeil ParishChair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

What tonight’s debate has shown is that, across the House, there is united support for keeping regional programmes and for making them even more local than they are now. We need to get that message across loud and clear. I understand that it not the Government’s perspective to dictate to the BBC, but it is also right that we send from this House a clear message that the BBC should maintain regional programmes and enhance them.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I am grateful to him for having applied for and obtained this debate, because I have absolutely no doubt that the BBC will be watching it and that it will take account of the strength of feeling that has been expressed from all parts of this House. I am talking not just about the current affairs programmes, but also about the “Sunday Politics” show. As Liz Twist pointed out, it was only last week that more than 100 of the industry’s most well-known figures, including Sir Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry, Fern Britton and Ken Loach, signed a public letter to the BBC to express their concerns over the future of these programmes and the impact that their withdrawal would have on the communities that they serve. These are programmes that have brought us first-class investigative journalism, and they are at the very core of public service broadcasting. One of the signatories of the letter was Samira Ahmed, who many of us will know having been subjected to questioning by her on the “Today” programme. She wrote:

“I was proud to be part of an Inside Out investigation for BBC Leeds that dared to tackle difficult issues around race and exploitation in the Rotherham Grooming Scandal. Now more than ever we need honest, fearless journalism that is rooted in the long-term expertise and professionalism of BBC journalists who know their local communities.”

I agree with the  hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) that the BBC is one of the most recognised and trusted brands across the world and that it produces some of the best TV and radio across the globe. As the Prime Minister put it, it is an institution to be cherished. Whether it is the recent drama on the Salisbury poisonings or the documentary following the work of the north-east ambulance service, the BBC lies at the heart of our public service broadcasting system, producing world-class content that serves to stimulate our interest, broaden our understanding, and help us to engage with the world around us.

That understanding of the world, and the BBC’s role as our national broadcaster, has never been more important. As we emerge from the crisis caused by coronavirus, we find ourselves at a time of increasing mistrust and facing an almost daily battle against misinformation. In that world, where “fake news” has had to be added to the dictionary, it is vital that the BBC upholds the values and standards we have all come to expect. The public should be able to turn to the BBC for transparent, impartial, reliable news and current affairs.

That applies just as much, if not perhaps even more strongly, in regional and local coverage, which is the focus of this debate. In the past few months, UKaudiences have been turning back to television news. In the last week of March, 79% of UK adults watched the BBC network and regional news on television—up 20% on the previous month. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the 6.30 pm regional news programme on the BBC has often been the most watched programme on television on any given day.

BBC local radio has also played a very important role. For instance, the BBC local radio “Make a Difference” campaign, which allowed a number of people to call to ask for help, support or advice and reassurance, received over 1 million calls.

Photo of Toby PerkinsToby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Given the statistics that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined about the success of this output, what does it say about the BBC’s priorities that it would even consider getting rid of these incredibly popular local programmes that are of such importance to people, at a time when it continues to make the other decisions that it does about the kind of output it has?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman regards that as a mistake by the BBC, and it is one that I personally would agree with him about. I will go on to set out why I think it is right that we ask the BBC to think again.

As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Warrington South said, the royal charter sets out the public purposes of the BBC. One of these is:

“To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions”.

It goes on to say that the BBC

“should offer a range and depth of analysis…so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues”.

Regional news and current affairs programmes are at the very heart of this particular public purpose. First, they fulfil a vital role in providing local content, which helps to sustain local democracy. A number of Members have made the point that that is becoming particularly important as we look at devolving more power to regions and local communities. It is essential that that takes place and that, at the same time, people who are holding that power are held properly to account. We all know that many of the issues affecting Plymouth will be completely different from those that impact on Hull, Devon or Coventry. It is important that all those different issues are aired properly and that politics does not seem to be only about Westminster—or, even, the London bubble.

People also want to know that they are heard, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and in diverse communities across the UK. They need to know that the issues that matter to them matter to us all, and they need the opportunity to engage in balanced debates and participate in the conversations that shape their daily lives. It is only through broadcasting those kinds of stories and conversations through regional TV or local radio that we can build the true picture of British life.

The second area of vital importance for local news and current affairs programmes, which has been referred to by several hon. Members, is the extremely important role they play in forming the next generation of skilled journalists. Without that training ground, some of the best known names in broadcasting today would not have had a start.

I will say a few words about each of the different areas of regional programming that the debate has covered. First, on the regional political coverage, the weekly regional political show plays a vital role in highlighting issues that may be of huge local importance but will probably never make it on to the national news. As my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who is no longer in his place, pointed out, those shows are often the only opportunity that Members of Parliament have to go on television to talk about the issues that affect them and their constituents. In my region, the “Politics East” programme, with which my hon. Friend Tom Hunt and Rachel Hopkins will be familiar—as, of course, will you, Madam Deputy Speaker—does an extremely good job in covering political developments in the region, as well as the debates that we have here on issues that are relevant to the region. If a Member from a particular region obtains an Adjournment debate on an issue that is of extreme importance to his or her constituents, we can look to the BBC’s regional political show to at least give it some coverage.

The idea that a single politics England show could somehow substitute is wholly unrealistic, as Mr Perkins pointed out. The population of the east of England—from which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I come—is over 6 million. That is more than the population of Scotland, yet Scotland is served by its own channel, BBC Scotland, which was launched in February 2019, and includes a huge amount of coverage of Scottish issues. That is not in any way wrong—it is as much a part of the BBC’s public purpose to provide that programming as it is for any other part—but it does seem to illustrate why it is mistaken for the BBC to provide that amount of coverage of the Scottish nation while diminishing, and almost removing, the equivalent coverage that takes place of the 11 regions of England.

I turn to the current affairs programme that the BBC provides, “Inside Out”. As has been pointed out by a several hon. Members, “Inside Out” has carried out a number of in-depth investigations of huge importance, many of which went on to become national stories, but probably would not have done so had it not been for the initial investigative journalism done by “Inside Out”. The example of the working practices of Sports Direct has already been mentioned; Samira Ahmed drew attention to the Rotherham child grooming case; and there was a recent programme about the impact of smart motorways. All are hugely important stories that, one has to suspect, would not have ever been revealed had it not been for the work of the journalists on “Inside Out”.

At a time when powers are being devolved to a more local level, it is all the more important that the scrutiny that a programme such as “Inside Out” provides is carried out. That is particularly reinforced given what is happening to other local media, as several hon. Members have mentioned. It is the case that both local newspapers and local radio are under tremendous threat. Sadly, we have seen a number of local newspapers shedding journalists or, in some cases, even going out of business, and that has made the BBC’s task of scrutinising and holding local institutions to account all the more important.

Local news production shows the BBC’s unique value compared with strong national and international competitors. The choice available to viewers is growing, with new entrants such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney. That makes it all the more important that the BBC focuses on the role of providing public service broadcasting, which will not be provided by those commercially oriented, market-driven companies. My right hon. Friend Mr Harper questioned the future of the licence fee and rightly said that one of the principal justifications for the licence fee is that it funds a broadcaster which provides programming that otherwise would not exist. That has always been at the heart of the purpose of the public service broadcasting landscape, and particularly the BBC.

