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Commons Chamber

Volume 732: debated on Monday 15 May 2023

House of Commons

Monday 15 May 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the timescales for processing applications to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (904884)

The Ministry of Defence continues to process ARAP applications at pace, thanks to the recruitment of more caseworkers and improved systems and processes. In the first four months of 2023 we issued more than 12,200 eligibility decisions. We aim to process all outstanding initial applications by August 2023.

I have recently written to the Minister about a family still trapped in Afghanistan, whose case, I was told in January, was being processed by the MOD, but this is about more than a constituency case. The standing of our armed services is affected, and scandals such as the pilot threatened with Rwanda do not help. Does the Minister recognise that the shambles over our treatment of Afghan refugees is damaging the reputation of our military, with obvious implications for future operations?

I certainly do not recognise the connection that the hon. Gentleman has made. The offer made through ARAP, the scheme to bring to the UK Afghans who served alongside the UK armed forces and whose lives are now at risk as a consequence, is being honoured and continues to be a major line of effort by the MOD. We have had hundreds of thousands of applications, the vast majority of which have come from people who either served in the Afghan national forces—while their effort was heroic, they were never who ARAP was aimed at—or never had anything to do with the UK armed forces at all. Their desperation to leave their country is understandable, but the ARAP scheme is what it was always set up to be, the evacuation of those who served alongside the UK armed forces, and the MOD continues to put a lot of effort into delivering that. We will complete the processing of applications by this summer.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister accept that, while people who served with our armed forces are at grave risk within Afghanistan, they are not out of danger even when they cross the border into Pakistan? If they cross the border without papers, they could well be sent back. What pressure are we putting on the Pakistani authorities to ensure that no one who served with British forces is sent back to a terrible fate while we are processing their applications?

My right hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the Pakistan Government for the co-operation they have shown in helping us to deliver ARAP. We are not encouraging people to cross the border illegally, and the Pakistan Government have given us a number of windows in which to bring people across legitimately. The consular section at our high commission in Islamabad has grown to support those who are in Pakistan waiting for their onward transportation to the UK. However, my right hon. Friend has raised specific cases with me in the past, and if he knows of people who are at risk or are being pursued in a way that I do not think is in our agreement with the Pakistan Government, I stand ready to take up those cases with them through our high commission.

Maritime Security: Scotland

The national maritime security strategy details the Government’s approach to maritime security. The MOD funds direct operational activity that contributes to maritime security, including the continuous at-sea deterrent, oceanic surveillance and maritime domain awareness capabilities. Additionally, the MOD supports the Joint Maritime Security Centre, a multi-agency organisation that supports wider maritime security throughout the UK marine area, including Scotland.

I am not entirely sure that that is the advert for the broad shoulders and strength of the Union that the Secretary of State would like to think it is. Can he confirm—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that there is not a single armoured surface ship permanently based in Scotland right now? How exactly does that enhance our maritime security, protect our undersea cables and offshore infrastructure, or make Russia feel any less emboldened about sailing into UK waters?

First, some of the most formidable subsurface boats in the world are based at Faslane. That does make the Russians calculate. Of course, the SNP wants to get rid of that, make tens of thousands of people redundant and fantasise about what that will do. Secondly, a warship is best used at sea, not at port. That is how to deter Russia. Tying it up alongside, empty, no doubt as part of the Scottish “navy” under an independent Scotland, will hardly frighten anyone.

The Defence Secretary is right, of course, that for strong maritime security, we need our Navy ships at sea, not in dock for repairs. For the last two years, he has been telling us that we are

“on track to deliver more days at sea for ships.”

Yet in last year’s data, eight of the Navy’s active warships never went to sea at all, and the new Prince of Wales carrier has, since it entered service, spent just 267 days at sea and 411 days in dock for repeated repairs. Why is he still failing to get more of our ships at sea more of the time to keep Britain safe?

First, it is very normal for a third of a fleet to be alongside for maintenance, deep maintenance and, indeed, preparation to sail and training—that is not unusual. Secondly, the claim that I made was that we would get more days at sea off the Navy, rather than days alongside, and that is indeed the case. If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about more ships and more days at sea, he makes the point that there are maybe not enough ships at sea at the same time, which is exactly why I commissioned the propulsion improvement process to get the Type 45s—made under his Government—actually back out to sea rather than tied alongside. We have now completed three—one at Cammell Laird in Merseyside, one at Portsmouth, and a second at Cammell Laird—with tremendous success. They will be out and more available.

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the aircraft carrier. I am responsible for a lot of things, but it was not me who commissioned the build the design of the aircraft carriers that we have to rectify; it was the Labour party.

Housing for Armed Forces Personnel

In the last seven years, the Ministry of Defence has invested more than £936 million in service family accommodation improvements. Currently, just under 97% of the MOD SFA meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard. Only those properties are allocated to service families.

Over the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to visit bases across the UK and speak to many servicemen and servicewomen. The recurring theme is that accommodation is beyond poor. Having seen family accommodation at first hand, with cracks and mould on the walls of bedrooms, I have to agree. The Minister responded to an urgent question on this topic on 20 December, so what has his Department done since then to improve this awful situation for our heroes and their families?

We all want to see our armed forces service personnel living in good-quality accommodation. The key to that is investment, of course, which is why I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise and welcome the huge investment that we have put into that space: £936 million in the last seven years, as I said, including £185 million in 2022-23 alone, and I can confirm that we are investing at least a further £1.8 billion over the next 10 years.

I welcome the investment that has been put in over the last seven years, which my hon. Friend the Minister mentions, but he is of course dealing with a backlog from the last 20 years. Will he visit RAF Odiham in my constituency to see some of the problems caused by poor contractors and to discuss solutions with the service families there?

I would be more than happy to visit—this is an important issue. I recognise the challenges. It is a complex issue that has built up over many years, as my right hon. Friend says, but we are putting the investment in place and are determined to deal with it.

In March, Labour launched Homes Fit for Heroes, our campaign to highlight the failings of defence housing for service personnel. One member of the armed forces who has served for more than two decades told us that they feel pushed to leave the Army because their house is in such a state of disrepair that they described it as “unfit to live in”. The Government could have solved that crisis over the past 13 years if they had wanted to, but it is getting worse and worse, with personnel leaving because of poor housing. Will this problem be fixed before the next general election, or will the Minister leave it to the next Labour Government to clean up this Tory mess?

It is a pleasure to engage with the Labour Defence Front Bench for the first time. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome the significant investment that we have put in place. Of course, we recognise that we have had long-standing issues with mould and so on. I emphasise that the maintenance backlog from December is now down by 75%. He might want to reflect on the fact that his party’s Government oversaw private finance initiative contracts for service properties in Bristol, Bath and Portsmouth, which, I can confirm, had a cost of £25,000 per home whether or not they were occupied.

Veterans UK

We continue to deliver a range of services to our veterans and their families. That includes pension and compensation payments, and tailored support through our Veterans Welfare Service and Defence Transition Services. We are also pressing ahead with our £40 million transformation programme, which will digitise old, paper-based practices, improving processes and creating a single entry point for pensions and compensation by the end of 2024.

The number of claims leading to financial compensation through the armed forces compensation scheme has dropped from 65% to 47% since 2011-12, while rejections have risen from 24% to 41%. Can the Minister say why that is, and how do he and Veterans UK plan to address the issue?

The digitisation programme I referred to in my initial response to the hon. Lady’s question will make a big difference; in fact, the early evidence is that that is the case. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs recently visited Veterans UK and was hugely encouraged by what he saw. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, who sends his apologies, Mr Speaker, for not being able to be here today, is on this issue very closely. Whatever the failings of the past, the transformation process should lead to significantly better outcomes.

The Minister will know that 14% of veterans in England and Wales are female. In a recent survey, 23% of those veterans said they had suffered sexual harassment in the armed forces, and a further 23% said they had been subject to emotional bullying. That has significantly contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder cases among female veterans. Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing to ensure that these veterans get the best support they can and that they get it while they are serving, so that we can both encourage more women to join the armed forces and meet the Government’s target of 30% of the armed forces being female in the next five years?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such an important issue, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on the Defence Committee and while she was a Minister in the Department. This is an issue that the Department is working on. The Defence Secretary has made it a priority that we address any remaining issues around the culture in our armed forces. As the hon. Gentleman noted in his question, we need to make sure that that extends to the support we offer female veterans as well.

Further to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), Ministers will be aware of the series of articles in The Independent campaigning for asylum protection for veteran Afghan pilots and others who fought with the British forces in Afghanistan at great personal, mental and physical cost. Will the Minister confirm once and for all that these veterans will have their asylum applications processed quickly and that not one of them will be deported to Rwanda or anywhere else?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to a veteran of the Afghan national security forces rather than the UK security forces. As I said in response to the original question on ARAP, the terms of ARAP were, from the very beginning, about those who worked with the UK armed forces in direct support of our role in Afghanistan, not the entirety of the Afghan national security forces. In the case the hon. Gentleman refers to, the gentleman applied only on 9 April. We are looking at whether there are any special circumstances under which his application could be approved but, in principle, as a member of the Afghan national security forces, rather than somebody who worked alongside the British armed forces, he would not automatically be in scope.

There is one group of veterans to whom a terrible injustice was done many years ago, namely LGBTQ+ soldiers, sailors and airmen from before 2001 who lost their rank, who were dismissed and who lost their pensions—to this day, none of that has been restored. The Government have appointed Lord Etherton to look into this matter and to try to right some of those wrongs. When will his report be brought before the House? Will there be an oral statement on the matter so that we can cross-examine Ministers on it? Is the Minister confident that he will now find a way of righting these dreadful wrongs?

