House of Commons
Monday 31 October 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we come to today’s business, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our horror at the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Paul is a stalwart support for Speaker Pelosi and I enjoyed getting to know him at the G7 Speakers’ conference in Chorley. All our thoughts and prayers are with Speaker Pelosi, Paul and their family. The incident demonstrates once again that we can never rest in our mission to keep parliamentarians, their families and their staff safe.
I can now announce the arrangements for the elections of the Chairs of the Education and Transport Committees —I think they have already started. Nominations for both elections will close at noon on Tuesday 15 November. Nomination forms will be available from the Vote Office, Table Office and Public Bill Office. Following the House’s decision of 16 January 2020, only Members of the Conservative party may be candidates in either election. If there is more than one candidate for either election, the ballot will take place on Wednesday 16 November between 11 am and 2.30 pm in the Aye Lobby.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cold Weather Payments
Welcome, Secretary of State.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also associate myself with your remarks regarding Paul Pelosi and the Speaker in the United States. Our thoughts are with them both.
It is a huge honour to stand here as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In so doing, I pay tribute to all those who have preceded me, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who was an outstanding Secretary of State and also an outstanding Minister of State for disabled people.
The cold weather payment’s design ensures that support reaches those most vulnerable. The energy price guarantee is supporting millions of households with energy costs from now until April 2023. This is on top of the cost of living support worth more than £37 billion for around 8 million households on means-tested benefits.
Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your remarks about the Pelosi family?
I congratulate the right hon. Member on his appointment. The £25 cold weather payment rate has not been updated since 2008. In today’s money, it should be worth £37. Parts of Blaenau Gwent are more than 1,000 feet above sea level, and the constituency itself is one of the most deprived in the UK. Will the Secretary of State look again at the criteria for this scheme? Surely areas with bad weather, higher energy costs and lower incomes should get a fairer deal.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, because these are very important payments. They are automatic, as he will know. Typically, they are received within 14 days and they are targeted at those who are most vulnerable. His point about the particular local conditions and the elevation of parts of his constituency are well made and I would be very happy to have further discussions with him about that. I should point out though that I believe there are 72 different weather stations to serve as reference points for different temperatures, so it may be that there is one very close to the area he describes.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Will he tell the House what progress his Department is making to increase the uptake of pension credit, which means that more vulnerable elderly people will be eligible for cold weather payments?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important benefit, pension credit. He will be aware that the Department has been fully engaged in encouraging pensioners who will qualify to take up this benefit, and it is important that they do, because it is worth more than £3,000 a year and it is a gateway benefit for other benefits in turn. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has done a great deal to push greater uptake, including a week of effort back in June when the uptake increased by 275% in that week.
Economically Inactive People
The labour market has recovered strongly since 2020, with payroll employment up on the pre-pandemic level in all 12 regions of the United Kingdom. We have comprehensive support in place to help people to find, progress and stay in work, with additional support for groups we know are more likely to be inactive, such as those aged 50-plus and people with a disability.
Work is the best route out of poverty, and it is concerning that claimants of, and public spending on, working-age benefits have increased significantly since 2019. There is more that the Government can do beyond the conditionality regime, so can the Secretary of State confirm that implementing universal support, which is designed to help those facing barriers to work and to overcome the complex challenges holding them back, will be considered?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that work is the best route out of poverty, and in that regard I commend her for her private Member’s Bill, which the Department is pleased to support. Our low unemployment rate demonstrates our extensive support for those moving into work; universal support has been replaced, as she may know, by Help to Claim, which provides tailored support to individuals making a universal credit claim across England, Scotland and Wales.
The economy is plagued by labour shortages, from care to hospitality. On Saturday, 200 bus services in Cambridge were cancelled because of a lack of drivers, leaving health workers unable to get to and from their places of work. After a decade of zero-hours and short-term contracts, it is no surprise that people want out—they do not want to be at work because it is too tough. Is it not time for the Government to recognise that good workplace rights are not just good for workers, but good for employers and good for us all?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is right to raise the issue of economic activity. That will be a major focus of mine as Secretary of State: we have 9 million people who are economically inactive, and we desperately need to get as many as we can into the workforce, not least because under this Government we have very low unemployment, very high levels of employment and 1.25 million vacancies in the economy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and send him my best wishes for his time in this important job. May I suggest that he has a look at some research published earlier this year by the Prince’s Trust, which found that there are hundreds of thousands of young people not in education, employment or training, many of whom are economically active? They want to work, but many of them are living with physical or mental disabilities. Does he agree that the right support would enable them to stay in touch with the labour market and prevent patterns of worklessness from setting in at a very young age?
I recognise the great work that my right hon. Friend did as a Secretary of State. There are 820,000 young people out of work and not in full-time education, and he is right that there are many things this Government can do, and indeed are doing, with our youth offer. That includes our youth employment programme, youth employability coaches and 150 youth hubs across Great Britain.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of my neighbours, to his new post and congratulate him on his appointment. What estimate has he made of the number of people who would like to work but currently cannot do so, because they are among the hundreds of thousands waiting on record-long NHS waiting lists?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words. That is a question that would probably be best answered by the Department of Health and Social Care, and I would be happy to look into that for him. We know that there is a long tail of people who would otherwise like to work but who are long-term sick—some 2.5 million in total—and, to go back to my earlier answer, it will be a prime focus for our Department, working with the Health Department, to see how we can assist and support them back into the workplace.
I wish my right hon. Friend and his team every success in leading this vital mission in Government, helping people into work and protecting the most vulnerable. As he says, with more vacancies than people unemployed, and with 9 million people—and rising—economically inactive, does he agree with British business that labour shortage is one of its greatest obstacles? What is his plan to unlock the talents of those who have not recently looked for work?
My right hon. Friend’s analysis is entirely right. We have an overheated labour market and a high number of vacancies, and the key issue that businesses up and down the country constantly raise is a lack of staff to be taken on. Broadly speaking, economic inactivity breaks down into several sectors, although I will not go through all of them; we have already touched on the 2.5 million long-term sick, and we have 900 disability employment advisers within the Department for Work and Pensions. We also have 1.2 million people who retired early, for whom we do have some schemes, but we need to give further attention to coming up with new ways forward for that group.
At last week’s Work and Pensions Committee meeting on the plan for jobs and employment support, Tony Wilson from the Institute for Employment Studies highlighted the role of Scotland’s local employability partnerships in providing tailored support that reflects local circumstances. In the light of recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that health-related economic inactivity in the working-age population has had its largest increase since the end of 2019, will the UK Government consider following Scotland’s approach of providing more customised support and helping people into work, instead of the Department’s punitive sanctions regime?
We already have a local skills improvement plan, but I would be delighted to listen to the hon. Lady’s thoughts; we are always happy to share best practice, and to learn from her experience and that of the devolved Administration in Scotland.
I call the shadow Minister, Alison McGovern.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and all the new Ministers to their positions. We have heard Conservative Ministers, not least the many Prime Ministers we have had in recent months, crowing about low unemployment, but the new Secretary of State will know from his time chairing the Treasury Committee that sometimes it is important to look at the figures yourself. There are 1.2 million people unemployed in our country, but also 1.8 million inactive people who say they want a job. Taken together, that is a disaster for our country. I want to know what it is about years and years of Tory misrule that always leaves 3 million people on the scrapheap.
I have taken a personal vow not to engage in too much Punch and Judy politics with the hon. Lady during Question Time, so I will not talk about what happens to unemployment when different parties get into power; I will leave that for another day. She is absolutely right about the key challenge around economic inactivity. That is why the Department doubled the number of new work coaches in the last two years; there are an additional 13,500 people working to support the exact people whom she rightly identified as needing that assistance to get into work. As I said, I intend to put considerably more energy into the whole issue of economic inactivity, and to bring announcements on the subject to the House in due course.
Universal Credit Sanctions
No assessment has been made. Emergency measures brought in during covid meant that the sanctions rate was artificially low. We always expected the rate to increase when we reintroduced face-to-face appointments and conditionality in order to help fill record numbers of job vacancies.
I am disappointed with that answer. The current high rate of universal credit sanctions is unprecedented. Right now, twice as many people on universal credit are being sanctioned and having their benefits cut as did before the pandemic, three years ago. At this very moment, families face the reality of hunger and freezing homes because of soaring food prices and energy bills, as well as rising rents. Instead of making things harder for those who are struggling, and punishing those on the lowest incomes, will the Minister commit to raising social security in line with inflation and end the sanctions regime, which will only inflict more hardship and homelessness this winter on those in areas such as mine?
I am afraid that I do not agree. People are sanctioned only if they fail to attend appointments without good reason, and fail to meet the requirements that they have agreed to meet. Conditionality is an important part of a fair and effective welfare system. It is right that there should be a system to encourage claimants to take reasonable steps to prepare for and move into work. I reiterate that claimants with severe mental health or wellbeing conditions are not subject to work-related requirements or sanctions.
I call the shadow Minister, Karen Buck.