The BBC is uniquely privileged in that it receives public funding. It has been protected against the hurricane that has hit the rest of commercial media as a result of the loss of advertising during the covid crisis. The BBC has a protected income, and in that climate, it is all the more important that it continues to provide public service broadcasting. My view, and the general tone of this whole debate, is that regional political and current affairs coverage is at the heart of public service broadcasting.

As I say, it is not for me to tell the BBC how it should deliver the public purposes or use the money given to it through the licence fee, but I believe that regional news and current affairs are of great importance, because they are vital for our democracy, they help to train future journalists and they help the BBC and other public service broadcasters to remain relevant in this changing media landscape. I am confident that the BBC will have been watching this debate, and I hope that it will take account of the feelings and views expressed by all Members and decide to continue—indeed, strengthen—its regional political and current affairs coverage.

Photo of Mohammad YasinMohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

What support the Government are providing to local and regional news organisations during the covid-19 outbreak. 

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The Government recognise the vital role that local and regional newspapers play in the provision of reliable, high-quality information during this time. We have already put in place an unprecedented financial package to provide support to all businesses and have taken a number of steps to provide specific support to news publishers. We are continuing to work closely with publishers to fully understand the specific challenges that they are facing with the supply chain and the fall in advertising revenues and options for addressing these.

Photo of Mohammad YasinMohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

The Government have agreed an advertising deal with the News Media Association, which has been presented to the wealthiest publishers, but have so far overlooked independents. Does the Secretary of State agree that independent publishers such as the Bedford Independent are providing a vital service to communities across the UK, and will he meet with the independent sector representative body, the ICNN, to agree an advertising deal for the local independent press?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the independent community news sector is very important and plays an essential role in continuing to provide public information alongside the NMA members in the regional and local press. The agreement that we have reached for advertising will cover 600 national, regional and local titles, which reach something like 49 million people, but I am in touch with the ICNN and we are looking to see what other measures could be put in place to support it and to see whether it could benefit from the Government’s own advertising package.

Photo of Marcus FyshMarcus Fysh Conservative, Yeovil

In Somerset, we are fortunate to have some excellent community radio stations, but, across the country, such stations are in need of financial support at this time. What more can the Government do to make sure that community radio stations are not forced to close because of coronavirus?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much agree with him that community radio play an essential part in the media landscape, and I am very conscious of the pressures that many community radio stations are currently under. We are looking at ways in which we can support them, perhaps through the use of a community radio fund. That is something that I hope we can say more about very shortly. I am determined to give whatever help is possible to support community radio as well as commercial radio.

 

 

Photo of Stuart AndersonStuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on tackling online fraud during the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The Government are concerned about online fraud and are very much aware that criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit the concern around covid-19. My officials have been working closely with the Home Office, as well as with the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency, throughout the covid-19 outbreak. We have published official Government advice to help the public to stay safe and secure online, and we launched the new Cyber Aware campaign in April, offering the public online security advice.

Photo of Stuart AndersonStuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Pre-covid, local councillors in Tettenhall Regis in Wolverhampton launched online and social media training for over-65s. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to upskill those with little or no online skills?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the councillors in Tettenhall Regis on that initiative. It is absolutely right that during this crisis, more and more people have been carrying out tasks such as shopping, banking and keeping in touch online. We are very much aware that it has now become all the more essential to tackle the digital divide that already existed. The Government are funding the future digital inclusion programme to give people the skills that they need to participate in this increasingly digital world. Since 2014, the programme has supported more than 1.4 million adult learners to develop their basic skills. We have also delivered a £400,000 digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people.

Photo of Meg HillierMeg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

When the Public Accounts Committee last looked at online fraud, we raised serious concerns about what happens when fraud is reported and the inaction on most of the cases that are reported. The Minister has given us some warm words, but in the middle of a pandemic, with a lot of communication from Government to the people, how will he make sure that the key players, such as the banks, are sharing real-time information with each other and making sure that we catch the scammers before they raid our constituents’ bank accounts?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that online fraud is an increasing problem and there needs to be much more co-ordinated action to tackle it. However, a great deal has been done. A persistent stream of coronavirus frauds has been reported to Action Fraud—2,057 have been reported in the past few months, making up around 3% of all fraud reports. The National Cyber Security Centrehas launched a major campaign called Cyber Aware to provide practical advice to the public, and has also launched a groundbreaking suspicious-email-reporting service, which allows members of the public to forward any suspicious emails to Cyber Aware to be analysed, and if they are found to be fraudulent, the harmful sites will be taken down

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

What steps he is taking to support political development in Ukraine; and if he will make a statement. 

Photo of Christopher PincherChristopher Pincher Minister of State

The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and President Zelensky’s commitment to reform and fighting corruption. We have provided financial support to the tune of £38 million this year, across multiple areas, and we lead robust sanctions on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty. We look forward to welcoming President Zelensky to the UK as soon as a date can be found.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend welcome President Zelensky’s decision to extend the visa-free regime for UK citizens for another year? Does my right hon. Friend share his ambition for Britain and Ukraine to conclude a new framework agreement as soon as possible, including possible liberalisation of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens?

Photo of Christopher PincherChristopher Pincher Minister of State

My right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of Ukraine’s determination to look westward and be a modern European country. We will certainly welcome, as soon as we can, the ratification of such an arrangement, and I congratulate the President on his announcement on visa-free access for UK nationals. That will certainly help trade with the UK, which we want to ensure is successful, but we also need to protect our own borders. The Home Secretary is responsible for border control, but we keep our border policy under constant review, and visas to and from Ukraine is something I discuss with her regularly.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Does my hon. Friend not accept the view of the surveillance camera commissioner, who has said that the guidelines are insufficient at present and there is no transparency? Do the Government plan to update the guidelines to take account of developments in technology?

Photo of Kit MalthouseKit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, which points to the heart of the matter. As he knows, there is a facial recognition and biometrics board, which is soon to have a new chair. As part of that renewal of leadership, we will review the board’s terms of reference and its mission, especially in the light of technological developments. What emanates from that, and whether it is a change in the terms of the code, we will have to wait and see, but as I said at the start, I am very aware of the duty we have in this House to strike the right balance between security and liberty.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of court proceedings covered by court reporters. 

Photo of Chris PhilpChris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We at the Ministry of Justice do not track or hold data on the number of reporters who report on court proceedings, but I am sad to say that anecdotal evidence suggests that in line with the general decline in local reporting, the reporting of local courts will have declined as well. When my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, he was instrumental in making sure, at the BBC’s charter renewal, that the local democracy reporting scheme provided £8 million a year to get local reporters into the courts. I congratulate him on that step and hope that there is more we can do along those lines in future.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, for the work that she has done in this area. Does he share my view of how important it is that court proceedings are properly reported by trained journalists so that justice can be seen to be done? Will he continue to work with the Society of Editors, the News Media Association and others to see what further measures can be taken to achieve that?

