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Commons Chamber

Volume 716: debated on Monday 20 June 2022

House of Commons

Monday 20 June 2022

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Knife Crime and Serious Violence

The Government work to steer young people away from crime through tough enforcement and dedicated programmes. We have supported the police with investment of over £170 million in the areas worst affected by violence, and on stop-and-search powers. A further £170 million will support violence reduction units, which are fundamental in tackling the root causes of violence.

Knife crime and antisocial behaviour is, sadly, all too prevalent in Southend, as the weekend’s events showed. Our excellent local police want state-of-the-art, portable electronic knife polls, which are cheaper and more effective than knife arch systems. Does the Secretary of State agree that having those in place by the holiday period must be a priority for Southend police?

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the assiduous way in which she has made representations to me and the Home Office directly on this issue? She has a great relationship with Essex police, which is a very robust police force on this issue. She highlighted a practical solution in terms of how knife crime can be and is being addressed through knife polls, and I have seen in her constituency some of the exceptional work taking place on that.

The National Crime Agency is responsible for tackling the organised crime gangs who drive up so much of the knife crime, violence and drug abuse that we see on our streets. Why, then, has the Home Secretary asked it to draw up plans for 20% cuts?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. There are no plans to cut National Crime Agency funding. Its budget has increased every year since 2019-20 and, as part of the 2021 spending review, we secured a settlement over the period of more than £810 million. For the benefit of the Labour party, there are no plans to cut NCA funding.

Support for People Fleeing War in Ukraine

This week, we mark Refugee Week. The UK has a long, proud history of welcoming refugees and the Government have introduced two new, safe routes for Ukrainian nationals—the Ukraine family scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme—as part of our commitment to the people of Ukraine during the awful conflict with Russia. Arrivals under those schemes will be able to live and work in the UK for up to three years and, of course, they will have full and unrestricted access to benefits, healthcare, employment and other support. We have also introduced the Ukraine extension scheme, permitting Ukrainians already in the UK to extend their stays.

I am proud that a large number of my constituents have welcomed Ukrainian families into their homes as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and I am pleased to have been able to help a number of those families now living in the High Peak to navigate the visa application process. However, some of those children have had their applications for local schools rejected. May I urge the Home Secretary to have urgent conversations with the Department for Education on solving this issue so that children who are here having fled a war zone can continue their education?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. If I may, on behalf of all of us in Government, I will thank and commend all members of the British public who have been supporting our schemes. It is important that we do everything we can across Government to support the education of children in our schools. In April, the Secretary of State for Education got in touch with every single local authority chief executive officer as well as directors of children’s services to outline clearly the requirements on schools and the funding coming from Government. I will of course pick up any points that my hon. Friend has from his constituency and raise them directly.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our compassionate approach to refugees from Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan can be maintained with public confidence only if we are also robust in dealing with illegal channel crossings, and the human traffickers who peddle in human misery?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: this is about deterring those dangerous crossings, deterring people smugglers, and carrying on with the long-standing and assiduous work that is taking place through our intelligence and security services and the National Crime Agency, and also upstream. This is about public confidence in the system. We are a generous country, but to maintain that means that we take action, so that we can be fair to those who come to our country, and firm on those who, quite frankly, are exploiting our country.

More than 70 Ukrainians have now found a place to call home in the safety of the Scottish Borders through the UK Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. What support is being offered to local authorities in Scotland to assist their new residents?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about local authority support. This is a whole Government effort, as well as a UK-wide effort to support families and the Homes for Ukraine scheme. With that, the Government have been clear, as has the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, about funding through that Department of more than £10,500 per person arriving under the scheme. We must ensure that we are supporting local authorities, and that the scheme is fair and equitable. In addition, we are ensuring that local authorities undertake all the necessary checks and safeguarding provisions that are required.

Last Wednesday I was honoured to welcome my constituents Mark Rumble and Lucy Needham to Parliament, alongside Alina, the Ukrainian refugee who they are hosting. Mark and Lucy praised the ease and speed of the visa application process, but raised some concerns that they were given very little information about how to support Alina in settling in with things such as registering with a GP, completing her biometric checks, and getting a national insurance number. Will the Home Secretary consider Mark’s suggestion of producing a clear and comprehensive welcome pack for every Ukrainian refugee, so that they and their host families can ensure that the refugee settles in as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend raises an important question, as well as some practical points that are constantly being addressed through the scheme. Welcome packs have been provided, and the Departments for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, for Education, and of Health and Social Care have, through local authorities, received support and guidance from central Government. I thank my hon. Friend’s constituent for what he is doing, and for his suggestions. Much of that information is on, but if there is more we can do—it sounds as if there is—we will join this up, and I will pick up that representation directly.

Last week the Home Affairs Committee met Ukrainian MPs who told us that they had had to travel 11 hours to get their visa from the visa application centre in Poland, then 11 hours back, and then again to have the visa stamped. They wanted me to ask the Home Secretary about young people and children travelling with grandparents and elder siblings, who are not eligible for visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Will the Home Office look at that again, because all the necessary paperwork is there to ensure that those children are travelling with their parents’ consent?

The right hon. Lady and many other colleagues have raised this point over recent weeks and months. We are looking at this issue, and a lot of work is taking place across the Home Office with the Minister for Refugees and DLUHC, regarding the safeguarding aspects. We are going to make changes and, without pre-empting any of those now, a lot of work is taking place, primarily because the focus has to be on the safety and wellbeing of those children. We must ensure that they get here in the right way and are supported. We will report back on that issue, because a lot of work is taking place on it right now.

The small village of Golspie in Sutherland will shortly be hosting seven families from Ukraine. There is no lack of people in the Highlands volunteering to put up those good people, who are getting as far as the UK but seem to be getting blocked in hotels and not getting to the families in the Highlands. Will the Home Secretary talk to the Scottish Government with a view to sorting out that logjam?

Absolutely. If the hon. Gentleman would like to share any details with me regarding where the barriers are, we will definitely pick that up. The whole point about Homes for Ukraine, and the work across the whole Government, is that where there are bottlenecks we must unblock them and ensure a safe passage. We must ensure that people are welcomed in the right way, so that they can be settled and their needs met as soon as they come to our country.

Further to the point from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), my constituent contacted me on 9 May regarding a child trying to enter Ukraine with a legal guardian. Her visa has been blocked because she has been classified as an unaccompanied minor, because she is travelling with a legal guardian and not a parent. My office has raised this with the Home Office and I have written directly to the Secretary of State. Please can she look into this case urgently?

Yes, I will pick up this case directly following questions today. As I have said, there are some measures coming together now on this, because we have to do it in the right way, but I will come back to the hon. Lady.

On Friday, when I visited my local food bank, I met a young woman who had fled Ukraine with her two-year-old son. While she is waiting for her universal credit payments to come through, she has been left without anything, and she was queueing to get food and nappies. How can this be right when they have fled the horror of war? What will the Home Secretary do with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that every Ukrainian refugee who arrives here gets the support they need immediately?

The hon. Lady has raised not only a very serious case, but some of the challenges that people are facing. She has asked me directly what I will do with the DWP. In fact, there is a cross-Government taskforce on this, bringing all Departments together—it is not just DWP. The hon. Lady has already heard me speak about DLUHC and the money that has gone directly to local authorities to support individuals. If I can pick up with her post-questions directly on this case, we will follow that up, but I also think she has illustrated how the system needs to come together at a local level.

It was a great privilege to join the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), last week in meeting Ukrainian MPs who had arrived in London after meetings in Dublin. Given nobody had checked their passports between visa-free Ireland and here, they rightly asked, “How on earth can the UK’s visa scheme possibly be justified on the grounds of security when Ukrainians can properly travel to Ireland visa-free and then onwards to here?” I emphasise that their main concern was this lack of a policy to ensure that children accompanied by relatives other than parents can come to the UK. I recognise that the Home Secretary has said that this is being looked at, but I also understand the policy has been promised for some time—can we get it urgently?

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, the policy is being worked on urgently and it is across Departments right now, which is why it is taking some time to come together, but we will report back on that. On the issue of travelling from Ireland, as we have debated in this House many times, it is right that we hold up the integrity of the checks in our systems, and this Government have done that consistently for all overseas nationals coming to the United Kingdom. That has been applied consistently, even during the Afghanistan crisis, and that is this Government’s policy.

Antisocial Behaviour

The beating crime plan set out the Government’s enduring commitment to driving down antisocial behaviour. Home Office statutory guidance supports local areas to make effective use of the powers available to them. That includes advice on the community trigger—an important safety net for victims —and we have also provided funding for local initiatives to tackle antisocial behaviour through the safer streets fund.

As the Home Secretary will be aware from her recent visit to Keighley, where she met our hard-working neighbourhood policing team, antisocial behaviour is unfortunately an undeniable problem and is having a detrimental impact on many businesses, residents and those going about their day-to-day lives. I was therefore delighted to see the Government launch round 4 of the safer streets fund with a specific focus on antisocial behaviour. Can my hon. Friend confirm that this will help drive a positive change in Keighley and beyond?

I very much thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that my colleague the Home Secretary very much enjoyed her visit, and we all wish to thank the neighbourhood policing team for all that they do. We are aware of the impact that antisocial behaviour has, and that is why this Government have introduced round 4 of the safer streets fund, as my hon. Friend said. That is a practical set of initiatives to tackle that behaviour, and it includes improved street lighting, increased CCTV and training to change attitudes and behaviours, all of which tackle antisocial behaviour. I expect to see some real change in his area.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her response. Unfortunately, antisocial behaviour continues to blight my residents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, nowhere more so than in the Laburnum Road area of Tipton which has seen a spike in reports. Will my hon. Friend touch a little more on the cross-working that she is doing, particularly with stakeholders in the Black Country, such as West Midlands police and Sandwell Council, to ensure we really do have a community-led approach to tackling antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a multi-agency and community approach. Yes, of course, the police are responsible for tackling and dealing with antisocial behaviour, which is why we are providing £695 million funding to West Midlands police, an increase of £40 million. The force has also been able to recruit over 1,000 additional officers. It is also the case that we have provided the police with additional powers. It is vital that the police work with their local police and crime commissioner and other agencies with responsibility for tackling this behaviour.