The Secretary of State has indicated that there will be a difference in tone in the Department. There is a way that he can demonstrate that. The Department conducted an examination of the effect of sanctions and conditionality that his predecessor refused to publish. He has the opportunity to allow us to have an informed debate in the Chamber on the effectiveness of sanctions. Will he now publish that report?
Sanctions are incredibly important to support the work coach in doing their job. This really matters, because engaging with the work coach is important where there can be underlying issues—if an individual is a care leaver or there is something going on at home. Sanctions do not apply to all claimants. As I said earlier, if an individual has limited capability to work or there are issues around how they can work, work coaches will use their full discretion to ensure that people are supported, but not engaging is not the right option.
Cost of Living Payments: Isle of Wight
We published an impact analysis for the Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill, which estimated that, in the Isle of Wight constituency, 18,300 families are eligible for the means-tested benefit cost of living payment and 17,300 individuals are eligible for the disability cost of living payment.
I congratulate all the Ministers on their new roles and thank the Minister for that information. Regarding the cost of living, what reassurances can the ministerial team give me that pensioners on the Isle of Wight, and indeed throughout Britain, will be looked after this winter, considering that they are on fixed incomes?
My hon. Friend is always a passionate advocate for people on the Isle of Wight, raising the issues and concerns that are relevant to them. We have a Prime Minister who has consistently demonstrated that he is on the side of vulnerable people and hard-working people across the country. That will continue to be the case. We have put in place a £37 billion package of support to help with these cost of living pressures, and of course we always keep the appropriateness of that under review.
Jobseekers and People on Low Incomes: Skills
Our dedicated work coaches engage with claimants to determine what additional support they may need to enter or progress in work. Where skills gaps are identified, claimants will be encouraged to access skills-related employment programmes such as sector-based work academies, skills boot camps or appropriate local training provision.
My constituent in Clwyd South, Kerry Mackay, recently wrote to me saying:
“There’s lots of talk about getting people back into work and those on low incomes finding a better job, but I think the government is missing a trick by not highlighting how much they will help people, single mothers and mature students like me, to get a decent education and ultimately pull themselves out of poverty for good.”
Will the Minister advertise as effectively as possible how universal credit can support people like Kerry to study for their degrees?
We want to support our constituents like Kerry, and I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I suggest that he writes to me with the specific details, but I can assure him and Kerry that recipients of UC can take part in training without compromising their benefit entitlement. Generally, there are great efforts being made to ensure that people who want to get into work can do so.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, and the whole of his new Front-Bench team. I am sure that we can expect great things. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that apprenticeships and further education are a key way of upskilling our young people? Will he visit Southend West soon and meet some of our successful apprentices, such as Holly at Guardian Exhibition and Display in Eastwood, and Ipeco in Southend, which also offers fantastic apprenticeships?
All roads lead to Southend as far as I am concerned. My hon. Friend is proving to be a fantastic champion and successor of our good friend Sir David Amess. I would be delighted to visit. I welcome the great work of the companies she mentioned and believe very strongly that we need to improve skills through the package that we are taking forward.
May I start by sending my condolences and thoughts to all those who were tragically killed in Seoul, South Korea, at the weekend? I am sure that we will all be thinking of them at this time.
Education, formal and informal, is vital to developing a highly skilled workforce. Adults with neurodivergences such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may require personalised support with their learning. What assessment has the Minister made of the efficacy of the support currently in place, and what steps are the Government taking to improve it?
Skills and education are a devolved matter. I echo the hon. Lady’s worthwhile words about South Korea. Obviously, great work is being done in youth hubs in particular, which I recommend to her.
Universal Credit: Food Insecurity
I begin by recognising the important work that the right hon. Gentleman carries out as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and thank him for the co-operation that he showed me when I was a fellow Chair of a Select Committee. I look forward to appearing before his Committee before too long.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, universal credit is but one factor in addressing food insecurity. The Government have provided significant support with the £37 billion cost of living package.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and warmly welcome him. We already have a date in the diary for him to come before the Committee and we look forward to that.
Current large-scale food bank dependence is shameful. It was up by 46% in August and September on a year previously, according to the Trussell Trust, and it is reported in the press today that hospitals are seeing a big rise in malnutrition cases. The family resources survey also says that food insecurity among universal credit claimants fell from 43% to 27% after the £20 a week uplift was introduced. Does not all that show how crucial it is that the Prime Minister keeps the promise he made as Chancellor to uprate benefits next April by 10.1%?
I am not going to pre-empt my decision on the uprating of benefits or indeed the triple lock. We will need to wait until at least 17 November when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will come to the House with his autumn statement and those details will be known at that point.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the family resources survey. One statistic that caught my eye was that the percentage of households with UC claimants who are in food security rose from 57% in 2019-20 to 73% in 2020-21. Any element of food insecurity is too much—I recognise that—which is why this Government and this Prime Minister are absolutely determined to use whatever we have at our disposal to work on those figures and to improve them. That includes the various interventions that we have already discussed during these questions.
Cost of Living: Social Security Payments
We have already taken decisive action to make work pay by cutting the universal credit taper rate to 55% and increasing UC work allowances, which mean that on average low-income households have about an extra £1,000 a year. In addition to that, two cost of living payments, which total £650, are being paid to more than 8 million low-income households on UC, tax credits, pension credits and legacy benefits. There has also been extra help for pensioners and those on disability benefits. That totals more than £37 billion this year.
I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that if social security does not get uprated with inflation, it will be the
“largest permanent deliberate real-terms cut”
to the basic rate of social security by a British Government in history. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, that would push 200,000 children into poverty. Even the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warns that it will mean that “lives will be lost”. What will the Minister do to stop that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I note that he will be visiting his Dumbarton Jobcentre Plus shortly, which I am sure will help him to see the range of interventions in jobcentres, as well as the benefits calculator and the cost of living interventions on gov.uk. I remind him that the Scottish Government have a range of powers, including the ability to provide their own welfare benefits to people in Scotland using existing reserved benefits. The Scottish Government can see how they would like to use their powers and budget themselves.
Happy Hallowe’en, Mr Speaker. Many of my constituents have found social security payments inadequate, because they have not kept pace with the cost of living. For William Thompson and Anne McCurley, however, it is even more frustrating because they narrowly miss out on pension credits and all the passported benefits—Anne misses out by only £3 a week. Will the Minister review the cut-off so that as many people as possible can access the support that they badly need this winter?
I thank the hon. Lady for the point, and I have mentioned two particular websites that I think are incredibly important for people to make sure they get every single bit of help they need. There is always a cut-off point, which is very challenging. I understand there is a huge amount of work going on in her own community to support people, including getting people into work and progressing them, and working with local employers. Of course, the pensions issue is something that the Secretary of State has just answered and will be further updated on 17 November.
I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has already given for those people meeting the costs of living on social security payments. A big concern many of my constituents have is about the cost of energy over the course of the winter, and the Government have a plan for the next six months to support people. Can my hon. Friend give my constituents reassurance that that plan, when it comes towards its end, will be under review to see what ongoing support could be offered, if required?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I worked with the Prime Minister on the plan for jobs, and he has been very clear that he wants to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we are providing families with direct payments worth at least £1,200 over the winter. We will all look with interest at what the Chancellor does on the 17th.
Too many disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the cost of living crisis, with extra costs of over £600 a year. Sadly, we have seen too many unable to cope with this. The Information Commissioner ruled that the DWP unlawfully prevented the release of over 20 reports into the deaths of benefit claimants. We must be able to scrutinise whether the actions taken by the DWP were sufficient or timely enough to prevent the harms identified from happening again. So will the new Secretary of State agree to publish these and all other secret reports—and a yes or no would actually suffice?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I understand the Opposition have an interest in such reports. However, my role at the DWP is about people—helping people up and down the land—and that is what we are doing for people with disabilities. With the extra costs part of the disability payment, about 6 million will be helped by the extra one-off payment of £150, ensuring that we all across the DWP are focused on the most vulnerable.
I welcome the new ministerial team to their place. I hope to meet the new Secretary of State in early course; it was quite difficult to secure a meeting with some of his predecessors, unfortunately. The new Prime Minister spoke of the difficult decisions that will have to be made, but the real difficult decisions are those being forced on our constituents—people on low incomes struggling to afford the basics, pay their bills, heat their homes or feed their children. Let us not forget the reality of the tragic human cost of over a decade of Tory austerity, which urgently needs to end. Does the Minister agree that uprating benefits in line with inflation is not a difficult decision, but is instead the only moral course of action?
That is not a matter for me, but I would like to reiterate at the Dispatch Box that the Government fully understand the pressures we are all facing. We all have constituents facing these matters, and it is absolutely right that we take that decisive action to support people with their bills. Members are talking as if we are not supporting people, but there is £37 billion of help with the cost of living, including the £400 of non-repayable discounts to eligible households provided by the energy bills support scheme. In addition to the benefits calculator and the cost of living webpage on gov.uk, I would ask people please to reach out to their councils. Members are talking this afternoon as if there is no help, and it is important that our constituents know that that is far from the case.
