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Commons Chamber

Volume 726: debated on Monday 16 January 2023

House of Commons

Monday 16 January 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]


Committee of Selection


That Richard Thomson be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Peter Grant be added.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

1. What steps her Department is taking to improve the (a) recruitment and (b) retention of teachers. (903047)

Our fantastic teachers do an amazing job day in, day out, and I am proud to say that we have increased the number of teachers by 24,000 since 2010. Recruitment and retention has been a key challenge in every industry, in every country and in every Department that I have worked in. Whether attracting data analysts at the start of the dotcom era, or broadening the routes into healthcare professions, it is always a challenge. We are bolstering teacher numbers through the highest pay award for 30 years and we are providing generous bursaries worth up to £27,000, as well as our levelling-up premium, which is worth up to £3,000 each year for five years for maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers.

The National Foundation for Educational Research says today that a strategy for improving recruitment and retention should involve

“pay uplifts that are higher than pay growth in the wider labour market for most or all teachers”.

Does the Secretary of State agree? Is it not the case that she cannot address the crisis until she gives teachers and support staff the fully funded, inflation-plus pay rise that they deserve?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. In 2019, we launched the Government’s first ever integrated strategy to recruit and retain more teachers in schools, which had a number of different strands in it, including supporting teachers on the way in, recruiting more, and various routes into teaching. Of course, we have an independent pay review body and this year we accepted all its recommendations in full.[Official Report, 25 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 9MC.]

On Friday morning, I was privileged to attend St Paulinus Church of England Primary School in Crayford to speak with teachers and to answer pupils’ questions. As my right hon. Friend knows, an inspirational teacher is often key to opening opportunities for a young person’s future. What more can the Government do to help to retain more of those good, aspirational teachers?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work. Many of us have a treat on a Friday when we go into our fantastic schools and meet lots of children. The early career framework, which was introduced last year, is focused on trying to ensure that we support teachers, particularly in the first five years, so that we retain more of them. The figures show that the risk of retention is in those first five years, so we have put a lot of work and effort into making sure that we support them more during that period.

Of course, recruitment and retention of teachers is important, but all hon. Members will prioritise keeping schoolchildren safe from sexual predators. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the Scottish child abuse inquiry, detailing the horrific allegations from a number of witnesses to events at Edinburgh Academy and Fettes College by an individual referred to as Edgar. I have a number of constituents who have complaints against Edgar. This man has admitted to inappropriate behaviour and is currently fighting extradition from South Africa, where he has been publicly named. There is a precedent in England where another alleged abuser living in South Africa, whose extradition has been sought, has been publicly named. We now know that dozens of boys have come forward to the police with allegations against the man referred to as Edgar. It is important that others who were abused by this man can come forward. It is right that his crimes against children are named and it is also right that he is now named. It is for this reason that it is in the public interest that the real name of Edgar—that is, Iain Wares—is now publicly known.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime and the Government are sympathetic to the victims and survivors of such abuse. As set out in November in response to the final report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, it is important that due process is followed to allow investigatory and legal processes to take place to maximise the chances of conviction.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to raise starting salaries for teachers to £30,000 a year and that the pension entitlement that teachers enjoy is far higher than those earning the same wage in the private sector?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In line with our manifesto commitment to raise the starting salary, it is £28,000 this year and it will be £30,000 from September next year. I can confirm that the employer contribution to teachers’ pensions is 23.6%, which is considerably higher than for many in the private sector.

The Secretary of State says she wants to support teachers, particularly in the first five years, and that the £30,000 a year salary will kick in next year. In London, people often move after about five years because they simply cannot afford to rent privately or buy in the capital. What is she doing, both in the immediate and the long term, to make sure that we keep good teachers in London?

The hon. Lady may be aware that we have a London weighting for teachers, but I accept that the costs of accommodation in London are extremely high in some areas.

It is, indeed, a treat to visit schools. On Friday, I visited the brilliant Horndean Technology College, where I was told that there are 20 ways of getting into teaching, but still schools are struggling to get teachers. What more can we do to slim down those 20 ways, which seem rather a lot, and ensure that we have well-qualified teachers to teach pupils to a high standard?

One of the main things we are doing is making sure that we have bursaries to attract teachers, particularly in subjects where there is a lot of competition for those skills. I am actually hoping to increase the number of routes, because we are looking to have an apprenticeship for teaching at undergraduate level, so that people who need to earn and learn can also be attracted into teaching.

Having dumped the Schools Bill, the only education policy this Government seem to have is a gimmick announcement on making maths compulsory until 18, a plan that experts say is unachievable in the light of the teacher recruitment crisis. What discussion did the Secretary of State have with the Prime Minister before his announcement, because surely she would have told him it was unworkable, given that the Government have missed their recruitment target for maths teachers in each of the last 10 years?

We very much have a focus on making sure that our standards are very high in schools and that our children have the very best education to compete globally when they need to get into the workforce. If we look at every other developed economy, we see that in pretty much all of them children do maths in some form up to the age of 18, and we are a bit of an outlier. We are looking to raise the expectations and standards to make sure that our children can compete, and to also give them financial skills for life. Of course, we will work with the sector, and it is a longer-term strategy to make sure that we have enough maths teachers. We have a number of strategies already in place, because it is always tough to recruit maths teachers, and that is why we have introduced a bursary of up to £27,000 for all maths teachers and also for many science teachers.

Children with SEND and their Families: Support

3. What steps she is taking to improve support for (a) children with special educational needs and disabilities and (b) their families. (903049)

10. What steps her Department is taking to support schools with pupils with special educational needs. (903057)

All children, no matter their special educational need or disability, deserve the right support to be able to succeed. We will be publishing a full response to the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper in an improvement plan early this year, and we continue to work closely with children, families and education, healthcare and local government sectors on this very important issue.

Today is Blue Monday, and I am sure that both you, Mr Speaker, and the Education Secretary will be pleased to know that, following our event last year, the band New Order and the charity CALM—the Campaign Against Living Miserably—have teamed up together today to urge people not to hold back from seeking help with their mental health if they need it. However, as we discussed at that event, too many children are facing unconscionable delays in getting assessed and in getting support. Too many children risk being damaged for life as a result, so will the Minister please get a move on and bring forward the response to the SEND review consultation? Children should not have to wait any longer.

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are working incredibly hard, and we will be publishing a response imminently. In the meantime, we are rolling out training on mental health to all schools across the country, and I am working very hard with my counterparts at the Department for Health and Social Care to make sure that, when we look at the proposals on SEND, they are brought fully into the picture as well.

Many parents in Oxfordshire are unhappy with the county council for a variety of reasons—from emails that are never answered, to education, health and care plans that come back with wrong child’s details, to long delays in receiving EHCPs. My hon. Friend will know that many parents want an EHCP because it has become the only way to get support for their children, though this might not have been necessary had they received support from the school at an earlier stage. What steps is she taking to address this?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me several time. One key part of the reforms set out in the SEND Green Paper will be clear standards about what help children with different SEND needs should be getting at school. That will give parents greater transparency and accountability regarding what their child should reasonably get, and also means that children will get the early help that my hon. Friend so rightly talks about.

The Minister will be aware that Devon’s children’s services have been failing for many years, with special educational needs a particular problem. Following the latest inspector’s damning report, the county council has belatedly appointed a new head of children’s services. Will the Minister make clear to the political leadership of Devon County Council that if things do not improve quickly, she will have no hesitation in stripping Devon of its responsibility for children’s services?

We work with all areas that are struggling to provide SEND services through our regions group work, our delivering better value programmes, and our safety valve programmes. I will, of course, look at the issue carefully, and we always step in and act when we need to.

One of the best ways in which young people with SEND can be supported is by remaining in the local area to be educated. That is why I am delighted that, thanks to a significant amount of Government investment, Middlehurst School, which is currently sitting empty, is now being built to create 80 new SEND school places. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Councillor Janine Bridges from Stoke-on-Trent City Council on that amazing work, and will she pledge to come and open that school when it is ready, hopefully at the end of this year?

I absolutely commend the work of Councillor Janine Bridges. It sounds as if she is doing a tremendous job to increase the number of places for SEND children. I would also be delighted to come and see whether I can open the school.

Childcare: Accessibility, Affordability and Quality

4. What steps she plans to take to improve the (a) accessibility, (b) affordability and (c) quality of childcare. (903051)

I know how important childcare is to the Chair of the Education Committee, and I look forward to his Committee’s report on that issue. Getting this right is fundamentally important for parents and children, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing is considering all options to improve the cost, flexibility and availability of childcare and, crucially, outcomes for children. It may interest Opposition Members to know that since 2010 we have doubled Labour’s offer of free childcare for three to four-year-olds, from 15 to 30 hours. We have also introduced 15 hours a week of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and parents on universal credit can claim back up to 85% of their childcare costs.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, and she is right to set out what has been achieved. She will recognise that access to affordable and high-quality childcare is high on the agenda of parents and Members across the House, and as she said, the Education Committee is looking into that issue. There has been much speculation in the media as to whether this issue remains a priority for the Government. Will she reassure me and the Committee that she plans further reform and investment in this space?

I reassure my hon. Friend and the whole House that childcare is important to this Government —indeed, I met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about this issue only last week. Helping working families to take up childcare and remain in work is a Government priority, and we have taken steps to ensure that that happens. We want to ensure that people benefit from a lot of the schemes we have in place, as some of them are underutilised. We have a £1.2 million Childcare Choices campaign to increase the use of such schemes, but we will go further. We are considering all options to improve the affordability and availability of childcare and, crucially, outcomes for children.

Sadly, childcare is not the only thing that parents are struggling to afford, and I am grateful to Karen Taylor from Rooted in Hull for drawing to my attention work done by the Child Poverty Action Group on poverty proofing schools. That provides a toolkit for schools to look at their academic year, identify times when they are asking parents to pay money, and try to find ways to alleviate that and reduce the costs to parents. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging many schools up and down the country, academy chains and headteachers, to look at that toolkit and do what they can to reduce the costs associated with sending children to school?

