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Commons Chamber

Volume 741: debated on Monday 27 November 2023

House of Commons

Monday 27 November 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


The Clerk at the Table having informed the House of the unavoidable absence of the Speaker from this day’s sitting, the Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Organised Crime

We will continue to break the business model of organised crime gangs to keep the people of this country safe. We are disrupting their activities both domestically in the UK and internationally, including disrupting the work of the gangs behind the illegal small-boat crossings, and it is why the Criminal Justice Bill creates new powers to target organised criminal gangs. We will also publish a new serious and organised crime strategy soon.

Criminal gangs do not care about the people they are smuggling into our country and they must be stopped. We must stop the boats in ways that are consistent with our international obligations and end the dangerous journeys that risk human life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must focus on breaking the business model of these criminal gangs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people who are being smuggled are seen as just products; they are expendable in the eyes of the people smugglers, and we must and will do everything we can to break their business model. I commend the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, who has recently been to Bulgaria, where in close co-operation with our international partners there we have seized boats and engines. We are breaking the business model, and we will continue to drive down those illegal small-boat crossings until we have stopped the boats.

Serious organised acquisitive crime is hitting rural communities hard, with high-value agricultural equipment targeted for theft. The National Rural crime unit has recently recovered over £5 million of stolen equipment, nearly £1 million of which was recovered abroad. The Construction Plant-hire Association, NFU Mutual and the Construction Equipment Association have put significant funds into the NRCU but what more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that it has the resources it needs to tackle these serious organised criminal gangs?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area, including with his private Members’ Bill. He is absolutely right that the rural communities of this country need to be supported, and they will be. Driving down rural crime is an important area of work and we have provided £200,000 of funding to help set up the NRCU. My hon. Friend and I, and others in this House, understand the terrible impact this has, and we will continue to work with the rural police forces to drive down rural crime.

In Burnley and right across Lancashire county lines continues to be a problem, with organised groups peddling drugs and exploiting young people with no regard for the harm they are doing, not just to the communities but to the young people they are exploiting. Lancashire police are making very good inroads with an enhanced rural policing unit and neighbourhood taskforces, but what more can Lancashire Constabulary do to tackle the county lines issue and bring order back to our streets?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this vile type of criminality, which targets the young and the most vulnerable. As part of our fight against county lines we are investing up to £145 million in our county lines programme, and since it was launched in 2019 police activity has resulted in over 4,700 county lines being closed, over 14,800 arrests and over 7,200 safeguard referrals. We will keep our focus on this evil criminality.

Given that, shockingly, the average time it takes for a crime to be charged has trebled since 2016, will the Secretary of State embrace the Police Federation’s “Simplify DG6” campaign and scrap the redaction rules his Government introduced in 2020, in order to cut bureaucracy, get cases to the Crown Prosecution Service quicker, and free up officers’ time to be out fighting crime?

We are actively working with the CPS to simplify and speed up this process. I will of course look at the proposals put forward, because we want police officers out in their communities on the beat and tackling crime, rather than doing paperwork—important though that is.

The police report a 25% increase in shoplifting in recent months. There is much evidence, as the Home Secretary will be aware, that organised criminal gangs go into shops to try to steal as much as they can and target shop workers. As we approach Christmas, what assurance can the Home Secretary provide to shop workers—not just at Christmas, but across the year—that he will start dealing with these gangs and start realising that all retail crime is a problem in this country that needs tackling?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this issue. It is one that we take seriously through Operation Pegasus. We are working through the leadership of the police and crime commissioner for Sussex on this very issue. No doubt either the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) or I will have the opportunity to update the House on this work as it progresses.

This autumn, the Government pledged to treat retail crime as organised crime, but with their Criminal Justice Bill, they have fallen at the first hurdle. There is no consolidated offence to protect retail workers, no strong signal on the £200 limit on investigations and a denial of reality on their hollowing out of neighbourhood policing. From the answers we have heard, the Home Secretary wants us to believe that we have never had it so good, but the ones who are thriving are organised criminals. Will the Government accept our amendments to add the protection of shop workers into the legislation?