Women’s State Pension Age: Additional Support
A wide range of support is available to those of state pension age and for those on low income who are entitled to pensioner benefits.
Members across the House will have appreciated the sense of grievance and injustice from women born in the 1950s who were not given proper notice of the rise in the state pension age. The ombudsman has recognised this as maladministration, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), when he was the Prime Minister and leading the campaign in the 2019 general election, said he would address this matter. Since then, more of those women are now living in poverty and 200,000 of them have died, yet not a single Minister has met them since 2016. Is the Minister willing to meet a delegation from the WASPI campaign to talk about their plight and find a way forward?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and understand where he is coming from, but there is an ongoing investigation so it would be inappropriate for me to meet people at this stage.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
The Minister knows that in July 2021 the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found the DWP guilty of maladministration regarding state pension age increases. The PHSO also suggested that the Department could consider being proactive in remedying the injustice suffered by 3.8 million women, rather than waiting for its final conclusions. Given the ongoing cost of living crisis, does the Minister agree that now is the time for the Government to step up to the plate and agree fair and swift compensation for the women suffering that injustice?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman but I must repeat that I cannot comment where there is an ongoing investigation.
Pension Credit Claimants
As of the latest public data of February 2022 there were 1.38 million pension credit claimants.
I welcome the new Minister to her place and hope she can continue the excellent work done by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) in this area. Despite all that excellent work, however, take-up is still relatively low, and my constituency has 20% more over-65s than the UK average. Will the new Minister meet me to discuss how we might be able to make pension credit at least in part an automatic benefit so that struggling pensioners can get the money they are rightly entitled to?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point but it is difficult to enrol people automatically on pension credit given the data the Government hold. I am, however, keen to see how increased data sharing could be used to produce a larger number of claims.
Cost of Living Crisis: Support for Pensioners
This winter more than 8 million pensioner households will receive an increased winter fuel payment; in addition, those eligible for pension credit will receive an extra £650. This Government will always support the most vulnerable.
Earlier this month I contacted approximately 6,000 people in my constituency who may have been eligible for pension credit, and about 200 people attended a local action day organised with my local citizens advice bureaux. Citizens Advice informs me that as of last week at least £200,000 has been accessed in take-up of pension credit and other benefits as a result of contacts on that day. So far the Department’s action has been limited and half-hearted; the Government should put their money where their mouth is and pay pensioners what they are entitled to. With the information and data the Government have at their disposal, what further action will they take to increase pension credit take-up?
I applaud the hon. Gentleman for the work he is doing in his constituency. This is an incredibly important matter; seven out of 10 people who are entitled to pension credit claim it and we want to drive that rate up. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has done a huge amount of work on this and I intend to continue that in the Department.
Irresponsible Conservative policies have meant pension funds needed three emergency bail-outs to the tune of billions of pounds, while the spiralling prices of energy, food and other essential items have meant millions of people will be facing a very difficult winter. Statistics from earlier this year, before the cost of living crisis worsened even further, showed that 20%, or well over 2 million, pensioners already lived in poverty, a dramatic increase from a decade ago. Why should pensioners trust this Government to help them through this mess when the reckless behaviour of Conservative Ministers has worsened their plight?
I point the hon. Gentleman to our record: absolute pensioner poverty has gone down; real incomes have gone up. This Government are on the side of pensioners.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and I welcome the work that the Government are doing to support pensioners, particularly on winter fuel costs in difficult times. However, many of my pensioners in Aldridge-Brownhills are anxious about the continuous rise in the cost of living. When can we have some clarity regarding the triple lock?
I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s question. However, that is a matter for the autumn statement, and I would not want to pre-empt that.
I welcome the new Minister to her place. The last few weeks have been difficult and, at times, chaotic. The Government have crashed the economy and there has been a revolving door in Downing Street and Government Departments. After all that confusion, will the Minister take the opportunity to reassure the House that the Government are truly committed to the triple lock? Will she apologise to pensioners for the stress and uncertainty that the Government have caused through their repeated attempts to wriggle out of their manifesto commitment?
I do understand the uncertainty, but we must wait for 17 November. However, the average state pension is £185 a week, which is about double what it was in 2010 when we took over.
Uprating of Benefits
I am currently conducting my statutory annual review of state pensions and benefit rates. The outcome of that review will be announced in due course.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Trussell Trust is reporting that 40% of universal credit claimants are skipping meals due to budgetary constraints. Does he accept that with the full energy crisis costs yet impacting them and, indeed, with winter still to arrive, it would be perverse if bankers’ bonuses were to be uncapped while pension benefits were not to increase at least in line with inflation?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the various answers given from the Dispatch Box about the support that the Government are giving, particularly to those who are most vulnerable, across winter. In respect of food and food banks, that is pertinent. However, I am afraid that he will receive the same answer about when the House will come to know of the uprating that may be applied to pensions and benefits more generally, and the pensions triple lock. That is a decision for me as Secretary of State, of course in conjunction with discussions with the Treasury, and those figures will be available at the time of the autumn statement on 17 November.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that compassion will be at the heart of Government. It is so important that we support the most vulnerable in society. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that we can show that compassion and support by uprating benefits in line with inflation?
I am afraid that, unfortunately, I need to refer my hon. Friend to my previous reply.
Universal Credit: Housing Element
In April 2020, the local housing allowance rate in Epsom and Ewell increased to the 30th percentile of local market rents. The Government further boosted LHA rates by £1 billion.
I congratulate the new ministerial team on their appointment. The challenge in a constituency such as mine in the south-east and inside the M25 is that, even when the Government are spending a substantial amount of money on housing support, the local housing allowance simply does not enable people to get into private rented accommodation. Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues look again at how local housing allowance is structured and allocated across the country to try to ensure that it works everywhere?
My right hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on this issue. He will be aware, though, that it cannot be looked at in isolation and that we must look at the additional support available such as discretionary housing payments through the local authority—they are worth up to £1.5 billion overall across all local authorities—as well as the cost of living support package of £37 billion-plus and the household support fund, which again is administered by local authorities.
Supporting People into Work
Unemployment is at 3.5%. That is the lowest in nearly 50 years. We have recruited an extra 13,000-plus job coaches and are taking specific action to ensure that we are rolling out our new in-work progression offer.
Loughborough jobcentre is doing a great job in supporting new and fledging business owners to become gainfully self-employed. What steps is the Department for Work and Pensions taking across the country to help support small business owners and to support the growth and development of the self-employed across the UK?
I thank the staff at Loughborough jobcentre. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are doing an outstanding job and I know they usually hold a very successful jobs fair. On the self-employed nationwide, universal credit gives them a 12-month start-up period to grow their earnings to a sustainable level. We believe that is the way forward.
To try to help fill the very many vacancies that exist in a number of industries, will the Minister have discussions with fellow Ministers in the Treasury to see if more changes to the tax system can be brought in to really make sure that work does pay?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. It is absolutely the case that we are working on that. I highlight in particular the taper rate, which was reduced from 63% to 55%, but also the additional work we are putting into job coaches, the sector-based work academy and the increased work allowance, which makes sure that individuals get an extra £1,000.
One of the things preventing people from getting back into work is waiting for operations, thanks to the massive NHS backlog. One thing making that even worse is that lots of doctors are retiring early because they are worried about the pension cap issue. When will the Government rectify that issue, so that more doctors can stay in the profession, more people can get their operations quickly and more people can get back into work?
I appreciate that this is a genuine issue. The Treasury is looking specifically at the high earners pension situation. I am sure the Treasury will get back on that very shortly.
I am honoured to have been appointed as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I can inform the House that I have two early key missions: to focus on those who are economically inactive, as I have been suggesting already at the Dispatch Box; and to pursue with vigour the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to us being a compassionate, caring Department supporting the most vulnerable, which, at the end of the day, is a hallmark of a civilised society.
I welcome the Secretary of State, a fellow Devon MP, to his position. Will he agree to meet me and Barnardo’s to discuss the concerns of care leavers from Devon, whom I recently hosted in Westminster, who without a rent guarantor cannot afford a deposit on a rental property of their own. Will he consider a pilot to help those young people get a better start in life?
I thank my hon. Friend—I will call him an hon. Friend, certainly—and colleague from Devon for his question. I know of the excellent work he has been carrying out with Barnardo’s in that area. I would be delighted to meet him and Barnardo’s, and whoever else he feels appropriate, to discuss those issues.
I would, of course, be delighted to go to Rugby and I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend is holding an over-50s fair. He will be aware that the Department is rolling out 50 PLUS: Choices and the mid-life MOT to ensure that those matters are addressed.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his post. I also welcome the new Ministers and welcome back returning Ministers. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State saying that he wants a compassionate approach, so may I press him further on the point that numerous Members have put to him? He will know that not sticking to the triple lock for pensioners will mean a real-terms cut in their pension of hundreds of pounds. He will know that not inflation-proofing universal credit will mean an average household will lose £450 and that a household with a disabled person in it will lose over £550. Why does he no longer agree with himself when he said, on 4 October, that this is
“one of those areas where the Government is going to have to think again”?