Photo of Chris PhilpChris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I strongly concur and can certainly give my right hon. Friend the commitment he asks for. Certainly from the perspective of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, staff are given training to facilitate access by journalists, and the Ministry is currently giving very active and relatively imminent consideration to ways of making sure that court decisions and proceedings are brought more directly to the public.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  5:03 pm, 13th January 2020 

I am most grateful to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow Emily Thornberry, who raised some important issues. I wish her success in the campaign she is about to embark on, and I hope her candidacy lasts a little longer than that of Barry Gardiner, who has just left the Chamber.

It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly new Members, a number of whom intend to make their maiden speech during the course of it. They bring expertise and knowledge that I have no doubt will be immensely valuable in our deliberations, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Queen’s Speech on delivering Brexit, which people voted for more than three years ago. I support Brexit not just because I believe in the economic opportunities, but because I believe there is a real role that this country can play in international affairs. We are not little Englanders; we want to look beyond the shores of the European Union. Indeed, many of our greatest opportunities now lie in countries beyond Europe. It is likely within the next 10 years that the five biggest economies in the world will be America, China, Brazil, India and Indonesia. None of them have trade agreements with the European Union, but I hope we will have trade agreements with them as soon as possible within the next decade.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. There is an essential democratic process that needs to be conducted before a general election, which is the selection of candidates. I suspect quite a large number of constituencies have not yet selected candidates. Members of local associations need these extra few days to have time to go through that process, and to avoid having candidates imposed from the centre.

Photo of Desmond SwayneDesmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

We have had two Divisions in recent weeks on whether there should be an election, so I would have thought that those associations ought properly to have attended to the question of getting on with selecting candidates. I am sorry to hear that they have not, but there is not much that we can do about that. Certainly, the additional days would be of some assistance.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?

Photo of Dominic RaabDominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on persuading the mobile operators to do what they resisted and told us was completely impossible for them to do? When she comes to address the final 5%—the notspots—will she ensure that lessons are learned from the previous attempt, which was the mobile infrastructure project? Unfortunately, that was able to deliver only a fraction of the number of miles promised, given the numerous obstacles that it ran into.

Photo of Nicky MorganNicky Morgan The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my right hon. Friend. As a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he will understand the significant challenges that there have been to bring everyone together to work on this. He is right to point out that there will always be a final 5%, but there are other proposals such as the roll-out of broadband, all of which have to be taken in the round. We are talking about 4G today, but there are also the 5G proposals and broadband. We know that this is a challenge and that it is in the most rural areas that connectivity is most important.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s continued championing of the cause of media freedom, on which Iran’s record is one of the worst in the world. In particular, will he continue to press Iran to cease the persecution of families of members of the BBC Persian service, who have faced arbitrary arrest, asset freezes, passport confiscation and surveillance?


Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend. This week at the UN General Assembly, the UK will be hosting an event on media freedom and a separate event in relation to Iran’s human rights record, so I can give reassurance that in both those key areas we are championing, not only on a bilateral basis but on a multilateral basis, all those issues that he is concerned about.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  4:08 pm, 22nd October 2019 

It is a pleasure to follow Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I give her and her party credit for consistency. No one has ever been in any doubt about where they stand on Europe. Unfortunately, that is not the case for the Labour party, whose leader, as my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith has already pointed out, supported leaving the EU for a long time, fought an election on the wish to respect the result of the referendum and said consistently that a second referendum was out of the question.

Members will be aware that Kevin Brennan was forced to abandon his 60th birthday party as a result of the House sitting on a Saturday. The House may not be aware that he and I were born on precisely the same day and that, as a result of the programme motion, I have now postponed my own 60th birthday party. However—unlike, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman—I regard that as a small price to pay, and one that I am very willing to pay, if the result is that we get Brexit done.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many good schools, such as William de Ferrers School in my constituency, had made heroic efforts to find savings in recent years in order to eliminate budget deficits, and were now, very reluctantly, having to consider increasing class sizes and dropping subjects? May I therefore thank him for recognising the need for extra funds? Will he confirm that in areas such as mine where substantial development is taking place, these funds will allow pupils who are moving into the constituency to enjoy a good education?


Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

An important element of the funding settlement that we have agreed with the Treasury is a recognition of demographic change that different parts of the country are experiencing, so that we can ensure that enough school places are provided. More than 1 million places have been created in the last nine years, and there is no doubt that more will be needed in the future.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a judgment that is superior to that of any court’s? That is the judgment of the British people. It has once been given on the question of whether this country should remain a member of the European Union, but it has twice been prevented from being expressed in a vote of this House. Is it not now time that we allow them to give their judgment on this Parliament?

Photo of Geoffrey CoxGeoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. The time has come. The fact is that this Parliament has no further point. There is no possibility of our governing while this Parliament continues to block everything we do.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend confirm his determination to keep up the pressure on Russia, which continues to illegally occupy Crimea, and whose involvement in the occupied territories in east Ukraine led to further deaths this weekend? I strongly welcome his statement at the Dispatch Box that he agrees that it is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin the G7. Will he continue to give every support to the newly elected President Zelensky and the members of the Ukrainian Parliament?


Boris Johnson The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I know the great interest that my right hon. Friend has taken in Ukraine and the fortunes of that wonderful country. I assure him that President Zelensky rang me before the G7 particularly to insist on his continued concerns about the Russian activities. I am sure that those concerns are shared across the House.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I commend the Government on the organisation of last week’s excellent global media freedom conference, but does the Minister agree that the UK needs to do a lot more to improve on our present ranking of 33 in the world press freedom index? Does he also recognise that the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr Davis make that harder to achieve and that these concerns risk being exploited by other countries who do not protect media freedom and are only too keen to lock up journalists?

 

Photo of Nick HurdNick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I accept all that, coming from the authority of a highly distinguished former Secretary of State. I am entirely sincere, as are my colleagues, in taking this opportunity to reassert the importance of the freedom of the press and the protection of media freedoms, but we cannot in that process allow any sense that there is a blanket protection for legitimate investigation simply because of someone’s chosen profession. The processes need to be robust and open to criticism and debate, but the primacy of the free press and freedom of expression in this country is absolutely central to our democratic processes.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Given the welcome, strong statements by the European Council about Russia’s behaviour, does the Prime Minister share my concern about Russia’s possible readmission to full voting membership of the Council of Europe? Does she agree that it sends entirely the wrong message, coming just days after the filing of charges against Russian military officers for the downing of MH17, and when Russia remains in illegal occupation of Crimea?

 

Photo of Theresa MayTheresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My right hon. Friend has spoken up on the illegal annexation of Crimea on a number of occasions. We do not and will never recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, there has been this difference in Russia’s position in the Council of Europe. Russia has not been paying its contributions to the Council of Europe, but its membership of that body is one of the few ways available to the international community to hold Russia to account for its human rights violations.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this is not the first time that a DCMS measure has had to be reintroduced because of a failure to notify the EU Commission? I hope that that problem will soon be removed, but while it exists, will he use this extra time to ensure that we get the measure right? There are still concerns on the grounds of freedom of speech and privacy, and about the ease with which measures can be circumvented through the use of virtual private networks. Will he raise similar concerns with the Information Commissioner to ensure that the age appropriate design code is right? It is much more important that it is properly designed than that it is rushed into place.