I personally agree very much with the sentiments of my hon. Friend’s question. The way that gay people were treated during their service in the armed forces at an earlier time does not reflect the values of the modern British armed forces. The review will be here soon, I am told, and we will make sure that its lessons are learned and adopted by the Department.

Today is 15 May, the day that Captain Robert Nairac from 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards was taken by the IRA and murdered. His murderers are still walking free and we do not know the truth. Does the Minister acknowledge that those who served on Operation Banner need to know the truth about what happened to Captain Robert Nairac? The veterans’ groups in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), led by David Brocklehurst, who sadly was killed on Monday in a road traffic accident, need the support of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), as we go forward. We have the success of peace in Northern Ireland, but it is no peace when we do not know who murdered Captain Nairac.

I, too, read over the weekend that the anniversary of the death of Captain Nairac was today. His case is a particularly barbaric one. There is a great deal of work going into the legacy of the troubles and how investigations should or should not be progressed. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs leads on that. I know he will have heard the question that my right hon. Friend has asked today, and I am sure he will want to pick up the issues with him in due course.

Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the roll-out of veterans ID cards, which I understand is due to be completed by Remembrance Day this year?

I have no reason to believe that my hon. Friend’s expectations are inaccurate, but I will make sure that the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) writes to him, in case that is not the case.

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the last serviceman being stood down from national service, and I express our thanks to all those who served. The headline findings of the five-year review of the armed forces compensation scheme found the process overly burdensome and even distressing. I have heard many complaints about the scheme from veterans and their families, as I am sure have Ministers. With the Government missing their own casework targets, delaying action on the scheme is not good enough, as it continues to let down our armed forces community. Can I press the Minister on when we will see the final report of the review? Can he confirm that meaningful improvements will be made to the scheme before summer recess?

As I have said in response to earlier questions, around £40 million is being invested in the ongoing transformation process to digitise the existing paper-based processes and records, and that will be transformative. These are hundreds of thousands of records kept largely on paper, which makes them extraordinary difficult to process and has caused all of the delays that the hon. Lady rightly mentions. Since the new online digital claims service was launched through the website, the service has been available to service personnel and veterans. The new service has been well received and already accounts for 50% of all new injury and illness claims being made.

Sudan Conflict

6. What steps his Department has taken to support the Government’s response to the conflict in Sudan. (904890)

21. What steps his Department has taken to support the Government’s response to the conflict in Sudan. (904905)

Defence was pivotal in the success of the wider Government effort to evacuate British passport holders and other eligible persons from Sudan. A range of UK military assets and capabilities were deployed in our response, resulting in the evacuation of more than 2,400 people—the longest and largest evacuation of any western nation from Sudan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. A constituent of mine was holed up in a Khartoum corridor with a French family for days, unable to receive email or WhatsApp instructions from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office due to the power outages. My office was having to relay updates to his distressed family. Mercifully, he was airlifted out by the French armée de l’air. I recognise the complex and challenging nature of the evacuation, but what can His Majesty’s Government do to help improve awareness of and communications with stranded British citizens in potentially unstable states to enable our armed forces to mount efficient and effective airlifts in the future?

My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point, but not an easy issue to solve. In Sudan, we were seeing less than single digit percentage coverage of or access to the internet at any one time, in the middle of effectively a civil war, as it was then. For Defence, it is an easier thing to solve, as we bring our own communications with us. When 16 Air Assault Brigade deployed, we managed to bring a limited amount of capability so that we could try to communicate with British citizens. For the main part, the Foreign Office has primacy in this area. We will always stand by to help it with that advice, but I also advise that travellers look at advice before they travel. Indeed, we have to find a way through that challenge in a communications-denied space, but it is not straightforward or easy.

I have been seeing some of the amazing work that the Royal Air Force does through my membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the RAF on the work it did in Sudan, evacuating more than 2,500 people from over 24 countries under very dangerous circumstances? Will he also inform the House which other stakeholders made that a success, so that we can recognise their work and thank them as well?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the RAF. To fly into an airfield with unsure conditions, often in the dark and without much of an advance recce is some achievement. If you remember, Mr Speaker, we also saw the RAF do that in the large evacuation of Kabul. Alongside the RAF, a specialist unit from 16 Air Assault Brigade flew in and helped to fix the runway, which, of course, was not used to the level of demand placed on it; only Britain had that ability. That allowed a better relationship with the Sudanese armed forces and enabled the longer-term evacuation to continue. That is an example of the breadth of experience our armed forces carry.

Three of the four Atlas aircraft used in the evacuation of British nationals from Sudan are reported to have developed faults, two thirds of the incoming fleet are listed as unavailable and there remains no clarity that the fleet can perform the niche functions that our Special Air Service and Special Boat Service need. Has the Secretary of State not made a mistake in pressing ahead with ditching the Hercules fleet in their favour?

I have heard these tired arguments that what we need to do is keep the Herc and get rid of the A400. The A400 outperforms the Herc in most areas. It has a longer ranger and a bigger capacity, and it can land in the same area; in fact, it can land in a shorter distance. In the massive evacuation of Kabul, one A400 had a fault for six hours and managed to continue on its course. The A400 is performing. The migration to special forces and other capabilities is on track, with jumps having been done from it and other parts. The simple reality is that the A400 outperforms the Hercules, and its availability was extremely successful. The Hercules accounts for only 10% of the fleet, and the overall fleet for lift is now the biggest it has been for 50 years.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our armed forces on their role in Sudan, as in Afghanistan. However, there is a problem: in Afghanistan and Sudan—but also during covid, when lots of our citizens were stranded around the world—while the Ministry of Defence was up for early action, the Foreign Office was not. Can we have a stronger role for the MOD in the machinery of government, so that we get the can-do attitude of the MOD, rather than the can’t-do attitude of the Foreign Office?

I can do, by helping the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the resilience of the whole of government is supported by the MOD. There are definitely lessons to be learned, and I will ensure that they are taken away and shared across Government.

Defence Exports to Global Allies

The UK scores highly in the global rankings for defence exports, which create jobs and prosperity across the country, building the industrial resilience and capacity we need for our national security. Through the defence and security industrial strategy, we and the industry are strengthening our position by diversifying our exports and target markets, and by collaborating more closely.

I welcome the Department’s announcement that both Germany and the United Kingdom will work together on the development of advanced armour-piercing tank ammunition. Given that these new rounds will be able to be fired from both British and German tanks, supporting compatibility within NATO, what export potential does this new capability have?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right to highlight this important collaboration with one of our major allies. Enhanced kinetic energy munitions are a key part of the Challenger 3 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks programmes, and will deliver battle-winning capabilities to UK and German armed forces. I am confident that their advanced performance will be recognised as world-leading, and their export potential to NATO and other allies will be promoted by the MOD, as ever in close partnership with the Department for Business and Trade.

I congratulate the Defence Secretary and all Ministers past and present who may have played their part in securing the £1.9 billion export deal with Poland for missiles. Does he agree that significantly strengthening our defence and security relationship with Brazil can increase exports to that country, too?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right to celebrate a great British success story. The MBDA British-designed common anti-air modular missile is the latest-generation air defence system in service with the Royal Navy and British Army; it can engage targets up to 25 km away and is capable of hitting a tennis ball-sized object travelling beyond the speed of sound. It is already deployed in Poland to protect its airspace following Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. We work closely with the Department for Business and Trade in supporting Energy UK’s export campaign through dedicated teams. This network is supporting delivery of numerous CAMM campaigns, and I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we have a positive defence relationship with Brazil: he makes a very good point, and the MOD continues to work with the Brazilian Ministry of Defence and armed forces on how we and UK industry can support their equipment capability shortfalls and development requirements.

AUKUS Submarine Project

9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of progress on the AUKUS submarine project. (904893)

I recently accompanied Prime Minister Albanese to Barrow-in-Furness, where the next generation of AUKUS nuclear submarines will be built for the Royal Navy—a testament to our joint commitment. This multi-decade undertaking will create thousands of jobs in the UK, delivering on the Prime Minister’s priority to grow the economy, and demonstrating the experience and skill that is embodied in British industry.

I welcome the Australian Government’s decision to design their submarines on the SSN-AUKUS model, and I understand that Australian Prime Minister Albanese was in Barrow recently to see that work. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the benefits of AUKUS and the design being made in this country to the supply chain across the United Kingdom?

Building complicated machines such as submarines has the benefit of a long and broad supply chain. The AUKUS model will be truly collaborative: while based on a UK submersible ship nuclear replacement, I expect it over time to be built by Australian hands and with United States skills and supply chains, which will provide opportunities to both countries, alongside ourselves. That is good news for British industry, for skills in places such as Barrow-in-Furness, and for our alliances with Australia and the United States.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response to that question. I visited Australia last year and saw the great work that the Australians are undertaking on AUKUS; it is a great national endeavour. Is he confident that in the UK the Department for Business and Trade and others realise that if we are to get the benefit of this exciting project, we need that national endeavour here, especially on skills and technology across Government?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that getting sign-off on a project such as this involves engagement across Government, including getting the Treasury’s buy-in. Once that has been locked in, we can progress. I am confident that the whole of Government stand behind the project, which is important not just to regenerate places such as Cumbria and the north-west but to lock in the skills base that we need for our future. This is a very exciting project. It will be building long after the right hon. Gentleman and I have probably left this House, in many decades to come. Britain has been at this game—nuclear submarines—for 70 years, and it is not something that one commits to and then backs out of. We expect Australia, alongside the United States and ourselves, to be doing this for a very long time to the benefit of British jobs.

I welcome the new Minister, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), to his place; I got on with all his predecessors and I look forward to our exchanges in future. As has been said, the AUKUS agreement is a game changer not only for our forces but for British industry. The Government have promised a jobs bonanza for generations to come in places such as Derby, Barrow-in-Furness and Devonport in the constituency of my fellow shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). Will the promise be underwritten by contractual guarantees to ensure that future generations are trained in the skills that we need for this vital programme?