Of course we are always focused on what more we can do. We obviously have pupil premium funding, school uniform guidance and the highest number of children benefiting from free school meals, and in deprived areas we have introduced breakfast clubs. We all know that economically, times are tough, which is why we are very much focused on trying to get inflation down and on the Prime Minister’s pledge to halve inflation this year.

Childcare is essential social infrastructure that underpins our economy by supporting parents to work. Yet in 2022, more than 5,000 childcare providers closed, and more than half of all local authority areas saw a net loss of childcare places. The Government have admitted that they pay providers less than it costs them to deliver so-called free childcare places, and with energy bills and wages going up from April, many more providers are at risk of closure. A crisis in our early years sector is happening right now. What are the Government going to do to stop further childcare providers closing?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Actually, Ofsted data shows that the number of childcare places has remained broadly stable at 1.3 million since August 2015. At the spending review in 2021 we announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million in 2023-24 and £170 million in 2024-25 compared with the 2021-22 financial year. That will allow local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers.

Further Education: Revenue Funding

We are transforming people’s life chances by enabling them to climb the education and skills ladder of opportunity. On 9 January, we announced that in financial year 2023-24 we will increase funding rates to invest a further £125 million in 16-to-19 education. Some £18.5 million has been invested in 16-to-19 education in institutions that cover the Waveney constituency.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Taking into account both the urgent need to address acute skills shortages in key sectors of the economy and the fact that participation in adult education fell from 4.4 million in 2003-04 to 1.5 million in 2019-20, it is vital that further education capacity is significantly expanded. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor highlighted the importance of investment in skills in his autumn statement. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could set out the work that has been done to meet that challenge ahead of the spring statement.

My hon. Friend is an FE champion; I welcome his question. He will be pleased to know that we are investing in resources, increasing skills funding by £3.8 billion over the Parliament, investing in quality qualifications such as T-levels, higher technical qualifications, free level 3 courses, bootcamps and apprenticeships. We are also investing in infrastructure, rolling out 21 institutes of technology, spending £290 million.

Come on, my old friend—the Minister can do better than that. The fact of the matter is that further education is still a Cinderella service. When will he wake up to the fact that we desperately need more skilled people in our country and that the FE sector is the one area where we could do real investment that would pay back quickly? I like the Minister a lot—we are old friends—and urge him to get his act together and put some real heft into further education.

The hon. Gentleman describes FE as a Cinderella service, but I remind him that Cinderella became a member of the royal family and it is this Government who are banishing the two ugly sisters of under-resourcing and snobbery about further education and skills. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), we are investing £3.8 billion extra in skills in this Parliament and £1.6 billion extra for FE, increasing the number of hours of learning for students. I am proud of the Government’s approach to further education and skills.

The Minister was a huge champion for the FE sector when he was Chair of the Education Committee, so it is depressing to hear him now speaking up for the Government. Their funding settlements for FE colleges are the worst in post-war history—and that is not just my view but that of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose analysis exposes that per-student funding fell 14% in real terms between 2010 and 2019. Is not the reality that, after 13 years of this Government, only the election of a Labour Government will allow our colleges to play the role that we truly need from them?

That is wishful thinking on the part of the hon. Gentleman. The Government are increasing investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25. We will be investing an extra £1.6 billion in 16-to-19 education over the same period of time. That includes £500 million a year for T-levels. I mentioned the £290 million being spent on institutes of technology and we have committed £1.5 billion to an upgrade of the FE college estate in England over the next few years. The Government are investing in, and championing, further education and skills. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that.

Alternative Provision Settings

6. What steps her Department is taking to help improve outcomes in alternative provision settings. [R] (903053)

As set out in our special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper published in March, our ambitious alternative provision reforms will keep all children in AP with the right support in the right setting at the right time. Our reforms will enable children with medical needs or behaviour that present barriers to learning to have the support, skills and confidence they need to thrive.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of the children I have met in the youth justice system have been excluded from mainstream schools and instead sent to alternative provision. Standards are often very good, but sadly that is far from always the case. Indeed, the Youth Justice Board, on which I used to sit, said:

“An improvement in standards and practice across alternative provision is needed.”

What action is the Minister taking to ensure that alternative provision is not a dumping ground for difficult pupils who mainstream schools want to exclude, and that, by contrast, there is always high-quality teaching and welfare support in AP?

My hon. Friend is a passionate believer in youth justice—in fact, I think that is what we spoke about the first time we met—and he is right to be concerned about this area. There are some great AP settings—I was talking to Mark Vickers of Olive Academies recently—but we know that some settings are delivering very poor outcomes for young people. I am really excited about our proposals on AP. I think they will be transformational and I am happy to discuss them further with my hon. Friend.

Funding for alternative provision for children who are unwell peters out after the age of 16. There was no mention of colleges in last November’s autumn statement. I spoke to a constituent in Devon this morning whose son has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is unable to get the online tuition he needs from our local college. When will colleges receive additional revenue funding so they are able to afford alternative provision for children diagnosed with illnesses like my constituent?

As part of the reforms we are setting out, we will develop a bespoke national alternative framework that will include looking at standards and sustainable post-16 destinations. I am happy to discuss that further with the hon. Gentleman once we publish our proposals.

Family Hubs and Start for Life Programme

7. What progress she has made with Cabinet colleagues on the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme. (903054)

22. What progress she has made with Cabinet colleagues on the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme. (903070)

Family hubs are one-stop shops that make it easier for families to get the support they need and I strongly support them. The Government are investing £300 million in the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme, and 75 local authorities will begin to open hubs later this year.

East Sussex County Council submitted an excellent bid for a network of family hubs across East Sussex. Family hubs are a part of the solution to many national and local issues, and now more than ever are vital to many of our local communities. In addition to the roll-out of family hubs, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that this fantastic policy has long-term funding to maximise long-term benefits?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We are funding 75 councils for the current spending review period. I have no doubt that the excellent work in East Sussex, led by Becky Shaw and her excellent team, and across the country will make the case for further investment.

I am very proud of the work the Government are doing with family hubs, early years and Start for Life. To give babies the very best start to life, every community in Wales has a cylch meithrin—an informal group of mothers, babies and young children. Care within the community is almost a tradition in Wales, but formal support for early years is more variable across Wales. What arrangements are there for sharing or exchanging best practice with the Welsh Government on such important areas?

We have regular meetings with all the devolved authorities, and we share ideas about what we are doing and our policies so that we can learn from one another. There is no monopoly on good ideas; we are always open to listening and sharing.

Since the publication of the independent review of children’s social care, which will also improve the use of family hubs, hundreds of children have been taken into care while millions in profits have been put into the private sector. When will the Secretary of State publish the Government’s delayed response to the review? Will she look at York being a pilot to ensure that we can move forward quickly?

I assure the hon. Lady that the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho)—is working actively on the matter. The response will be published soon, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be happy to discuss further how we will roll that out and implement it.

Maintained Nursery Schools

Maintained nursery schools make an invaluable contribution to improving the lives of disadvantaged children. We are investing an additional £10 million in their supplementary funding from 2023-24, taking the total to approximately £70 million. We are reforming the distribution of the funding to make it fairer, ensuring that all authorities with maintained nursery schools receive supplementary funding.

I warmly welcome that extra funding, because it means for the first time that maintained nursery schools in Barnet will get a share of the supplementary funding. Will the Minister join me in welcoming that funding and express her strong support for the maintained nursery school sector in the future?

My right hon. Friend has consistently and passionately campaigned for the maintained nursery school sector. I agree that it is doing an excellent job, not only in supporting some of the most disadvantaged children, but in sharing expertise and knowledge with other providers.

Sadly, Midford Road Nursery in my constituency was forced to close its doors. Staff shortages were the major reason. Many nurseries in Bath face similar problems, and parents struggle to find alternatives. What advice would the Minister give to parents in Bath who are struggling to find a nursery?

We have increased the funding set out for early years by about half a billion pounds since 2020-21. I agree that workforce is an issue; we are looking at recruitment and retention very carefully and will be setting out proposals as and when we can.

School Buildings

In December, I announced a further 239 schools that will benefit from large-scale rebuilding and refurbishment projects as part of our school rebuilding programme, which will transform 500 schools across the country. I saw the huge impact that our investments are having at Coundon Court, where I met the headteacher Mr Heal and his students, who were very excited at the prospect of their new classrooms and design and tech and science labs. As Conservatives, we are investing in the future not only of the next generation, but of generations to come. On top of that, we have allocated more than £13 billion to improving school buildings since 2015, including £1.8 billion this year.

I welcome the recent addition of the King Edward VII Academy to the school rebuilding programme, following the inclusion of Smithdon High School in an earlier round, and the new investment that is coming to North West Norfolk. However, given Smithdon’s grade II* listed status and the complexity that it brings, can my right hon. Friend assure me that funding for the school is protected? Will Ministers meet me to ensure that we get the heritage and other permissions we need as rapidly as possible?

My Department is working closely with heritage and planning officers to ensure that we can address the condition of Smithdon High School as quickly as possible, while recognising the listed status of the buildings. We are working on the project with Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, and we would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and provide an update on progress.

In Hyndburn and Haslingden, we received the fantastic news just before Christmas that the Hyndburn Academy and Haslingden High School will be included in the next round of the school rebuilding programme. I eagerly await the next round so that schools in my patch, such as The Hollins, can apply. Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether school rebuilding programme funding can be used, in conjunction with other investment, for initiatives that benefit not only the school but the wider community?