The hon. Gentleman will know that attacking shop workers is already a statutory aggravating factor. We will look at what more we can do to protect shop workers. The retail action plan is in place, including the use of CCTV and facial recognition software. We will continue to explore all avenues to protect shopworkers, because they, like everyone else, deserve our protection.

Illegal Migration: Small Boats

2. What progress he has made on stopping small boats transporting migrants across the English channel. (900282)

So far this year, we have reduced the number of these dangerous, illegal and completely unnecessary crossings by more than a third compared with last year, despite increases of nearly a third in Europe. Nevertheless, the number of illegal arrivals remains unacceptably high. We remain focused on delivering our comprehensive plan to stop the boats by breaking the business model of the people smugglers, and we will shortly be piloting emergency legislation through this House to ensure that flights to Rwanda take off as a matter of urgency.

Figures on Thursday revealed that immigration to the UK is skyrocketing. Is it not time to realise that those well-intentioned international treaties and conventions agreed 70 years ago are no longer fit for purpose? We simply cannot accommodate all those who would qualify for asylum under existing rules. The world is facing troubled times and more mass migration. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to raise the bar for those migrating or seeking asylum here and look at other solutions to stop people leaving their homelands, so that those countries can make better futures for themselves without the loss of so many of their young? Much of Europe is in a dire state because of mass immigration. We cannot let the United Kingdom go the same way.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. While some of those coming here to claim asylum have genuine grounds for asylum, many are economic migrants making spurious claims to game the system. For some nationalities, our grant rates are out of sync with European countries, and that is why we have undertaken extensive work to lower them. For example, the grant rate for Albanians reduced from 53% in June last year to 19% in June this year, and it has fallen further since, as that remains unacceptably high. Last month, we added India and Georgia to the list of safe states to speed up the process of returning people who have travelled from those countries to the United Kingdom illegally. Clearly there is more work to be done, and we do not want to create any additional pull factor to the United Kingdom.

In relation to the Rwanda policy, the Home Secretary was quoted as saying:

“My frustration is that we have allowed the narrative to be created that this was the be-all and end-all”

of Government policy. Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary? If he does, what is the Government’s policy on combating the boats and resisting illegal migration, and what is our policy?

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I set out our comprehensive plan this time last year, it had many facets, one of which—an extremely important component of which—was our Rwanda plan, but that was not its only element, and we have worked intensively over the last 12 months on each and every other facet of that plan. Opposition Members jeer, but is that plan working? Yes, it is. We can see that from the fact that we are almost the only country in Europe where the number of illegal entrants is falling. It has fallen by more than a third, compared to a 30% increase in the rest of Europe and almost a 100% increase in Italy.

None of that negates the importance of interjecting a further critical deterrent. That is the crucial element of the Rwanda scheme. The difference between those of us on the Government Benches and the Opposition is that, frankly, they do not want to stop the boats, and they do not have the stomach to do a policy like Rwanda.

Since the previous Home Secretary was removed from her post, I think it is fair to say that the Immigration Minister has become a law unto himself. First, he briefed the media that he has been instructing the Prime Minister to tear up all our legal obligations to fix the unfixable Rwanda policy. Then he set himself on a collision course with his new Home Secretary by appearing to bet the house on the Rwanda flights taking off. To add insult to injury, he went behind his new boss’s back to present his laundry list to the Prime Minister, including a cap on social care visas and abolishing the shortage occupation list. Does the Immigration Minister have any respect whatsoever for the authority of the new Home Secretary? Given that he is said to be on resignation watch, will he confirm that he will resign if his proposals are rejected?

Once again, we heard absolutely nothing from the Opposition about what they would actually do. The sad truth is that they have complete disdain for the British public. They do not appreciate that the public that we are sent here to represent demand that we reduce the levels of both legal and illegal migration. The Home Secretary and I will do absolutely everything in our power to achieve that. We are working closely with the Prime Minister, and we will set out further plans in due course. But the public watching the debate should be very clear: if they share our determination to tackle small boats or to reduce the numbers arriving in this country legally, they have only the Conservative Party to support.