It is already underwritten by contractual guarantees. In Barrow-in-Furness, BAE is recruiting for 11,000 to 17,000 jobs. Derby is investing for the next generation of reactor, and that is starting. The key point about AUKUS is that it not only gets a commitment from the Treasury and the Government for the British replacement of the Astute class but locks in the potential of the Australian supply chain and working together collaboratively on skills in both countries. That process is already under way, with £2 billion recently unlocked to start building the infrastructure needed in both Derby and BAE in Barrow, and that will continue. This is further down the path than the beginning, but the real work starts now.

Trident Renewal

10. What recent estimate his Department has made of the (a) timescale and (b) cost of the renewal of Trident. (904894)

The Dreadnought submarine programme remains within overall budget and on track for the first of class, HMS Dreadnought, to enter service in the early 2030s. As the programme is in its preliminary phases, it is too early to provide cost estimates for the replacement warhead programme.

The financial cost of weapons of mass destruction is one thing; the potential human cost from radiation leaks is quite another. On 7 November last year, I raised concerns from a whistleblower about a serious radiation breach at Coulport on Loch Long. The Secretary of State promised that he would provide a detailed written response. Despite my persistence, six months later I have still not had a reply, other than a leak to the media saying:

“The alleged radiation incident referred to…did not”

take place. Will the Secretary of State confirm today from the Dispatch Box whether HMNB Clyde staff were moved from building 201 in Coulport to building 41 elsewhere due to a serious radiation breach?

Obviously, I will have to look into the matter and will write to the hon. Gentleman further. I would make one point. He talked about the other costs. If I may, while the SNP has a merely quirky position of unilateral nuclear disarmament but supposedly remaining in NATO, the position of the Alba party is both nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from NATO. What would be the cost of that policy? In the light of the current situation where Russia has invaded Ukraine, what would happen if we were to announce our withdrawal from NATO?

Order. That was a long answer, which did not really answer the question. What I am more concerned about is that there has not been a reply to a letter that was put in six months ago. Can somebody check that? I am bothered about MPs getting replies from Ministers, not scoring points.

Ukraine: NATO Response

11. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of NATO’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (904895)

Mr Speaker, I will endeavour to ensure that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) gets a reply, and to find out why it has taken so long. It is too long, if that has been the case. Maybe we put it in the camper van.

The UK and international partners committed to providing the capabilities that Ukraine requires, including training, artillery, air defence and armoured vehicles, and to driving further international donations to resolve the war. However, the Ukrainian people should not be forced into concessions. To ensure that Ukraine is in the best possible position to negotiate, the UK and its partners will continue to provide military and economic support, apply sanctions and increase international pressure on Russia.

NATO’s key strategic concept is that of ensuring the collective defence of its members. The best way to do that is to secure peace in Ukraine, but, given Russian aggression, I support the UK and NATO in their work. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the likelihood of securing peace and, failing that, the defensive capabilities of the alliance should a war escalate?

NATO has done a lot of work—not only from February last year when the invasion started—to ensure that it is ready and to use that readiness to deter Russia on NATO’s borders. That is incredibly important. To date, we have not seen any deliberate strikes into a NATO country by Russia. While we have seen deeply provocative events in the Black sea, Russia has so far been respecting those NATO borders.

The most important thing is to ensure that President Putin realises he cannot win this war in Ukraine. His brutality is having the opposite effect—it has driven two new nations into NATO—and the west, including the United Kingdom and Germany, as I saw in an announcement, is stepping up more and more to ensure that Ukraine has success on the battlefield so that it can negotiate, if it wishes, from a position of strength.

We on the Opposition side stand firmly behind and support Ukraine. However, Ukraine is depleting our military stockpiles, and the Government seem to be acting too slowly to replenish them. What progress has the Secretary Of State made on a stockpile strategy? What talks has he had with NATO allies about their replenishment plans to ensure the most effective sequencing of replenishment?

The hon. Lady makes an important point that is common not just to the United Kingdom but across Europe. Ukraine has woken everyone up to issues such as ammunition stocks. The first challenge was to wake up that supply chain. Many of the orders we had placed were filled, and the supply chain went on to do something else. We have now placed orders for new NLAWs. Let us remember the anti-tank weapons and new anti-aircraft missiles from Thales in Northern Ireland in conjunction with our Swedish and, I think, Finnish colleagues. We are in the process of, hopefully, awarding a contract to replenish 155 mm shells. At the same time, I have worked across the international community to make sure that we stimulate those supply chains and to make sure that Ukraine does, as well.

I welcome President Zelensky’s visit to the UK. Clearly, a warm relationship is developing between the President and our Prime Minister. We have a proud track record of being the first to provide those NLAWs, and of providing training on Salisbury plain, those main battle tanks and the long-range weapons systems. What next? Perhaps fast jets.

There is much talk of a counter-offensive, but I want to ask the Secretary of State about the comments of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group. He openly criticised President Putin for the absence of ammunition and battlefield tactics. Is the Secretary of State concerned that if the counter-offensive is successful and terrain is gained, Putin will turn ugly and resort to non-conventional chemical and biological weapons, as he did in Syria?

We always have to be on our guard about the behaviours of the Russian military and President Putin. As my right hon. Friend rightly comments, the use of chemical weapons in Syria was another turning point, as was the use of chemical weapons here on the streets of the United Kingdom in the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. We are on our guard. The international community regularly communicates. We stand ready with NATO. We have increased our readiness and we have started to increase investment in our capabilities. That is all important, but my right hon. Friend is right that we must be on our guard about what happens next.

Figures show that NATO allies in partner countries have provided Ukraine with more than 98% of the combat vehicles promised. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that Ukraine continues to see high levels of support from NATO?

NATO allies regularly meet alongside other international partners at Ramstein in Germany, at a US-chaired donation conference, which builds on my first international conferences. It is a regular drumbeat to keep up on that. As hon. Members can tell, President Zelenskyy and members of his Government are regular visitors to international communities to keep that momentum going. Britain is at the forefront of that momentum and will continue to be. Our determination is to see it through.

Defence Procurement System

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s defence procurement system. (904897)

We are driving the delivery of capability to the frontline. When requirements, budget and risk are clear, we have proven our ability to deliver. The majority of our programmes are on or ahead of time and budget. The Ministry of Defence has set out an affordable 10-year equipment plan to ensure that our armed forces are being given what they need, while living within our means.

I heard what the Secretary of State said about Atlas. He has previously given me a commitment that there will be no loss of capability, but today, Deborah Haynes at Sky News is reporting that the UK will be left dangerously exposed when the C-130J is cut next month. That comes amid concerns that its successor, the Atlas A400M, has yet to be cleared to perform the niche but mission-critical functions of the C-130J. Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that our defence procurement system will ensure no loss of operational capability?

I am more than happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There is a great deal of affection for the Hercules, but to go back to what the Secretary of State said about the recent performance in the important operation in Sudan, the largest number of evacuees that the Hercules carried out from Sudan was 143. The largest number in an A400M was about 100 more than that.

Continuity, focus and a relentless grip on detail are the hallmarks of a competent defence procurement Minister. In less than a year, we are on our fourth defence procurement Minister, so we do not have the continuity bit nailed down. Will the new Minister reassure the House of his competence by enlightening us of the most challenging defence procurement issue on his desk this week?

I look to my left and my right and I see continuity. I am grateful to follow in the steps of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who did a sterling job. To give one example, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) mentioned the issue of replenishment. I recently had the privilege of visiting British troops training Ukrainian forces, as referred to by the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). We have to remember, it is not just that we are training 15,000 personnel to go back out to Ukraine and defend their homeland; every time they go we are giving them high-quality kit. There are lessons to learn from what has happened in Ukraine, but we should be incredibly proud of that effort. We have procured at pace, gifted in kind and ensured that Ukraine has been able to sustain its fight to this day.

Well, that’s crystal clear. One of the things the Minister said when talking about Ukraine, in answer to my question about procurement, was about replenishment. He will know, even in his short tenure in the job, that small and medium-sized enterprises are the lifeblood of any military-industrial complex. Can he explain why, in answer to my parliamentary question a couple of weeks ago asking if the Ministry of Defence would attend a public sector meet-the-buyer event in Edinburgh, which is attended by other UK Government Departments, the MOD—a £50 billion-resourced organisation—cited a lack of resource as the reason it could not attend? Is that a special kind of indifference that is reserved for Scotland?

Of course not. I am happy to look into that. I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that the latest figures show that the proportion that the MOD spends with SMEs has increased from 19.3% in 2018-19 to 23% in 2021. I ran an SME before coming to this place—it was not a defence SME but I know how important they are. They give us creativity and innovation, and I want to work with them and the primes in delivering the British defence industry, because we see that as a key part of our own defence capability.

Ukrainian Military Defence

15. What steps his Department is taking to help support Ukraine’s military defence against Russia. (904899)

The UK, our allies and partners are continuing to respond decisively to support Ukraine as the conflict evolves. We have trained over 15,000 recruits and provided £2.4 billion of support, including artillery ammunition, as well as leading the world on the gifting of vital capabilities, such as multiple-launch rocket systems, Challenger 2 tanks and now Storm Shadow missiles.

I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on the announcement of the delivery of long-range Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine. I am proud that the UK has been able to provide this vital capability to the Ukrainians ahead of their long-expected counter-offensive. Given that the Ukrainians will need all the support they can get for that, can he reassure me that the second spending round of the international fund for Ukraine is proceeding at pace? When might we expect to see contracts placed with the remaining £300 million?