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question. We encourage schools to play a positive role in their community, and many choose to provide access to sports and other facilities. The school rebuilding programme directly commissions projects rather than providing funding to schools, so, where feasible, we include additional facilities beyond the scope of a project, if it is funded by the local trust or the local authority. We are interested in making sure that school facilities benefit the wider community.

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), visited Joseph Leckie Academy, which really helped, and I had a good meeting with the heads of Joseph Leckie and Blue Coat Church of England Academies along with my friend the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). However, the schools still lost out. Will the Secretary of State, or one of her Ministers, meet those two heads and me to find out why on earth they cannot succeed in obtaining funds for vital repairs?

Obviously some schools are disappointed that they did not have access to those funds. We have announced funding for 400 schools so far and a further 100 will be included in future rounds, but we would be happy to meet the right hon. Lady.

A Schools Week investigation found that at least 40 schools contained so-called aero-concrete, while 150 more needed further investigation. Officials described the concrete as

“life-expired and liable to collapse”,

which is extremely alarming. NHS England says that it will take until 2035 to remove aero-concrete from all our hospitals; will we be waiting as long as that for it to be removed from our schools?

Last year the Government published updated guidance on identifying and managing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. In March 2022, all schools were asked to complete a questionnaire about their knowledge of RAAC and its presence in their buildings and asking how, if they had it, they were managing it. We help schools where its presence is confirmed by providing the appropriate technical support, and we want to ensure that we continue that programme.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Many schools and colleges already mark Holocaust Memorial Day—I have attended such a remembrance service at Harlow College—and they work closely with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, two institutions that the Government support. That is all the more important given the 128 incidents of antisemitism in one year in our higher education institutions, and the fact that, sadly, such incidents are now at an all-time high.

As well as educating children about the horrors of the holocaust and the second world war, can we take the opportunity to educate children about the tremendous courage, bravery and sacrifices of the Righteous Among the Nations? Many people on the continent gave up their lives to protect their Jewish friends and neighbours. One example was a member of my family, Jan Kawczynski, his wife Helena and their 13-year-old daughter Magdalena, who were all shot by the Germans for protecting and hiding their Jewish friends and neighbours on their estate in western Poland. As well as educating children about the misery of the holocaust, we must give them inspiration from the fact that many of our brothers and sisters in occupied Europe made the ultimate sacrifice to protect friends and neighbours of the Jewish faith.

Hear, hear. It was very moving to hear of the experience of my hon. Friend’s family, and I entirely agree with him: we must teach and remind people that there were many righteous Gentiles who suffered while doing everything possible to save Jews. A famous Polish lady, Irena Sendler, saved 2,000 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghettos, and was remembered in a special exhibition in the House of Commons in 2018, which I was pleased to attend. My hon. Friend has made a powerful point, and I am sure that schools up and down the country will be listening to what he says.


We are improving the quality of apprenticeships, and Ofsted will be inspecting every apprenticeship provider by 2025. All providers have been asked to re-enrol on the register of apprenticeship training providers. We are intervening to help apprentices and employers as well.

My local college, Eastleigh College, works alongside 700 regional employers to deliver high-quality apprenticeships all the way to degree level. Last year nearly a third of apprenticeship starts were at the higher level. What steps are the Government taking to broaden the routes into technical education and increase the number of higher-level apprenticeship starts?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there have been more than 10,800 apprenticeship starts in his constituency since 2010. We are investing £2.7 billion in apprenticeships by 2025. We are spending £8 million of that on promoting degree-level apprenticeships. We have a big recruitment campaign, Fire It Up, to encourage more apprentices. We are transforming careers advice on apprenticeships in schools and colleges, We pay non-levy-payer small businesses the vast majority of their training costs when they hire apprentices.

Political Impartiality Guidance for Schools

The law is clear that schools must prohibit the promotion of partisan political views and take steps to ensure the balanced presentation of opposing views on political issues when they are taught. Guidance to schools on political impartiality was published in February 2022. It summarises the legal position and states that clear and proportionate steps should be taken to ensure that those legal duties are met.

You do not have to be a historian, Mr Speaker, to understand the dangers of indoctrinating children, yet YouGov polling for Policy Exchange shows that the majority of UK children are being taught political ideology as fact in school. That includes gender ideology that children can be born in the wrong body and men can have babies; critical race theories that race is a social construct; or sex positivity, such as in the document I have here that instructs teachers of children with learning disabilities to simulate sexual arousal on anatomically correct dolls while playing sexy music in class. These are not isolated incidents but are endemic in our schools. The guidance is not working. What does the Minister intend to do about it?

The guidance on political impartiality makes it very clear that when teaching about sensitive political issues relating to discrimination teachers should be mindful of avoiding the promotion of partisan views or presenting contested theories as fact. Schools need to ensure that any resources used in the classroom, particularly those produced by an external organisation, are age-appropriate, suitable and politically impartial. Schools should consult parents and share lesson materials when parents ask to see them.

Free School Meals

14. What assessment she has made of the potential merits of extending the eligibility criteria for free school meals. (903062)

The Government support the provision of nutritious food in schools, which ensures that children are well-nourished, develop healthy eating habits and can concentrate and learn. Some 1.9 million pupils are eligible for free school meals. That is an increase from 2021, when 1.7 million pupils were eligible. In large part, the increase is due to protections put in place to support families as they move to universal credit. In addition, 1.25 million pupils are eligible under the universal infant free school meal programme.

Each month, 4 million children experience food insecurity, go to bed hungry and set off to school on an empty stomach. To tackle this injustice, my free school meals for all Bill would guarantee that every child in England had a hot, healthy meal each day, just as they do in Scotland and Wales. It could be paid for twice over by removing the private schools’ £1.7 billion tax break, a move that the Conservative party on the Government Benches blocked last week. My Bill is due to get its Second Reading on Friday. Will the Minister back my Bill, or does he believe that protecting tax breaks for elite private schools is more important than feeding hungry children?

The Government have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any Government over the past century, including Labour Governments, increasing numbers from 1.7 million to 1.9 million children. This Government introduced an extension to 85,000 students in further education colleges, new eligibility for some children of families with no recourse to public funds, and a scheme for 1.25 million children in infant schools.

The Levelling Up Secretary said in October that extending free school meal provision would be the most timely, effective and targeted of all public health interventions that this Government could make. The Scottish Government have already committed to universal free school meals for primary children. Does the Minister agree with his colleague? If not, what targeted interventions would he make to tackle child hunger?

We are spending £1.6 billion a year on free school meals for children. We want to make sure that that funding is targeted at the most needy. That is precisely what is happening. We accept the point, and I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that free school meals are provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who cannot afford meals at lunchtime—and we are doing that. As I said, we have increased the number of children eligible for benefit-related free school meals from 1.7 million to 1.9 million pupils.


16. What recent assessment her Department has made of the impact of inflation on (a) school budgets and (b) the costs to parents associated with the school day. (903064)

Schools, like families and businesses across the world, are facing global inflationary pressures. The Prime Minister has pledged to halve inflation, and school funding will increase by £2 billion next year as well as the year after that. This will be the highest real-terms spending on schools in history, totalling £58.8 billion by 2024-25. In 2010, school funding stood at £35 billion, so we will be delivering a 68% increase in cash terms. The Government have also announced further support for parents worth £26 billion next year.

In addition to having grave concerns about recruiting and retaining teachers, schools in Slough and across our country continue to struggle with their budgets, with a quarter of primary school senior leaders reporting that they have had to cut outings and trips due to budgetary constraints. How will the Government ensure that children do not miss out on these vital opportunities?

The autumn statement announced significant additional investment in core schools funding. The core schools budget will increase by £2 billion in 2023-24 and 2024-25. That will be paid into schools’ bank accounts in April, and I am sure they will welcome that additional funding.[Official Report, 25 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 10MC.]

School Rebuilding Programme Funding: Northumberland

17. If she will make an assessment of the adequacy of the level of school rebuilding programme funding allocated to schools in Northumberland. (903065)

Two schools in Northumberland are prioritised for the school rebuilding programme, including Ringway Primary School in the hon. Member’s constituency. Schools were nominated by local authorities and trusts, and selected according to the condition of their buildings following a robust assessment process. This is in addition to the £5.8 million of school condition allocation funding for Northumberland County Council in this financial year.

The Department’s own report now reclassifies the risk of school buildings collapsing as critical and very urgent. Despite the sterling efforts of headteachers and staff to keep school buildings in decent condition, many children in my constituency are taught in buildings far below the standards they should expect. Despite what the Minister has just said, can he tell the House when adequate funding will be made readily available to bring all schools in my constituency up to scratch?

We have allocated £13 billion since 2015 to school buildings and maintenance. In May 2022, for example, the Government announced the outcome of the condition improvement fund bids for 2022-23. That will provide £500 million for 1,400 projects at 1,100 schools and sixth forms. The CIF is for individual schools and groups of schools. In addition, £1.1 billion of school condition allocations was made to local authorities and large groups of academies. We take this issue very seriously and we want to make sure that all our schools are in the best possible condition for pupils to be able to learn.

Cost of Living: Students

My Department has made a one-off reallocation of funding to add £15 million to this year’s student premium, now worth £276 million. Universities can support disadvantaged students by drawing on this student premium and their own hardship funds, and many universities such as Newcastle and Northumbria have allocated funds to support disadvantaged students.

Newcastle University student union’s recent cost of living crisis survey revealed that 41% of students had considered dropping out due to financial pressures. They are trying to balance studying with part-time and full-time jobs, and they feel increasingly isolated and exhausted. The student union food bank is restocked daily and is emptied quickly, with the record being within seven minutes. The Minister knows that his additional hardship fund works out at about £10 per student, and students are £1,500 worse off because of the mismanagement of maintenance loans. Why is he punishing students like this?