I reassure the House that I always agree with myself. That is not the same thing as saying that I am always right, incidentally, but at least I am always consistent in that respect. We will have to wait—sorry, I should say that it is a pleasure to serve opposite the right hon. Gentleman and that I look forward to many months of constructive engagement with him.
It is very important that we do not overlook the huge amount that the Government are doing to target assistance at the most vulnerable. In the cost of living support package alone, there is £650 for 8 million of the most vulnerable households, £300 for pensioners on pension credit and £150 for those who have disabilities. That is very important.
The Prime Minister tells us that we do not need a general election because the 2019 manifesto gives him and the Conservative party a mandate. Given that that manifesto committed to the triple lock, why can he not give pensioners the reassurance that they deserve? Let me ask him about a second point: can he give a categorical assurance that, in the autumn statement, he will rule out means-testing personal independence payments, carer’s allowance, attendance allowance and disability living allowance for children?
The right hon. Gentleman is inviting me, in a whole host of areas, to break with what has been a very long-standing and quite correct convention that Ministers simply do not provide a running commentary about what may or may not be in a major fiscal event. However, he has my personal assurance that when and as it is appropriate to pass him information of that kind, he will be the first to know.
I strongly agree. Programmes such as the Access to Work scheme have supported the Government in meeting five years early their commitment to see a million more disabled people in work in the decade to 2027. We want to create more of those opportunities—in which spirit, I commend Florence for her determination. As a Government, we are determined to help her to succeed.
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. I point out, however, that the state pension system corrects some of the historical inequalities of the previous system, producing considerably higher outcomes for women.
I echo and support what my hon. Friend says, and he is right to laud what Becky and her team are doing. He will be aware that over the past few years, Citizens Advice in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has done fantastic work and plays a hugely valuable role in rolling out the Help to Claim scheme across the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber during questions for long enough to know that I cannot comment on the uprating or otherwise of benefits. However, he should take into account the numerous positive tax changes that there have been over the years for the hard-working constituents he refers to—not least the very significant increase in the personal allowance since 2010 and the change to the taper under universal credit, which makes a difference to many millions of people up and down the land.
My constituent suffered months of worry and stress because his employer failed to pay any pension contributions into his workplace scheme. Raising it with his boss made him fear for his job. The regulator gives no feedback on investigations, so will the Secretary of State consider whether the current £400 statutory penalty notice and regulatory powers are sufficient to ensure that employers fulfil their pension contributions duties?
The independent Pensions Regulator has robust powers in place to investigate compliance and issue fines; I urge my hon. Friend’s constituent to report his concerns to it in confidence. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.
Harry, my 11-year-old constituent, has cerebral palsy. He was previously awarded the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance, until it was downgraded. It took nearly two months for a mandatory reconsideration to uphold the decision, which his family are now appealing. There is currently no tribunal date, which means that the family face a prolonged period of uncertainty and anxiety. Will the Minister look at the detail of Harry’s case with a view to expediting a date for the tribunal?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has approached the issue. I will be very happy to contact him if he shares the details of the case with me. What I can say, which I hope will give some reassurance, is that 400 extra people are dedicated to mandatory reconsideration work and waiting times are dropping. We need to sustain that performance as well as getting things right the first time.
I have no doubt that this fine ministerial team will be pleased to know that my recent jobs fair perfectly complemented the employment and skills pathfinder programme. Will a Minister come to Willenhall jobcentre to meet its excellent policy and partnership staff and discuss what more we can do together to help people to progress in employment?
I am fantastically pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s jobs fair. He is a doughty champion for Walsall. Either I or our much more illustrious Secretary of State would be delighted to come to Walsall and see the great work being done there.
Saturday was World Stroke Day. I simply ask if this Government will uprate benefits in line with inflation, which would particularly help the growing population who are living with a disability. I know that I will not get an answer or a commitment today, but I ask them to consider it for the autumn statement.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that argument. As my colleagues and I have said consistently at the Dispatch Box, we will not provide a running commentary ahead of the autumn statement on 17 November, in which the Chancellor will set out the situation in the normal way.
A few weeks ago, at Paul’s Sports and Social Club, I met my constituent Nigel Seaman, who is a veteran, to discuss his work with Combat2Coffee to get veterans who may be homeless or struggling with the transition to civilian life into work and employment. Will the Minister meet me and Nigel to discuss what more can be done to support excellent veterans’ charities such as Combat2Coffee with helping veterans into work?
I am very pleased that I am wearing my Help for Heroes band today. I am delighted to hear about the work of the charity that my hon. Friend mentions. We are working with our champions in jobcentres to get people who have been service leaders into work, and we have work coaches who are dedicated to that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to find out more about the charity and tell him more about what we do in jobcentres.
It appears that the Government’s plan to clear up the economic disaster that they created is to implement austerity 2.0. Nearly 1.5 million people, including many of my constituents, have now been pushed into poverty as a result of their policies: the cuts to the social security net, the benefit cap and the cuts to support for disabled people, as well as the cruel and inhumane conditionality and sanctions regime. What discussions is the new Secretary of State having with the Chancellor to ensure that those in low-income households will not have to face any further cuts to social security to help to clear up this mess created by his Government?
The benefit cap is important because it restores fairness to the balance between those on working-age benefits and taxpayers in employment. Along with changes in the taper rate, this means that moving people into work wherever possible is the best way out of poverty.
Last year an estimated 1 million people of working age were receiving carer’s allowance. A constituent of mine, after three and a half years of caring for his father full time—his father passed away recently—is now unable to access jobseeker’s allowance because he is not considered to have been employed. What is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to rectify the position?
If my hon. Friend writes to me giving the specific details, I will ensure that the ministerial team and the civil servants involved look into it as a matter of urgency.
Does the new Secretary of State—whom I welcome to his place—still agree with his statement that cutting maternity rights will be good for business?
Given that I never made that statement, I do not agree with it, no.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—sorry, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I will not be called next time, will I?
The Government have done a great deal to help people with their cost of living challenges, but elderly residents in my constituency are troubled by reports in the newspapers suggesting that we may not meet our manifesto commitment to retain the pensions triple lock. Pensioners face a triple whammy of dwindling savings value due to low interest rates, rising costs due to inflation and, owing to their age, an inability to go out and earn any more. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that we will increase pensions in line with inflation?
I admire my hon. Friend’s persistence on this matter, but I am afraid I must give her the same response that I have given on numerous occasions this afternoon, namely, that we will have to wait until at least 17 November for an answer. I understand the particular pressure that pensioners are under because they are often unable to change their economic circumstances, as others within the labour force can; but we will have to wait.
A number of my constituents who work for the DWP have told me that they are not being given the enhanced holiday pay that they were promised in return for working overtime consistently. In response to my inquiry, the DWP has told me that current legislation provides no definition of regularity. Will the Minister please address this issue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter; I shall be happy to look into it if he writes to me with the details.
I have written to the DWP twice about the relocation of back-office staff from Crossgate House in Doncaster city centre to Sheffield, but have received only negative replies. This is not what the staff want and, with many council offices empty owing to the new model of hybrid working, Doncaster is losing much-needed footfall. Will the Minister meet me so that we can establish whether the decision can be reversed?
This is an issue that I was already looking into. I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern, and I shall be happy to meet him and be given an update on the situation.
Along with many other Members who are present today, I have received a number of emails from concerned pensioners, including one who wrote that if the triple lock is not maintained:
“myself and many others will have to pare our spending even more. Occasional meet-ups with friends will be the next to go and then more and more people will become isolated and depressed.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that maintaining the triple lock will improve the health and wellbeing of our pensioners as we go into the winter?
I completely understand those concerns, but that is why we have provided a package of support—now—which is worth more than £850 for everyone receiving a state pension and £1,500 for those receiving pension credit.
Last week we celebrated the 10th anniversary of automatic pension enrolment. This is, genuinely, an amazing cross-party policy achievement which has transformed the saving culture across our country. As we look back on that success, will the Ministers consider expanding the system to 18-to-22-year-olds?
In my former life I was very much looking at that specific policy and I am quite sure that the Government will address it shortly.
This morning I attended the York cost of living summit and heard about the impact that food poverty, heating poverty and housing poverty are having on my constituents. One issue is the rate at which the benefits cap is set. By 2027, it will not have been reviewed for 11 years, so will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor to ensure that it is reviewed before 17 November?
I am in the process of reviewing just that matter and many of the others that we have discussed, so we will have to wait, but it is one of the matters that is under review.
We look forward to the Secretary of State appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee. Can he give us an assurance before he does so that the Department will publish the systematic evidence-based review of food bank use that it promised to publish and place in the Commons Library two years ago, so that we can debate the policy issues required to eliminate hunger across these islands?
I look forward to appearing before the hon. Gentleman and his fellow members of the Committee. He raises a specific point, and I will look into it and come back to him.