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that the second spending round was launched last month. It is seeking expressions of interest in a phased approach, beginning with the needs for air defence, long-range strike and mobility support, and it is open to huge numbers of SMEs to apply for funding. Submissions are being assessed right now and more requirements will be launched in the coming weeks. Successful companies will be chosen by the UK, alongside our IFU partners, and contracting will begin as soon as possible.

Topical Questions

I place on record my thanks to all the members of our armed forces who contributed to the coronation parade. It was a remarkable day in the history of the nation. It was both an immense privilege and a solemn responsibility for the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces to fulfil. I thank them once again for contributing in an exemplary way and with such extraordinary personal commitment and dedication, while also meeting all other operational requirements. We are immensely proud of them all and privileged to belong to the defence community.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comments in their entirety. The visit by President Zelensky today highlights how vital a collective approach is to our national defence and security. To that end, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have security and defence agreements in place with our nearest allies in Europe, in response to Russian aggression?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we get our strength through coalition and our alliances, and NATO is the most successful military alliance the world has seen. In addition, I led the way in ensuring that countries that were not covered by NATO at the time—Sweden and Finland—signed together a mutual defence pack about two years ago, when no one thought that they would now be joining NATO. We encourage nations to join NATO and to apply using the open-door policy; at the same time, we seek to help other nations to join using memorandums of understanding and other agreements, to try to bolster that enabling alliance.

T2. Following the groundbreaking work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on the experience of women in the military, Delyn constituents were pleased to hear the announcement of a women veterans strategy. Could the Secretary of State provide an update and a timeline on when that might be implemented? (904910)

I can. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, as the strategy will be the responsibility of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I will be happy to provide him with further details.

We welcome President Zelensky’s visit and the extra military aid announced today. The invasion of Ukraine has reinforced the importance of strong deterrence and Army numbers. While NATO is responding by increasing its high-readiness force to 300,000, the Defence Secretary is still set on cutting the British Army to its smallest size since Napoleon. Will he halt the cuts in next month’s defence Command Paper?

I have been really clear that this is not a numbers game; it is about making sure that, whatever the size of our armed forces, we have a completely well-equipped and well looked-after workforce. If we simply go on a numbers game, without the appropriate funding—and I have heard no commitments from the Labour party—we will go back to a world that I served in, under Governments of both parties, where we had numbers on paper and on parade grounds, but hollow forces. I will not repeat that. I will make sure that whatever we have is fully equipped and fully 360. That is the real lesson of Ukraine.

Labour has argued for over two years for a halt to these cuts. Despite the Secretary of State’s bluster, the truth is that he has failed to get the new money for defence, apart from for nuclear and for stockpiles. Why will he not just admit it? Far from responding to the threats that Britain faces, he is cutting the Army to cut costs.

This is like “Through the Looking Glass”, Mr Speaker. The reality is that as Defence Secretary I have achieved an increase of over £24 billion, both in resource departmental expenditure limit, in parts, and also in capital spend. It is important that the House understands that the world and the battlefield are changing. If we simply go to a numbers game, we will head back to a first world war. What we need is to learn the lessons and equip and support people properly. I have still not heard from the Opposition a single mention of their defence budget. Reversing the cuts, of course, will cost billions of pounds. I have heard nothing so far.

T3. I recently had the privilege of becoming honorary president of the Royal British Legion’s Hinckley branch. My first engagement was to join the Hinckley armed forces and veterans breakfast club at the Hansom Cab in Burbage for its fifth-year celebration. That amazing organisation helps veteran men and women, providing support, companionship and banter for those who have served. Will the Minister thank all those who give their time for such organisations? More importantly, what more can he do to support armed forces and veterans breakfast clubs? (904911)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his presidential duties at the Hinckley branch of the Royal British Legion—my own branch in Burnham-on-sea will just about let me make the tea. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the fantastic work of veterans breakfast clubs. The Government have supported those through the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. I know that that support is as well received in his constituency as it is in mine, where there is an excellent club in Glastonbury.

T4. Today the UK is pledging a new package of military support to Ukraine. What assessment has the Minister made of the pace of delivery of those vital supplies to Ukraine? (904912)

Right from the start, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of ensuring that the supplies get into the country as soon as possible, basing people not only in the international donor co-ordination cell in Germany—there are over 70 military personnel there—but in neighbouring countries, to ensure the logistics of getting supplies to reach places in time. We are still managing to commit to that pace.

As President Zelensky has said, some countries have made pledges but part of the delay has been in their getting equipment ready to donate. Ours is already in—our 12 Challengers are already in the country. We will make sure that we keep monitoring the situation and pushing as fast as possible.

T5.   The Mayor of London has generously permitted 54,000 friends and family of Transport for London workers free travel around London. He has also granted police officers from eight services free travel when not in uniform. Will the Minister explain to service personnel, particularly those from Woolwich barracks, why they can travel free only while in full uniform, which makes them and those around them a target? Are there any plans to rectify that discrepancy? (904913)

The Labour Mayor of London is also expanding the ultra low emission zone charge, which will affect thousands of armed forces personnel who are based in the outer boroughs. I suspect that our Opposition colleagues will have heard of this impact on their cost of living, and will be earnestly encouraging their Mayor to ensure that free travel is extended to armed forces personnel who are not travelling in uniform.

T7. The transition to the new NATO force model must be complete by this year. Can the Secretary of State update the House on how prepared the UK is for more capability at greater readiness, so that we can continue to play our leading role in NATO? (904915)

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe recently issued his regional plans, which extend to 3,000 pages of detailed proposals for the defence of Europe. From that will stem a donation conference at which all the member states will present their contributions to the plans. Within that, we will develop the new force model that will contribute to the new force structure of NATO. Once we have got through that period of the next few months, we will be able to tell the House exactly what we have put forward, how ready it is, and whether it meets the ask of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

T6. Clive Sheldon KC, of 11 King’s Bench Walk chambers, submitted his Lessons Learned report on the AJAX programme to the Ministry of Defence some four months ago. We are told that it is still undergoing a “fact-checking” process, but there are growing rumours that some people who are adversely implicated in the report are trying to water it down or even suppress its publication. As the Secretary of State personally commissioned the report, and as it is his birthday today, and as this is, I think, my fourth time of asking, will he please give us all a birthday present and tell us when the report will actually be published? (904914)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. What a birthday.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I have not yet seen the draft, and I have asked to see it as well as the final report so that, on the basis of what I have seen with my own eyes, I can decide whether or not it is appropriate to change it. I have been told, after raising the issue recently, that its arrival is imminent, and it is extremely important to ensure that it does reach me. My right hon. Friend has a real point here: namely, that I am not in the business of shielding people from their errors; I am interested in learning lessons.

T9. You, Mr Speaker, the Defence Secretary and I all have thousands of constituents who work at BAE Systems in Lancashire. They have been working very hard on Typhoons and F-35s, but for the last couple of years there has been a great deal of excitement and hype about the Tempest programme. I understand that the Tempest is still a concept, in terms of its development, so can the Defence Secretary tell us when the detailed design and production stages are likely to take place? (904917)

My hon. Friend has raised an issue that is important not only to our part of the world but to the whole United Kingdom: the ability to deliver a sovereign capability. I recently went to Japan, where I signed another agreement with my Japanese and Italian counterparts. The global combat air programme, or GCAP—Tempest to us—is incredibly important for jobs in the north-west. It is already moving into the design phase, and we will then start to deal with the question of the political balance—of how much work is shared among the partners. However, there is a strong Government commitment to take this forward. We expect to see test flights before 2030, and we hope that the project will progress strongly for all our sakes.

T8. On 1 March this year more than 22,000 armed forces personnel had been described as being in dental categories 2 or 3, which means that their dental fitness was suboptimal. In addition, constituents of mine who are spouses or dependants of military personnel are struggling to obtain treatment from NHS dentists owing to their frequent house moves. What are my right hon. Friend and the Department doing to ensure that we meet our obligations to service personnel and their families? (904916)

I understand that my hon. Friend recently met the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to discuss this matter. Defence service personnel have more access to dentistry than would be expected by the general population. When people are awaiting dental care ahead of deployment, their care is prioritised. As for the wider issue relating to dental provision for service families, my hon. Friend has made an important point, and I will ensure that it is conveyed to Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care. It does, of course, involve armed forces covenant issues.

It was good to hear that the Appledore shipyard in Devon will see the construction of modules for the three support ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, as announced last November. It has been reported in the press in the last week that shipyards belonging to our ally, Poland, will construct blocks of hull for the Type 31 frigates, with final assembly to be carried out at Rosyth. What parts of the Type 31 will be built in Poland, and what value will that amount to?

My understanding is that the smallest part—[Interruption.]1% will be built in Poland. That is of course Babcock’s decision, made under the original contract, but overall this will be completed in Rosyth and I have already been up there to visit. I am also delighted that, for example, the contract model we put together for the fleet solid support ship has enabled places such as Appledore to get work. It is important that we keep all our yards busy and that they do not just go from feast to famine.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the ways in which the Ministry of Defence is maximising defence procurement from Wales, particularly from north-east Wales where my constituency is situated? (904918)

Wales plays an integral part in all aspects of the UK’s defence policy, with a number of the MOD’s major suppliers and small and medium-sized enterprises having a presence there. In 2021, for example, the MOD awarded a £110 million contract to the Raytheon UK plant in north Wales, which is providing the RAF with one of the world’s most modern and capable intelligence-gathering assets. We are also working with the Welsh Government and the Defence Electronics and Components Agency to create an advanced technology research centre at MOD Sealand. The centre will develop cutting-edge sovereign capability to support international collaboration, job sustainment and skills retention while meeting our changing defence requirements.