In Bristol, we have a successful e-scooter rental pilot, but we also see people using e-scooters illegally and using rental e-scooters on the pavement. That can be very scary for people trying to walk along the pavement while that is happening. I know the Government are looking to legalise and regulate private ownership, but how will the Home Office team work with the Department for Transport team to ensure the police have the powers to stop them being misused in a way that scares people who are just trying to go about their daily business?

The hon. Lady speaks of an issue that both she and I have some experience of—when I was in the Department for Transport, she was my shadow. The Department is introducing new legislation to deal with some of these issues. Until that is on the statute book, however, it is the responsibility of the police to deal with the issue, and they have clear guidance: riding an e-scooter on the pavement is illegal in all circumstances. We welcome new forms of transport, but of course they must be introduced safely and ridden responsibly.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) is right to ask the Government what they are doing to tackle antisocial behaviour. In his constituency total recorded crime went up by 59% from 2011-12 to 2020-21, which highlights the Conservative Government’s track record, a damning one at that. No wonder crime is up. Action on antisocial behaviour is down since his Government took out 7,000 neighbourhood police officers—a cut of 30%—so the 1,000 the Minister just mentioned does not quite cut it. Will the Minister tell the House why the Government do not believe in neighbourhood policing, as they have clearly given up on it with the cuts they have made?

The hon. Lady is completely wrong in the contention she puts forward to the House. This Government introduced the beating crime plan, which puts tackling antisocial behaviour at its heart. This is the Government who are increasing funding to the police, bringing more officers on to the streets to tackle this and other issues. I remind her that her area in West Yorkshire has 589 additional officers and we have increased funding by £31 million. It is for local police and crime commissioners, including the Labour Mayor of West Yorkshire, to use that funding and the powers they have been given to tackle this issue.

National Security

Our national security is the first responsibility and priority of the Government, and we are ensuring that our world-class security and intelligence services and counterterrorism police are supported in their work with the tools and the legislative framework they need to keep us safe. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them for all they do.

When it comes to the Rwanda policy, the Labour party is all over the shop. The left hand does not know what the far left hand is doing. The other day the Leader of the Opposition’s spokesman said that they could not rule out maintaining this policy, while the shadow immigration Minister told the BBC that they would definitely scrap it. While the Labour party works out if it has a policy at all, can I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that we will be working to break the vile business model of people traffickers by making sure that the Rwanda flights get off the ground soon?

My hon. Friend is quite right that we hear plenty of opposing from the Opposition, but not much proposing: they complain, but they do not have a plan. Our partnership with Rwanda is strong and supports a proportionate, humane approach. We are determined to deter the wicked people smugglers and the great damage that they bring to human life.

The MI5 director general recently said:

“It must be right that Parliament looks at modernising the powers the State has to protect us all from the full range of today’s threats.”

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we are heeding the director general’s advice, and that our National Security Bill will protect us from a range of emerging threats, including cyber-attacks and interference in elections?

I can. May I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for all his work in support of our national security while he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary in the Department?

The National Security Bill will keep pace with the changing threat and will make the UK an ever harder target for states that seek to conduct hostile acts against us. It will be an offence for foreign powers to improperly interfere with the UK’s democracy. The Bill will address the serious threat from state-backed attacks on assets, including sites, data and infrastructure critical to the UK’s safety or interests.

Has the Home Secretary considered the dangers to freedom of the press that the National Security Bill presents? Many of my constituents are concerned that measures that could prevent journalists from publishing stories of public interest are undemocratic.

No, I do not see a danger to journalistic freedoms. Indeed, the Government are taking stringent steps to ensure, for example, that in the Online Safety Bill journalistic rights and freedoms are absolutely to the fore, because of the vital and irreplaceable role that a free and sometimes boisterous media plays in underpinning and challenging us in our democracy.

Canada, one of our Five Eyes partners, recently announced sanctions against Alexander Lebedev as one of 14 people who

“have directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine and bear responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine.”

I have asked this question of the Government six times now, but I have not had anything resembling an answer: did the Prime Minister meet Alexander Lebedev without officials and without close protection during the Salisbury poisonings in April 2018—yes or no?

I do not know the detailed contents of either individual’s diary. What I can tell the hon. Lady and the House is that this Government have acted on sanctions against Putin-linked elites—the people who have propped up and supported that regime—without fear or favour. That extends to more than 1,000 individuals, entities and subsidiaries, and we will do more as required.

Points-based Immigration System: Labour Shortages

5. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the points-based immigration system on labour shortages. (900579)

Our immigration system works in the interests of our whole United Kingdom by covering a broad range of occupations across many sectors for firms looking to attract the talent that they need, while ensuring that the domestic labour market is supported—yet recruitment issues are not unique to the UK, and immigration must not be seen as an alternative to improved pay, conditions and training for key workers.

There is a severe shortage of care workers around the UK. In St Andrews in my constituency, a social care business had to shut down recently because of staffing issues. My inbox is increasingly full of messages from people who are waiting for care-at-home packages. One way of helping would be to allow asylum seekers to work while their claims are being processed: it would allow them to support themselves and would mitigate the worst of the shortages. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister consider that?

That is an interesting one. Those whose asylum claim has been outstanding for more than a year can take jobs on the shortage occupations list, which has included care workers since February. One of the slight issues, of course, is that until very recently, 31 out of the 32 local authority areas in Scotland, including the hon. Lady’s, refused to be part of the dispersal accommodation system. Now that we have made the change to full dispersal, some of those people will actually be living in those areas.

If I give the Minister the details, will he kindly take a personal interest in the unusual plight of two young Russian charity volunteers who are now stranded in my constituency through no fault of their own? They are not supporters of President Putin. They have the opportunity to work as care workers, but in their present plight they cannot do so. They cannot be the only people caught up in such a situation. I would be very grateful if the Government looked sympathetically on their plight.

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot give comments and pledges from the Dispatch Box, but I am very happy to meet him, and he highlights a valid point. Russia is not Putin. Putin likes to say that he embodies everything Russian, but he does not. There are plenty of Russians who have suffered under his regime and are vehemently opposed to his illegal and disgraceful actions in Ukraine.

The reality out in the country is that we have labour shortages across multiple sectors, 1.3 million job vacancies, the most persistent post-pandemic drop in employment in the G7, operations not being carried out in our hospitals, restaurants and the hospitality industry being unable to recruit staff, and a shortage of drivers to drive produce around the country. Why will the Minister not act pragmatically and immediately, introduce more work visas where are there shortages, lift the ban on asylum seekers working and have an independent review of the impact of ending freedom of movement?

The hon. Member might benefit from taking some time to look at the labour markets across most of the developed world, including the European Union. He will see that shortages in many areas, such as hospitality, are not unique to the United Kingdom. I find interesting his calls for the resurrection of free movement, given what we understand his party’s emerging policy to be.

Visa Processing Times

7. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of processing times for visas applied for by people from countries other than Ukraine. (900581)

UK Visas and Immigration is prioritising applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine, so applications for other visas are taking longer to process, particularly when combined with surging demand globally for visitor visas. We understand the impact of delays to customers, so resources are being returned visa routes impacted by these prioritisation decisions, with a focus on visit, work and study routes. We will also prioritise any compelling or compassionate cases.

I recognise the extraordinary efforts that the Department has made to process tens of thousands of visas for Ukrainians, and I pay tribute to the staff who have based themselves in Portcullis House to provide updates to Members. My office is dealing with many applications from people from other countries, such as Afghanistan and India, and they are not getting the updates and information that applicants from Ukraine are getting. Will the Minister consider applying some of the positive lessons to make sure that other applicants at least know that they are not being forgotten, and so that they get updates on their cases?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I know the team in Portcullis House will appreciate his praise. We are looking at the learnings from the hub-style approach in Portcullis House, which I think has been useful. Feedback from across the House has been very positive about its ability to chase up casework for Members. As we modernise our immigration system, we are also looking at how to give people an experience like that on our modernised routes—for example, the skilled worker route and applications from European economic area nationals via AUK2—which provide a range of updates automatically without applicants having to ask for them, and we are considering how we can apply that when hon. Members or customers get in touch. We want to make the process much more automated, so that there is less need for people to request updates.

Passport Application Processing Times

8. How many and what proportion of passport applications that were received over 10 weeks ago have not yet been processed. (900582)

12. How many and what proportion of passport applications that were received over 10 weeks ago have not yet been processed. (900586)

17. How many and what proportion of passport applications that were received over 10 weeks ago have not yet been processed. (900591)

Across March, April and May, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of approximately 3 million passport applications, with 98.5% of those from the UK being completed within the published processing time of up to 10 weeks.

It is quite remarkable, is it not, that six days on from an Opposition day debate where the Minister was asked that very question three times and failed to give a figure for the size of the passport backlog, he is still unable to give us an answer? I put it to him that perhaps the thing that would most cheer those who are languishing in that backlog—the one official piece of documentation that he could ensure is issued quickly—is his own ministerial P45.