Of course I recognise that some students are facing hardship with the cost of living challenges, like many people up and down the country. The £276 million is a lot of money that universities can draw on. As I mentioned, there has been an increase of £15 million. Students in private accommodation can get a £400 rebate on their energy bills. We have frozen tuition fees for the past few years; by 2024-25, they will have been frozen for seven years. We have increased maximum loans and grants by 2.8% and if students’ incomes fall below a certain level, they can reapply to get their loans looked at. I really welcome the fact that Newcastle University has increased the package of support available to students to more than £1.7 million—

As we hear, the cost of living crisis is serious for everyone, but students in particular are facing real hardship. Independent economists estimate that many students will be up to £1,500 worse off this year. Given the Government’s current focus on maths, can the Minister explain how his Government calculated an increase of just 2.8% in the maintenance loan, following 2.3% this year, when the rolling average inflation rate is running at 9.3%?

We have to be fair to students, but we have to be fair to the taxpayer as well. We recognise student hardship, which is why we increased the student premium by £15 million to £276 million. Universities have their own hardship funds, and I highlighted the £1.7 million given by Newcastle University. Universities across the country are helping disadvantaged students. Students whose family income falls below a certain level can apply to the Student Loans Company to have their loan reassessed.

Topical Questions

Given this is my first Education questions of 2023, Mr Speaker, I would like to wish you, the House and everyone working in our education sector a happy new year, and to share some of what is to come from my Department.

Later this month, along with the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), I will be announcing our comprehensive plan to reform children’s social care. Soon after, we will return to bring forward our transformational improvement plans to support children with special educational needs.

I hope Members will join me in celebrating National Apprenticeship Week in February, and in April our schools will have something to celebrate as they receive their funding, which will include the £2 billion uplift announced at the autumn statement. This will see overall funding rise by 15% in just two years. We are investing more in our schools than ever before. By 2024-25, it will be £58.8 billion, the highest real-terms spending in history.

Special educational needs provision in school matters. So many parents contact me either because they cannot access such provision or because it is inadequate. One family with two neurodiverse children suffering from bullying and self-harm found that their school’s SEN policy did not even mention autism or neurodiversity. The Minister said this morning that the Government’s response to the review will be published imminently. Can she confirm that it will be published within the month and that the clear standards she mentioned will be enforced?

I take special educational needs very seriously, as does the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing. It will be published very soon, so there is not long to wait. I am sure the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will be delighted with the improvement plan, which we will publish very early in the new year.

T2. My constituent Hayley Turner is an inspirational campaigner for special educational needs, which she has improved enormously across the whole area. Evidence shows that early diagnosis and autism interventions are paramount to ensuring that children get the help they need. Hayley now uses her experience to help many others in the community. What are the Government doing to help neurodevelopmental services and to recruit educational psychologists? (903073)

Order. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman knows this is topical questions? You cannot just go on and on. We have to get through the questions for everyone’s sake.

I commend Hayley for the work she does. Access to educational psychologists is of paramount importance so that people can get an early diagnosis. We are funding an additional 600 educational psychologists —200 in 2023 and 400 in 2024.

The Department for Education has raised the risk rating of school buildings collapsing to “critical/very likely”. In December, the schools Minister undertook to publish the data on these dangerous buildings by the end of the year, yet parents, staff and pupils are still in the dark. When will the Secretary of State finally publish this data and own up to the extent of her failure?

As I said earlier, our spending for capital funding in the schools system since 2015 has been £13 billion. We take the safety of schools very seriously. As the Secretary of State said regarding reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, we have written to all schools asking them to complete a questionnaire. As for publishing the data, the Department has already published summary findings from the condition data collection and we plan to publish more detailed data shortly. The condition data collections help us to understand the condition of schools, and we will publish as and when the data is ready.

Order. I call Bridget Phillipson to ask her second question. We are going to have to speed it up folks in order to get through.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. There was no answer there, even though the schools Minister said we would see this data last year.

Conservative Members have described their childcare policy as “crazy” and “unnecessarily expensive”, and said that they should “get on” with reforming it. I agree, which is why the next Labour Government will deliver a modern childcare system from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. If even the Secretary of State’s own colleagues can see the case for change, why can’t she?

The hon. Lady will find that when Labour was in power for 13 years it did nothing on this issue and that it was the Conservative Government who expanded the offer for two, three and four-year-olds for parents. I would love to see the costings of her proposals because I think she is proposing yet more pie in the sky for parents. However, we take this issue seriously and we are committed to increasing the flexibility and affordability of childcare for parents.

T3.   I welcome the Secretary of State’s brief update just now on the special educational needs and disabilities Green Paper. It is right to get the correct support to families and young people as early as possible. However, the Green Paper was also right to talk about a truly inclusive education system. What progress will the 9,000 young people in Norfolk with education, health and care plans see in 2023? (903074)

I hope that the 9,000 children will see progress. Not only have we increased the overall funding for SEND by about 50% since 2019, but we are increasing the number of specialist school places. In the reforms, we will be setting out national standards, which I hope will also improve their educational experience.

As a former teacher, I support the right of our teachers to strike and will oppose this Government’s anti-strike legislation. Does the Secretary of State agree that constructive dialogue with our dedicated teachers is vital, rather than demonising them as “Bolsheviks” and “commies”, as one of her colleagues has disgracefully done?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I always believe in constructive dialogue. The very first meeting I took as we welcomed in the new year was with all four main teaching unions, and I will be meeting them again later this week.

T5. If we are levelling up, and trying to recruit and train more teachers in the north-east, why on earth has the outstanding Carmel College in my constituency been stripped of its accreditation to train teachers by a tick-box, form-filling exercise, destroying 20 years of hard work and leaving the north-east worse off? (903076)

I have visited Carmel College and I know what a good school it is. The initial teacher training reforms are a key part of the Government’s commitment to levelling up and ensuring that high-quality teachers are there for every child. Following an expert review, a robust accreditation process was undertaken to approve 179 providers, covering all regions, including the north-east. ITT provision is also expanding through the partnership. I know that my hon. Friend discussed this matter with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and I would be happy to meet him to discuss his concerns.

T4. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and I held a meeting with parents about SEND provision. Barnsley has one of the highest numbers of EHC plans in the country. What resources will the Government commit to ensure that provision is improved where it is needed most? (903075)

I can tell the hon. Lady that the high needs funding for Barnsley has increased by 12% year on year for 2023-24 and it will be more than £40 million in total. It will also receive £7 million for high needs provision capital from 2023-25 to increase the number of places.

T6. [R] I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am glad to hear that the children’s social care review response from the Government is going to come out shortly and that the Government have set up an implementation board to progress its findings. More than 80% of children in care are in the care of the independent sector, yet that implementation board has refused to allow any representative from that sector on to that board. Why? (903077)

I am committed to reform in children’s social care across all sectors. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), has been working hard in partnership with the national implementation board and the wider sector to design a plan for reform that will introduce meaningful change for children and families. It is quite a small group, and we have deliberately kept it small, but I will ask my hon. Friend to take a look and check that it is representative.

T10. The number of PE teachers has fallen by nearly 3,000 in the past 10 years, and the number of hours of PE taught by 36,000. With nearly a third of young people currently classed as inactive, what will the Government do to stop physical activity flatlining and make sure that young people can get the social, physical and mental benefits of PE in schools? (903081)

We have met the target for PE teacher recruitment for most of the past 10 years. We have the school sport and activity action plan in place, and there is a new plan being worked on at the moment. We take sport in schools very seriously; it is important for physical and mental health and for academic attainment.

T8. Parents of children with special educational needs feel that they are constantly battling to be heard and for their children to lead fulfilling lives. Some Stroud children are getting only a few hours of schooling each week, which is hugely disruptive for family and child. I am working with Gloucestershire County Council’s Phil Robinson to improve day-to-day experiences for Stroud families, but what is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that the local authorities and parents are key to implementing the new reforms? (903079)

I am really exercised about this issue. I speak to parents of children with SEND all the time, and I do think that they find the experience very adversarial. I will be setting out more details in the implementation strategy shortly, but this is something that I care very passionately about.

The current national school breakfast programme reaches only one quarter of the children living in areas with high levels of deprivation in England. Labour has set out our universal free breakfast offer, which will mean that no child will be too hungry to learn. When will the Government join the Labour party in that commitment?

We are spending £30 million between 2021 and 2024 on the school breakfast programme, which offers free breakfast to children in disadvantaged areas, supporting their attainment and readiness to learn. The focus of the breakfast provision has been to target the most disadvantaged areas of the country, and that has been our strategy.

T9. Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that four out of five dyslexic children still leave school not identified, and that teachers still do not have to be trained to support dyslexic children specifically? It was a pleasure to meet the Minister last week, but will she ensure that, in future, early intervention is put in place for the identification of dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions? (903080)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his collaborative approach in the meeting that we had last week. Absolutely, early identification is key, and we have been looking very carefully at that and at teaching training in the implementation plan that I will be setting out shortly.

On new year’s eve, the care community lost a highly respected dear friend and true advocate. Ian Dickson spent his entire life making a difference to children in care and urging Governments to listen to them. The care review does not have all the answers, so will the Minister please implement the recommendations of the pioneering care experienced conference, in which Ian played a leading role?

I pay tribute to Ian’s work. I would love to look at that in more detail and speak to the hon. Lady further about what we can take forward.

We all visit many schools, and the latest for me was Chilton Academy where I talked about its Go Well support. We all talk about funding, but the biggest thing about funding is not just the amount, but its visibility and extended timelines. Can the Minister please explain what can be done to make sure that the schools know earlier and for longer what money they will have available?

I understand and agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of certainty over funding. The dedicated school grant allocations for 2023-24 were published in December 2022, including indicative allocations for the mainstream schools’ additional grant, which will distribute the additional £2 billion of funding that was announced in the autumn statement.