I would like to thank the PCS union and the staff at Defence Business Services for their work on negotiating important wins for disabled and non-mobile staff, who have been offered flexible and hybrid working as a reasonable adjustment. Not forcing staff to move without their agreement, along with the creation of a voluntary release package, is a positive step. Can the Secretary of State commit to ongoing negotiations with PCS and the Liverpool staff to keep their terms under review, to ensure that staff are given the support necessary to keep their jobs under reasonable conditions?

I am glad that the hon. Lady recognises that these have been constructive negotiations. She mentioned the offer of flexible working and, as she knows, there have to date been no compulsory redundancies. I would just stress that, even with the £30 million cost of the new site, there will be a total £40 million saving, so this is good value for taxpayers as well as a good deal for the workforce.

I welcome the new Minister to his place. It was great of him to make his first visit to Carterton recently, where we discussed the upgrading of existing MOD housing and the purchase of new housing. I look forward to discussing that with him further following the Defence sub-Committee report that will be produced shortly. He also saw the large brownfield site known as REEMA North, where MOD housing has been demolished and not yet replaced because the money has not been found to do it. We always talk about prioritising brownfield land. This is a prime site where housing is much needed but the money has not yet been found. Will he work with me to ensure that we not only use this brownfield land but protect West Oxfordshire’s land supply and give the RAF the homes that it needs?

I very much enjoyed my visit to Brize Norton. It was actually my second visit after Abbey Wood. Just to be clear, we remain fully committed to the development of new housing for service personnel at the REEMA site. We are in discussions with industry partners to facilitate this, but given the time that has elapsed, I am happy to continue to engage with my hon. Friend, who I know is a champion of his local service personnel, many of whom serve in the RAF. I am more than happy to stay engaged with him.

In March, 8,000 Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme families were given eviction notices from their hotel accommodation by the Home Office. What assurances can we hear from Defence Ministers that these people will not become homeless?

I can only talk on behalf of the ARAP cohort of people in the hotels. In the beginning of the process, over half went straight into the community and found places with family or friends. On the ones in hotels, the ARAP lodgers are different from those in the general asylum scheme. They can claim benefits, including housing benefit, and they can work immediately when they arrive. It is time that we found a way of getting them out of the hotels and into the community so that they can start working. They have that ability, and that is the way they can integrate into society and get on their own two feet. At the time, it was right that we took a stand that some of those people had been there for a long time. It is time to move out and use the rights that they have, coming here under ARAP.

I have been led to believe that the issue facing HMS Prince of Wales has been an almost incredible complacency on engineering tolerances in the shaft. Is there any financial recourse to the manufacturer in getting the Prince of Wales operational again?

From the initial reports I have read, the misalignment of the shaft is around 0.8 mm or 1 mm—a tiny amount that, of course, can make a huge difference at sea. We are examining the liabilities and who should cough up for that. The good news is that, overall, it has not delayed the Prince of Wales’s work-up. We took advantage of some of the maintenance periods to put in pre-planned maintenance and I think she will be back on track and on time to deliver her capability.

I recently met Elizabeth Wilson, a school pupil who is also a Member of the Hull Youth Parliament and the daughter of armed forces personnel. She is campaigning to establish an armed forces champion in every school to assist pupils with transition and to provide peer-to-peer support. What additional support can the Minister give this young entrepreneur on that project?

I would be very happy to meet that young entrepreneur with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. That excellent idea would plug in perfectly with the local authority forces champions, with their local education remit. That is a really good idea.

I share my condolences with the family of David Brocklehurst. He will be a massive loss to the Abbots Langley veterans association, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said.

May I, through the Front-Bench team, thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for recently visiting Watford to meet veterans, including the Abbots Langley group, to hear about the fantastic initiatives in Watford, including Luther Blissett OBE’s Forces United initiative?

Our veterans are very important to the fabric of society, and it is important that this country is the best place in the world to be a veteran. This Government have been on the right track in delivering that. Yes, there are some things around the veterans card and services, but the agreement of many parts of Government to support the armed forces covenant is the right direction, and we are going from strength to strength.

In 1969, 74 US personnel perished after the USS Frank E. Evans sank. Two Royal Navy personnel from my constituency were present and they have just been invited to a commemoration, but they are struggling to get there. Can a Minister meet me to look at options to help them get there?

The Minister will know that I have constituents in substandard military accommodation at Sandhurst. When they asked for help under the Pinnacle Service Families contract over Christmas, it did not turn up. Will he use the relative lull of the summer months to plan ahead with the contractors to make sure we do not have another problem at Christmas?

I have already met the contractors and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and the good news is that maintenance issues that were around at Christmas have been cut by 75%. That is continuing in the right direction, but my hon. Friend is right: the key is to plan ahead for next winter. That is what we are getting on with at the moment. I am determined to hold these contractors to account.

HMS Prince of Wales currently lies in Rosyth for repairs and I hear it has been cannibalised for spare parts. Will this £3 billion asset be back on full operational duties by the end of the year?

Yes, by the autumn. It is perfectly normal for ships to take ship stores from each other. HMS Prince of Wales is not being cannibalised because it is off to be mothballed. The ship will be back in full service in the autumn.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the past few days, there have been media reports by Sam Coates of Sky TV and David Collins of The Sunday Times about the complaint to Cleveland police by its own police and crime commissioner, Steve Turner. He was standing to be a councillor on 4 May while remaining as PCC and lost that election after a number of recounts. Prior to the poll, he complained about a leaflet that was distributed in the ward in which he was standing and, as a result, Cleveland police officers attended at the homes of each of the three Labour activists involved in its production, telling one of them that the leaflet had “upset Steve”. Following their interrogations and a week-long inquiry, the police concluded that there was no case to answer.

Nazir Afzal, the former senior prosecutor and former chief executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said that Mr Turner appeared to have received special treatment by the police and:

“The perception is that he abused his power in this case”.

The PCC code explicitly says:

“The Commissioner will not use the resources of the office for personal benefit…The resources will not be used improperly for political purposes, including party political purposes”.

We on this side have called for an urgent investigation, but I seek your guidance as to whether you have received any confirmation from the Government that such an inquiry will be held and a statement will be made to the House about these matters.

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order. I have not received any notice about a statement on the matter he has raised.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today’s Financial Times contains a major exposé on the questionable business dealings of the Tees Mayor, which, among other things, have seen vast public-owned assets transferred—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am talking about the questionable business dealings of the Tees Mayor, which, among other things, have seen vast public-owned assets transferred to two local businessmen. Secrecy is central to everyone’s concerns about what is happening on Teesside, where there is a total lack of transparency about public assets worth hundreds of millions of pounds. We have even seen the National Audit Office demand that the Mayor corrects his claims that it has given his dealings a clean bill of health. Are you aware of any plans for a statement on this serious issue, so that we can be reassured that Ministers know what is going on and hear of any plans to end the secret activities on Teesside, so that they do not adversely impact any investors’ plans for the area and protect the public interest?

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order. I have received no notice of a statement on this matter, but I am sure that, as with the previous point of order, it will not be left at that and that he will continue, in different endeavours, to ensure that it is heard in a different way.

Bill Presented

Nakba Commemoration Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Layla Moran presented a Bill to make provision about the commemoration of the Nakba; to require the Secretary of State to encourage and facilitate annual commemoration of the Nakba; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 306).

Victims and Prisoners Bill

[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Justice Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Victims Bill, HC 304, and the Government response, HC 932;Oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 9 May 2023, on Victims and Prisoners Bill, HC 1340; and Written evidence to the Justice Committee, on Victims and Prisoners Bill, reported to the House on 9 May 2023, HC 1340.]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Some years ago, shortly before I entered Parliament, I was stood in the Crown court at Birmingham, having been instructed by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute five men accused of rape. It was alleged that they had groomed two young girls from Telford aged 15 and 16 and abducted them to Birmingham, where they subjected them to a weekend of degrading and humiliating sexual attacks, offering them up to their friends to do with as they pleased. What made the case even more chilling was that it was clear that the victims had been targeted because of their troubled backgrounds and sometimes challenging behaviour when interacting with authority figures such as the police. The defendants had made a cynical calculation that, if the girls ever did complain, they were unlikely to be believed. Well, they were believed. The jury got the measure of what had really gone on. After a fair trial, presided over by an independent judge, the defendants were all convicted of rape, robust sentences were passed and justice was done.

I mention that at the beginning of this Second Reading debate because it provided me, and I hope now the House, with a powerful example of how supporting victims can make a decisive impact on outcomes. In that case, it was only because all the moving parts of the system came together to support those vulnerable girls to give their best evidence that a just outcome was delivered: conscientious police officers liaised sensitively with the young women to help them record their accounts; compassionate CPS lawyers and caseworkers applied for special measures to assist the victims to give evidence in court; and victim support staff worked hard during the tense days of the trial to assist victims with information and updates.

Here is the central point: all those agencies recognised that, in order to deliver justice, victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants in it. That is the mission of this Government and of this Bill. It will boost victims’ entitlements; make victims’ voices heard, including following a major incident like the tragedy of Grenfell or Hillsborough; and deliver further safeguards to protect the public.

As the House will know, my predecessor met brave victims such as: little Tony Hudgell, who was so badly abused by his birth parents that he almost died; Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, whose two-year-old son James’s murder shocked the nation; and Farah Naz, the aunt of Zara Aleena, who was tragically sexually assaulted and murdered last year. I want to pay tribute to them. Through their personal grief they have, none the less, found the strength to strengthen the system for others. We owe them a profound debt of gratitude. Their pain and their anguish spurs us on to strengthen public protection and to make sure every victim of crime is properly supported.

I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill. As an MP, I have heard so many complaints from victims that no one is listening to them. Can he assure me that victims really will come first in the Bill?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is exactly the point. If victims are to be not spectators but participants, from the moment of complaint they must be listened to by the officer on the case, the CPS prosecutor and the prosecutor at court. Being listened to is a critical part of victims’ confidence in the criminal justice system.