Royal Navy: Conduct towards Women
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on conduct towards women in the Royal Navy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his timely question. Before I get going, I would like to declare my interest as entered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a serving reservist and, more particularly for this particular urgent question, I have two daughters who are currently serving in the armed forces.
I was concerned by the recent reports in the media that have prompted this UQ, little knowing that I would be answering it this afternoon. Allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual assault in the Submarine Service are and will be taken extremely seriously. Any activity that falls short of the highest standards in the Royal Navy is totally unacceptable and not a true reflection of what life should be. Sexual assault and harassment have no place in the Royal Navy and will not be tolerated.
The First Sea Lord has directed a formal investigation into these allegations, and this commenced on 24 October. This independent investigating team, led by a senior female officer, will thoroughly examine the allegations and report back very soon. It is understood that the named individual has agreed to meet the investigation team to provide her account. While this investigation will review specific allegations, Defence will also review the culture of the submarine community and report to Ministers in due course. The House will understand that it would be premature to offer any further comment or debate until those investigations are complete. However, anyone who is found culpable will be held accountable for their actions regardless of their rank or status.
While some of the incidents referred to in the media are historical, it is important to note the large-scale policy changes that were introduced across Defence in the past year. As a result, Defence will deal with incidents and allegations of sexual abuse better. The new policies will ensure zero tolerance of unacceptable sexual behaviour or of sexual exploitation and abuse within Defence. All allegations of sexual offences will be responded to, victims will be given greater support and there will be a presumption of discharge for anyone found to be engaging in this kind of behaviour.
These policies will ensure that Defence will deal with these types of incidents differently. They will build trust and confidence in Defence’s ability to deal with unacceptable behaviour and demonstrate that supporting people who are victims of unacceptable sexual behaviour is a top priority. The House should be reassured that the Royal Navy has taken and is continuing to take decisive action to address the allegations that have been brought to light and will report to Ministers when the investigations are complete, at which point I feel sure that there will be a further opportunity to explore the detail.
Britain can be immensely proud of its Royal Navy, which over the centuries has helped to define who we are as a nation. Today it is globally recognised as arguably the best-trained, best-motivated and best-disciplined maritime force in the world. It is therefore deeply concerning to see more reports emerging of inappropriate behaviour against women, this time on the very submarines that provide our nuclear deterrent.
I welcome the statement and the First Sea Lord’s promise of another investigation. Only three years ago, the Ministry of Defence was obliged to commission its own study, the Wigston review, which admitted
“an unacceptable level of…behaviour and a sub-optimal system for dealing with it”.
The Defence Committee carried out a study last year, and over 4,000 female personnel replied to our survey run by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). Sixty-four per cent. of respondents said they had endured bullying, harassment, intimidation, discrimination or sexual abuse, and few had any faith in the mechanism through which these concerns could be addressed.
My Committee made two clear recommendations: first, the establishment of a central defence authority to provide a reporting system outside the chain of command and, secondly, the removal of the chain of command entirely from complaints of a sexual nature. Will the MOD now implement these recommendations and encourage others, both serving and retired, to share their concerns on safety?
Women have proudly served in our armed forces for over a century, and all roles are now open to women. To be fair, the majority leave with a positive view of their time in uniform. This is about a few personnel who bring the Submarine Service into disrepute. It is about a systemic failure of the chain of command, and the MOD must now accept its role and prioritise putting this right.
I thank my right hon. Friend again. He is correct to put matters in these terms. He has been robust and forthright, which I respect.
My right hon. Friend will know that the great majority of women serving in our armed forces today respond positively when asked about their experiences and say they would recommend the services to others. He will also be aware of the work done this year in response to his Committee’s report. I would like to say I have read it from cover to cover, but I have been in post for only a few hours, so he will forgive me for not doing so. I get the gist of it, and I will study it extremely carefully.
My right hon. Friend will know that the MOD has already accepted the great majority of the report. He and I have been around a long time, and I cannot think of a Select Committee report in recent times that has had so many of its recommendations accepted and carried out. He will be familiar with “Tackling Sexual Offending in Defence” and the two pieces of work on a zero-tolerance approach that have been published this year.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and their Committee. The great majority of the recommendations are being carried out or will be carried out.
I call the shadow Minister, Luke Pollard.
I welcome the new Minister to his position. Those who serve in our armed forces should expect the highest standards of professionalism and personal conduct, which must be supported and reinforced by the Government. As the son of a Royal Navy submariner, I know that the Submarine Service is on the frontline of our national defence. Every submariner must be confident that the people they serve alongside in the Royal Navy have their back. These claims of abuse are extremely serious and must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible must be held accountable.
These reports lift the lid on a culture of abuse and cover-up in our armed forces. In far too many cases, victims are unable to raise their experiences within the chain of command. Women account for 11% of our forces personnel but, between 2019 and last year, 81% of victims of sexual assault in the military were women, and almost half of them were at the start of their military career. Behind these statistics are hundreds of women who have been let down. This cannot be allowed to continue. Victims of sexual abuse serving in our armed forces must have confidence in the processes that allow them to report their experiences, and they must know that robust action will be taken.
I suggest that the Minister reads the Defence Committee’s report before coming back to the House to tell us how he will implement all of it. Will he make the investigation he has just announced a public investigation so we can see what action is needed? Can he explain why the Government continue to resist Labour’s proposal that the most serious cases, including murder, manslaughter and rape, should be tried in civilian courts instead of military courts? What progress has been made on the RAF’s review of allegations of sexual assault, which was announced in August? Will those findings be made public?
Our armed forces are the very best in the world, and they deserve the very best, too. The Government must step up and protect those who protect us.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points. I agree with him about external scrutiny. That is why the investigation that has been set up, which will report soon, to which I referred, will include an individual from outside Defence, who is currently being selected for his or her independence, probity and integrity, who will be alongside that investigation. I do not know where this is going to go. I suspect it is going to be complicated and may take a while. I want it to report quickly, but I do not want to put a time limit on it necessarily.
However, it is going to report “soon”—that wonderful, plastic term. It will have within it an independent individual —the hon. Gentleman will understand that that is a divergence from the norm—because I am absolutely clear that there needs to be oversight of this that is outside the process. He will know full well that these investigations are conducted properly always—I have been involved with a number myself—but there has to be the appearance also of their being transparent. I hope that that will give him some reassurance.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Henriques report, most of which of course was accepted. He may also be aware of the joint protocol that will be drawn up for the very serious offences that he cites between the civilian and the service prosecuting authorities. I hope that that goes some way to addressing that outstanding concern that I know he has.
A parallel strand of work is being set up by the commander of the submarine flotilla to look into conduct and culture. That will be headed by Colonel Tony de Reya from the Royal Marines. That will report, I hope, by the end of the year. It is separate from the investigation on the specific that I have cited in my opening remarks, but, obviously, it will touch on much of the same material. I look forward to returning to the House to discuss that once Ministers have had a chance to examine its findings and conclusions.
It must not come down to one brave woman being prepared to speak out; there have to be processes in place where every woman and man serving in our armed forces has the confidence to come forward. I say gently to my right hon. Friend that we cannot simply be looking at the culture in the submarine community. This happens across our armed forces and we need to have processes that are swift and give redress to those victims, so that they come forward with confidence. I have a constituent who is not at the start of her military career—she is a lieutenant colonel—who waited 10 years before the Ministry of Defence took her complaint seriously. We have to have faster justice for the women who have been victims of this sort of culture.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. This is my 42nd year in Defence as a regular and reservist, and over that time things have changed dramatically—I am happy to say that is the case—particularly in the past few years. I accept all of her comments. There is no room for complacency. With two daughters in the armed forces, I am certainly not complacent. However, I have to refer to some of the objective data that we have, some of which is to do with the sexual harassment surveys that each of the three services conduct and that show a positive trend. We can argue as to whether that is fast enough, and certainly it should not be the antidote to complacency. Nevertheless, it is positive in terms of the experience of people feeling supported and feeling that their complaints will be dealt with outside the chain of command, where appropriate, with action taken. That is very positive, but she is right to say that there is no room for any complacency and a single complaint is one too many.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think we are all agreed that the reports that emerged over the weekend are truly shocking, and I pay tribute to the women who have spoken out about the abuse they suffered, including Sophie Brook, the former Royal Navy lieutenant, who described her abuse as being “constant”. She said that it came from the top down, confirming what Emma Norton, from the Centre for Military Justice, said about there being a culture of
“Nasty, pernicious, endemic, sexual harassment”,
within which people acted with impunity. That must change.
Therefore, I am sceptical about the First Sea Lord’s announcement of yet another internal investigation. It is simply not good enough. As the MP for Argyll and Bute, which takes in the naval base at Faslane, I understand that this episode casts a shadow over the entire service. I am sure that there are thousands of hard-working, thoroughly decent Royal Navy personnel who will demand that those responsible, irrespective of their rank or status, are rooted out and disciplined. They will want a thorough independent investigation, one that can report without fear or favour. So does the Minister agree that that can be achieved only by a fully transparent, truly independent investigation of these facts?