 

Photo of Jeremy WrightJeremy Wright The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I suspect that my right hon. Friend knows from experience that this is not the first time that such a thing has happened, but I am doing my level best to ensure it is the last. It is important that we have new mechanisms to ensure that such oversights are not repeated, and that is exactly what I am doing at the moment. He is correct that we should use the time we now have to get this right and to work through some of the additional challenges that I described a moment ago—we will do that. It is important that we understand these technological changes and, if I may say so, that validates our approach in the online harms White Paper, which was not to be prescriptive about technology, but to ensure that we adapt our systems as technology moves. We will seek to do the same on this point.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the age appropriate design code which, as he rightly says, is produced by the Information Commissioner, not the Government. He is right that it is important that we do not to rush this and that the Information Commissioner takes full account of the responses to the consultation. Having spoken to the Information Commissioner, I know that she will take full account of all the comments before taking the matter any further.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my hon. Friend aware that online piracy of video and music content is still doing considerable damage to our creative industries? In particular, beoutQ, based in Saudi Arabia, is stealing content from a wide range of UK rights holders. Will he see what further measures can be taken to tackle this problem? Will he consider including economic harms in the scope of the measures set out in the Government’s Online Harms White Paper?

 

Photo of Chris SkidmoreChris SkidmoreVice-Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

Online piracy of any content is a key concern for the Government. We are aware of the specific issues with beoutQ and raised the matter with the Saudi Arabian Government. We will continue to make representations about its alleged infringement of UK creative content and support efforts to tackle piracy, wherever it occurs. However, the White Paper is to have a targeted approach that focuses on harms to individuals; it is not about economic harm to businesses.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the separation of powers is an important element of our constitution, and that as a general rule the involvement of the courts in matters of political argument or debate may threaten that principle and create a dangerous precedent?

 

Photo of David GaukeDavid Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 

This country has a robust tradition of political free speech, and the electorate can and should hold politicians to account. We also have a robust tradition of the courts being capable of determining whether a case is meritorious or unmeritorious.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  2:46 pm, 8th May 2019 

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As the Minister pointed out, I was the Secretary of State at the time when the licence fee settlement was agreed with the BBC, so I would like to set out some of the reasons why those decisions were reached.

As the Opposition spokesman said, the concessionary TV licence for over-75s is not a fundamental pillar of the welfare state—it was actually introduced by the previous Labour Government. It was introduced to address an anomaly that elderly people living in sheltered housing did not have to pay the full licence fee whereas others did. However, the Labour Government did not introduce free TV licences for all pensioners, on the basis that it was far too expensive to do so—they restricted it to those aged over 75 at a cost, at that time, of £365 million. It is important to realise that that money was not removed from the BBC—it was given to the BBC by the Department for Work and Pensions. It has always been the case, since then, that the cost of exemption from the TV licence is met out of the Government’s budget. The cost to the Government of doing so has risen steadily, so that by last year it had already reached £660 million.

I had the task of negotiating both the new BBC charter and the licence fee settlement. Personally, I would have much preferred that the licence fee had been included within the charter negotiations, since the licence fee settlement, to some extent, pre-empted decisions that we took as a result of the charter review process. However, as the Minister rightly pointed out, we were in very difficult financial circumstances thanks to the profligacy of the previous Labour Government, and we had to take a lot of very difficult decisions. The then Chancellor was clear that we should seek to achieve savings from the BBC, as a publicly owned institution funded by the Government, in the same way that all other public institutions were being asked to find savings. So we agreed with the BBC that it would take over the cost of funding the licence fee concession. However, we were also clear that we had given a pledge that the concession would be maintained until 2020, and therefore the agreement with the BBC was that it would take it over in 2020.

I have to say to the House that the negotiations with the BBC over that were indeed robust. I remember sitting down with the then Prime MinisterDavid Cameron, with George Osborne and with Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, and we had some good discussions in which Lord Hall argued forcibly that this would have a detrimental impact on the BBC. Therefore, in recognition of that, we also included, as part of the licence fee settlement, agreement to address some of the things the BBC raised as its principal concerns. One was the freeze in the licence fee. The licence fee had not gone up at all for a number of years, and therefore the BBC was looking at a real-terms reduction every year. We agreed that the licence fee should be unfrozen. Secondly, a growing number of people were avoiding paying the licence fee by watching the BBC on catch-up, through the iPlayer. Under the law as it then stood, if someone watched the BBC a mere two minutes after the live transmission, they did not have to pay the licence fee. The licence fee was therefore extended to close what was called the iPlayer loophole.

Photo of Bim AfolamiBim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, that the funding arrangements put in place with the BBC by my right hon. Friend and the previous Prime MinisterDavid Cameron, represented a fair deal?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he allows me to quote the director-general. As I say, our negotiations were robust, but we emerged from them with the director-general issuing a public statement saying that it was

“the right deal… in difficult economic circumstances”.

He went on to say:

“Far from being a cut, the way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, effectively, flat licence fee income across the first five years of the next charter.”

Photo of Ed VaizeyEd Vaizey Conservative, Wantage

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will mention this part of the licence fee deal, but it is worth making the point that the last Labour Governmentimposed on the licence fee a levy to fund broadband roll-out, and because of the success of the broadband roll-out under our Government, we removed that levy from the BBC. While there was a stick with free TV licences, there were carrots with the removal some of the subsidies the last Government had asked the BBC to provide.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was also a key player at that time as a Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right. I mentioned two of the BBC’s requests at the time—the unfreezing of the licence fee and the closure of the loophole—but he is correct to point out that the BBC had always been unhappy about the top-slicing of the licence fee to fund broadband, which it saw as far removed from the purpose of the licence fee. That was another agreement we reached with the BBC, which I think was why the BBC felt that it was a fair and proper settlement.

Photo of Pat McFaddenPat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

The right hon. Gentleman is implying that the BBC was happy with all this at the time, but in the press statement announcing the consultation, the BBC said:

The BBC could copy the scheme… but we think it would fundamentally change the BBC because of the scale of service cuts we would need to make.”

That is not the statement of an organisation that thinks it can easily absorb this.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

The agreement with the BBC was that it would have responsibility for maintaining or amending the licence fee concession. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the BBC’s view about the cost of maintaining the concession as it stands, and that view is understandable, since the cost next year will be £745 million, rising to £1.06 billion by 2029-30. I am not at all surprised that Tom Watson was unable to give any commitment that a future Labour Governmentwould maintain the concession at the cost of the taxpayer, since that would be a £1 billion public expenditure pledge.

In recognition of that, the BBC has put forward three different options. It has talked about continuation, which, as Mr McFadden said, it feels is not realistic, as that would amount to the current cost of BBC 2BBC 3BBC 4, the news channel, CBBC and CBeebies all put together. It has also suggested some amendment to the concession, or discontinuing it altogether. Each of the three possible amendments to the licence fee concession that the BBC has suggested has some attraction. It has talked about raising the age limit to 77 or 80, which to some extent would reflect the ageing population and maintain roughly the same proportion. A second possibility is to introduce a discounted fee, so that people over 75 would not have to pay the full cost.