As we saw last week, those who have nothing to offer by way of policy like to go personal. To help the hon. Member, the question was about the proportion of passport applications received. He got an answer to it, but his supplementary makes it clear that he has no ideas of his own to offer.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents the staff at Her Majesty’s Passport Office, has commented that the backlog is due to a number of issues including

“lack of staff, poor management and failures”

on the part of contractors. Rather than blaming staff or suggesting more privatisation, will the UK Government meet union representatives in order to learn what action is needed to ensure that the Passport Office is properly funded and staffed?

We are certainly grateful for the hard work that staff are putting in, and, as I said last week, it is a pity that we are seeing their efforts being rubbished for political ends. We have been recruiting more staff at the Passport Office and investing in the modernisation of processes, and we engage regularly with senior HMPO officials, as well as ensuring that union officials can have their say. We should bear in mind the current record output from the Passport Office, which is dealing with a surge of applications. I must say that it is striking to note the sudden interest expressed by Opposition Members who said very little about this last year.

Civil servants working in the Passport Office are under huge pressure, and staff morale is reported to be understandably at an all-time low, owing to a lack of Government preparation for the up to 9 million passport applications or renewals expected following lockdown. Meanwhile, my constituents face intolerable delays and the prospect of missing much-needed holidays and family events. We have been promised repeatedly in this Chamber that things will improve, but the 10-week target continues to be too often missed. How much longer must we wait for passport offices to be fully staffed and resourced, so that my constituents are not subjected to yet another aspect of Backlog Britain?

Dearie me! In fact, we have been increasing the number of staff at the Passport Office rather than reducing it as the hon. Lady has implied. We have dealt with 3 million applications in three months, and soon we will have dealt with more in six months than we did in the whole of last year. It was fairly obvious that 5 million passports had not been renewed during the pandemic, and we started to plan for this last year. In April 2021, we changed and clarified the service standard and began preparations to deal with the surge. We hear these attacks from Opposition Members, but what we never hear from them is an idea.

A month ago, a dozen passport cases a day were pinging into my office. That number has now fallen to just two or three a week, and my caseworker Zach and I are very grateful for the improvement that the Home Office has brought about. However, once those passports are handed over by the Home Office to the private delivery companies, can the Home Office do more to ensure that each one reaches the intended household rather than a random neighbour, a random bush or indeed a random river, which is where these passports seem to end up?

It is concerning to hear of those examples, because there are clear standards and procedures for how passports are delivered: they cannot, for example, just be left in a communal area. We have engaged DHL, which is normally our international agent for domestic deliveries, and have also used Royal Mail to return documents. However, I should be interested to hear some specific examples from my hon. Friend, and I am grateful for his comment that he and his caseworker have noticed improvements in recent weeks.

I know that the Minister has worked hard to reduce the backlog, and I am grateful to him for that, but, as I am sure he knows, there are still some issues. Can he tell us what proportion of Passport Office staff are back in the office, and, while he is at it, can he help me with the case of Wendy, who is still waiting for a passport? Her father died suddenly abroad, and in order to attend his funeral she needs to have her passport today. After the Minister has finished his duties in the House, would he mind helping me to chase up Wendy’s case so that she can try to get to her father’s funeral?

As we have said a couple of times before at the Dispatch Box, people involved in the passport operation have been back in the office for some time. However, we are happy to expedite cases like that of my hon. Friend’s constituent, when there are reasons for travel that are both compelling and compassionate. I am very sorry to hear of the bereavement that Wendy has suffered, and will be happy to look into how we can get the passport expedited for her.

Departmental Morale

Home Office staff can be proud of the work that they do to keep our country safe, but also proud of the large amount of operational work that we have just been discussing. The Home Office has launched a five-year plan to deliver an engaged, motivated and productive workforce, which will include new efficiencies, new technology, and ways of helping staff to improve their performance.

That sounds very impressive until we come to my part of West Yorkshire, where I talk to the police, to probation officers, to prison staff and to firefighters. Their morale is at rock bottom. Whatever the Home Secretary is doing in the Department, will she for goodness’ sake get out into the country and meet real people, who are depressed and demoralised by this Government’s cutbacks?

Can I politely say to the hon. Gentleman that getting out and about the country is not an issue for me? I meet police officers, fire workers, representatives from local councils and local authorities and all the partners we work with, and that cuts across the criminal justice system as well. I also do a great deal of work with victims and others to keep our country safe and deliver vital public services, and it is important that we respect them, support them, empower them and pay tribute to them. I would be very happy to come to the hon. Gentleman’s patch and meet some of the people he has referred to.

Relocations to Rwanda

10. What progress her Department has made in relocating individuals to Rwanda under the migration and economic development partnership. (900584)

As the House will be aware, despite the detailed deliberations and judgments received in various domestic courts that heard the case, the European Court of Human Rights’ out-of-hours judge granted last-minute interim measures. The Government are seeking greater transparency from the ECHR on the reasons for its judgment. A full judicial review is expected to be heard in July. I want to be clear that this partnership is fully compliant with our international obligations.

Unbelievably, £5 million a day is being spent on housing asylum seekers in hotels. That is money that my constituents would rather see invested in the west midlands—for example, supporting the 1,500 additional police officers that the Department has helped to recruit across the region. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he will press ahead with our Rwanda partnership, to end our dependency on this expensive accommodation and crack down on the people smuggling gangs once and for all?

My hon. Friend absolutely hits the nail on the head in explaining why our new plan for immigration is so important, and we are determined to deliver on it. It is a comprehensive package of reform, including the Rwanda proposals, and we are going to get on and deliver on it. The Prime Minister has said that we will work through these issues, and that is precisely what we are now doing.

On World Refugee Day, we pay tribute to all the fantastic refugees who have made utterly amazing contributions to our society and who were, thank goodness, able to have their claims heard here and rebuild their lives here instead of being dumped and offloaded thousands of miles away. The full hearing on whether the Home Secretary’s policy in Rwanda is lawful will take place in July, as the Minister said. Surely, if the Home Secretary has an iota of respect for the UNHCR and the importance of the refugee convention, she will confirm that she will wait for the outcome of that hearing instead of gambling on another reckless, degrading and expensive attempt at these removals.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we do not comment on ongoing legal proceedings. We have had this debate many times, but what I would say is that every day that this new partnership is not in operation is a day that people continue to risk their lives in the channel. That is not acceptable or sustainable, which is why we are taking the steps we are.

Domestic Abuse

This Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse, and that is why we introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In March this year we published our tackling domestic abuse plan, backed by more than £230 million of funding, including £75 million for tackling perpetrators and multi-year funding for interventions and support. The plan also includes expanding the roll-out of Domestic Abuse Matters training for police officers and, importantly, projects to protect children.

I welcome the tackling domestic abuse plan, which focuses on the perpetrators of a disgusting and destructive crime. Can I also stress the need for prevention and particularly for educating the next generation of children in schools about the importance of healthy relationships so that we do not continue to see this in the future? Can the Minister confirm that that is included in the plan as well?

My hon. Friend is right that prevention is the first pillar of our plan. We have set out how we are tackling perpetrators with specific programmes that are proven to prevent this disgusting crime from happening in the first place. It has to start very early, which is why relationships, sex and health education is now a statutory part of the curriculum so that children are taught the importance of respectful relationships.

Reports of domestic abuse now account for 24% of all calls to Norfolk police. Is the criminal justice system the right route for all these calls? If not, will the Minister set out how more appropriate steps can be taken to free up police time?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I said in my previous answer, tackling perpetrators is a vital part of our work, but our response goes wider than just the criminal justice system. That is why we are funding perpetrator interventions that reach out to tackle some of these unhealthy behaviours at source. We are investing more than £75 million over three years to achieve that end.

In July 2021, the Government announced that a domestic homicide sentencing review will look at unfairness in the sentencing of intimate partner domestic homicides. According to Counting Dead Women, at least 105 women have since been killed. The family and friends of these women face immeasurable pain from their loss, so where is the domestic homicide sentencing review, which is now six months late? For the sake of the women who will definitely be murdered next week, may I ask why there is such a delay?

The hon. Lady will know from our many debates in the House on this issue that we set out our holistic response to domestic abuse in the domestic abuse plan. If she looks at that, she will see all the work we are doing on the domestic homicide review. This matter crosses a number of Departments, and I am happy to write to her on the specific issue, but we are bearing down on people who murder their partners. That is why we introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, why we are reforming the entire system and why we are putting multimillion pounds-worth of funding into tackling perpetrators, as I said to my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).

Topical Questions

We do not make policy by mob rule in this country. The Public Order Bill will enable us to overcome the guerrilla tactics that bring misery to the hard-working public, disrupt businesses, interfere with the emergency services, cost taxpayers billions and put lives at risk.

The Public Order Bill will also stop protesters targeting major transport projects and infrastructure, and it will introduce new criminal offences of locking on and going equipped to lock on. It will also extend the police’s stop and search powers to allow them to search and seize articles related to protest-related offences, and it will introduce serious disruption prevention disorders and a new preventive court order that targets protesters who are determined to inflict repeated disruption on the public. Breaching these orders will be a criminal offence.

This Government are committed to being on the side of ordinary working people. It is a shame that the Labour party continues not to support such measures.

My Luton South constituents are deeply frustrated at the Home Office’s huge backlogs. My office is currently waiting for responses from the Home Office on 35 passport cases, 21 asylum cases, and 45 visa cases, with visa applications going back to the start of the year. With a proposal to cut the number of civil servants by 20% on the horizon, how will the Secretary of State fix the mess that her Government have created?

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) has just spoken about passports and the number of staff who have been recruited, contrary to the hon. Lady’s comments. She will recognise that, when it comes to visas, the Government prioritised the Ukrainian visa scheme above other visas and, of course, it has now been switched over to ensure that all applications are processed in good time.