It would be nice to have the facts first. That is the point of the investigation that was launched on 24 October, which—let us be clear—was before the publication of the lurid accounts that appeared in the media. I think that gives a signal of intent that Defence is looking at these matters very seriously, as does the inclusion of a non-Defence person in the investigation, which is important. The hon. Member will note the number of senior officers who have been dealt with severely because of transgression in this particular area. That is also an indication of how seriously Defence takes such matters. He is right to push me on this, but I point him to the series of three major reports by Defence during the course of the year that outline what Defence will now do to ensure that the environment is as good as possible for those who have had cause to make serious allegations in the recent past.
The allegations that we have heard are clearly horrifying, and I know that the investigation will have to take its course, but it is equally disturbing that there does not appear to have been a safe, independent route of complaint for the people involved. Whatever the outcome, will the Minister confirm that that at least will be put right?
The excellent report by our right hon. Friend’s Select Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham in particular, makes some recommendations along those lines, and much of that has been accepted, so the general trajectory of the environment—in particular for women who have found that Defence has in the past not provided the background against which they would want to conduct their careers and lives—will be improved. It is worth underscoring—our right hon. Friend made this point—that the great majority of women serving in our armed forces today have a positive experience that they would recommend to others.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a trustee of the Agnes Wanjiru trust. Agnes Wanjiru was a prostituted woman in Kenya who was murdered on the site where there were military personnel; I will say no more about the case, except that it has not been pushed forward.
The Minister has referred to a number of documents that have been produced since other cases have come to light. There have been a number of documents of progress. One document to which he referred is on sexual exploitation policy, which now disallows Defence forces having sex with sexually exploited people abroad. However, the document specifically says:
“While the policy is not intended to apply in the UK”.
Does the Minister think it is okay that the Department has written into a document that it is fine for British military personnel to sexually exploit people in the UK?
Sexual exploitation is unacceptable in the UK and abroad under any circumstances.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place.
The incident we are discussing is horrifying, but the statistics in the Defence Committee report—that over half of women in the armed forces have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace—are also totally unacceptable. There are simply no excuses for such behaviour. We have had women in the armed forces for many years, but only recently in very senior roles. How many excellent women heading for senior roles does the Minister think have left the armed forces because of the culture of bullying and harassment?
Bullying and harassment of women is particularly appalling, but we have to understand and be honest with ourselves that it has historically been a feature of service life more generally. I suspect the behaviour that my hon. Friend has just described has been a feature of the retention issue for many years. It is wasteful, it is wrong, and it has to stop. We hope that 30% of our service personnel will be women by 2030, so the issue is quite a big deal in terms of the whole force. Although we are dealing with the issue in relation specifically to women in the armed forces today, it is applicable right across Defence. It is wrong for the organisation, and it is wrong for the individuals and their families.
Minister, this has to stop. As the Chair of the Defence Committee said, we have had the Wigston report and the report from the House of Commons Select Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). May I say that her sacking does not fill me with a great deal of confidence that these things are going to be taken seriously? What evidence does the Ministry of Defence need for change? Without an independent process, either in investigations or prosecutions, which the MOD resisted fiercely in the Armed Forces Bill, things will not change, Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to put me on the spot on this. I would, however, cite some of the evidence. I mentioned earlier the sexual harassment survey, which is an important survey. It is conducted rigorously, it has been conducted longer for the Army than for the other two forces, but its conclusions are fairly clear: while there are no grounds for complacency at all in this, things are improving. As to what is being done, tackling sexual offending in Defence was the biggest part of the response to the report, to which we referred earlier. The great majority of its recommendations have been accepted and they are being rolled out at pace. The survey was published only in summer 2021 and already in summer this year we have had this major contribution that accepts most of the report and says how it is being rolled out.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on rejoining the Defence ministerial team. With his experience of professional service in the Royal Navy, he will be aware of the vital role of commanding officers of naval units in terms of discipline. I am surprised therefore that not more is being made of the fact that commanding officers ought perhaps to have it brought to their attention that their own careers will not progress well if they allow not only incidents, but a culture of sexual exploitation, insult or abuse in their units. What does he have to say about that?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for his question. He will know that a significant number of very senior officers’ careers have been brought to an end in these matters. That is an indication of how Defence views commanding officers who fail to grip this. I also point out that, in the event that the commanding officers fail in the eyes of the ombudsman, their annual appraisal will be annotated accordingly, which has very severe implications for their hopes of future preferment. In those ways, we can inculcate into the senior cadre that this is their responsibility and they need to grip it. He will also know that we have taken some of this outside the chain of command completely, so that people can have confidence that they can report allegations and have them dealt with appropriately and seriously without the fear of retribution. There is, if you like, a double lock there, which gives me great hope for the future.
I welcome the Minister to his place. These reports are despicable. We repeatedly hear about situations such as this happening within our armed forces. Research shows that female recruits under the age of 18 face substantially elevated risk of sexual violence. Last year, more than one in 10 girls serving in the armed forces aged under 18 were victims of a sexual offence, according to records of military police investigations. I know from my own time serving with soldiers and with young recruits how pervasive this behaviour can be. Will the Minister commit to taking a meaningful step by shifting responsibility for serious charges, including rape and sexual assault, from military courts to the civilian justice system, so that we can better protect young service personnel?
The hon. Gentleman knows from his own background the importance of these matters, and I welcome the expertise he is able to bring to the House. People who are in positions of responsibility must not abuse those who are potentially subject to their predations. The teaching profession has implemented changes in recent years to the relationship between teachers and children, and Defence is taking note of that. He refers to recruits under the age of 18, who are minors and are in a similar position, so he can be assured that we are closely considering how we can emulate the situation that now pertains to civilian education, so that it properly applies in a defence setting. He also touched on the Henriques report: the bulk of those recommendations were carried out, although I suspect we could have a debate about the three most serious offences, but Defence’s position remains that they should be a matter for the service justice system.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. As the Chair of the recent Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, a regular officer for 26 years and now a senior veteran, I can tell the House with some authority that our armed forces are full of brilliant people at all ranks and levels. In the interest of balance, and noting how far the MOD has come in recent decades in dealing with such sordid behaviour, I urge the Minister to maintain a sense of pragmatism and proportionality. Rather than saying that the forces have an endemic problem, I think this is indicative of individual poor behaviour and the inquiry must look accordingly.
I think I touched on that subject when I referred to the Select Committee’s report and the positive comments it made about the experience of most women in our armed forces. We must not put people off joining our armed forces unduly, but equally we must take these allegations very seriously.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for her report; when I was on the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year, many in senior positions referred to that report, and it should not be cast aside. We in the Labour party have long argued that the more serious cases, including sexual assault and rape, should be tried in civilian courts rather than through the military justice services. I was also on the Bill Committee for the Armed Forces Bill, so I ask the Minister to explain why the Government continue to resist that move? Sexual assault cases need to be in civilian courts.
Henriques dealt with the three most serious offences, although he could have chosen other offences as well. The judgment has been made that the status quo is probably appropriate, but with the design of a joint protocol between civilian and service to ensure that practice is the same. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. I want to raise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). Her review mattered because, for the first time, women in the armed forces were no longer gagged. They believed that that meant they would be listened to and that change would come. My concern is that the sexual violence policy that the MOD has just introduced has a five-year vision. Five years is too long. Surely my right hon. Friend the Minister can agree that no military commander would accept a five-year deadline to deliver any effect within the MOD, so why are we accepting it for sexual policies?
I would not say that we are not doing anything to deal with the situation—I have outlined a number of ways that we are doing exactly that, and referred to the sexual harassment survey, with respect to my hon. Friend, which gives some evidential basis to say that matters are improving. That is not to say that we are in any way complacent, and I want to see changes rolled out as soon as possible, but I think she should give credit to Defence for working hard on this matter and taking it seriously at the highest level.
I have spoken to Dr Shonagh Dillon, the founder and chief executive of the charity Aurora New Dawn, which works with women survivors of abuse in the military. She is very clear what is required to give women sufficient courage to remain within the services in the face of what, according to the evidence, appears to be a culture of such difficulties. She says that what is needed are fully independent investigations into such allegations. When will the Ministry of Defence look into having fully independent investigations, given the advice of the Wigston review and subsequent recommendations to that effect?
I hope it reassures the hon. and learned Lady to learn that in my few hours in post, I have made sure that the investigation to which I referred has significant independent involvement. That is not a given in Defence—it is something of a departure—but it is important that someone completely independent of Defence be heavily involved, both for transparency, and so that people ultimately accept what the investigation comes up with. That may give her an indication of how I view these matters.
The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right about victims. She will be aware, I hope, of the victim and witness care unit, which is about to be set up in the defence serious crime unit. That will give added support to the victims of these horrendous offences.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has suggested that the future of the Royal Navy may well be in subsea vessels, but we cannot expect to staff a fleet, or to recruit, when reports of misogyny and absolutely terrible abuse hang over the submarine service, so will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s view that this behaviour is completely unacceptable? Will he work towards ensuring that people can have faith in the system of training, reporting and redress, so that we make sure that the incidents reported in the press are the last of their type?