Photo of Vicky FordVicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

My right hon. Friend, who is an excellent neighbour, is making an excellent speech. Many of my constituents who are over 75 have emailed me to say that they want to continue to watch the TV with a free licence, but they are not necessarily also watching the BBC on multiple other devices, as many younger people are. Can my right hon. Friend see a case for older members of the public still being able to watch the BBC via a single device, while younger people watch on multiple devices? Would that sort of system work?

Photo of Rosie WintertonRosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I reiterate that there is pressure on time, and interventions need to be short.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I will of course take account of your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I want to touch on as I conclude my remarks.

The third possible amendment would be to limit the concession to those in receipt of pension credit. That would address many of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members about those on very low incomes finding it hard to afford and would introduce an element of targeting, to ensure that those who will struggle to afford the television licence do not have to do so.

There is another change that I ask the BBC to consider, which is not included in its options. At the moment, households are entitled to a free television licence if a member of the household is over 75. It is ridiculous that a household might have four adults of working age who are all bringing in an income, but because they happen to have their grandmother living with them, they do not have to pay for a television licence. I ask the BBC to consider a simple change, to restrict the concession to households that only consist of people aged over 75.

I want to end by saying that this raises fundamental questions about the future of the licence fee. Viewing habits are changing, as my hon. Friend Vicky Fordindicated. Evasion of the TV licence is rising. It has gone up from 5.2% in 2010 to an estimated 7% now, with the advent of new services such as Netflix and Amazon, and soon possibly Apple and Disney. The old argument that every household needs to pay the licence fee because everybody watches the BBC is, I am afraid, beginning to break down, and we are reaching a position where many households watch the huge range of programmes available and never turn to the BBC.

That is why I have always believed that, in the long term, the licence fee is not sustainable. We addressed that at the beginning of the charter review. It is recognised by the director-general, who has said that the BBC needs to look at alternative models and has mentioned the possibility of introducing subscription services on iPlayer. At the moment, there is no alternative to the licence fee because we do not have a system where people who choose not to pay it can be cut off; that was why we reached the conclusion that the licence fee had to be maintained. But in the longer term, that will not be true. There will come a time when the licence fee cannot be sustained, but that will be the task of the future Secretary of State who has the job of undertaking the next charter review.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  7:02 pm, 29th April 2019 

It is a pleasure to hear that the importance of rolling over these sanctions is supported on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke with considerable knowledge and authority about the sanctions against Syria. I will concentrate on another of the three countries on whom this set of sanctions will be maintained: Belarus.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Belarus in this place, and last year led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Minsk. Later this year, we will be inviting Belarus to pay a return visit and send a delegation to visit the UK. The explanatory memorandum to these sanctions regulations refers to the need for respect of “democratic principles and institutions” in Belarus; but one has to say that there is still some way to go. The Parliament in Minsk and the parliamentary institutions of Belarus are not quite as we would recognise in this country. Those who do sit in Parliament have been largely appointed by the President, and those who were not appointed directly have certainly been approved by the President in taking up their position. The President himself first took office in 1994. He has won several elections since then, usually by over 90% of the vote, and the bodies that have observed those elections—not least the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—have raised considerable concerns about their validity.

Belarus is also undoubtedly still firmly within the Russian orbit, and one has to accept that its room for manoeuvre is severely limited by what the Kremlin allows. Having said that, there are some signs of progress. Belarus did not recognise the Russian occupation of South Ossetia, of Abkhazia or of Crimea, and there are signs that it wishes to edge away and that some progress is being made. It was for that reason that the IPU decided that it was worthwhile to send a delegation to encourage further steps of progress, and I pay tribute to our excellent ambassador in Minsk, who is pressing for reform while also seeking to ensure that we have relations with the Government and institutions of Belarus.

There are also economic opportunities in Belarus, as Douglas Chapmanpointed out. The UK is a considerable market for Belarus exports. I have to say that Belarus is a rather smaller market for UK exports, but nevertheless there is an opportunity there. However, when it comes to human rights, it is worth noting that Belarus is still, I think, the only country in Europe that institutes the death penalty. The number of people executed actually doubled last year—to four. Assurances that Belarus is seeking to have a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty have been rather disproved by its recent actions, and that too is a considerable stain on its record and prevents it from joining the Council of Europe among other things.

The explanatory memorandum for these sanctions names four individuals. The first three—Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski—were all opposition politicians who were previously quite close to President Lukashenko, but found themselves in opposition to him and then died in 1999. Some were abducted, and the courts have now ruled that they were almost certainly murdered. Quite exactly what happened, we still do not know.

The fourth individual named on the explanatory memorandum and the regulations is Dzmitry Zavadski, and I mention him specifically because although he was President Lukashenko’s personal cameraman, he also practised widely as a journalist. As the Minister and others may know, I am a very strong supporter of media freedom. I strongly welcome the initiative that the Foreign Secretary has taken to make media freedom a priority of this Government to the extent of organising an international conference on it in July. The IPU, which I have the honour to chair, will be following that up.

The death of Mr Zavadski is a terrible blot, but it is worth mentioning another individual who worked alongside him—Pavel Sheremet. Pavel Sheremet was another Belarusian journalist who fell out with the President. He was also a critic of President Putin and a great friend of Boris Nemtsov in Russia. He was assassinated in a car bomb in Kiev in 2016, and his murder is another example of the risks that journalists take and how they sometimes pay a price with their lives. We should always raise the issue of Pavel Sheremet. Quite who was responsible for his death is unclear—he made a number of enemies among people who could well have been responsible—but he was a Belarusian journalist. He was also one of the founders of Charter 97, which is a human rights organisation that operates in Belarus. I met representatives of Charter 97 just a few weeks ago. Its founder was also killed, the editor-in-chief fled and is now in Poland, and access to its website is blocked in Belarus.

The record in Belarus is not good. I therefore certainly would not argue that sanctions should necessarily be lifted. However, I would say that we should keep them under review and that we should encourage where there are signs of progress. I hope that there is some movement towards greater liberalisation and away from the alliance with Russia. On that subject, I will not bore the Minister by repeating what has come up regularly in these debates but merely say that the sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance. We await the Government’s announcement of the implementation of the Magnitsky sanctions following the passage of the necessary legislation in this House. If ever we needed an example of why those sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance, it was the Minister’s excellent response to the debate that we had last week on the Russian annexation of Crimea. He will know that within hours of that, the Russians announced that they were going to make passports available to people living in Donbass. I am very pleased that the Foreign Officemade clear our condemnation of that further provocation by Russia against the people and Government of Ukraine.

I strongly support these sanctions. However, I was keen to take this opportunity to put it on the record that although the sanctions against Belarus are justified, there are nevertheless small signs of progress.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  10:09 am, 24th April 2019 

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate at an extremely important time for Ukraine, and on doing an excellent job of setting out the facts about the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Like Angela Smith, three weeks ago I spent my Sunday sitting in a polling station in Desnianskyi district, a poorer suburb of Kiev, and this Sunday I was in a polling station in Bucha, watching democracy in action. It is always inspiring to see a democratic election in a country that has only recently become free.