As we have heard, the additional £15 million hardship funding for students announced last week amounts to less than £10 per head—significantly less, according to my sums—while the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that students are £1,500 a year worse off. Today, the all-party parliamentary group for students is launching an inquiry into the impact of the cost of living crisis on students, inviting submissions from students, their unions and institutions across the UK. Will the Minister agree to meet us to consider the evidence we receive?

Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the £276 million, along with other measures the Government have introduced, including the energy rebate and other support that we try to give students who are facing cost of living challenges.

In light of the Government’s new emphasis on numeracy in schools, may I make a plea that the Government do not forget about literacy in schools and in particular how we can continue to raise standards? My initiative “Get Witham Reading” has been running for 10 years now, and I urge colleagues on the Front Bench to come to Witham to see the scheme in action this year and see how it has raised standards in education.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, and I share her passion, so I would be delighted to come and see the scheme in place in her constituency. We take reading very seriously; we have risen from joint 10th to joint eighth in the progress in international reading literacy study league tables, and in those surveys it is the least able children who are improving fastest.

James Kerfoot, the headteacher of Rudheath Senior Academy, which serves my constituents, has introduced free school meals for all pupils. Why does the Minister not do the same?

As I said, we are spending £1.6 billion each year on free school meals, which is targeted at the most disadvantaged children, but schools are able to use their pupil premium funding, which is worth £2.5 billion a year to schools, if they wish to extend the coverage of free school meals to more pupils. As I said earlier, we extended free school meals to all pupils in infant schools in an early decision of the Conservative-led coalition Government.[Official Report, 23 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 8MC.]

Children’s services in Norfolk have been judged as requiring improvement all the way back to 2008, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating executive director Sara Tough and all her staff, as well as Councillor John Fisher, on last week’s assessment that Norfolk’s children’s services are now good and well on their way to outstanding?

I do indeed congratulate that team; that is quite a hard thing to do and it is brilliant that they have been able to get that recommendation.

The Government take the safety of schools very seriously, as the Minister said in response to an earlier question, so will Ministers reconsider mandating the fitting of sprinklers in new-build schools to minimise the risk posed by fires to buildings, equipment, pupils’ school work and people?

The hon. Lady will know that there is revised guidance; the new buildings bulletin has been issued after wide consultation and makes some changes to requirements for when sprinklers are to be installed in schools, particularly when the risk factor of the students in the school is high—for example, for children with special educational needs or residential schools.

When I met Jewish students studying in universities in my constituency, I was appalled to learn of the antisemitism they have to suffer, often on a daily basis. That was made worse by the recent report into the National Union of Students’ handling and challenging of antisemitism. In the month when we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of that NUS report.

I have been shocked and sobered by reading that report that the NUS was in essence a hostile place for Jewish students. That is not acceptable. The National Union of Students, the main body for students, should be a place that is not just safe but welcoming for Jewish students. The proof of the pudding with this report will be in the eating; I expect to see the changes and the recommendations implemented in full, and once that has occurred I will re-engage with the National Union of Students.

The Execution of Alireza Akbari

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the execution of a British national in Iran.

On Saturday morning, Iran’s regime announced that it had executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national. I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with his wife and two daughters at the time of their loss. They have shared his ordeal—an ordeal that began just over three years ago when he was lured back to Iran. He was detained and then subjected to the notorious and arbitrary legal process of the regime. Before his death, Mr Akbari described what was done to him and how torture had been used. Let there be no doubt: he fell victim to the political vendettas of a vicious regime. His execution was the cowardly and shameful act of a leadership that thinks nothing of using the death penalty as a political tool to silence dissent and settle internal scores.

In February last year, Mr Akbari’s family asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for our support, and we have worked closely with them ever since. I want to pay tribute to them for their courage and fortitude throughout this terrible period. In line with their wishes, the Minister of State, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, lobbied Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK as soon as we learned that Mr Akbari’s execution was imminent. We maintained the pressure right up until the point of his execution, but, sadly, to no avail.

When we heard the tragic news on Saturday morning, we acted immediately to demonstrate our revulsion. I ordered the summoning of Iran’s chargé d’affaires to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make clear our strength of feeling. Our ambassador in Tehran delivered the same message to a senior Foreign Ministry official. Ten other countries have publicly condemned the execution, including France, Germany and the United States, and the European Union has done the same. I am grateful for their support at this time.

We then imposed sanctions on Iran’s Prosecutor General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who bears heavy responsibility for the use of the death penalty for political ends. His designation is the latest of more than 40 sanctions imposed by the UK on the Iranian regime since October, including on six individuals linked to the revolutionary courts, which have passed egregious sentences against protesters, including the death penalty. In addition, I have temporarily recalled from Tehran His Majesty’s ambassador, Simon Shercliff, for consultations, and we met and discussed this earlier today. Now we shall consider what further steps we take alongside our allies to counter the escalating threat from Iran. We do not limit ourselves to the steps that I have already announced.

Mr Akbari’s execution follows decades of pitiless repression by a ruthless regime. Britain stands with the brave and dignified people of Iran as they demand their rights and freedoms. Just how much courage that takes is shown by the appalling fact that more than 500 people have been killed and 18,000 arrested during the recent wave of protests. Instead of listening to the calls for change from within Iran, the regime has resorted to its usual tactic of blaming outsiders and lashing out against its supposed enemies, including by detaining a growing number of foreign nationals for political gain. Today, many European nationals are being held in Iranian prisons on spurious charges, including British dual nationals, and I pay tribute to our staff—both in Tehran and here in the UK—who continue to work tirelessly on their behalf.

Beyond its borders, the regime has supplied Russia with hundreds of armed drones used to kill civilians in Ukraine. Across the middle east, Iran continues to inflict bloodshed and destruction by supporting extremist militias. And all the while, the steady expansion of the Iranian nuclear programme is threatening international peace and security and the entire system of global non-proliferation. In the last three months alone, Britain has imposed five separate packages of sanctions on Iran, and today we enforce designations against more than 300 Iranian individuals and entities. We have condemned the regime in every possible international forum, securing Iran’s removal from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and, alongside our partners, creating a new UN mechanism to investigate the regime’s human rights violations during the recent protests.

The House should be in no doubt that we are witnessing the vengeful actions of a weakened and isolated regime obsessed with suppressing its own people, debilitated by its fear of losing power, and wrecking its international reputation. Our message to that regime is clear: the world is watching you and you will be held to account, particularly by the brave Iranian people, so many of whom you are oppressing and killing. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I am responding on behalf of the Opposition as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is on a visit to Northern Ireland and so is unable to be here.

The execution of Alireza Akbari is the most horrendous human rights abuse—a barbaric act of politically motivated murder at the hands of the Iranian regime. The whole House’s condolences and solidarity are with his family at this time of unimaginable grief.

That the Iranian regime chose to take Mr Akbari’s life to make a political point to the British Government is a disgrace. The death penalty should never be used for any crime, but we must call these executions in Iran what they are: a gross attempt to silence a protest movement by striking fear into the hearts of ordinary Iranian people. In Mr Akbari’s case, his execution is a direct message to the British Government. Such executions are, in the words of Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state-sanctioned killings.

Mr Akbari returned to Iran after a successful career in business in the UK to advise the Government on the nuclear deal between the west and Iran. He wanted to see a successful deal to end the western sanctions on the country.

We have discussed many times in this House the importance of a strong response to this brutal regime. The Government must now proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, either through the existing process or by amending the National Security Bill to create a new process of proscription for hostile state actors. The playbook of the regime is to use brutality and violence for its own political ends and its own survival. In his most recent threat update, MI5 director Ken McCallum referred to 10 kidnap and death plots by the Iranian regime on British soil. When an organisation threatens the lives of British journalists and British Iranian activists in the UK, that organisation is a terrorist organisation.

When will the Foreign Secretary proscribe this heinous organisation, and what action will he take to protect the lives of British Iranians in the UK and in Iran? I heard what he said about the condemnation internationally, but what further conversations has he had with international partners to ensure a co-ordinated response to condemn and curtail the regime’s appalling attack on the lives and human rights of its own people?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the solidarity that the whole House sends to the family of Mr Akbari. He will know that the future proscription or sanctions designation of individuals or entities is not something that we speculate about or discuss at the Dispatch Box. However, he should know that we share the revulsion that he expressed.

As I said, we do not limit ourselves to the actions that we have already announced. I have spoken with His Majesty’s ambassador to Tehran and I will of course be speaking with other parts of Government about what further action we can take in response to the vile behaviour of the regime. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we speak regularly with our international friends on our collective response to Iran, both in the region and beyond, and we will continue to do so.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The thoughts of the entire Committee are with Mr Akbari’s family.

From hostage taking to terrorist plots, assassinations, nuclear extortion and destabilisation of the middle east and Europe, Iran is a terrorist state and it has weaponised human life. This is the first murder of a dual national since the 1980s. It is a clear escalation.

I make four asks. First, the House is clear that we need to proscribe the IRGC. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that he recognises that that is a policy decision, not a legal one? Secondly, we need to close down the IRGC’s operating centres within the UK, such as the one in Maida Vale. These are centres for spreading hostile influence within the UK. Can the Secretary of State also confirm that he will consider reactive sanctions to help the ordinary Iranians for whom no one else will stand up? After every state murder, we should impose sanctions to show we will give their voice some support. Finally, can he reassure me that he is confident of the safety of our staff in Tehran? I remember the stories of my colleagues who were under siege by the Iranian state in the past, and I am gravely concerned about their safety at this time.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee raises incredibly important points. She knows the long-standing convention about speculating about sanctions and proscriptions, but I absolutely take the points that she has made about ensuring that the response we take here in the UK and, indeed, in conjunction with our international partners sends an incredibly clear message to the regime that these actions are unacceptable and will be responded to each and every time they take place. With regard to the actions that we take domestically here in the UK, I can assure her that we work closely with our Home Office colleagues on our collective response, and I agree with her that the safety of our team in Tehran is incredibly important. I pay tribute to them for the work that they do in incredibly challenging circumstances, and I also pay tribute to the demonstrations of international solidarity that we regularly receive from other platforms in Tehran.