My hon. Friend is right. The case in question relates to the submarine flotilla, but I think that the lessons will be more generally applicable. I agree entirely that this kind of behaviour has no place in our Royal Navy, or in defence more generally.
The north-east is proud to send so many young men and women into the armed forces—more than any other region. As a consequence, we have many veterans living in our region. A 2019 report from the north-east charity Forward Assist, “No Man’s Land”, highlighted the experience of women veterans, and in particular the unacceptable sexual harassment that they had to deal with. It also highlighted the lack of mental health support for them when they left the armed services, and particularly the lack of online support for those feeling isolated. What will the Minister do to ensure that women veterans have the mental health support that they need and deserve after their service?
I hesitate ever so slightly because I have been professionally involved in this area. A set of rules that take my name apply; they govern how servicemen and women who leave the armed forces for medical reasons are managed in civilian life, and help them to transition. The great majority of veterans transition to civilian life very well. The hon. Lady will be aware of that. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that they do better than the civilian cohort. However, it is important that we continue to support their mental health. Over the past five years, matters have improved dramatically, not least as regards career transition and veterans’ ability to continue to access support through the services.
I was angry over the weekend, not just because of this dreadful case of sexual harassment and bullying in the Navy, and not just because I have three daughters and five grand-daughters, and another due on Thursday, but because it is the inalienable right of women to be free from this sort of treatment, yet everywhere I have worked, it is still there—in the manufacturing sector; in the universities, where I spent 13 years; here in the House; and in Whitehall. This behaviour is still everywhere, and we have to do something about it fast.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; there is no question about that. I speak specifically about defence, of course, but what he says goes for society more generally, too.
What will Ministers do to ensure that no female officer brave enough to come forward and report abuse will experience professional discrimination, such as having promotion opportunities withheld from them?
I hope that I explained in my previous remarks the importance that Defence assigns to this, particularly when it comes to senior officers who may be complicit in some of the behaviour that we are discussing. This is very important: if someone’s career is on the line, it does affect their thinking fairly dramatically. I would also commend to the hon. Member the victim and witness care unit that will be established by December for the most serious offences, which will give people much-needed support that was previously lacking.
I welcome the Minister back to his post. Will he join me in noting the amazing achievement of Private Carter, who just last week became the first woman soldier to pass the all-arms pre-parachute selection course, P Company? It is a timely reminder of the outstanding contribution that women make to our armed forces. Does the Minister agree with me that every woman who steps forward to serve, whether in the Royal Navy or whichever bit of defence it might be, deserves nothing less than complete and total respect at all times?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is no mean feat even these days to join the armed forces as a woman. The challenges remain enormous, although I hope they are becoming less. I am particularly proud of my two daughters who are serving in the armed forces. Respect to them and strength to their arm.
It is highly disturbing to hear of a woman in the armed forces being sexually assaulted and violently abused. Last year the Defence Committee’s report “Women in the Armed Forces” uncovered shocking levels of abuse and identified bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination in the armed forces. This stops women fulfilling their potential, and in many instances the abusers are promoted and rise through the ranks. This is unacceptable. Women in the armed forces really do need to be protected, so will the Minister confirm how many of the Committee’s recommendations have been implemented to date?
If the hon. Lady is referring to the House of Commons’ Defence Committee’s report, as I said earlier, the great majority of those recommendations were accepted or partially accepted, which is pretty much unprecedented in my experience, so my congratulations to the Chair of the Committee, who is in his place. Let me be clear: the behaviour that this touches upon is wholly and completely unacceptable. It is unacceptable in the armed forces, it is unacceptable in society in general, and it needs to be stamped out.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the situation in Ukraine.
This morning, Russian missiles again struck Kyiv and other cities, destroying critical national infrastructure and depriving Ukrainians of water and electricity. Earlier today I spoke to our ambassador in Kyiv, and I heard again of the extraordinary resilience of Ukraine’s people in the face of Russian aggression.
At the weekend, Russia suspended its participation in the Black sea grain initiative, which has allowed the exportation of 100,000 tonnes of food every day, including to some of the least developed countries in the world. Putin is exacting vengeance for his military failures on the civilians of Ukraine by cutting off their power and water supply, and on the poorest people in the world by threatening their food supplies. Over 60% of the wheat exported under the Black sea grain initiative has gone to low and middle-income countries, including Ethiopia, Yemen and Afghanistan. It would be unconscionable for those lands to be made to suffer because of Putin’s setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine. I urge Russia to stop impeding this vital initiative, which is helping to feed the hungry across the world, and to agree to its extension.
Meanwhile, Russia’s suicide drones and cruise missiles are killing Ukrainian civilians, obliterating their homes and even destroying a children’s playground. A third of the country’s power stations were put out of operation in a single week. None of this achieves any military purpose. Putin’s only aim is to spread terror and to deprive Ukrainian families of shelter, light and heat as harsh winter approaches. I am sure the House will join me in condemning his breaches of international humanitarian law.
I am also sure that every right hon. and hon. Member will share my conviction that Putin will never break the spirit of the Ukrainian people, and my incredulity at the glaring contradictions in his thinking. He claims that Ukraine is part of Russia and that Ukrainians are Russians, but at the same time he calls them Nazis who must be bombed without mercy.
When Putin launched his invasion, he convinced himself that Russian forces would be welcomed into Kyiv and that Ukrainians would support him or be too craven to stand in his way. He could not have been more wrong. The last eight months have shown the scale of his miscalculation and the barbarity of his onslaught, including the mass rape committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The UK’s campaign to prevent sexual violence in conflict is more urgent now than ever and I will host a conference on that vital subject next month. The Kremlin is now resorting to peddling false claims and churning out invented stories that say more about the fractures within the Russian Government than they do about us.
It is reprehensible that Iran should have supplied Russia with the Shahed drones that are bringing destruction to Ukraine, in violation of UN resolution 2231. On 20 October, the Government imposed sanctions on three Iranian commanders involved in supplying weaponry to Russia, along with the company that manufactures Shahed drones.
Earlier, on 30 September, Putin announced that Russia had annexed four regions of Ukraine spanning 40,000 square miles—the biggest land grab in Europe since the second world war. Once again, this exposes his self-delusion. He has declared the annexation of territory that he has not captured, and what he had managed to seize he is in the process of losing.
On 12 October, 143 countries—three quarters of the entire membership of the United Nations—voted in the General Assembly to condemn the annexations. Russia had just four supporters: Syria, Belarus, Nicaragua and North Korea. When those regimes are a country’s only friends, they really know that they are isolated. When 141 countries denounced Putin’s invasion in March, some speculated that that was the ceiling of international support for Ukraine. The latest vote showed that even more nations are now ready to condemn Russia, but Putin still thinks that by forcing up food and energy prices, we will lose our resolve. Our task is to prove him wrong.
We will not waver in our support for Ukraine’s right to self-defence. I delivered that emphatic message when I spoke to my Ukrainian counterpart on Tuesday, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said the same to President Zelensky when they spoke on the phone—the first foreign leader who he called on his appointment as Prime Minister. On Thursday I will attend a meeting of G7 Foreign Ministers in Germany, where I will send a unified signal of our shared determination. This year, Britain gave Ukraine £2.3 billion of military support—more than any country in the world apart from the United States of America. We will provide Ukraine with more support to repair its energy infrastructure and we have committed £220 million of humanitarian aid.
The House will have noted Putin’s irresponsible talk about nuclear weapons and an absurd claim that Ukraine plans to detonate a radiological dirty bomb on its own territory. No other country is talking about nuclear use; no country is threatening Russia or President Putin. He should be clear that, for the UK and our allies, any use at all of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the nature of this conflict. There would be severe consequences for Russia. How counterproductive would it be for Russia to break a norm against nuclear use that has held since 1945 and has underpinned global security?
Nothing will alter our conviction that the Ukrainians have a right to live in peace and freedom in their own lands. If Putin were to succeed, every expansionist tyrant would be emboldened to do their worst and no country would be safe. That is why we stand, and will continue to stand, alongside our Ukrainian friends until the day comes—as it inevitably will—that they prevail. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
The war in Ukraine is at a critical new stage, with increasing missile and drone attacks, and the senseless withdrawal from the grain export deal, which will lead to increasing hunger around the world. As we enter the winter months, Putin’s rhetoric is becoming increasing irresponsible, including his references to nuclear weapons and dangerous fabrications around a so-called dirty bomb, and I support the Foreign Secretary’s words on that matter. This is a sign of Putin’s desperation, but it does not mean that an end is near; this will be a long and protracted conflict.