One of the striking things about the Ukraine election was that there was absolutely no question about the people’s desire for change. As overseas observers, we had some criticisms about access to the media, financing and resources, but there can be no doubt that the result—the election of President-elect Zelensky—reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. I pay tribute to President Poroshenko, who I think achieved many things, but there is a real and deep-seated wish for change, and it was undoubtedly a genuine election.

One of the first things that President-elect Zelensky will have to do is decide how best to confront the Russian aggression and the occupation of parts of his country. The war in Donbass gets a lot of attention—it is a hot war and people are dying there; I went last year to Avdiivka, which is right up against the frontline and is regularly subject to shelling—but we must not overlook Crimea, which has spent five years under occupation.

President-elect Zelensky has not yet said a great deal about his policy, and we must wait to see who he will appoint to key positions such as Foreign Minister, but he has referred to the Budapest memorandum. The signatories to that memorandum—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly drew attention to the fact that the UK is one—have said that they will protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have an expectation that that commitment will be honoured, even though one of the signatories is responsible for the invasion and occupation of their country. I know that our Government want to pursue the existing dialogue with Russia through the Normandy agreement and the Minsk process, but President-elect Zelensky has said that he sees a role for the Budapest signatories, so if he approaches the UK Government to assist in resolving the situation, I hope that they will respond positively.

My hon. Friend made several points about the invasion of Crimea five years ago; I do not want to repeat them, but I will make a couple of observations. One of the reasons given for the invasion was that, following the revolution of dignity in the Maidan, Kiev was under the control of a fascist and antisemitic Government. Ironically, not only is there no evidence of that Government ever being fascist or antisemitic, but as of Sunday, Ukraine will be only the second country in the whole world, after Israel, to have a President and a Prime Minister who are both Jewish.

The second reason given for the invasion was the referendum in which the occupants of Crimea expressed a wish to rejoin Russia. It is true that in 1990, when there were genuine plebiscites across Ukraine to determine its future, the biggest minority in favour of joining Russia was in Crimea, although it was only 41%. However, the so-called referendum that took place five years ago did so under the barrels of Kalashnikovs after all media from Ukraine had been cut off. There was a relentless barrage of Russian propaganda, including footage that showed thousands of Ukrainians allegedly fleeing from what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as threats of a massacre—I say “allegedly” because it subsequently emerged that it was footage of a traffic jam of Ukrainian vehicles heading across the border to Poland to do some weekend shopping.

The referendum offered a choice between joining Russia immediately, and retaining independence with the right to join Russia after a specified period. Remaining part of Ukraine was not on the ballot paper. Just imagine if a similar question had been asked in our EU referendum three years ago. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum on joining Russia rightly received international condemnation, including by the United Nations General Assembly; resolutions have been passed that point out that the annexation and occupation continue to be illegal.

My hon. Friend was right to highlight the relentless abuse of human rights in Crimea since the Russian occupation. I draw particular attention to the events of 27 March, less than four weeks ago, in which 23 Crimean Tatar civic journalists were arrested, beaten by the Russian FSB and taken out of Crimea. It is not clear where some of them are being held; I am afraid that they are just the latest in a long list of people, particularly Tatars, who have been subjected to torture, abuse, kidnapping and imprisonment.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the military build-up in Crimea since the Russians took over. There was already a naval base at Sevastopol, of course, but before the occupation there were only 12,500 Russian troops there, whereas there are now estimated to be 32,000. There has also been a build-up of aircraft, naval forces and military vehicles; indeed, it is now reported that there may well be nuclear weapons in Crimea, which is ironic given that the Budapest memorandum was signed specifically in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the situation in the sea of Azov. Just before Christmas, I travelled to Berdyansk and Mariupol, which are both on the sea of Azov, to see the effect of the blockade across the Kerch strait. The bridge that was built prevents a large number of larger ships from entering the sea of Azov, and since the blockade Russian warships have imposed checks on all ships going in. That has had the effect of delaying passage and rendering the businesses of Mariupol and Berdyansk almost uneconomic. Those two cities are subject to economic warfare and must be relieved.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the Ukrainians have done a fantastic job of raising these issues in every international forum. He spoke about his and his colleagues’ work in the Council of Europe; at the annual Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly some 10 days ago, I listened to a very powerful address by Mr Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada. It was then countered by the Russians, who said that of course there were no Russians whatever in Donbass and that there never had been—it was an entire fiction. There is an absolute denial of reality by Russia, despite overwhelming evidence.

I pay tribute to the representation of Ukraine in this country. It is a great pleasure to see the Ukrainian ambassador, Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko, listening to this debate. She is an assiduous attender of such events and does a fantastic job.

My hon. Friend spoke about the need to increase the pressure on Russia, particularly through sanctions. I agree absolutely that it was very important that we passed the Magnitsky amendment. We eagerly await its implementation; I know that the Government intend to move forward, but we would like them to do so somewhat quicker.

I hope that the message that comes out from this debate, and the number of speakers in it, will demonstrate that across the House of Commons there is unanimous support for Ukraine against the illegal occupation of part of the country and the aggressive action of the Russian Federation.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although any death is a tragedy, the murder of a journalist is particularly abhorrent? Is she aware that Lyra McKee’s death came on the very same day when the world press freedom index was published, which showed the UK rising by seven places? At a time when the Government are rightly championing the protection of journalists, this terrible act is a dreadful stain on our record.

 

My right hon. Friend and I share the honour of having served in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; it perhaps did not have the “Digital” at the time he was there, but we have both been Culture Secretaries and both of us were charged with ensuring that press freedom was respected. The work he did as Secretary of State, which I was fortunate enough to follow on from and take up the mantle of, helps us to be in the position where our status on the press freedom index is improving, but he makes a powerful point about what we have seen in Londonderry and the murder of Lyra McKee.

 

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, already, another seven journalists have been killed in the course of their work this year, coming on top of the 80 who died last year? Two of those were in Mexico, which is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalism. Will he say what more can be done to press the Mexican Government to take action?

 

 

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue, and indeed for raising it consistently. He is absolutely right: Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. The Mexican Government have taken action, and we are in touch with them closely about what they are doing. However, we need to draw the world’s attention to this issue. According to the latest figures I have seen, 348 journalists were arrested or detained last year for doing their job. That is why this summer, jointly with Canada, we will be hosting the first ever international conference on media freedom at ministerial level.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone; I will be very brief. I was first elected to the House to represent a part of Colchester, so I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) in promoting its many attractions, which I can vouch for.

 

I now represent the Maldon district. We are all part of the east of England, which does not always get the attention it deserves—people talk about the Lake district and the west country—but has many attractions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned some of the attractions in her constituency—indeed, I used to represent some of those as well. We share what is known as the saltmarsh coast, which is an extraordinary asset for recreation, wildlife and sailing.

 

The other great asset I represent is a place that should be nationally famous but is not: the Stow Maries great war aerodrome, the last remaining first world war aerodrome. It is being restored, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it does not attract nearly as many visitors as it should because it is not well enough known.