New analysis today shows that in half of communities no burglaries have been solved in three years. Meanwhile, the proportion of all crimes reaching court has plummeted to 5.8%. Why is this Home Secretary letting so many more criminals off?

Let me respond directly to the right hon. Lady. First, the reports today on burglary statistics are deeply troubling. Working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, we are effectively getting more detailed information, force by force, but I would like to remind her that burglary is down by 24%, neighbourhood crime is down by 33% and vehicle offences are down by 28%. With that, it is worth highlighting—in fact, I would like to thank—some of the outstanding Conservative police and crime commissioners such as those for Bedfordshire and for Nottinghamshire, for example, who have effectively pledged and had specific operations to target burglary within their regions.

I am glad that burglaries fell in lockdown but they are now going back up, and overall crime is 18% higher and prosecutions are 18% lower on this Home Secretary’s watch. This is the first time in 25 years that any Home Secretary has presided over both such a big rise in crime and a big drop in the charge rate. So how does it feel to be responsible for the weakest Government performance on crime in a quarter of a century?

For the education and information of the right hon. Lady, may I restate to the House that burglary is down by 24%, neighbourhood crime is down by 33% and vehicle offences are down by 28%? [Interruption.] I appreciate that she does not want to hear the facts and that she struggles with listening to facts and grappling with factual information and data. This is why the Government’s beating crime plan will go even further, so that, force by force, the Government can absolutely ensure that every single police force is held to account, which the Labour party should welcome, along with many of the resources that this Government have put into beating crime.

T2.   I know that in the past few weeks there have been significant improvements in dealing with passport applications, but I am still dealing with a few outstanding cases where constituents are waiting beyond the 10-week period, so will the Minister provide further reassurance to me and to my constituents that we will be able to deal with their cases and get them completed as soon as possible? (900600)

We have already recruited another 650 staff and are in the process of recruiting another 550. Obviously, where people have been waiting over 10 weeks and have travel booked, we will look to expedite their application for free.

T5.   We should all be concerned about the length of time and the frequency with which minors are detained in police cells. Cells are made for adults, yet minors are being detained in them for as long as adults and data shows that the average time spent in police custody is increasing. That is despite legislation saying that minors should be detained only for the shortest appropriate period. What are the Government doing and how do they plan to re-address that? (900604)

In the past few years, we have been working closely with the police across the whole of the UK to drive down the number of minors held in custody and the duration of that. As the hon. Lady will know, the appropriate adult scheme is in place to make sure that minors who are detained are accompanied by adults who, as I say, are appropriate. If she has specific cases she wants to raise with me, I would be more than happy to look at them, but thus far the trend has been improving.

T3. Last week, I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary recognise the national success of Southend police’s Operation Grip and call for it to be rolled out around the country. Does she agree that Southend police’s Operation Union, which adopts an events mindset to policing our seafront, should also be rolled out nationally, especially to coastal areas? (900601)

My hon. Friend is right on the national Grip funding roll-out, which originated from a visit I made to Southend two years ago, where I was so impressed by the data-driven hotspot work that we managed to get the money out of the Treasury to spread it further. I certainly look forward to seeing the results of Operation Union. If it is equally successful, I do not see why we would not roll that out too.

T9. It is quite ironic that while we have been in the Chamber we have received an email to say that the Home Office MP inquiry line has collapsed because of heavy use. I am quite tempted to run through my 200 outstanding cases that are waiting for answers from the Home Office; instead, perhaps a Minister could confirm to me that Zill-e Huma, who is waiting for a spousal visa for her husband, will get that processed before her baby is born at the end of July. (900608)

I am happy to take the details of that individual case from the hon. Member. We are aware of an issue with the MPs’ hotline this morning; the hub and email are unaffected. Home Office Digital, Data and Technology is currently working on a solution and we expect the issue to be resolved shortly.

T4. When we delivered Brexit, we made a promise to take back control of our borders. That was about not just ending freedom of movement but cracking down on small boat crossings of the channel. The Secretary of State and her team have done an awful lot of work to try to clamp down on such crossings. Does she agree that our partnership with Rwanda is critical to breaking the economic model of the people-smuggling gangs? Will she confirm that the Department will do everything it can to get the scheme moving? (900602)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are introducing whole-system reform in the new plan for immigration, and we have the partnership with Rwanda and are readily signing new returns agreements. Of course, we are seeing greater international co-operation, including with the French—for example, 50% of crossings are not originating in the first place. That is important progress. We are continuing to work round the clock on the issue and my hon. Friend can be assured that we will continue to do so.

This week, musicians from the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are applying for visas to the UK to perform here next month, but there are real concerns about delays in their getting the visas and about the £18,000 that it will cost the musicians—funds they just do not have in time of war. Every other European Government have waived complex visa requirements for the musicians to perform in their country. I have asked the Prime Minister about this and written to the Home Secretary about it twice. Will the Home Secretary agree today to look at expediting the visa process and waiving the fees, so that Ukrainian musicians can come to the UK to perform?

I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss this matter. As other colleagues will know, I have already dealt with a number of groups in relation to Ukraine, and there are exceptional circumstances in which the process may need to be expedited.

T6. In the past few weeks, not a day has gone by on which my team and I have not helped a constituent with a passport issue. Although most of the issues have been resolved, it should not take the intervention of someone’s Member of Parliament for them to get their passport. Will the Home Office consider bringing back the old British visitor’s passport, which was issued by post offices for a 12-month period, to help to reduce the backlog? (900605)

A lot of work is being done to catch up on passports. I think it is safe to say that to go back to a system that was fundamentally paper-based would bring quite a range of security issues, not least at the border—that is why it was discontinued. I assure my hon. Friend that a wide range of work is being done and, as I have said, we are still doing roughly 98.5% of passports within the advertised 10-week service time.

I was pleased to see that the Home Office finally published details of the remaining pathways for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, but just hours later the Ministry of Defence revealed that around 10,000 people—many of whom are at risk because they stepped forward to serve when we asked them to do so—were still left behind but eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. What additional capacity is going to be put into the Department, both to clear the backlog of outstanding applications and to process thousands of new ones?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. To be clear, the MOD processes ARAP applications and deals with eligibility. Given our expertise in that area, we are certainly happy to offer what support and assistance we can from UK Visas and Immigration to help to get applications through, because like the hon. Gentleman we do not want to see stuck in Afghanistan people who bravely stood alongside our forces.

T7. British people have voted consistently for controlled immigration and the right to secure borders. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that we have heard absolutely no practical solutions from the Labour party to combat the problems of illegal immigration? (900606)

It is fair to say that the plan we are advancing is the only credible plan to address the issue. It is comprehensive and will end the dangerous channel crossings, preserve life, get illegal migration back under control and, of course, bring sustainability to the related finances.

My constituent faces losing her job with the NHS and is unable to visit a seriously ill close relative abroad because the Home Office has failed to deal with her visa, which was requested last year. I have raised this four times with the Home Office urgent inquiry line and have received no response for two months. Will the Minister look at this particular case, which I wrote to the Home Secretary about last week, and, more generally, at the service, or lack of service, that the urgent inquiry line is providing to MPs?

T8. After repeated calls to the Labour South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner to reopen police stations in our towns and villages, he has reopened the station at Edlington, with a population of 8,000. I have been leading a campaign for the return of a police station to Dinnington, with a population of 13,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a town of that size must have a police station and that the commissioner should reopen the premises in Dinnington without delay? (900607)

As usual, Mr Speaker, it is no surprise to hear my hon. Friend standing up for his constituents and fighting for their interests. He is right to look for greater police presence in his constituency, and when we finish recruiting 20,000 police officers, we will need somewhere for them to put all their stuff. Having that somewhere in his constituency would make sense.

A total of 5,279 children were strip searched by the Metropolitan police between 2019 and 2021, 75% of whom were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. This data covers only children who were strip searched after an arrest, which means that the number of children strip searched among those not arrested will be even higher, such as in the case of Child Q who was never actually arrested. The Home Office will require police forces to provide this data on strip searches only on a voluntary basis. Can the Home Secretary say why she will not commit to making it mandatory for police forces to produce this data?

Although the case of Child Q was deeply regrettable and the Metropolitan police have offered their apologies in that case, I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept that, sadly, there are circumstances where these kind of searches of all manner of people are warranted. She raises a good point about transparency, and I know that all police chiefs across the country have it at the forefront of their minds that their legitimacy is built on public confidence about what they do and I will certainly explore the idea that she suggests.

Neighbourhood crime and antisocial behaviour is better tackled with the police visibility and responsiveness that a town centre police station can provide. Will my right hon. Friend give his support and encouragement to efforts by north Wales police to reopen a police station in the centre of Prestatyn, possibly at the redeveloped old library site?

I am more than happy to support my hon. Friend in seeking the best for his constituents, as I did on Friday in Tiverton where the front counter of the police station is due to open in November. I hope and believe that his constituents will benefit from the significant uplift in capacity and funding that we are giving to police forces, which will allow them to do exactly as he asks.

When the Joint Committee on Human Rights visited Strasbourg last week, we were told that the United Kingdom sends fewer cases to the European Court of Human Rights per capita than any other signatory state. We were also told that UK Government Ministers have repeatedly given the Council of Europe assurances that Britain will not withdraw from the convention. Will the Home Secretary withdraw the rather intemperate remarks that she made as reported at the weekend because she was displeased by the Court’s decision to temporarily halt the flights to Rwanda last week?

In light of the hon. and learned Lady’s comments, it is important to put it on record that Britain upholds international standards and all aspects of the law. Our policies are proving that is the case when it comes to illegal migration, as demonstrated by the domestic courts. As I said have repeatedly, I will not comment on ongoing legal cases.