Can I just make a bit of progress?

Before I return to the key elements I mentioned a few moments ago, I want to set out a little context. Hugely important work has taken place over recent years—this may perhaps answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions—to ensure that many of the standards achieved for those victims in Birmingham are now demanded as a matter of course. What it means in simple terms is this: no longer is it considered perfectly normal for a victim of a violent robbery to report their statement to the police, only to hear nothing until a curt instruction out of the blue to attend trial in a week’s time. The 2020 victims code requires that they be kept updated. Gone are the days when it was thought completely reasonable for a victim to arrive at court, give evidence and then have to rely on the media to find out whether the defendant had been convicted. The 2020 code requires that they are told the outcome of the case and given an explanation of the sentence if the defendant is convicted.

I will come to the hon. Lady in one moment.

The revised victims code, published in 2020, contains many additional entitlements. For example, right 7 is a victim’s entitlement to make a personal statement to tell the court how the crime has affected them, so that it can be considered when sentencing the offender; right 8 is the entitlement to be offered appropriate help before the trial and, where possible, to meet the prosecutor before giving evidence; and right 9 is the entitlement to be given information about the outcome of the case and any appeals.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. My constituent Johnny Wood feels he has been let down by every part of the justice system after his sister was killed by four men with 100 convictions between them who were driving an HGV lorry. The legislation does not address non-compliance with the victims code, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell Johnny and the House how it will make a meaningful change for victims?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important case on behalf of her constituent. I will develop those points in due course, but let me make a core point first. We have gone from creating the important victims’ entitlements in the code to wanting to ensure that they have a profile, a prominence and an accountability, so that if things go wrong—and from time to time things will go wrong; that happens in any system—people can be truly held to account, and where agencies are failing that is made plain for all to see.

We have also strengthened the system of special measures, completing a national roll-out of pre-recorded examination and cross-examination for victims of rape and sexual offences. That spares them the ordeal of giving evidence in a live trial and having to stand in the same room as their alleged attacker. Really importantly, there has been the introduction of more independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers. These are specialists trained to support vulnerable victims through the justice process. From just the odd pilot scheme pre-2010, there are now over 700 working up and down the country to support victims, and we are rolling out 300 more. It is all part of an unprecedented investment in victim and witness support services, quadrupling 2010 levels.

That is the context. The difference between a decade ago and now is stark. Following those crucial advances, we are now taking steps to secure the entitlements and raise yet further the standards we expect the criminal justice system to deliver for victims. First, the Bill will enshrine the key principles of the victims code in law and provide a framework for the code in regulations, centred around the 12 key entitlements that victims can expect. That will ensure that the good practice I mentioned earlier, which has taken root in many courts and CPS offices around the country, becomes standard practice. The Bill will give these entitlements the profile, the prominence and the weight they deserve and ensure that they cannot be watered down by future Governments. It will place agencies within the criminal justice system, including chief constables, the CPS, British Transport police and others, under a new duty to make victims aware of the code so that every victim knows what they are entitled to.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what was enshrined in the code, which he said happened in 2020. In 2021—I have just checked the date on my phone—I found out that somebody had been convicted of harassing and threatening me. I found out about it in The Guardian, so the code was certainly not enshrined in that particular courtroom in Birmingham, which I mention as he is leaning on Birmingham courtrooms. What right would I have in this Bill to any recourse and what would happen to the people who failed to inform me?

The hon. Lady should not have found out in a newspaper. She should have been kept updated and informed. If she would like to come to speak to me about that, I will find out what went wrong in that case. On her specific point, what I think is exciting and heartening about the Bill is that it contains a duty on the Secretary of State and police and crime commissioners not just to promote awareness of the code—important though that is—but to promote compliance. If there is not compliance, there is also a duty, effectively, to publish that, so that it is plain for everyone to see. The local PCC will be publishing that, which means that the hon. Lady can get some accountability. I reiterate that if she wants to come to speak to me, she must not hesitate to do so. In fact, knowing her, I know that she would not hesitate to speak.[Official Report, 7 June 2023, Vol. 733, c. 10MC.]

Let me make a little progress.

As I indicated, the Bill will make sure that everyone knows what they are entitled to and it sends a clear signal to the system about the service that victims should be receiving. Secondly, as I suggested, the Bill will ensure stronger oversight by placing a new duty on police and crime commissioners and criminal justice bodies to monitor compliance with the code, to provide the public and this Parliament with a clear picture of how victims across the country are being treated. Ministers will have the power to direct the inspection of justice agencies that are failing victims to help drive improvements using best practice from those agencies that are succeeding.

Thirdly, the Bill will place a duty on specific authorities to respond publicly to the recommendations of the Victims’ Commissioner and introduce a requirement for an annual report to be laid before Parliament. That will shine a spotlight on how the system is working and ensure that we have the transparency needed to drive change.

Fourthly, the Bill will provide better support for victims. It will help to ensure that critical support services are targeted where they are most needed by introducing a new joint statutory duty on police and crime commissioners, integrated care boards and local authorities to co-operate and work together when commissioning support services for victims of domestic and sexual abuse and other serious violent crimes.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. The family of Declan Curran, who tragically took his life, pre-trial, aged just 13, wanted me to stress in this debate the importance of child victims of sexual abuse and their inclusion in clause 2, the victims code, and how they should be able to access comprehensive psychological services without any delay. This must not be seen as interference in the evidence of the trial, with victims’ evidence being recorded at the time of the crime. Will that be fully included in the Bill without delay?

It is incredibly important that child victims receive the support that they need, and that should not be a bar to their giving a video-recorded piece of evidence, for example, so that they can participate in that trial as well. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the particulars. The general principle is this: if child victims, who are victims within the ambit of the Bill, need that support, they should get it.

Can the Lord Chancellor provide the House with slightly more detail on the commissioning functions? He has rightly touched on police and crime commissioners, ICBs, the duty of care and the duty of co-operation. In many walks of life, that co-operation completely fails and, basically, victims are on the receiving end of institutional state failure. It would give the House some confidence if he were able to explain how this will work.

I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend for her stalwart commitment to the rights of victims. I venture to suggest that no one in this House has done more to stand up for victims. She is absolutely right; there are plenty of organisations who have a duty in that regard—police and crime commissioners are one, but there are plenty of other providers. We want to ensure that the duty of co-operation means that there will not be duplication in some areas and deserts, as it were, in others. The aim is to ensure that across the piece, if someone needs to make sure that there is sufficient support for rape victims, for example, that that support is provided and there is no potential duplication between what the hospital might be doing and what the PCC might be doing. That is a statutory requirement to co-operate—not a “nice to have”, but a direct requirement. That is the difference.

I have already spoken about the importance of ISVAs and IDVAs. They do exceptional work, and we want to strengthen their role further by introducing national guidance to increase awareness of what they do and to promote consistency.

I can also tell the House that we will bring forward an amendment in Committee to block unnecessary and intrusive third party material requests in rape and sexual assault investigations. I know that routine police requests for therapy notes or other personal records can be incredibly distressing for victims, who can feel as though they are the ones under scrutiny. Some may even be deterred from seeking support for fear of their personal records being shared. Our Bill will make sure that those requests are made only when strictly necessary for the purposes of a fair trial.

Many of us welcomed this Bill and hoped it would transform and revolutionise the response, but it fails in several areas. We have heard about the duty of co-operation and collaboration, but there is to be no new funding to allow that to happen and to allow duty holders to commission new services to make the collaboration effective. How would the Government overcome that, and will they consider doing that in future?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s overall enthusiasm for the Bill. On that specific point, one of the things I am proud of is that funding for victim services has quadrupled over the past 13 years or so. It is a very significant increase. The money that goes to PCCs, for example, has significantly increased—I think it is more than £60 million or so—but there is additional money that goes directly to charities, such as the Gloucestershire Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in my own constituency, which is directly funded. That funding has increased.

By the way, I should also note that during covid, when people were genuinely worried that those victim support services might fall over and collapse, the funding went in to sustain them during those very dark times. There is more money, and that is precisely why we want the duty of collaboration to ensure that those taxpayer pounds go as far as they can.

I thank the Secretary of State for the measures he has brought through on third party disclosures. Could he, though, give a message to the survivors in my constituency and across the country who have been deterred from coming forward by that knowledge, and to those whose cases have collapsed because of their fear of that information getting into the public domain? What message does he have for them?

The hon. Lady does an important public service in raising that point and I thank her for doing so. Let the message go out from this Chamber: “Do not be put off coming forward, giving your evidence and reporting allegations of serious sexual harm because of concerns about therapy notes. Get the therapy support that you need.” I want that message to go out loud and clear.

We are going to change the law to make it crystal clear that there will be no routine access to therapy notes; there will be access only when it is absolutely necessary and proportionate, and not by the defence, but principally in the very rare circumstances where a prosecutor needs to look at it. The message goes out that victims should come forward and co-operate with the criminal justice system, if they can.

Part 2 of the Bill provides better support for victims and the bereaved after major disasters such as terror attacks. The House will recall the awful events at Hillsborough and the most recent fire at Grenfell Tower, as well as the Manchester Arena bombing. The impact of those terrible tragedies is still felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims. I know there is consensus on both sides of the House that survivors and families of victims caught up in such disasters must be given every support. No one should be left to feel their way in the dark as they grieve.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), the noble Lord Wills and many others for their tireless campaigning on the issue. Indeed, one of the most moving debates that I have ever had the privilege of listening to was one to which the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood contributed on this topic.

The Bill will introduce the UK’s first ever independent public advocate—an advocate to give a voice to those who have too often felt voiceless. The IPA will be a strong advocate for victims, the bereaved and whole communities affected. It will allow us to hear everyone, including those who, in the darkest moments of their grief, may understandably find it impossible to speak up for themselves and their legitimate concerns.