May I also thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement? The SNP utterly condemns the execution of Alireza Akbari in the strongest possible terms, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family. Once again, this execution highlights the serious injustice and failings of the Iranian judicial system. The Foreign Secretary’s decision to sanction Iran’s prosecutor is welcome, but as we have been calling for many times, I urge the Foreign Secretary again to go further and to take forward the formal proscription of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. I ask him again: will he commit to that?

We remain deeply concerned about the safety of other arbitrarily detained UK-Iranian nationals. Morad Tahbaz has been held for five years. Mehran Raoof has been held since 2020. Their families just want to see them come home safely. What are the Government doing to make that a reality? Does the Secretary of State know just how many dual UK-Iranian nationals are detained in Iran, and can he tell us that number?

The Foreign Office cannot make the same mistakes it has made in the past with other dual nationals, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other UK-Iranian nationals detained and, as we have heard, sometimes tortured. This shameful execution should serve as an urgent wake-up call. These people and their families deserve better. What lessons have this Government learned, and what are they going to do differently in future to support these people?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we work tirelessly to support the release of British dual nationals held in detention in Iran. Our consular team supports their families. The work that we, our ambassador and his team do in Tehran is incredibly important. Their presence is to ensure that British dual nationals, whether they have been in incarceration or not, are supported, and we will continue to work with our international friends and allies to secure the release of those individuals. In regard to proscription, he raises an important point. He will have heard the answers I have given to other colleagues—we do not limit ourselves to the responses we have already announced.

It is a terrible day when we see the execution of a British subject. Some broadcast media have said that the decision by the Iranian regime to execute this individual came as a response to the repeated calls for proscription of the IRGC in a debate last week. Contrary to that, broadcast media not only showed an interview with his family, but also broadcast his comments about his torture by this vile regime. Does that show the Secretary of State, as it does me, the power of the media broadcast, but will he also ensure that the funding of BBC Persian radio will continue to ensure that the people of Iran can hear the truth and one day oversee the downfall of this vile regime?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point about our ability to project our values into Iran. The fact that millions of Iranians are protesting against their own Government shows that many people in Iran share our values and are deeply opposed to the regime that oppresses them. I have spoken to BBC senior leadership about the funding of our foreign language BBC World Service broadcasts, including the Persian broadcast. I assure him that whether through the BBC World Service or the work of our embassy by the ambassador and his team, we will continue to project our values into Iran and hopefully reinforce, and indeed show solidarity with, those brave Iranians protesting against their own regime.

Mr Akbari was my constituent and I offer my sympathies to his family here and abroad. I have represented their interests for the past year and I have had extensive contact with them over the past few difficult days. Their strength and courage have been extraordinary in the face of the brutality and cruelty of the Iranian regime.

Earlier today, I spoke to Mr Akbari’s daughter in the UK and she asked me to raise a further distressing matter with the Foreign Secretary. The regime refuses to release Mr Akbari’s body or to allow burial in the place chosen by him, and has made threats to destroy his body unless the family co-operate with its instructions. The cemetery where the family were told he should be buried informed them that burial had already taken place last week, which casts doubt on the time of his execution. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me and the family in the UK and do what the Government can to ensure that in death, if not in life, Mr Akbari is treated with dignity and respect?

The points that the hon. Gentleman just raised fill us all, I am sure, with revulsion; we will continue to support the family in whatever way we can. He is absolutely right to call on the regime to treat Mr Akbari in death with the deference and respect that is legitimate. I will follow up on his points with our ambassador and communicate our incredible discomfort with those points, and as I say, we will continue to support the family in whatever way we can.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke eloquently about the brutal hostility that the regime in Tehran is visiting on not only on its own citizens, but Ukraine through its support for Russia, on neighbouring countries in the middle east, and, of course, on a UK passport holder through his execution. Does that not now mean that we should proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and review the UK’s involvement in the Iran nuclear agreement?

My hon. Friend raises incredibly important points. We will continue to work with our friends and allies to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. With regard to our further action, we do not limit ourselves to the announcements that we have just made. Part of the reason why I have temporarily recalled His Majesty’s ambassador to Tehran is so that we can discuss cross-Government what our further response might be.

Mr Akbari’s judicial murder is particularly poignant for us because he was a dual national, but all the murders that have been committed by the Iranian Government over the last few days and weeks prove that they give a new meaning to the term “criminal justice system”—more criminal than justice. I worry, however, that the Secretary of State is always reluctant to talk about further sanctions. Government Ministers invented the rule that they are not allowed to talk about them at the Dispatch Box because it is a bit inconvenient for them, but is it not time that we had a proper parliamentary process for determining some sanctions? Frankly, if it was up to the Foreign Affairs Committee, or I suspect the House, we would have taken action six months ago and we would not still be hanging around.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion on this. I know that he takes a personal interest in the use of sanctions, and we have discussed this in my appearances before the Select Committee, but I think it is important that we maintain a clear distinction between the Executive functions and the scrutiny functions. Although I understand that there is a huge amount of embedded experience in the House, I think that the job of the Government is to govern and the job of this House is to scrutinise the Government, which is why that division of labour is important.

The execution of Alireza Akbari was a hideous act. It is clear that the Iranian regime will stop at nothing in its desire to repress its people, whether that is through the arrest, torture or, indeed, murder of innocent citizens, many of whom are women. Many colleagues across the House have called for the IRGC to be proscribed, and I would like to add my name to that list. I would also urge the Foreign Secretary to continue working with our allies to try to get a global consensus on the issue.

My right hon. Friend highlights something that we should all consider, which is that the actions of the Iranian regime are a display of weakness, not strength. The regime lives in fear of the voices of the Iranian people, which is why it is responding so brutally. My advice to the regime—it will not take it, I have no doubt—is to listen to its own people, and to stop blaming external actors for actions stimulated by its oppression of its people. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will continue to work closely with our international friends and allies, so many of whom have expressed solidarity over the weekend in response to Mr Akbari’s execution.

The execution of Alireza Akbari is horrendous. If we ever wanted proof that we are dealing with barbarians, it is this and what has happened over the last few months. While the Foreign Secretary is considering proscription and the harshest possible sanctions—I would like to add the voices of the Liberal Democrats to that and offer our support—I urge him to consider another move. We have learned from the war in Ukraine that going after individuals and the spoils of their human rights abuses is also a very effective way of sanctioning. What consideration have the Government given to auditing the assets of those we have sanctioned, particularly the assets of family members who may be resident in the UK, and can he assure the House that not a single penny of their spoils is sloshing around the British economy?

We will of course always examine ways of ensuring that our sanctions are most effective and have the deterrent effect as well as the punitive effect that they are designed to have. I can assure the hon. Lady that, as I have said, we will continue working internationally with our friends and allies who share our revulsion at the actions of the Iranian regime. She describes the regime as barbarian, and one of the great ironies is that Iran has a long history—a multi-millennial history—of sophistication and thoughtfulness. That history and reputation is being destroyed on a daily basis by the people currently holding the levers of power in Tehran, and I think that is a massive shame for the Iranian people more broadly.

I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and to express my sympathy to Mr Akbari’s family, who are going through such a terrible time. We should remember that Iran carries out the second highest number of executions anywhere in the world—second only to China—so this is not something isolated, but something the regime implements. I recommend that my right hon. Friend reads the Hansard report of the debate we had last Thursday, when more than 30 Members from across the House contributed excellent examples of what is happening in Iran. He can negotiate with our allies to impose sanctions against Iran totally, which will isolate the regime, and he can also talk to the Home Secretary about proscribing the IRGC, which is the settled view of this House. He has the support of the House on all sides and from all parties, which is surely enough to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety and to sequestrate its assets once and for all.

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the strong and clear stance that the House has taken in response to the brutality meted out by the Iranian regime. I assure him and the House that we will continue to work cross-Department, and internationally, on the most effective ways of curtailing Iran’s malign activity, both within Iran, in the region and globally.

I send my sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of Mr Akbari. The use of the death penalty is appalling under all circumstances, as are the practices of torture and prolonged solitary confinement, all of which Mr Akbari was subjected to while being held by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty has called for the UK Government to work with international bodies to fully investigate Mr Akbari’s allegations of torture and all other ill treatment, and to pursue the criminal investigation of officials reasonably suspected of involvement in crimes under international law. Will the Foreign Secretary today agree to take up those calls for justice?

I assure the hon. Lady that we will not rest until this regime is held to account for the brutality and atrocities that it has meted out to its own people, and we will do so in close co-operation with our friends in the international community.

Southampton has a significant Anglo-Iranian community, many of whom have made the point to me that this is a regime that can maintain its position only through terror and torture. But they are scared. They are scared for their family members, for women, for dual nationals and for students. They want the proscription of the IRGC, and they want me to leave my right hon. Friend in no doubt that Anglo-Iranians in this country wish to see our Government do more.

I assure my right hon. Friend that we will continue working cross-Department and across Whitehall to ensure that those Iranians who have chosen to make the UK their home, and Anglo-Iranians who live in the UK, feel safe. The first duty of Government is to protect the people within these shores, and I assure her that we take that responsibility incredibly seriously.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he has said about the brutal murder of Mr Akbari. The sad truth, however, is that the Iranian regime does such things because it can. There are voices that have called for the joint comprehensive plan of action process to be abandoned, and I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell the House what his current view is. I caution him, however, because in absence of that process, what other means would we have of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which, given its current behaviour, is surely unthinkable?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. We hear calls from Tehran for us to lift sanctions, and we remind them that the sanctions are imposed because of their behaviour, be that human rights violations, brutality against their own people, support for militias in the region, or attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. We will continue to work closely with our international partners in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Negotiations on the JCPOA have not progressed, and the ball is very much in the court of the Iranians. I say strongly to them that the world will continue to work in concert and solidarity to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and if they wish sanctions to be lifted, the regime has to fundamentally change its behaviour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) was right to draw attention to the power of the media in exposing what is going on in Iran, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware of the continuing threats against journalists working for Iran International, whose headquarters in Chiswick is under permanent armed police guard. Will he make it clear to the Iranian regime that threats of that kind on British soil are utterly unacceptable? Will he consider extending the sanctions against anyone in the Iranian regime responsible for making threats against journalists?