On 3 May, a convoy of vehicles left Blyth Valley heading for the Polish border with a fire appliance, a support vehicle and a 4x4. The staff of West Hartford fire station volunteered to drive almost 2,000 miles to help the people of Ukraine, leaving their families and loved ones behind. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local fire and rescue teams can play an important role in bringing communities together? With that in mind, will she please visit Blyth Valley so that we can show her these amazing teams and everything we have done?

I would be delighted to come and support my hon. Friend in Blyth Valley, but there is a serious point here: over recent months, the fire and rescue service across the entire country has come together in such a compassionate way to provide essential kit and equipment to help the people of Ukraine, and I am pleased that his constituency has done that.

The unprecedented cuts to North Yorkshire fire & rescue service will result in longer response times in York, Scarborough and Harrogate. Will the Secretary of State meet me, the police and crime commissioner and the Fire Brigades Union to talk about those cuts and how we can ensure that fair funding goes to our fire services?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. Having previously discussed this in North Yorkshire, on a visit that took place last year, I have seen the incredible integrated working across police and fire in North Yorkshire and the exceptional service they provide to her constituency and across the county, particularly in the remote and rural areas. However, as I say, I would be happy to have a conversation with her.

Now then, when we had a Labour police and crime commissioner and a Labour MP in Ashfield, the only thing they ever did of any note was to close our local police station. Since we have had a sensible Conservative MP in Ashfield, we have two new Operation Reacher teams, safer streets funding for the New Cross area and more bobbies on the beat, but will the Home Secretary please back our latest bid to the safer streets fund for the forgotten town of Eastwood?

I am very conscious of the great support in my hon. Friend’s constituency—in fact, I have visited it a couple of times now and seen not only the police officers on the front line, but the way the community is coming together on safer streets. I have absolutely heard his request for this particular bid.

The school holidays in Wales and England start on 22 July. There are nearly 30 million visits abroad by air in quarter 3, which includes those school holidays. To help families get away, will the Passport Office backlog be cleared by 22 July?

We have already made clear the actions we are taking. Since April last year we have been advising people to allow up to 10 weeks for an application, although 91% of people get their passport back within six weeks of applying. The hon. Member will also be aware that in some instances, such as school trips, collective passports can be used, subject to those being accepted by the country they are travelling to.

Earlier in the year, Parliament repealed the antiquated Vagrancy Act 1824. It was an important step in our journey to ending homelessness for good. Imagine my surprise when I reviewed the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to see that that repeal was repealed and that the Secretary of State will be given unlimited and unspecified powers to recriminalise homelessness. I know my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary cares about this, and she has been superb in supporting me and other Ministers in this mission. May I ask her to deal with this and ensure that we can get on with the job of ending homelessness?

Absolutely. I pay tribute to and thank my right hon. Friend for all his support and work in this particular area. I will reach out and speak to him and we will join up on this.

Residents in Osterley contacted me last week. They have been suffering for months from antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and assaults, which came to a head last week. Councillors and local police have been working together to try to tackle the issue, but their efforts are hamstrung because there just are not enough police officers to do regular patrols in hotspots. Does the Home Secretary regret the 10 years of police cuts that leave my constituents and many others feeling unprotected?

I am quite surprised to hear that given that I believe the hon. Lady is a London MP and the Metropolitan Police currently have more police officers on their roster than they have ever had in their history.

My team and I have been fighting for many hours to get a visa for a little Ukrainian girl, Alisa. She has been classified as an unaccompanied minor, although her aunt Viktoria provided evidence that she is her legal guardian many weeks ago. The situation is now grave as the family’s 90-day Polish visa is about to expire and they will have to return to the war zone. That is unacceptable. I know that an unaccompanied minors policy was finally agreed last week, but I fear that a failure to process these applications swiftly enough will soon lead to a humanitarian emergency for this family and others like them. Can my right hon. Friend please tell me what can be done to resolve this case and finally bring this family to safety in Hartlepool?

I know that the Minister has been following up this case, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it. I have already said in response to earlier questions that the policy on this is changing, but she has asked a specific question and I will address it.

Ukraine: UK and NATO Military Commitment

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an unprovoked, premeditated attack against a sovereign democratic state that threatens global security. As set out to the House previously, the United Kingdom and NATO stand with Ukraine. We are providing political and practical support to support its self-defence, and will further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. Individual NATO allies, led by the UK, are also supporting Ukraine with lethal aid to ensure that Ukraine wins.

The United Kingdom was the first country to provide lethal aid, and we have increased our military and aid support, bringing the total budget to £1.3 billion. To date, we have sent over 6,900 anti-tank missiles; five air defence systems, including Starstreak anti-air missiles; 120 armoured fighting vehicles, including a small number of Stormers; 1,360 anti-structure munitions; 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives; and 400,000 rounds of small-arms munitions. In addition, we have supplied over 200,000 items of non-lethal aid, including more than 82,000 helmets; more than 8,000 body armour kits; range finders; and medical equipment. As announced on 6 June 2022, we are providing cutting edge multiple-launch rocket systems, which can strike targets up to 80 kilometres away with pinpoint accuracy, offering a significant boost in capability to the Ukrainian armed forces. On 17 June, the Prime Minister offered to launch a major training operation for Ukrainian forces, with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every three months—120 days.

We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F-35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border. That means that we now have a full squadron of Royal Air Force fighter jets in southern Europe, ready to support NATO tasking. The United Kingdom has contributed more troops than any other ally to NATO’s enhanced forward presence. UK troops will also be deploying a company-sized sub-unit to Bulgaria to work bilaterally alongside our Bulgarian counterparts for up to six months, enhancing interoperability. The PM will meet NATO leaders again for next week’s Madrid summit, where NATO will agree the new strategic concept to set the direction of the alliance for the next decade and will agree long-term improvements to our deterrence and defence posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Kingdom’s commitment to the alliance and European security is unconditional and enduring. Our commitment to article 5 of the Washington treaty is iron clad. We stand ready to defend our allies.

First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the flag-raising ceremony that you hosted today to mark Armed Forces Week?

The Prime Minister was right to visit Ukraine last week. The UK has been an exemplar in our support to that country compared with many of our NATO allies. But Russia is not losing and Ukraine is not winning. The Prime Minister said, “Prepare for a long war”, and the new head of the British Army seeks to reconfigure our land forces to potentially face Russia on the battlefield. This all starkly illustrates that long-term European security is threatened not just by the utility of force but a wider conflict between the west and growing authoritarianism.

However, future generations may ask of NATO, “Why did you not put that fire out in Ukraine when you could have?”—by securing the port of Odesa, for example, rather than instead allowing Putin to claim a win and take his fight elsewhere. The penny is dropping in this regard. If we now recognise that our world is becoming more dangerous, Britain should lead a coalition of the willing that offers Ukraine the scale of support that it requires. Recognising this new picture requires us to review our own defence posture. We can certainly be proud of what Britain has done in upgrading its battle presence in the Baltics, leading the way in training Ukrainians and providing lethal weapons systems, but I say to the Minister that the tempo of these duties is unsustainable. We are overloading our troops with those widening commitments and we are not replenishing our defence stocks fast enough. All three services are now too small to manage the ever-greater burden that we are going to place on them. The cuts set out in the 2021 integrated review to personnel and military equipment must now be reversed.

Does the Minister agree that once again, Britain finds itself leading other European allies in spelling out the scale of the threat that the continent now faces, and stepping forward when other nations hesitate to confront that threat? We cannot do that on a peacetime defence budget of 2.2%; it is time to upgrade our defence posture and spending to 3% if we are serious about preventing the spread of conflict in Europe.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to some of my right hon. Friend’s points. He said that Russia is not losing in Ukraine, with which I would take issue. I think that Russia is losing and that it was losing from the point of invasion. Its catastrophic losses in the west of the country and the way that it has had to refocus in the east describe that strategic loss, so I disagree with him on that.

Our domestic response will always be threat-based. My right hon. Friend made some remarks about whether NATO forces should have been deployed to Ukraine in anticipation of the Russian invasion. Our judgment is—and collectively, everyone would judge—that we got the balance right between providing reassurance and effect, while avoiding the direct conflict that would have resulted immediately from putting NATO forces directly into Ukraine.

As I said, we are a threat-based organisation. In making the argument for defence expenditure, we need to understand that there are three basic points of context that I ask my right hon. Friend to take note of. First, we do everything as part of the NATO alliance. We are one of a 30-member defensive alliance—soon to be 32—and because of that, we are a great deal stronger than we are separately. One of the significant lessons for the Russian military machine is how exposed it is by being alone. We are stronger as an alliance; as an alliance, we massively outnumber any kind of effect the Russians can bring to bear.

Secondly, it is important to recognise that we acknowledged the significant threat posed by Russia as part of our defence Command Paper, which came out of the integrated review and was released in March 2021; many right hon. and hon. Members will have read it. Page 5, paragraph 1.4 leads with the fact that

“Russia continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”

In terms of our doctrine and our response, that is not new to UK national defence. That is a really important contextual thing to understand.

Thirdly, that is why we are making good use of the £24-billion uplift that we have had under this Government, which is driving forward the agility, deployability and lethality that we need in the new global context. Manifold lessons will be drawn from the outrageous Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the vulnerability of armour and of large bodies of troops; the potency of technology and remote fires; and the urgent importance of having a fully modernised military with match-fit technology. That is what the integrated review and the defence Command Paper do.

We have more money than we have ever had—£24 billion more than we would have had otherwise. We will always keep things under review, but we should be confident that doctrinally and militarily, in terms of kit and equipment, we are on the right lines.

Today marks day 117 since Russia began its brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine. It is now a grim, grinding war of attrition. NATO’s Secretary-General warned last week that the alliance

“must prepare for the fact that it could take years.”