I will just develop the point and then of course I will let the right hon. Lady come in.

From the earliest days after a disaster, the IPA will work on behalf of victims. It will be a crucial conduit between them and key public authorities, and it will focus resolutely on what survivors and the bereaved actually need, not just what others in authority might assume they need. The IPA will also help victims and the bereaved to navigate complex processes that most people would find deeply stressful and upsetting, such as investigations, inquests and public inquiries. On a practical level, it will give victims, the bereaved and the affected community a robust way of engaging the public authorities and Government—for example, by asking the coroner or the police for more information about inquests and investigations, or by pressing local government and central Government on their policies for victims.

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new role. I wonder whether he will be open to the idea—from those of us who have been working on this for some time—of strengthening the provisions in the Bill to improve them?

In preparation for today’s debate, I read the right hon. Lady’s Bill and have considered it with care. Of course, I am open to further discussions with her; she has lived and breathed this issue for a long time, and it is absolutely right that I consider those points. I think that there are—well, let us leave it at that and discuss those matters in due course.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to his role as Lord Chancellor. I have been listening very carefully to what he has said in relation to suggestions made in all quarters of this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) recently proposed an excellent ten-minute rule Bill calling for tougher rules on the ability of sex offenders to change their names. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Victims and Prisoners Bill is a perfect opportunity to bring in tougher rules, and that they should apply not only to changes of name but to changes of legal sex?

There is real and clear merit in what my right hon. Friend says. Plainly, we cannot have a situation in which people can, at the stroke of a pen, evade liability for their abhorrent crimes. I look forward to discussing that important matter with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) in due course.

The Secretary of State is making a powerful case on the role of a public advocate, which many of us support. We recognise that there may be more than one victim when traumatic events happen, so does he accept that it is right that the Bill also deals with strengthening support? In my community, a 16-year-old boy was murdered 10 days ago. The entire school community is traumatised. Getting them support, and recognising that his friends, as well as his family, are victims in this instance, is critical. Will he meet me and other campaigners to discuss that issue?

How could I not? I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady on that important issue.

Let me turn now to the measures on prisoners and parole—part 3 of the Bill. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public, including from those who have betrayed trust, robbed innocence and shattered lives. Victims want to know that the person who has harmed them, their families and friends will not inflict that pain on anyone else. Indeed, I heard that strong message from Denise Fergus when I spoke with her recently. One thing that I found profoundly moving is that, notwithstanding her own private grief, one of her principal motivations is to ensure that others do not suffer in the same way.

Overwhelmingly, the Parole Board does its difficult job well, taking care to scrutinise the cases coming before it for release decisions. Over 99% of prisoners authorised for release by the Parole Board do not go on to commit a so-called serious further offence, but occasionally things go wrong, and when they do, the implications for public confidence can be very grave. John Worboys, the black cab rapist, and Colin Pitchfork, who raped two schoolgirls, were both assessed as being safe to leave prison, only for Colin Pitchfork to have to be recalled shortly afterwards and the Worboys decision to be overturned on appeal. Such cases are rare, but they are unacceptable. The public must have confidence that murderers, rapists and terrorists will be kept behind bars for as long as necessary to keep the public safe.

We have already made changes to improve safety and increase transparency. The most serious offenders now face robust tests to prove they are safe to move into open prisons, and some parole hearings can now take place in public so that victims and the public can see with their own eyes how decisions are made and why.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his well-deserved appointment. My constituents Matt and Carole Gould have campaigned long and hard on the tragic murder of their daughter some years ago. They are concerned that, when the murderer is released from prison after an all too short 12 and a half years, he will be allowed to return to the village he came from and that they will bump into him in the street. Will my right hon. and learned Friend advise me what normal practice would be in keeping murderers away from the victim’s relatives? Is there not an argument that, in rural areas such as mine, the distance should be further than it would perhaps be in an urban area?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that deeply upsetting and troubling case and for liaising with his constituents. Although I do not know the specifics of any licence conditions, it is overwhelmingly likely that those conditions would take into account precisely the point he raises. If family are living nearby, it is usual for licence conditions to indicate an exclusion zone, and that could be expanded to meet issues of justice and safety. Those are matters that the relevant authorities will be taking close cognisance of.

On parole reform, will the factor determining whether someone is in the top-tier cohort always be the offence or offences committed, or will other factors sometimes be taken into consideration? With regard to top-tier offences, will Ministers have the power to add to or change the list of offences that put someone in the top tier?

Applications can now be made for Parole Board hearings to be held in public, but as Gwynedd resident Rhiannon Bragg learned, they can be refused. She feels strongly that if the hearing for the perpetrator who stalked her and held her at gunpoint overnight was heard in public, it would help her as a victim—she would not face him in a private context, face to face, and the hearing would be covered in the public domain through the press. Will the Minister consider this issue?

There is now a power for hearings to be held in public, but it depends on the facts of the individual case. It will be important to weigh up what is in the interests of justice, but that of course also includes what is in the interests of the victim—indeed, that is a pre-eminent consideration. These decisions are necessarily fact-specific, and the Parole Board has to consider them on the facts before it. However, the hon. Lady makes a powerful point, which I am sure the Parole Board will want to take into account in relation to the facts of that particular case.

I will make a bit of progress and then I will of course come to the right hon. Gentleman.

As I indicated, the Bill takes steps to strengthen the system further. First, it will make public protection the pre-eminent factor in deciding which prisoners are safe for release, by introducing a codified release test in law. Secondly, it will impose a new safeguard— a new check and balance—in respect of the top tier of the most serious offenders, drawn from murderers, rapists, child killers and terrorists. In those cases where there is a Parole Board recommendation to release a prisoner, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to intervene on behalf of the public to stay that release and enable Ministers to take a second look. That oversight will act as a further safeguard in the most serious cases that particularly affect public confidence. Plainly, of course, to preserve fairness in the system that ministerial intervention must be amenable to independent review, and the Bill properly safeguards that right.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his well-deserved promotion. I have recently been contacted by a constituent who discovered the murdered bodies of her sister and baby niece. She is a volunteer with a national charity called Support after Murder and Manslaughter. It has given me a list of concerns, which I would like to give to the Minister separately. However, the charity states that the Secretary of State will be able to make this parole decision, which will then be subject to appeal, but the victims will not have a voice at either stage—they will not be able to do impact presentations. Will the Minister look at this point again, because the victims feel that they are being excluded?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important matter on behalf of his constituents. The interests and rights of victims are absolutely at the heart of this proposal, because—this shone out from a conversation I had only today— some victims who are concerned about whether a prisoner gets released are of course concerned about what has happened to their family, but they are also worried about what might happen to others. That is why having public confidence in the safety consideration is so important. I will be happy to discuss my right hon. Friend’s points with him, but I emphasise that the rights of victims and the protection of the public are at the heart of this important measure.

The volume and nature of the interventions on the Secretary of State show the difficulty of this area of law. While the changes to parole are welcome, is there not a danger that they will increase further the treatment of those who are currently in the system and those who are still in the prison system—somewhere in the region of 3,000 people—more than 10 years after we abolished sentences of imprisonment for public protection? The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who I see in his place, has called for a review. Sir John Major did the same recently. Would this Bill not be an opportunity to deal with that?

It is important to consider these things separately, but the right hon. Gentleman identifies something that is a stain on our justice system. The IPP system should never have happened. Trying to take the politics out of it, I sort of understand why it was proposed, but it was a bad idea. It was a big mistake, and it has left us with a difficult issue. I am considering carefully what the Justice Committee has to say about it, and I will be saying more about it in due course. It is important to treat that separately from the position I am talking about here, which is that in those most serious cases where the Parole Board has directed release, it is right that on behalf of the public the Secretary of State should have a second look, even if that is then susceptible to an independent review thereafter. It is a slightly separate issue, but I take the points that he makes.

I am pleased to see my right hon. and learned Friend in his place. On the issue of the powers taken in this Bill for a referral to the Secretary of State, in the Justice Committee we heard evidence of other routes for the Secretary of State to intervene: through reconsideration, which has been in place for four years, and through set aside, which is a power that the Secretary of State has taken more recently. That has the added benefit of including victims within the process. Can he just set out what it is that the Bill is trying to achieve that those routes cannot in ensuring that ministerial oversight?

There is a very important distinction. When the Secretary of State considers those most serious cases, he will look at this issue of safety for the public. That is not whether, for example, the Parole Board has acted in such a way as to not be susceptible to judicial review; it is a much wider consideration so that the public can be satisfied not just that the Parole Board considered safety, but that the Secretary of State did, too, and that is an important second check. That matters, because in these most serious cases, public confidence is hanging on the single thread of the Parole Board. We want to make sure that an additional thread goes into that structure, so that the public recognise that there has been that second pair of eyes. Plainly, Ministers cannot over-politicise this process, which is why there must be an opportunity to have an independent review of the Secretary of State’s decision. That will allow us overall to have a much more vigorous and robust process that stands up for victims, but is also mindful of the rule of law.

I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, whom I warmly welcome to his place, for giving way. Can I just follow up the point made by my fellow Justice Committee member, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson)? There are passages in the Bill where, in carrying out that legitimate policy objective—I do not disagree with the Secretary of State on that legitimacy—in certain circumstances, as it is currently drafted, he may be asked to put his finding of fact and his opinion in the place of that of the parole board that actually heard the evidence. Could I therefore ask him to look very carefully at the evidence the Committee received—it is tagged to the Bill on the Order Paper—and find a more effective way to achieve his objective that is legally robust but fair, but does not place him and his successors in the very difficult position of trying to rehear facts at second hand, as opposed to taking the role of those who heard the initial evidence?