My right hon. Friend echoes the point that the Iranian regime is fearful of criticism, and particularly fearful of criticism from within Iran itself and from Iranians internationally. That is why it behaves so petulantly and aggressively towards journalists. We have an incredibly important responsibility to protect those journalists and support those dissenting voices. I assure him on behalf of my colleagues in the Home Office and the security services that we will continue to support the free expression of those brave Iranian voices criticising a regime that currently has a stranglehold around their country.

My heart goes out to the family and friends of Mr Akbari. The Iranian regime is using the death penalty as a tool of political repression against courageous protesters. As we have heard, the IRGC also threaten the lives of journalists and British-Iranian activists here in the UK. Last week we saw cross-party support for proscribing the IRGC. I ask again—this time for the Secretary of State to answer—will the UK Government take action and urgently brand the IRGC as a terrorist organisation?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the need to respond to the actions taken by the Iranian regime. As I said, I announced an initial set of responses immediately after the execution of Mr Akbari. I am consulting with His Majesty’s ambassador in Tehran—I have done so today—and we will work across Government to ensure that our response to Iran is robust and deters further such actions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent statement. Will he confirm that he will discuss the execution of Mr Akbari on his visit to Washington this week and assure us that with our allies he will seek to co-ordinate the strongest response to this latest state-sponsored torture and killing, as well as Iran’s escalating human rights abuses against women and the wider security threat?

I assure my hon. Friend that I will address our response to the Iranian regime in general and the response to this execution in particular with both my American and Canadian counterparts when I visit those two countries later this week. I assure her, and indeed the House, that the messages of solidarity that we have received from our international partners reflect the strength of feeling that I hear in my conversations about the issue.

The vile Iranian regime are operating through proxies in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and I have been working closely with the police in respect of the Islamic community centre in Maida Vale, where the weekly counter-protests that now occur there are causing very real concern in that residential community. Will the Secretary of State tell us what investigations he is carrying out into the operation of those centres and how they can be managed to protect local communities, including the very diverse Muslim communities in that area?

The hon. Lady will understand that actions here in the UK are the responsibility of the Home Office, but I assure her that my Department and that Department work closely on such issues and will continue to do so.

These are the words of Hassan Firouzi:

“Whether or not I sign confession papers, they will kill me. My only wish is to see my daughter one last time. After 10 years, God finally gave us a child. I only got to see her for 18 days before being arrested for protesting. I miss my daughter so much. My only wish is that I get to see my daughter one last time before they kill me.”

He is another citizen who has been condemned to death. I have adopted his case at the urging of a close Iranian friend in my constituency. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it is helpful for Members of Parliament to adopt individual people on death row in Iran to publicise their cases and put maximum pressure on the regime?

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that particular case. I know the Iranian regime hates it when its actions are called out on the international stage. I have made it clear to the Iranians that if they want the criticism to stop, their behaviour must change. Their behaviour at the moment deserves criticism in this Chamber and internationally. I commend all colleagues, where they have the opportunity to do so, to raise cases and demonstrate to the brave Iranians who are standing up against the brutality of their own Government that we show solidarity with them.

I add my condolences to the family of Mr Akbari at this very sad time. I cannot see why the Secretary of State is delaying proscribing the regime in Iran and call on him to do so immediately. In my human rights city of York, we have serious concern about the use of the death penalty. There are over 20,000 people on death row across over 55 jurisdictions right now. Will he lead a discussion in the UN to bring the use of state-authorised death to an end across the world? When it is condoned in one country, it gives Iran more liberty to apply it in its own.

The hon. Lady will, I am sure, know that the UK opposes the death penalty in all respects. We have communicated that internationally and we have communicated that to the Iranian regime. Our position is long standing, it is principled and it will not change. We will highlight our opposition to the death penalty whenever we have the opportunity to do so.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I know that Lord Ahmad will have done everything in his power to stop this despicable act. I condemn the execution of Mr Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national, and I want to place on record my condolences to his wife and two daughters. Does the Foreign Secretary have concerns that ending the talks on the nuclear deal in the face of ongoing turmoil in the country could see Iran speed up its uranium enrichment programme or pull out of the treaty altogether?

The international community, the signatories to the JCPOA, have given the opportunity to the Iranian regime to make changes. It has thus far failed to grasp the opportunity presented to it. We will continue working to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but the ball, ultimately, is in its court. If it wants sanctions lifted, it has to change—fundamentally change—its behaviour.

Ukraine: Update

Mr Speaker, may I start by apologising for the way the information contained in the statement has come out in the media? It does not do me any favours and nor does it make my job any easier. I apologise to Mr Speaker and to the House. It is certainly not my doing and it does not help us in furthering the policy.

It has been a month since I last updated the House on the situation in Ukraine. Over the last four weeks, extremely heavy and attritional fighting has continued, especially around the Donetsk oblast town of Bakhmut and in the less reported on sector of Kreminna in Luhansk. Over Christmas, Russia continued its assault on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, but no matter how cruel, or how much loss of life accompanies it, Russia has singularly failed to break the will of the Ukrainian people or change the policy of its leaders.

We continue to closely monitor how Russia’s long-range strike campaign will evolve as it eats deeper into the strategic reserves of its own modern missiles. It is notable that Russia is now using the forced labour of convicts to manufacture weaponry. Ukraine, however, continues to use its internationally provided long-range artillery to successful effect.

Throughout the war, Russia has managed to lose significant numbers of generals and commanding officers, but last week’s announcement that its commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, had been unceremoniously bypassed, with the chief of the general staff, General Gerasimov, personally taking over field command, is certainly significant. It is the visible tip of an iceberg of factionalism within the Russian command. Putin apparently remains bullish, and with Gerasimov’s deference to the President never in doubt, we would now expect a trend back towards a Russian offensive, no matter how much loss of life accompanies it.

In 2023, there is no loss of momentum from the international community—quite the opposite. President Putin believed that the west would get tired, get bored and fragment. Ukraine is continuing to fight, and far from fragmenting, the west is accelerating its efforts. The United States has invested approximately $24.2 billion in support for Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion on 24 February last year. It has delivered thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-armour systems and has recently stepped up that support, delivering Patriot air defence battery and munitions and 45 refurbished T-72 Bravo tanks, as well as donating 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles to assist with the counter-offensive. We also welcome the decision of the French Government to provide Ukraine with the AMX-10 light, highly mobile tank, which has been used very recently in reconnaissance missions by the French army and was deployed as recently as the Barkhane mission in west Africa.

Important as those contributions are in and of themselves, what matters more is that they represent part of an international effort that collectively conveys a force multiplier effect. None of this is happening unilaterally; no one is doing this on their own. I shall soon be announcing the first round of bids to the jointly Danish and UK-chaired international fund for Ukraine. I am grateful to Sweden for adding, over the festive period, to the pot of money donated. Those who have donated to the fund now include Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland and others.

Meanwhile, Russia, isolated and without such support, has now lost more than 1,600 main battle tanks in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. However, if we are to continue helping Ukraine to seize the upper hand in the next phase of the conflict, we must accelerate our collective efforts diplomatically, economically and militarily to keep the pressure on Putin.

In December, I told the House that I was

“developing options to respond”

to Russia’s continued aggression

“in a calibrated and determined manner”.—[Official Report, 20 December 2022; Vol. 725, c. 157.]

Today, I can announce the most significant package of combat power to date, to accelerate Ukrainian success. It includes a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks, with armoured recovery and repair vehicles. We will donate AS-90 guns to Ukraine; this donation, which comprises a battery of eight guns at high readiness and two further batteries at varying states of readiness, will not impact on our existing AS-90 commitment in Estonia. Hundreds more armoured and protected vehicles will also be sent, including Bulldog. There will be a manoeuvre support package, including minefield breaching and bridging capabilities worth £28 million; dozens more uncrewed aerial systems worth £20 million to support Ukrainian artillery; another 100,000 artillery rounds, on top of the 100,000 rounds already delivered; hundreds more sophisticated missiles, including guided multiple-launch rocket system rockets, Starstreak air defence and medium-range air defence missiles; and an equipment support package of spares to refurbish up to 100 Ukrainian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. While the tanks and the AS-90s will come from our stocks, along with their associated ammunition, a significant number of the other donations are being purchased on the open market or from supportive third-party countries.

Today’s package is an important increase to Ukraine’s capabilities. It means that it can go from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil. President Putin cannot win, but he is equally certain that he can continue inflicting this wanton violence and human suffering until his forces are ejected from their defensive positions and expelled from the country. That requires a new level of support: the combat power only achieved by combinations of main battle tank squadrons, operating alongside divisional artillery groups, and further deep precision fires enabling the targeting of Russian logistics and command nodes at greater distance. We will be the first country to donate western main battle tanks, and we will be bringing a further squadron of our own Challenger tanks to higher readiness in place of the squadron sent. Even as we gift Challenger 2 tanks, I shall at the same time be reviewing the number of Challenger 3 conversions, to consider whether the lessons of Ukraine suggest that we need a larger tank fleet.

We will also build apace on the Army’s modernisation programme. Specifically on artillery, I am accelerating the mobile fires programme so that, instead of delivering in the 2030s, it will do so during the current decade. I have also directed that, subject to commercial negotiation, an interim artillery capability is to be delivered. After discussion with the United States and our European allies, it is hoped that the example set by the French and us will allow the countries holding Leopard tanks to donate as well, and I know that a number of countries want to do the same. As I have said, no one is going it alone.