Everything that can be done must be done to help to maintain the Ukrainian military’s morale, weaponry and personnel. The Government will continue to have Labour’s full support in the military assistance they provide to Ukraine.

In April, when responding to the Defence Secretary’s statement in this House, I urged the Government to move to supply

“the new NATO weapons that Ukraine will need for Putin’s next offensive”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 463.]

In these last two months, what NATO-standard stock has been supplied from the UK to Ukraine, and how many new contracts for missiles or ammunition production have the MOD now managed to sign and start?

On Friday, as the Minister said, the Prime Minister offered to train 10,000 new Ukrainian soldiers every three months. This is exactly what is needed. Did President Zelensky accept Britain’s offer? Will these Ukrainian recruits be trained in Britain? Which other NATO nations will be involved in such training?

As we mark the start of Armed Forces Week, the Labour leader and I had the privilege of visiting NATO’s maritime command and our UK Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood this morning. We wanted to thank our personnel for the service they give to our national and NATO commitments. However, there are serious growing concerns about the UK meeting its NATO commitments, with the failure to reboot defence plans in response to Ukraine, delays to a fully modern warfighting division until 2030, continued uncertainty over Ajax and, of course, further deep cuts to Army numbers.

The new head of the Army said in an internal message to troops last week that

“there is now a burning imperative to forge an Army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”,

so why are Ministers pushing ahead with plans to cut another 10,000 soldiers? When will they halt these cuts, and when will they start to rebuild the strength of the British Army to meet the threats that our country and our NATO allies face?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s questions and, as ever, we are grateful for the support of the Opposition for our Ukraine defence policy.

To go straight to the questions, new contracts are under discussion. The Minister for Defence Procurement and the Prime Minister had a meeting this morning, which was the latest in a series of discussions about escalating the supply of NATO-standard equipment, which is very important.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about training, and that was a very significant result of the Prime Minister’s visit last week. I think the Defence Secretary also had some discussions. Not being privy to those discussions, it is not appropriate for me to speculate about their content at the Dispatch Box. However, I can say that the reference point for the UK’s contribution will be the remarkably successful Operation Orbital, which has trained some 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2014. We have a long and deep heritage of working very closely and successfully with our Ukrainian allies, and I think that will be a very good basis on which to conduct future training support. As to which NATO allies may be involved, I cannot confirm that, but I would say that NATO, by disposition, tends to work in alliance, so I suspect other nations to be involved.

I am glad for the update about the right hon. Gentleman’s visit to PJHQ, but I would ask him to be a bit more optimistic about our absolute resolve to meet our commitments. This is about a disposition in which we are absolutely resolute to be agile and to strain every sinew to deliver at pace the technological and military revolution necessary to make ourselves more lethal, agile and deployable around the world than ever before. For too long, the measurement of our military capability has been about men and vehicles in garrisons, rather than our ability to project power, and that is something that we are absolutely confident we are getting right.

To prove the point, the fact the Chief of the General Staff is mentioning Russia demonstrates that, since March last year, this has been part of our job done. That is nothing new, and under the leadership that we are showing and with the determination for us to change and embrace modern technology as part of our ability to deliver lethal effect, we are getting to a point where we are more match fit than ever before to counter Russian aggression.

As the expenditure on all the equipment that we have rightly been supplying is operational, will the Minister confirm that it is coming from the Treasury reserve and not from the normal annual defence budget? I gently remind him and the House that, in the first half of the 1980s, we were spending not 2.3% or even 3% of GDP on defence; we were spending between 4.7% and 5.1% of GDP on defence.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. The answer is yes. I note, with particular regard to the long-standing nature of his interest in the issue, his comments about overall defence spending.

Given the evolution of the war in Ukraine, what lessons has the Ministry of Defence learned about the enduring need for infantry to take, hold and/or defend territory? Will those lessons be input to a refresh of MOD thinking and operational strategy that drove the much-derided 10,000 cut in Army numbers in the integrated review? Those infantry will require to be supported by heavy armour and armoured fighting vehicles, but, given that the UK’s decade-old solution to the latter—Ajax—is an unfathomably challenged £5.5 billion project that is surely now on the brink of being cancelled, how has the war in Ukraine focused the Department’s attention in that regard?

I recently returned from Türkiye, where the Turkish Defence Minister advised NATO parliamentarians on the role that his country is playing in seeking to facilitate safe passage of merchant vessels into and out of Ukraine with grain. What dynamic is the UK playing in that space? Does the Minister agree with the Turkish Minister’s assessment that it is the Ukrainians who—understandably —need persuading of the merits of demining those shipping lanes and ensuring that they do not then fall prey to Russian naval forces? Finally, if agreement is reached on demining, what role will the world-leading mine countermeasure professionals in the Royal Navy, many of whom are based in Scotland, play in demining those approaches to Ukraine?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The lessons are manifold. One in particular is the vulnerability of armour without significant covering fire and deep fires, and what happens when a combined arms manoeuvre falls apart, particularly due to a complete failure of the moral component. He is attempting to spin that into a lesson purely about numbers of infantry. I draw his attention to the necessity of infantry having protection, mobility and its own fire to protect itself. Anyone of my generation of people in the military will remember deploying unprotected vehicles without a significant ability to manoeuvre and bring on deep fires, especially in a remote way. Those capabilities—the ability for our infantry to be much better protected, more mobile and more lethal—are exactly what we are delivering with the integrated review and the defence Command Paper, and that is a job of work worth doing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Ajax. The House will be interested to know that we are looking at it with urgent focus, and I am sure that the Minister for Defence Procurement will update the House in due course.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about Turkey and the critical, strategic import of the Black sea with regard to grain exports out of Ukraine, with some 50% being stuck there. I will not speculate about the role of the magnificent Royal Navy or anyone else in the British military, but undoubtedly that will be on the agenda at the NATO summit in Madrid next week.

The UK’s military support for Ukraine has been world-leading, but it is legitimate for us to ask whether we are restocking adequately and quickly enough here in the UK. Will my hon. Friend update us on whether the promised military supplies coming from other European countries have materialised in Ukraine? It is essential that our rhetoric in NATO is matched with actions if we are to remain credible, as both what we say and what we do will be closely monitored in Moscow.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. We are happily operating a new-for-old policy with regard to our own supplies. Further, on the rest of the alliance, there is a sense of great urgency. We are seeking to ensure that the multiple launch rocket system is delivered in good order as soon as possible, and the contribution of the US to that will also be critical. I think that the collective sense of urgency will increase as we come to the NATO summit in Madrid next week.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Chair of the Defence Committee and the shadow Defence Secretary. Unless we are prepared to make a real investment in our Army and the weapons that are required, we cannot supply them to Ukraine. We are not supplying the long-term equipment required in order to attack the Russians coming in; what we are doing is holding back on supporting the Army, which is not good enough. When will we start to look at first of all supporting Poland with NATO to supply the big aircraft that are needed, and how can we move forward on that?

I would disagree entirely with that. The tactical weapon that we have supplied in the form of the NLAW has had a remarkable strategic output. The hon. Gentleman speculates about MiGs and so on, but I do not think that strictly relevant. What is important is the multiple launch rocket system, and it is also important that we respond to Ukraine demand and pay attention to the demand signal. We must follow what the Ukrainians themselves want.

I was proud to hear President Zelensky describe our support as strong and resolute, and Great Britain as being Ukraine’s best friend. That is great stuff.

Does the Minister agree that three risks are associated with what is currently happening in Ukraine? The first is mission creep, which, as always, we must beware of; the second could be some kind of error, in which an American or Russian plane is shot down by mistake, possibly leading to some form of escalation; and the third would be a false-flag operation by the Russians, somehow using that as an excuse to try to drag NATO into the war. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must at all costs avoid NATO’s direct involvement in the war? Support is great; war fighting is not.

I do, and that is a cogent analysis of the attendant risks to this: mission creep, some sort of error, and a false-flag operation. That is why throughout this we have based our response in a bilateral manner. We are clearly paying attention to what other NATO allies are doing, but it is a bilateral provision, which is right and proper. At all times, it has been entirely bespoke in response to what the Ukrainians themselves want, and we are particularly well placed to do that because of our long-term involvement and successful training of Ukrainian forces since 2014. That has led to a good basis and foundation of warm personal relationships across our two respective militaries, which has really borne fruit.

Given that, as has already been mentioned, the new head of the Army said that the UK must

“forge an Army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”,

I found the Minister’s response to the Urgent Question a little complacent. Is he absolutely sure that that can be done, while continuing with the planned cuts of 10,000 to the Army? Many of us are not sure about that.

I am confident. A significant increase in money is delivering new capabilities to make our people more lethal, more agile, and more mobile. That body of work has been under way over the past couple of years, and was expressed in the Defence Command Paper published in March 2021. This is nothing new; we have been at this for a couple of years, and rightly so.

I congratulate the Government on the significant matériel now being provided to Ukraine, but what is their current assessment about the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Will the Minister confirm that plans are in place with our allies to deal with that in the horrific event of their use?

Of course we consider all scenarios in the Department. We still regard that as a very unlikely possibility, but the Ministry of Defence, like everyone else in defence, is always ready.

We have all seen the appalling atrocities uncovered in Bucha and Irpin, and there is no doubt that they were perpetrated by Russian forces. Sixty people have also been killed in a school in Luhansk, following Russian shelling. Is it time for the Russian military units, including mercenary groups such as the Wagner Group, with its sinister death squads, to be proscribed as terrorist organisations?