May I thank my hon. Friend, and say that I have read every word of that important evidence to the Committee? I thank him for the time he took to provide that additional scrutiny, which I found extremely helpful. He is absolutely right that the check and balance is a sensible one, but plainly it has to be operational. We have to be able to deliver it, and we have to be able to do so in a sufficiently timely fashion, ensuring that a decision is not offending against article 5 and so on, but also that all parties have certainty about what is actually going to happen. I hope he will be reassured by my saying that I am looking very closely at the operational aspects of this provision to ensure that it does what is intended, and provides that check and balance, while being deliverable and of course being consistent with the rule of law. If I may, I will now press on, because I know others want to speak.

Thirdly, we are already recruiting more ex-police officers to the Parole Board. Now we will ensure that individuals with law enforcement backgrounds can be included on panels considering the release of the most serious criminals. Their first-hand experience of assessing risk will bring additional expertise to parole hearings.

This Bill will also prohibit prisoners subject to a whole-life order from being able to marry or form a civil partnership in custody, subject to an exemption in truly exceptional circumstances. The rationale for this is simple. Those most dangerous and cruel criminals—the ones who have shattered lives and robbed others of their chance of happiness and a family life—should not be able to taunt victims and their families by enjoying that for themselves. It is simply unconscionable, yet as the law stands, prison governors cannot reject a prisoner’s application to marry unless it creates a security risk for the prison, however horrific their crime. Our changes will prevent whole-life prisoners from marrying or forming a civil partnership in prison or other places of detention. That is nothing less than basic fairness.

I could not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman more. What I would also ask is that people in that situation, especially those who murder their wife and the mother of their children, should also have their parental rights taken away. Why is that not in the Bill?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have discussed these issues at some length in a different context, and she should know that I am ready to continue that conversation.

This is a really excellent piece of legislation, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on everything they are doing, but I could not miss this opportunity of raising the issue of the intergenerational impact of female imprisonment. As the Lord Chancellor knows, women make up just 4% of the prison population, yet two thirds of them have dependent children. Because they are so few, they are generally placed much further away from home and have much less access to some rehabilitative facilities than their male counterparts. That imprisonment can have a devastating impact on the children, so in many cases the children of women in prisons are victims themselves. There has been some fantastic work across the country by organisations such as Hope Street, run by One Small Thing, which I know the Prisons Minister—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds)—has recently visited. Does the Secretary of State not feel that this Bill would have been an ideal opportunity to try to address that?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. She mentions Hope Street, and the Nelson Trust, which I have visited, does excellent work in this regard. I think we do always have to remember that the job of Government is to ensure that the decision of the court can be upheld.

In other words, a court will of course consider the evidence from the prosecution at a sentencing hearing about what has taken place, will hear a plea in mitigation about the impact on the defendant of incarceration—including the impact on friends and children, their future and so on—and will then reach a decision based on all those matters about the correct sentence. So while I do not seek to downplay any of the really important points my hon. Friend mentioned, we need to do our bit within the criminal justice system to give effect to the order of the court, but to ensure it is done in a way that is humane and understands that there are family considerations.

We want prisoners to serve their time, but to be rehabilitated, and one of the critical ways of being rehabilitated is to ensure that family relationships endure. That is why there has been so much investment in courts in areas such technology to ensure prisoners can keep in contact with the outside, so that when they leave having repaid their debt to society they are in a position to pick up those important relationships.

In closing, I want to put on record my thanks to all who have helped to shape this Bill, in particular the victims who shared their stories and contributed to our consultation. I also pay tribute to my predecessors my right hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for the parts they have played in advancing this Bill.

These measures will help ensure that every victim, from the Telford teenagers I mentioned to the elderly victim of confidence fraud, secures the service from our justice system that they deserve. From the moment of report to the moment of conviction, and indeed beyond if required, victims’ interests must be paramount. That is how justice is done, and I commend this Bill to the House.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. I am sure all of us, in all parts of the House, wish him well, because victims need him to succeed. That is particularly the case when we realise that every year one in five people in the United Kingdom become a victim of crime: their freedom is assaulted; they are left feeling angry, fearful and sometimes even helpless.

Our system of justice, once a beacon to the world, should give victims of crime the ability to seek redress for what they have suffered. Victims deserve to be at the heart of the criminal justice system. Those who have wronged them deserve to be prosecuted and held to account in open court. Criminals should face punishment for the harm they have done.

Justice is a cornerstone of any modern and democratic society, the very foundation of law and order. Justice demands respect for the rules that govern the fair functioning of our society. But after 13 years of Conservative government, our justice system is broken. The Conservatives have let victims down time and again. Prosecution and charge rates are now so low that it is no exaggeration to say the Conservatives have effectively decriminalised many serious crimes. Only 6% of burglaries and 4% of robberies come to trial. Victims of car crime are told to report incidents online, and only rarely is there ever a police officer to follow up. Fraud is growing exponentially, with online scammers threatening people’s entire life savings, yet the previous Conservative Chancellor dismisses fraud as not an everyday worry.

Most shocking of all is the fact that fewer than two in every 100 reported rapes result in a prosecution and the average wait for a rape trial, for those very few that ever reach court, is now over three years for the first time ever. A three-year wait for a rape trial is devastating for victims, but under this Government three-year waits are the norm, not the exception.

I was contacted by the father of a 16-year-old girl who had been waiting two years for her attacker to face trial. Just four days before the trial was due to begin, his daughter was told it had been postponed for a further nine months. Just imagine how it must feel for a teenage girl who has survived such a horrific crime, and who had the bravery to stand up and report the attack, to then have to wait years and years for her attacker to face justice.

This weekend new research from the Labour party found that delays had become so bad that six out of 10 rape victims now drop their cases. They are left in absolute despair as their attackers remain loose on the streets. While Ministers routinely dismiss the reality of what they have created, the number of outstanding rape cases has almost doubled over the past year alone, and we must remember that over 98% of reported rapes never result in a prosecution anyway. The legacy of this Conservative Government is victims left facing the longest trail delays on record, which is an absolute disgrace.

But the criminal justice crisis extends way beyond the courts. The Government broke the probation system with a botched privatisation followed by a panicked renationalisation. Under the Conservatives, every week on average one murder and two rapes are committed by offenders who are supposed to be under supervision, but the probation service has never recovered from the wrecking ball that the Conservatives took to it. Some parts of the service still carry 40% vacancy rates. Probation officers are not routinely given full information about an offender’s full history when they are asked to risk assess them on release. That was how Jordan McSweeney’s risk rating was so catastrophically mis-assessed before he was released and targeted Zara Aleena in one of the most shocking and brutal murders of recent years.

Victims have a right to believe that offenders convicted in court of crimes that deserve a custodial sentence will be locked up—but they cannot under this Government, because they have run out of prison cells. The previous Justice Secretary wrote to judges telling them to avoid locking convicts up. Inside our prisons, violence and drug abuse are raging out of control. Drug and alcohol use in prisons has skyrocketed by more than 400% since 2010, and staff assaults have more than doubled. Instead of offenders being rehabilitated behind bars—that is what the Secretary of State just said he wants to see—they leave prison fired up by violence and high on drugs, posing an even greater threat to the public. Eight out of 10 crimes are committed by someone who has offended before—those are Ministry of Justice statistics. Under the Conservatives, the broken system is not stopping criminals; it is breeding them. If we do not stop criminals, we create more victims. It is a vicious cycle that leaves the law-abiding majority feeling weak and victims feeling abandoned.

Since 2014, convicted offenders have been sentenced to 16 million hours of unpaid work in community sentences that they were never made to carry out. That is a quite staggering failure. What message do the Government think that sends to offenders and their victims? It says: the system does not care. It tells low level offenders that they can get away with it, so they progress to committing more serious crimes. They have learned that they can get away with crime with no consequences under a Government who have gone soft on criminals. Under this Government, crime is not prevented, criminals are not punished and victims are not protected. No wonder victims feel abandoned when so many crimes, from antisocial behaviour to violent sexual assault, go unpunished.

It is eight years and eight Justice Secretaries since the Conservatives first promised new legislation to support victims. For all of that time, Labour has been telling them to act. Now—finally—we have a Bill, but I am afraid that it is a wasted opportunity because it fails in so many ways to rebalance the scales of justice and make a real difference for victims. The Bill lets down rape survivors. It offers no specialist legal advice or advocacy that will help them to navigate the justice system.

On the hon. Member’s point about victims of rape who have been let down, does he consider that the Bill could protect child victims of rape from alleged child perpetrators where both the victim and the accused are due to attend the same school?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. He makes an important point. That is one of so many important ways in which the Bill could do more for victims. I hope that we will get the chance to make some changes to it and strengthen it as it passes through Committee and during the rest of its journey before it becomes an Act of Parliament.

Labour will table an amendment offering free legal advice for rape survivors. We want to ensure that survivors are supported every single step of the way from first reporting a rape at a police station right through to trial. It cannot be right that so many rape survivors describe their experience in court as so traumatising that it feels like they are the ones who are on trial. Labour has been calling for some time now for the protection of third-party material, such as counselling or therapy records, for rape and sexual violence victims. It is welcome that the Government are proposing some changes on that, but victims want more detail, and we will seek that as the Bill progresses. We need to support victims of crime throughout the justice system if we want to reduce victim dropout rates, which deny them justice and let criminals get away with their crimes.

There has, quite rightly, been a great deal of attention in recent years on victims of state failure that have led to major tragedies: Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester Arena to name just three. Tragically, the Bill lets them down, too. Victims of major tragedies deserve the same legal representation as the authorities that fail them in the first place, but that does not happen, and the Bill does not put it right. Labour stands unequivocally with the families and survivors of those tragedies. Giving the