It is worth reiterating why we are doing this. In 2023, the international community will not let Russia wait us out while inflicting terrible suffering on Ukrainian civilians. The international community recognises that equipping Ukraine to push Russia out of its territory is as important as equipping it to defend what it already has. This week dozens of nations will meet in Ramstein, Germany, to progress further donations and international co-ordination. The Kremlin will be in no doubt that we are resolved to stand by Ukraine in her fight.

Doubling down on the success of our basic training of Ukrainian military personnel in the United Kingdom in 2022, we are increasing the number this year to a further 20,000. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, New Zealand and the Netherlands have already joined this effort, and I am pleased to say that we are to be joined by a group of Australian military to train in the UK as well—leaving their summer to join our winter, brave souls.

Our decision today is a calibrated response to Russia’s growing aggression and indiscriminate bombing. The Kremlin must recognise that it is Russia’s behaviour that is solidifying the international resolve, and that despite the propaganda, Ukraine and her partners are focused on the defence of Ukraine. None of the international support is an attack on Russia, or NATO-orchestrated aggression, let alone a proxy war. At its heart, it is about helping Ukraine to defend itself, upholding international law and restoring its own sovereignty. We believe that in 2023, increased supplies, improved training and strengthening diplomatic resolve will enable Ukraine to be successful against Russia’s poorly led and now badly equipped armed forces.

From the outset, President Putin believed that his forces would be welcomed with open arms, that Ukrainians would not fight, and that western support would crumble. He has been proved wrong on all counts. Today’s package will help to accelerate the conclusion of Putin’s occupation and all its brutality, and ensure that in 2023, and beyond if necessary, Ukraine will maintain its momentum, supported by an international community that is more than ever determined that Putin’s illegal and unprovoked invasion will fail.

I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement, and thank him for advance sight of it. Mr Speaker, 2023 will indeed be the decisive year in this war in Ukraine, and the most decisive moment is now, when Ukraine has the tactical and morale advantage over Russia; now, when Ukraine needs more combined military firepower to break the battlefield deadlock. As the Secretary-General of NATO said yesterday,

“it is important that we provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win”.

That is why this first package of military assistance for 2023—with tanks, artillery, infantry vehicles, ammunition and missiles—has Labour’s fullest support.

Challenger 2 is a world-class tank that can help Ukraine retake lost ground and limit the cost in Ukrainian lives. We are now sending 14. How many tanks does Ukraine need for a successful counter-offensive? Are the 14 Challengers currently in active service or in storage? When will they be delivered into the field in Ukraine? What combat engineering vehicles will be delivered to support those tanks? Will any UK forces personnel be deployed into Ukraine with those vehicles?

The integrated review cut Challenger tanks from 227 to 148. I welcome the Defence Secretary’s review of Challenger 3 numbers. When will he announce the results of the review? Is he reviewing other Army cuts? The Armed Forces Minister told me in a parliamentary answer last week that Challenger 2 training takes 33 days for gunners, 46 days for drivers and 85 days for crew commanders. The Defence Secretary made no mention of Challenger training. Will the UK provide training alongside the tanks? How long will the training be for Ukrainian troops?

President Zelensky has confirmed the wider importance of this UK military package. At the weekend he said:

“that will not only strengthen us on the battlefield, but also send the right signal to other partners.”

The Defence Secretary today said that hopes that this UK military aid will help to unlock more co-ordinated support from other nations. Like him, I welcome similar moves already announced by other NATO nations in recent days, particularly the US and France. How many of the 14 Leopard-using nations may provide those tanks to Ukraine? What more does he expect from allies at the Ramstein meeting on Friday? It has been five months since he announced the international fund. When will allocations be made?

The Prime Minster talked at the weekend about a surge in global military support for Ukraine. How will the Defence Secretary ensure a continuing surge in UK military support? What more can Ukraine expect from the UK? You know, Mr Speaker, as does the Defence Secretary, that I have argued for months that Ministers must move beyond ad hoc announcements and set out a full 2023 action plan for military, economic and diplomatic support—a case that the Defence Ministry has fully accepted. That will help to give Ukraine confidence for future supplies. It will help to gear up our own industry. It will encourage allies to do more and it will make clear that things will get worse, not better for Russia.

One of the clear lessons from the last year in Ukraine is that nations need large reserve stocks of certain weapons and ammunition, or the ability to produce them quickly. The UK has neither. We are still moving too slowly to replace the weapons donated to Ukraine or to find new wartime ways of making weapons more rapidly and cheaply. There was no mention in the Secretary of State’s statement about replenishing UK stockpiles or a new industry plan. Can he update the House on the action he is taking?

Finally and importantly, he said that today’s military package means that Ukraine can go from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil. Will he confirm that this is the UK’s strategic aim for Ukraine?

If you would indulge me, Mr Speaker, there were lots of questions and I will do my best to answer them all. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and his party for their support, which, as he said, has been ongoing and enduring throughout this process. That is what allows the UK to be prominent in standing tall for international human rights and defending Ukraine.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what scale of support Ukraine will need; I cannot be too specific, as I do not want to set out to the Russian Government the exact inadequacies or strengths of the Ukrainian armed forces. However, it is safe to say that the Ukrainians will require an ongoing commitment that grows to the size of divisions in its armed forces. Also, in the last year we have seen Ukraine grow its own army, to hundreds of thousands of men and women under arms, who are now equipped not only with western equipment but with captured or refurbished former Soviet or Russian equipment. The Polish Government have donated more than 200 T-72 tanks, for example.

The key for all of us in the next phase is to help Ukraine to train and to combine all those weapons systems in a way that can deliver a combined arms effect in a mobile manner to deliver the offensives required to achieve the goal of expelling, which the right hon. Gentleman also asked about. It is the UK Government’s position that Putin’s invasion fails and Ukraine restores its sovereign territory, and we will do all we can to help achieve that. This package is part of that. The Challengers should be viewed alongside the 50 Bradleys from the United States. Those are effectively the ingredients for a battlegroup with divisional level fires of either AS-90s or other 155 howitzers. The 14 tanks represent a squadron, and the 50 Bradleys would roughly form an armoured infantry battlegroup.

We are trying to take the Ukrainian military, with its history of Soviet methods, and provide it not only with western equipment but with western know-how. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, the training will be delivered almost immediately, starting with Ukrainians training in the UK and in the field, so to speak, either in neighbouring countries or in countries such as Germany, where we saw the artillery train with the Dutch, I think, at the beginning of this process. The training of these Ukrainian forces will be administered and supported in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, with the US being in the lead for much of that formation training. It is incredibly important and supportive of the United States to do that.

There will be no UK forces deployed in Ukraine in this process. As I have said, that is because our job is to help Ukraine to defend itself and we can do that from neighbouring or other countries. Yes, I know the training cycle. I was a trooper in the Scots Dragoon Guards in 1988 and I started my time in a Chieftain tank, which you would be lucky to see in a museum these days. The Ukrainians have shown us, in their basic and specialist training, that they are determined to go back and fight for their country, and their work ethos and the hours they put in are quite extraordinary. I am confident that, on one level, they will soon be showing us the way to fight with this equipment.

The right hon. Gentleman referenced the Army cuts. I have come to this Dispatch Box on numerous occasions and admitted how woeful our Army’s equipment programmes have been in the past and how behind and out of date they have been. That is why we have committed investment of more than £24 billion in Army equipment alone over the next 10 years.[Official Report, 9 February 2023, Vol. 727, c. 6MC.] As I have said, I am bringing forward Deep Fire and Recce and getting Ajax back on track, as well as our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, the Challenger 3 tanks, the Boxer fleet, plus many other investments in the Army. This is incredibly important. I take it seriously and I know that the right hon. Gentleman does too. We have to deliver an Army that can stand shoulder to shoulder with its peers, never mind its enemy, and it is important to say so.

On the Leopard coalition, as it is calling itself, it is being reported that Poland is keen to donate some Leopard tanks, as is Finland. All of this currently relies on the German Government’s decisions, not only on whether they will supply their own Leopards but whether they will give permissions for others to do so. I would urge my German colleagues to do that. These tanks are not offensive when they are used for defensive methods. There is a debate in Germany about whether a tank is an offensive or defensive weapon. It depends what people are using it for. I would wager that if they are using it to defend their country, it is a defensive weapon.

Also, we are not on our own. This is a joint international coalition. I know that there have been concerns in the German political body that it does not want to go it alone. Well, it is not alone, and I think that the conference in Ramstein will show that. I pay tribute to the commitment by the French to put in the tanks at Christmas time, and we are obviously joining alongside them. They are the key to unlocking the Leopard, and we will do all we can to help that.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question on the international fund is imminently: I will announce it in the next couple of weeks. We had $27 billion-worth of bids to a fund that has reached $500 million. I am very grateful for the recent Swedish donation to the fund, which we intend to keep growing, but I want to make sure that the fund is spent sustainably. It is not a petty cash or slush fund though which people can just go and buy something. I want it to be invested in things such as production and supply chains. Whether it is maintaining tanks or artillery supplies, an active production line is needed.

That goes to the right hon. Gentleman’s last point about being too slow to place orders. One of the reasons it has taken time to place orders, as he knows, is that there is sometimes no supply chain and we have to wait for a supply chain to be reinvested in, redeveloped or re-founded with new suppliers before we can get a price for the taxpayer or a contract delivered. That is what happened with NLAW. As much as we would have loved to have placed that order on the next day, some of the supply chain was 15 years old and we had to find new suppliers. Then we got a price and some partners. By placing an order with Sweden, we reinvigorated the supply chain and, hopefully, more jobs with it.