The hon. Member makes a good point, and I agree with the sentiment. We sincerely hope—this is already happening—that these criminals, and they appear to be criminals in many cases, especially in regard to the appalling atrocities being committed and the apparent murder of civilians in Bucha and elsewhere, will be brought before the International Criminal Court. It makes the point that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—that is how we must phrase it—has debased the entire Russian nation and its military. Those involved in it at every level must be held to account.

What does my hon. Friend make of Putin’s increasingly aggressive tone towards Lithuania in relation to the Kaliningrad enclave? Does he agree that one way to approach it would be to accelerate and expedite the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO? Will he do everything in his power to shore up our NATO ally to make sure that Putin’s aggression is met with an appropriate response that will make sure he does nothing against that country, or the consequences will be very severe indeed?

I am grateful for that question, which shows that Putin is losing: his bluster is illustrative of his massive loss of confidence. He thought he was going to get less NATO because of this outrageous invasion, and he is getting more NATO. We very much look forward to Sweden and Finland, and their highly capable militaries, joining the alliance.

This argument of more for less that we are hearing from the Government is what we have heard from them in virtually every area of public expenditure, whether it be the health service, social care or local government services, or the cutting of 21,000 police officers that we were told would not result in a rise in crime, but did. Is the Minister aware that the 10,000 planned cut in troops will result in the smallest Army we have had since 1714? Should the Government not review that in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

It is not more for less; it is doing more with more, because we have a £24 billion uplift. Defence expenditure is going up, and I hope the hon. Member appreciates that.

The quantity of weaponry required by Ukraine vastly exceeds the amount pledged by NATO allies, and the amount pledged significantly exceeds the amount that has actually been delivered. To take the example that the Minister raised on MLRS, 300 of those systems are estimated to be required and 50 have been pledged, and the United Kingdom has delivered just three. What is our plan and that of our allies—particularly European ones, who simply do not have the stocks of these weapons—to boost production as quickly as possible?

My right hon. Friend should rest assured that every sinew is being strained. I think some of the time has been taken up in the necessary provisions—for example, the operatives need to be trained on target acquisition—so that the proper use of these kind of munitions can be made. This is a top priority, and I hope that the imperative and the fact that we have the NATO conference in Madrid next week will be another lever to expedite this.

The Minister will be aware that people in my constituency hold great admiration for Thales, for the provision of next generation light anti-tank weapons and Starstreak and for the ability for Ukrainians to have the power to defend themselves. Further to that question, it is worthy of further examination. We are providing many platforms to Ukraine where reproduction simply is not possible and where a switch cannot be flicked immediately. Some of these systems have been decommissioned and are not in active production, so how does the Minister expect the House to have confidence in the assertion that what we give we will get back?

What we are doing is ensuring that commercial production is radically accelerated. The hon. Gentleman will know how complex and multifaceted that is. I am not pretending it is easy, but the full effort of the Department and our allies is resolutely focused on this issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and I praise the additional support we are offering Ukraine. As he said, NATO is the bedrock of our collective security and we have two new nations seeking to become members. I welcome the decisions of the Governments of Sweden and Finland to join, which are completely understandable now we have seen what Putin is capable of. Will my hon. Friend the Minister update the House on what support we will be giving Finland and Sweden as they seek to join the alliance?

That is a very good question. Those discussions are under way. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary visited both countries very recently to initiate those discussions. We have a heritage of quite active training and joint working in Scandinavia, particularly with regard to Norway. I will not speculate or pre-empt any announcement, but I think we will have a very significant schedule of work coming down the line.

As we rightly focus on what is happening in Ukraine, Moldova rightly fears Russian advances along the southern coast of Ukraine, with a possible view to Russia annexing Transnistria in the same way as it annexed Crimea. Given that, what discussions is the Minister having with both Moldovan counterparts and NATO allies to ensure we are ready for that eventuality? How, given that we are likely to be in this for a very, very long time, is he building that coalition so it is stable going forward and we do not do what I suspect Putin wants us to do in the west—to blink, get bored and wander off? We cannot allow that to happen.

We will not allow that to happen. We are increasing our enhanced forward presence, which is very significant. We will be committing a company group into Bulgaria, in addition to our long-standing commitment to Estonia. Other allies will be positioning enhanced forward battalions in other eastern European countries, so collectively, as an alliance, we will be putting our money where our mouth is. That is really important.

Is it not the truth that the Government have been caught out? Systematically, over 10 years, they have been running down our defence capacity. Ten years ago, I said there was a real danger in reducing our overall strength to fewer than 100,000 men and women. The fact of the matter is that we have to send a message to President Putin that we will invest in our defence and increase the number of people in our defence forces, and that we will, in future, take the defence of this country seriously.

We are doing that. We are investing in our defence. The overall defence budget has increased radically. It is £24 billion more than it was in 2019. The bottom line is lethality and improving our capability to deliver effect, not just simple numbers in a barracks. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the defence Command Paper. He will find it instructive.

The British public are committed and willing to support the brave men and women of Ukraine who are fighting for their freedom. We must all remember how important it is that Ukraine wins. They are not just fighting for their freedom; they are fighting for a free world. This conflict may go on for months, or even years and years. It is important that the public are kept thoroughly informed, as their support is key to keeping Ukraine free. Will the Minister commit to ensure that that happens?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. This is turning into a war of attrition. It will last as long as President Putin has the mistaken conviction that, by killing people in the Donbas region and occupying Ukrainian sovereign territory, he is somehow delivering a strategic victory for Russia. He is not. Ultimately, the Russian people, undermined by their leadership, will be the lever to ensure a different direction is taken.

Since 2010, consecutive Conservative Governments have cut our Army by over a third, from over 102,000 to some 80,000, with further cuts planned. I absolutely despair at the Minister’s set-piece answers about changing threats. In the very week when the head of the Army, Sir Patrick Sanders, said that we need to be

“ready to fight and win wars on land”

and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Chair of the Defence Committee, who speaks with deep knowledge of the subject, says that the armed forces are overstretched, will the Minister now commit to rethink, forget the set-piece answers, and actually consider what numbers we need in our armed forces going forward?

We have considered what we need. We have more money than ever before, with an additional £24 billion, which is delivering a more lethal, better protected, more mobile and readier military. It is in the defence Command Paper; we have been at this for a couple of years. The Chief of the General Staff’s remarks are in accordance with that—he agrees with the plan, of course, because he is the head of the Army. It is not about simplistic measurements of numbers of people, but about effect. At long last, we are embracing technology to give our people the most lethal capability, which is what they need.

As we have heard, both Sweden and Finland have made an application to join NATO, but Turkey has said that it may consider delaying those applications for up to a year if its demands are not met. Does the Minister agree that such a response from Turkey in this context is totally unacceptable?

We acknowledge Turkey’s concerns. Work on the matter is led by the Foreign Secretary and others, and I am sure that it will be on the agenda next week in Madrid. My expectation is that those concerns will be resolved in the interests of the alliance as a whole.

I call the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). May I thank him for doing the reading this morning?

It was my pleasure, Mr Speaker.

Members across the House will have seen the recent assessment by the incoming Chief of the General Staff:

“There is now a burning imperative to forge an army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle.”

With those words in mind, and further to the letter that the Secretary of State sent to the Chancellor back in March, is the Minister—who I know thinks about these things very carefully—absolutely certain that there is not a requirement to go back to the Treasury and secure additional resource to ensure that our armed forces are properly prepared and have the capabilities they need to respond to the threats that undoubtedly exist?

We always keep these matters under review, but what we have at the moment is a good plan to deliver a great deal of new and very effective capability for the spend that we have. I will not speculate beyond that.

Russia has reportedly become China’s biggest oil supplier, following sanctions in the face of the conflict in Ukraine. Can the Minister set out what level of risk is posed by strengthening ties and co-dependency between China and Russia in the immediate and longer term?

That is an interesting question. Clearly the dividend for China in the immediate term is a great deal of much cheaper energy, and I am sure that it will reap the benefit. In the longer term, however, the lesson for China is the willingness of western European nations, together with the US, to stand up for the integrity of sovereign nations. That is something that will not be lost on the Chinese.

Our efforts thus far for the United Kingdom to be a full and comprehensive supporter of Ukraine have been numerous; I appreciate the decisions that have been made. The longer Ukraine fights, however, the more soldiers and equipment it will lose against Russia, which is much larger and better resourced. Has the time now come for us to step forward and do much more with our NATO allies, particularly with Starstreak missiles?

That is a very pertinent question. We are doing much more. The recipe for success is much more energy towards capacity building for the Ukrainians, which is why we are now in active discussions about delivering training to the Ukrainian army. It is a war of attrition, but we must not make the mistake of thinking that it is not bleeding Russian capabilities very badly indeed. The Russian military will try to keep it up for a very long time, but we must not think that this is not hurting them very badly indeed.

Industrial Action on the Railway

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the rail strikes. We are now less than eight hours away from the biggest railway strike since 1989—a strike orchestrated by some of the best paid union barons, representing some of the better paid workers in this country, which will cause misery and chaos to millions of commuters.

This weekend, we have seen union leaders use all the tricks in the book to confuse, to obfuscate and to mislead the public. Not only do they wish to drag the railway back to the 1970s, but they are employing the tactics of bygone unions: deflecting accountability for their strikes on to others; attempting to shift the blame for their action, which will cause disruption and damage to millions of people; and claiming that others are somehow preventing an agreement to their negotiation.

I do not think the public will be hoodwinked. [Interruption.] Opposition Members laugh, but we are talking about the families who will be unable to visit their relations, the music fans who are hoping to go to Glastonbury, the students who will be unable to get to their GCSEs and A-level exams, the businesses who are just beginning to recover from covid and people who will miss out on their medical treatment because of these strikes. That is what the Opposition are supporting. They know that this week’s rail strikes, created and organised by the unions, are the full responsibility of the unions.