This morning, more than 50 missiles were launched by Russian forces against Ukrainian energy and water systems over the course of just a few hours. This is not an isolated attack, but a deliberate and callous Russian strategy to target civilian infrastructure ahead of the winter. Some estimates claim almost a third of Ukraine’s power stations and other energy facilities have been hit, and 80% of Kyiv has been left without water after these latest attacks. The Foreign Secretary mentioned his discussions with our ambassador on the ground, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the embassy team for their continuing work in very challenging conditions.
Can the Foreign Secretary set out today how many electricity generators the UK has already sent to Ukraine, and how we will strengthen Ukraine’s energy supply at this time? Some of these attacks have been conducted using Iranian-supplied drones. We welcome the sanctions already announced against the Iranian regime. What further measures are the Government considering to prevent Iran’s material support to Russia’s invasion? Over the past week, we have also seen Russia engage in baseless, ridiculous accusations that the United Kingdom was involved in the destruction of part of the Nord Stream pipeline. What are the Government doing to tackle the dangerous disinformation being spread by Putin?
The UN-backed agreement on grain exports has been vital in reducing global food prices. President Putin’s unjustifiable decision to pull out of this deal will have catastrophic consequences. It comes at a time when many countries are already food-insecure, including Somalia, where an imminent famine is feared. This decision should be seen by the world for what it is: the Kremlin’s cruel and transparent use of hunger to blackmail. Any spike in world food prices will be the responsibility of the Russian Government. An agreement must be restored. Can the Foreign Secretary outline what conversations he has had with counterparts, including in Turkey, on the potential for restoring grain flows, and what steps the UK is considering to mitigate the worst consequences for the developing world if those efforts fail?
Since the end of August, Ukraine has been conducting successful counter-offensive operations in the south and east of Ukraine, liberating around 12,000 sq km, but Russia continues to attempt to make progress in Donbas around Bakhmut. Winter is coming, any counter-offensives could soon slow and an operational stalemate is likely for the next couple of months. It is day 249 of the invasion, and the Ministry of Defence has not even signed a contract to replenish the NLAW anti-tank missiles, which have been vital to the Ukrainian army. Will the Government restock and resupply Ukraine, and the British armed forces, with essential military assistance? Over 20 NATO countries have now rebooted defence plans since the invasion began, but the UK Government have still not done so. Will the Foreign Secretary update the integrated review of foreign and defence policy, and will he continue with what was indicated by the last Prime Minister now that we are on our third in just three months?
Last month at the United Nations more countries than ever voted to condemn Russia in its illegal and unjustifiable annexations of Ukrainian territory. The world saw through the sham referendums and recognised Russia’s actions as a flagrant violation of the UN charter. We must sustain and grow the diplomatic coalition against Putin, because the outcome of this war will depend on who is more resilient: Putin’s Russia, or Ukraine and its supporters in the west and beyond. Labour is clear that we will not let our support for Ukraine falter.
Our duty now is to make sure Ukraine wins; this means providing the diplomatic and military support required but also moving beyond ad hoc announcements and laying out a long-term strategy for military, economic and diplomatic assistance through 2023 and beyond. We have to reinforce the message to Putin that continuing this barbaric war will make it worse, not better, for Russia.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, my opposite number, for the points that he has made, and for echoing from the Opposition Front Bench the support for the Ukrainian people in their work to eject Russia from their homeland. It is noticed that although we sometimes disagree on the detail, our collective response is to support the Ukrainian people; that will be noted, and they will be incredibly grateful for it. He raised a number of points, which I will attempt to cover in my response.
On the energy needs of the Ukrainian people going into the winter, the UK has pledged £100 million to support Ukraine’s energy security and to reform, and £74 million in fiscal grants to support Ukraine through the World Bank. I will seek to get more details on the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about the number of generators and share them with him at an appropriate point in the future.
On Iran, the right hon. Gentleman noted that we have already sanctioned a number of people—a point I made in my statement. He will know that we do not discuss future sanctions designations, but I can assure him that we will be keeping a close eye on the actions of Iran, and indeed any other countries, in providing arms for Russia, and we will take appropriate actions to dissuade them from doing so and to react if they do.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the situation with regard to disinformation. Increasingly desperate statements have been coming out of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the Kremlin. Those claims are designed to distract the Russian people, and indeed the wider international community, from the truth, and the truth is that the Ukrainians are pushing Russian forces back on the battlefield. We must not be distracted from that truth, and the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must work with our international allies to make sure Russia’s disinformation campaign does not influence global support for the Ukrainian people.
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned grain exports, and I have spoken with my Turkish counterparts in the past expressing our gratitude for the work they have done in securing that grain export deal. We have also reinforced the need for that to be extended and for Russia to lift the pause on its engagement on that. This is about ensuring that the global poor—those who are already suffering from hunger—are not drawn into a conflict not of their choosing. We must not let Vladimir Putin use global hunger as leverage to undermine support for the Ukrainians in the defence of their homelands.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the supply of anti-tank missile systems. We are committed to matching our support next year, as we have done for this year. We will ensure the Ukrainians are supplied with the arms most relevant to their needs at the time. In the initial phases of the conflict, NLAWs and other anti-tank missile systems were incredibly important to them. The battlefield has now evolved, and ground-to-air and air- to-air missile systems have increased in importance. We will make sure our support for Ukraine matches its needs, but we will also ensure that we do not denude our own armed forces of requirements, and action has been taken to stimulate the supply chain for critical and military equipment. We will always ensure that we adapt to the circumstances on the ground and on the battlefield and that we do not denude ourselves of our ability to defend this country as well as our friends and allies.
We come to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Over the next month, war on the ground will be most difficult for Putin to wage, so he is weaponising famine, information, sexual violence and even Ukraine’s children. What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with abstentionist countries who are most likely to suffer from famine in order that they encourage Russia to return to the Black sea grain deal?
On the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, which is a form of genocide, no meaningful international action appears to be taking place. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us on that front? Finally, Bellingcat has identified 33 individuals whose sole job is to target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Will he reassure us that sanctions are being considered against those individuals whose sole job is to terrorise the Ukrainian public?
I thank my hon. Friend for those points. She is absolutely right that it is important that we engage with those countries who have thus far abstained in votes at the United Nations, to remind them that Russia’s attack on Ukraine—the invasion of Ukraine—is not just a European issue. It is about the UN charter, territorial integrity and the rule of law, and any and all countries who value those things should show solidarity in their condemnation of Russia’s involvement.
My hon. Friend asked about individuals who may be involved in the targeting of civilian infrastructure. She will understand that, of course, we do not discuss intelligence matters and we do not go into detail about future sanctions designations. However, I assure her that we think and act carefully in terms of our response to deter as well as to respond to the issues that she raised. We will of course keep a very close eye on the actions of Russia where it is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure as well as critical national infrastructure. That will always be an important part of the work that we do.
The renewed cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure this morning were appalling, but, tragically, they are now part of Putin’s almost daily arsenal. By attacking residential areas, electricity infrastructure and water supplies, Putin is ordering his troops to carry out war crimes on a daily basis. As an international community, we cannot allow that to happen. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House details about what is being done to assist diplomats on the ground in Ukraine—including UK diplomats—to document war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian military so that those incidents can be escalated to the International Criminal Court?
As the war morphs into a protracted conflict, there is an increasing danger of Ukraine fatigue creeping into the UK public. Statistics published recently show that amid hiked UK energy prices, the UK public’s support for continuing economic sanctions against Russia has fallen from 73% in March to 41% this month. What are the UK Government doing to militate against Ukraine fatigue? Will they commit to a public campaign to remind the electorate why we are supporting Ukraine and what they can continue doing to help?
Food security is also of grave concern. Twelve grain export ships have left Ukraine today, despite Russia pulling out of the Turkey and UN-brokered grain deal. The need for reliable grain supplies is acute, particularly in regions such as the horn of Africa. Russia, as the aggressor in the war, has already made itself an international pariah, and it cannot continue to do so by actively restricting food supplies to famine and drought-affected regions of the world. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore outline the steps that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking alongside international allies to get Russian officials back into talks for the deal? Will he confirm whether UK officials are assisting their Turkish counterparts in their efforts to secure the grain deal?
Finally, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on sanctions on Iran, given that it has supplied drones to Russia that have targeted civilians in Ukraine? He rightly said to the shadow Foreign Secretary that he would not give detail, but will he commit to giving regular updates to the House?
The hon. Lady raises a number of very important points. On Iran, I can assure her that we constantly review our sanctions designations. We will ensure that we respond to any further breaches of the UN Security Council resolution on supplying arms to the conflict.
The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point about the documentation of war crimes. I had meetings with Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, with regard to the documentation of war crimes to ensure that perpetrators know they will be held to account for the actions they have taken.
We recognise that this winter will be tough for people in the UK—our energy support package is designed to alleviate some of the pressure, but we recognise that it will be tough. However, I think the British people instinctively understand that if we slip back from our support of the Ukrainians in this incredibly difficult time, globally, the costs in lives, in food supplies, in energy supplies and to families in the UK will be huge. As difficult as it is—and I recognise it is difficult for everyone at this time—it is essential that we continue our support for Ukraine, because the costs of inaction will be so much higher.