 

In Maldon and elsewhere we recognise that digital marketing is key—perhaps the Minister will touch on that—and that people now look online to see where there are attractions, but there is not enough co-ordination. The Maldon district promotes things in the Maldon district, and Colchester borough promotes things in Colchester, but there needs to be more co-ordination so that we can demonstrate all of the region’s attractions to people who are thinking of visiting the east of England. I am thinking not just of Essex; I am very happy for the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) to participate as well to promote Suffolk. We sit on this great asset, and I do not believe we are yet doing enough to exploit it.

 

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I strongly agree that the tech companies need to do more to stop the spread of hate and incitement to violence. However, does he also recognise that the internet is a force for good and that many authoritarian countries—China ​and, now, particularly Russia—are attempting to impose censorship on it for their own repressive political purposes? Does he therefore agree that any measures we take need to be proportionate and targeted, and must not allow other countries, such as Russia, to claim somehow that they are acting for reasons similar to ours?

 

It is tempting to say that my right hon. Friend is asking the wrong person. As Security Minister, I see daily how paedophiles, organised crime, groomers and terrorist recruiters use the internet as not a force for good. As we speak, the internet is being used to undermine our own democracy.

 

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point that, in places where there is no democracy and no rule of law, the internet is sometimes people’s only hope to engage with free thought and the outside world. We have to be very careful about how we balance that but, nevertheless, we know these companies can remove extremist content very quickly when they put their minds to it.

 

There are certain areas on which we all agree. I cannot find anyone in the world who would support allowing child sexual exploitation images to exist on our internet. Violent extremism, beheading videos and bullying online cannot be acceptable in any society. We can all agree that a number of activities should not be allowed or available on the internet without someone taking responsibility for preventing the broadcast or spreading of it. All of us in this House have to try to navigate that fine line, and we will debate it when the online White Paper comes before us.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that five years ago today Russian special forces seized the Government building in Crimea and raised the Russian flag? Will she confirm that the UK Government remain committed to the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and will she look at strengthening sanctions against Russia until that can be achieved?

 

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. This was an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and we have been doing everything we can to ensure that the appropriate sanctions are imposed that will have an impact. We have been one of the voices around the EU Council table that has been advocating the roll-over of sanctions at every stage and ensuring that, as we look at the actions of Russia here and elsewhere, we enhance those sanctions and rightfully put pressure on those who are responsible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole history of the European Union has shown that time and again, when there are intractable disputes, agreement is obtained, often late at night, with about an hour to go before the clock runs out? Will she therefore stick to her deadline, and will she impress on the European Union that there is a majority in the House for her agreement if the necessary changes to the backstop can be made?

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that issue in relation to the European Union. We are indeed in the process of those talks with the European Union, and have made clear to it that—as the vote in the House showed—there is support for a withdrawal agreement provided that we can see those necessary changes in relation to the backstop.

I very much welcome Dame Frances Cairncross’s report, which I believe addresses one of the greatest challenges to properly functioning democracy today. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the priority must be to facilitate more professional journalists to report on the proceedings of local councils, local courts and other local institutions, which are currently all too often going unreported? The BBC’s local democracy initiative at least starts to address that challenge, so will he look at ways of expanding that initiative, perhaps by bringing on board to it the technology companies that are currently distributing the content but doing nothing to help collect it?

 

I agree with my right hon. Friend. A large part of the answer is, as he says, to ensure that there are more professional journalists in the right places at the right times to provide the scrutiny that we all agree is important and necessary. As he has heard me say, the local democracy reporting scheme is a good example of how that might be achieved in the times that we currently live in. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the part that he played in bringing that scheme into existence in conjunction with the BBC. It is a good thing, but he is right to say that there is scope for further expansion, as Dame Frances Cairncross has also pointed out. That expansion must be paid for, and I will certainly look into his suggestion and pursue further how we might persuade those who are benefiting from the current arrangements to ensure that their worst excesses are mitigated.

Q8.  Is my right hon. Friend aware that last year was the worst on record for the deaths, imprisonment and hostage taking of journalists, with 80 across the world killed in the course of their work. Does she agree that journalists fulfil a vital role in a free society, and will she ensure that every opportunity is taken to put pressure on the Governments with the worst records to respect media freedom and take action to protect international journalism? [908906]

 

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I certainly agree about the important role a free press and journalists play in our democracies, and I thank him for raising an issue that I know is important to him and many Members across the House. Sadly, as he says, 80 journalists we killed in 2018; 348 are currently in prison and 60 are being held hostage around the world. We are deeply concerned because, as he said, these numbers have risen on the previous year. That is why in 2019 we are placing our resources behind the cause of media freedom. We are helping to train journalists around the world, such as in Venezuela, where we have seen an authoritarian Government suppress their critics, and this year we plan to host an international conference in London on media freedom to bring together countries that believe in this cause and to mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists. This is an important issue, and the Government are putting their weight behind it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to concerns expressed by a number of Conservative Members and for her recognition that there must be changes in the backstop, but will she also confirm that the aspects of our future relationship set out in the political declaration, which also cause some concern, are not legally binding, and can be addressed and changed in the course of the subsequent negotiation?

 

The political declaration sets out the framework for the negotiations in the future, but that has to be negotiated into legal text and, as I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, there are elements within that text which have not identified absolutely a particular position. In response to an earlier question, I referred to the balance between checks at borders and regulatory alignment. That is obviously a matter for the future negotiations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it remains highly desirable to have a diversity of providers and technologies in civil nuclear generation? Will he therefore confirm, particularly in the light of recent concerns expressed about some Chinese investments, that the Government will remain fully supportive of the proposal from China General Nuclear to invest in a new power station at Bradwell-on-Sea in my constituency, subject of course to a generic design assessment and other permissions being obtained?

 

As my right hon. Friend knows, CGN is an investor in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is being built as we speak. That is proceeding at pace. When it comes to Bradwell, CGN is again making successful strides through the approval process. All investment is subject to that process, but I can confirm that it has our full support as it goes through the regulatory approvals.

It is a privilege to be called to speak immediately after two important speeches from each of the Front Benches.

 

I campaigned in favour of Britain remaining a member in 1975. I was too young to vote, but I put leaflets through doors that clearly said we would remain a member of a common market of independent trading states and that nothing about our membership would in any way affect the sovereignty of this Parliament, of which I am proud to be a Member. Unfortunately, in the 40 years since that referendum, we have moved steadily away from that vision, with more and more power given over to Brussels. It is essentially for that reason that I voted against the Maastricht treaty when I was first elected to this place and that I campaigned to leave in the last referendum, in which I was proud to serve on the campaign committee under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State.

 

I welcome the Prime Minister’s subsequent commitments in her Florence and Lancaster House speeches on the red lines that the Government cannot breach in our negotiations, and I fought the election on a manifesto making it clear that we are leaving the European Union and that that includes leaving the single market and the customs union.