Of course, we are all doing our utmost to get the unions and the rail industry to agree a way forward and call off the strikes. In such discussions, it is always the employer and the unions who need to get together and negotiate. In this case, that is the train operating companies, Network Rail and their union representatives. We are not the employer, and we will not undermine the process. [Interruption.] I hear the calls of the Labour leadership for us to get involved somehow, perhaps by inviting the unions for beer and sandwiches to discuss the situation. We all know that the Leader of the Opposition thinks that a beer and a curry is a work meeting, but we will be leaving this to the employers, who are the right people to negotiate with the unions. Indeed, the unions are in daily talks with the employers—or at least they were, until they walked out an hour ago to hold a press conference, saying that the strikes would be on.

Despite these strikes, we are doing everything we can to minimise disruption throughout the entire network. We are working with the civil contingencies secretariat, the Government’s emergency planning team, to keep critical supply chains open wherever possible. Operators will keep as many passenger trains as possible running, although of course with so much disruption to the timetable, that will be very difficult on strike days. It is estimated that around 20% of planned services will operate, focused on key workers, main population centres and critical freight routes. But there will be mass disruption, and we advise passengers to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary—which, of course, for many it will be. The National Rail Enquiries website will be kept updated with the latest travel information to ensure that passengers can make informed decisions about their travel. Passengers are strongly advised to check before they travel and encouraged to look for alternative means of transportation if their journey is affected, including on the days between the strikes.

We are looking at a variety of different options for the railways to maintain services amid disruption in the medium and longer term. We can no longer tolerate a position where rail workers can exercise their right to strike without any regard for how the rights of others are affected. Nurses, teachers and other working people who rely on the railway must be able to travel. Minimum service legislation is just one part of that. Minimum service levels are a Government manifesto commitment, and they will require train operators to run a base number of services even in the event of future strike action. It is a system that works well in other countries, including Belgium and France, and so we will be bringing in legislation to protect the travelling public if agreement cannot be reached when major disruption is expected, as with the strikes this week.

The rhetoric that we have heard from union leaders and Opposition Members over the weekend seems to be focused on widening the division rather than bridging the gap. The whole point of the railway reforms—based on the Williams review, which engaged with the unions very extensively—is to unite and modernise the industry, and just as we cannot reform the railways with obsolete technology, we cannot do so by clinging to obsolete working practices. For example, leisure travel at weekends is currently a huge potential growth area. After covid, people are coming back and are travelling at the weekends more than before. However, under an agreement which dates back to 1919, Sunday working is voluntary on most of the railway, so the industry cannot do what everyone else does—what other businesses and organisations do—and service its customers. Instead, it has to appeal to people to come and work, and that service has sometimes been unavailable, for instance when large football matches are taking place: during the Euro finals, 170 trains were cancelled.

The industry therefore needs to change. Unions claim that this strike is about a pay freeze, but that is factually incorrect. We are not imposing a pay freeze. The whole point of these reforms is to build a sustainable, growing railway, where every rail worker receives a decent annual pay rise. Let me be clear, however: if modernisation and reform are to work, we must have unions that are prepared to modernise, otherwise there can be no deal. This strike is not about pay, but about outdated unions opposing progress—progress that will secure the railway’s future. These strikes are not only a bid to stop reform; they are critical to the network’s future. If the reforms are not carried out, the strikes will threaten the very jobs of the people who are striking, because they will not allow the railway to operate properly and attract customers back.

The railway is in a fight . It is in a fight for its life, not just competing with other forms of public and private transport but competing with Teams, Zoom and other forms of remote working. Today, many commuters who three years ago had no alternative but to travel by train have other options, including the option of not travelling at all. Rail has lost a fifth of its passengers and a fifth of its revenue.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have committed £16 billion of emergency taxpayer support —we all know the numbers; that means £600 for every single household in the country—so that not a single rail worker lost his or her job. We have invested £16 billion to keep trains running and ensure that no one at Network Rail or DFT-contracted train operating companies was furloughed. Now, as we recover and people start to travel again, the industry needs to grow its revenues. It needs to attract passengers back, and make the reforms that are necessary for it to compete. The very last thing that it should be doing now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike. So my message to the workforce is straightforward: “Your union bosses have got you striking under false pretences, and rather than protecting your jobs, they are actually endangering them and the railways’ future.”

We have a platform for change. We want the unions to work with the industry and the Government to bring a much brighter future to our railways, and that means building an agile and flexible workforce, not one that strikes every time someone suggests an improvement to our railway. Strikes should be the last resort, not the first. They will stop customers choosing rail, they will put jobs at risk, they will cause misery across the country, they will hit businesses that are trying to recover from covid, and they will hurt railway workers themselves. So please, let us stop dividing the railway industry, and let us start working for a brighter future.

No one in the country wants these strikes to go ahead, but as I have repeatedly said, even at this eleventh hour they can still be avoided. That requires Ministers to step up and show leadership. It requires them to get employers and unions round the table and address the very serious issues, involving pay and cuts in safety and maintenance staff, that are behind this dispute. The entire country is about to grind to a halt, but instead of intervening to try and stop it, the Secretary of State is washing his hands of any responsibility. On the eve of the biggest rail dispute in a generation taking place on his watch, he has still not lifted a finger to resolve it. Not one meeting. No talks, no discussions; only media interviews and a petition to the Labour party. This is a grave dereliction of duty. Should the strikes go ahead tomorrow, they will represent a catastrophic failure of leadership. Ministers owe it to all those impacted by this serious disruption to get around the table for last-ditch talks to sort it out and avert it. If the Secretary of State will not listen to me —[Interruption.]

Order. Can the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) either go outside or be quiet for a little while?

If the Secretary of State will not listen to me, he should at least listen to his own colleague and former parliamentary aide, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who said yesterday:

“I can tell you the only way out of a dispute is via negotiation. I’d call on all parties including the Government to get around the table because this is going to have a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”

The Secretary of State’s own MPs and the public know that the only way to sort this out is for him to do his job.

But that is not all, because this week it was revealed that the Secretary of State had not only boycotted the talks but tied the hands of those at the table. He and his Department failed to give the train operating companies—a party to the talks—any mandate to negotiate whatsoever. One source close to the negotiations said:

“Without a mandate from Government we can’t even address the pay question.”

Today, the Rail Delivery Group confirmed that it had not even begun those discussions. That is the reality. These talks are a sham, because Ministers have set them up to fail. It is for the Government to settle this dispute. They are integral to these negotiations, which cannot be resolved unless the Secretary of State is at the table, but it is becoming clearer by the day that Ministers would rather provoke this dispute than lift a finger to resolve it.

This is the same Transport Secretary who just a few short weeks ago was feigning outrage over the disgraceful behaviour of P&O and who is now adopting its playbook. Replacing skilled, safety-critical staff with agency workers cannot and must not be an option. So what exactly has changed between the Secretary of State calling on the public to boycott P&O and now, when he is suggesting that that behaviour should be legalised?

Tomorrow we will see unprecedented disruption. We have been clear: we do not want the strikes to happen. Where we are in government, we are doing our job. In Labour-run Wales, a strike by train staff has been avoided. Employers, unions and the Government have come together to manage change. That is what any responsible Government would be doing right now, because whether it is today, tomorrow or next week, the only way this dispute will be resolved is with a resolution on pay and job security. The Secretary of State owes it to the hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on our railways and the tens of thousands of workers employed on them to find that deal.

Those rail workers are not the enemy. They are people who showed real bravery during the pandemic to keep our country going. They showed solidarity to make sure other workers kept going into work. Some lost colleagues and friends as a result. They are the very same people to whom the Prime Minister promised a high-wage economy a year ago before presiding over the biggest fall in living standards since records began. There is still time for the Secretary of State to do the right thing, the brave thing, and show responsibility. Patients, schoolchildren, low-paid workers—the entire country needs a resolution and they will not forgive this Government if they do not step in and resolve this. Even now, at this late hour, I urge the Secretary of State: get around the table and do your job.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) used a lot of words to avoid saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.” She can practise saying it if she likes. I condemn the strikes—will she?

I remind the House that the hon. Lady is a former union official. She will therefore know better than most that negotiations are always held between the employers and the unions. She calls on the Government to get the parties around the table, but they were around the table. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) is right that they are not now, because the union has just walked out to call a press conference to say the strikes are on.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is wrong when she says these strikes are about pay, safety and job cuts. Let us take them in turn. Pay—the unions wrongly told their workers that there would be no pay rise. There will be a pay rise because the pay freeze is coming to an end, so that is untrue.

Safety—it is unsafe to have people walking down the track to check the condition of the lines when it can be done by trains that can take 70,000 pictures a minute and by drones that can look at the lines from overhead. Safety is about updating outdated working practices. If the hon. Lady cared about safety, she would care about modernisation.

Job cuts—the hon. Lady will know there has already been a call for voluntary job cuts. In fact, 5,000-plus people came forward, and 2,700 have been accepted. This is about ensuring we have a railway that is fit for the post-covid world. It is therefore crazy that the RMT jumped the gun and, before the talks had a chance to get anywhere, launched into strikes.

The hon. Lady’s call for the Government to be more involved is a desperate attempt to deflect from the fact the Labour party and its constituency Labour parties have received £250,000 from the RMT. And that is nothing—Labour has received £100 million from the unions over the last 10 years, and Labour Members are here today, as ever, failing to condemn strikes that will hurt ordinary people, that will hurt kids trying to do their GCSEs and A-levels, that will hurt people trying to get to hospital appointments that were delayed during covid, and that will even see veterans miss armed forces celebrations this week.

There is no excuse for the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench team sitting on the fence. I can almost feel her pain as she resists saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.”