 

The many benefits of leaving the European Union are summed up—as we were reminded by the Channel 4 drama on Monday, which had an interesting portrayal of the Secretary of State—by those three words: “Take back control.” There is no doubt that one of the referendum issues that featured in my constituency is immigration, as summed up in the “Taking back control of our borders” White Paper, but I am not opposed to immigration, which has brought great value to this country.

 

The farmers and horticulturalists I represent in Essex rely on immigrant labour, particularly seasonal labour, and I understand their concern that that should continue. Equally, like most farmers, as the Secretary of State said, the majority of them voted to leave because they embrace the idea of competing in world markets, being outside the CAP and, instead of being subsidised, receiving payment on the basis of their contribution to the public good, which is a far better system.

 

The ability for my right hon. Friend to set our policy in this area, as there will be such an ability for every other Secretary of State, is one of the great benefits of our gaining our freedom. That is one reason why I am not attracted to the Norway option that some have suggested, and that I understand my right hon. Friend has occasionally thought about. We on the Exiting the European Union Committee discovered in taking evidence from Norwegian parliamentarians that Norway is still bound by European regulations, and of course freedom of movement is one of those requirements.

 

The vote was essentially about sovereignty. It was a vote to remove the overall jurisdiction of the ECJ. My Select Committee colleagues and I have been to see Michel Barnier several times, and he is very clear that the Prime Minister’s red lines rule out the UK having membership of the European economic area or an agreement similar to those of Norway and Turkey. He told us that the only way in which the UK would not breach its red lines in continuing to have a relationship with the European Union is on the basis of an agreement like the one signed with Canada. He showed us a proposal that not only had a Canada-style trade agreement but had parallel agreements covering security, law and order co-operation and data transfer. Indeed, he set out a scenario almost identical to the one I would have described had I been asked what kind of relationship I wanted with the European Union.

 

The only problem was that of Northern Ireland and what would happen at the Northern Ireland border. The Prime Minister accepted that that was an insuperable obstacle, and she therefore made the Chequers proposal. I could not support that proposal principally because it maintained the common rulebook, which would mean we still have to abide by EU regulations. The Government have shown a willingness to accept further lock-ins, and under amendment (p), tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), we would have to continue to accept EU regulations in employment law.

 

Amendment (p), which I support, does not say that we should automatically harmonise with the EU as it strengthens protections in these areas. What it says is that, when protections are strengthened, it will come back for this House to debate and vote on those issues. That means Parliament is still taking back control.

 

As I understand it, amendment (p) would require us to accept that all existing EU regulations in this area will be maintained. I do not necessarily say that I am in favour of removing any of those regulations, although it is ironic that, when we debated the Maastricht treaty back in 1992, one of the arguments made by the then Conservative Government under John Major was that we had obtained an opt-out from the social chapter and that we would not be bound by the European employment and social regulations. We were told that we had achieved a great prize. Interestingly, of course, it was accepted that we could be part of what then became the European Union without being part of the social chapter. The indivisibility of freedoms is applicable only when it suits the European Union, and not when it does not.

 

There are many things about the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration that I do not like. I do not like the fact that we appear to be signing up to paying out £39 billion without any guarantee on what the future arrangement will look like. I do not like the fact that the ECJ will continue to have a say for a considerable period—some 20 years. I do not like the trading relationship described in the political declaration, which seems to be based on Chequers and its continuing adherence to the common rulebook. However, all those aspects could be dealt with in the subsequent negotiations during the transition period, with the exception of money, which is in the withdrawal agreement. The future arrangements can be discussed during the transition period because they are part of the political declaration, which is not legally binding.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the money is not £39 billion? There is no cash limit, no agreed amount, in the agreement, and there are huge powers for the EU to keep sending us bills of an undescribed amount for decades. It will be a lot more than £39 billion.

 

I fear my right hon. Friend may well be right. He highlights the risk we run in making that commitment.

 

I am willing to accept an ongoing payment, so long as an eventual exit date is set out. I am willing to accept some continuing role for the ECJ on things like citizens’ rights. However, the problem is in the withdrawal agreement, which is legally binding and cannot be changed. I am afraid that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it is the backstop. It is the fact that we would be locked into a customs union without any ability to leave it unless we obtain the agreement of the European Union. That makes trade agreements essentially impossible. One of the great opportunities of leaving the European Union is the opportunity to sign trade agreements with those countries that the European Union has been trying to sign trade agreements with for decades but has still not succeeded—China, Brazil, India, the United States of America, Indonesia—the countries that will be the biggest economies in the world over the course of the next 10 or 20 years.

 

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the EU signed a trade deal with South Korea, with Japan and with Canada, before many other nations in the world? The EU has actually led progress on these bilateral trade deals.

 

I was aware of that, which is why I did not include them, but the countries whose names I just read out are likely to be the five biggest economies in the world. We know that the EU has been trying to sign a deal with China and a deal with America, and has failed so far to do so, principally because it requires the agreement of every single member state, and we have seen how difficult that can be.

 

Also, of course, the provision of the backstop creates the one thing that the Prime Minister said she could never accept under any circumstances—a border down the Irish sea. If Northern Ireland protocol and the backstop could be taken out of the withdrawal agreement and put into that basket of issues that we shall settle in the course of the transitional period, as part of the arrangement covering our future agreement for trade with the European Union, that would remove the problem. It is where it ought to be. It was always daft that the Northern Ireland border issue could be determined before we knew what was going to be in the future trade agreement. The Prime Minister herself has now accepted that, actually, over the course of the two years, it should be possible to find a solution that will allow free movement back and forth across that border, on the basis of technology, so the Government think that can be done in the next two years. If we could only get it out of the withdrawal agreement, we would then have the time in which we could demonstrate that it would never be necessary.

 

I operated a hard border in Northern Ireland for two years. We stopped every car, we searched every car, we checked every person. I absolutely believe it is perfectly possible for there to be free movement across that border, given willingness on both sides and the use of new techniques, particularly things like pre-registration and number- plate recognition. I think that border does not need to be hard.

 

 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, when he was serving his country in Northern Ireland, we had to have controls on the movement of people because we were facing a serious terrorist threat. Nobody is suggesting controls on the movement of people now. There is no suggestion that we are going to need any measures of that kind. We are talking about the movement of goods.

 

I do not want to detain the House any longer because a lot of Members want to speak. As I said, the problem is that the backstop is in the agreement and the agreement cannot be changed once it is passed, because it is a legally binding undertaking. If only the Government could find a way of taking the backstop out and putting it into those issues that we will try to resolve over the course of the next two years, I would be happy—well, not happy, but willing perhaps—to support the motion on Tuesday. But unless that can be done, I am afraid that I cannot.

 

 

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.

 

Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.

 

There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.

 

Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.

 

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been stopped from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Does he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?

 

I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.

 

I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I was very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?

 

It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?

 

I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.

 

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?

 

I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done but, unfortunately, one reason is that the record is so poor at present.

 

I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, it is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.

 

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else. As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.

 

I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.

 

Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?

 

I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record of intimidation of journalists.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?

 

I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and he should be added to the list of those we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.

 

I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intends to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.

 

Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that something like 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government would consider adding our support in due course.

 

Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some of them. I am encouraged that so many of them have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.

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