Last week, a woman and a man died while attempting to cross the channel in a small boat; others in their group were hospitalised for hypothermia. Despite the clear risks, over 400 people in nine boats were detected crossing the channel in the past seven days. They clearly felt there was no other choice. The lack of safe and legal routes is putting people at risk. Will the Immigration Minister consider a humanitarian visa, as the Red Cross has recommended?

All of us across the House abhor the deaths of individuals in the channel, and we are working closely with the French authorities to investigate the circumstances of those individuals’ deaths. But those individuals, like anyone seeking to cross the channel, are coming from a place of evident safety. They are departing from France. They are in absolutely no danger. They are in a country with a fully functioning asylum system of its own. There is no excuse for those people breaking into our country, putting themselves in the hands of people smugglers. We should be united in trying to deter that.

On the hon. Lady’s second question about safe and legal routes to the UK, she knows that we have issued more than half a million humanitarian visas since 2015—more than at any time in the history of this country. If she wants to do more, after the debate she should go straight back to the SNP Government and ask them to pull their weight and provide more safe spaces for asylum seekers and refugees back in Scotland.

The Minister is deflecting quite a lot. [Interruption.] Government Members would do well to listen because their systems are not working; they are failing people every single day. In the first nine months of 2023, a mere 279 Afghans arrived in the UK by safe and legal routes. For each one, 17 Afghans came across on small boats. Today, The Independent has laid out the story of a mother of four—an Afghan special forces soldier who served in a unit set up by Britain, trained and paid for by the British armed services—whose application under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy was denied, along with many others from commando force 333 and Afghan territorial force 444. Why is the Minister failing so many Afghans?

We do not encourage anyone, whatever their circumstances, to come across illegally in a small boat. That is a criminal offence and it should not be encouraged. We have supported nearly 25,000 people to come from Afghanistan since the end of the war, which compares extremely favourably to other European countries. We have issued more than half a million humanitarian visas, which is a record we should all be proud of. The Scottish National party always wants to make the UK out to be a small country, but that is not correct. The United Kingdom is a big-hearted country, and one of the world leading countries for resettlement—

Order. We have been here 20 minutes and have covered only two questions. We have a huge amount of business to get through, so can we please go faster? I would like brief questions and brief answers.

Defending Democracy Taskforce

3. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the Defending Democracy Taskforce in preventing foreign interference in the UK’s democratic integrity. (900283)

It is a great pleasure to tell the hon. Lady that the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which was set up under the National Security Council, has been operating for about a year and is working closely with parliamentary authorities, devolved Administrations and local authorities around the country, alongside intelligence agencies, the police and opposite numbers from various parties. It has already updated many individuals across the House on different ways in which we can improve our own security and make sure that this country’s democracy is safer. The fundamental way to protect our democracy is to get involved, so I urge anyone watching to join a party—any party, but particularly the Conservative party—and get involved in politics, to keep the United Kingdom Government working for the people of the United Kingdom.

Given the huge importance of preventing foreign interference in our democracy, does the Minister agree that, for the purposes of transparency, Lord Cameron should declare all previous contacts with, and moneys earned from, foreign Governments after he left the office of Prime Minister and before he was appointed Foreign Secretary?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point on how we keep our politics accountable. Rules are set out by this House, the other place, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and various other people on how we account for expenses, money raised and various forms of connection. She is right that those records must be kept up to date. The Prime Minister expects every Minister to do that, and I am very confident that the new Foreign Secretary—whom I congratulate—has done so.

The Defending Democracy Taskforce has an important remit to defend our country and protect our sovereignty. Given the threats we face, it is vital that rapid progress is made. However, some matters require immediate attention. Can the Minister give an assurance that both the Three-Vodafone merger and the future ownership of The Daily Telegraph will be looked at, not just through the economic prism of competition but in accordance with the National Security and Investment Act 2021?

This is the first time that I have faced the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box—last time we were side by side, so this is a bit of change. He raises some interesting and important points. The National Security and Investment Act was passed a little over a year ago, and the Deputy Prime Minister himself chairs the body that advises on it. That is incredibly important because, as we know, foreign ownership and control is a vital area of foreign influence in our Government and society. That is why we are looking not just at that, but at how the foreign media today are not just traditional media—some of whom we see represented up in the Press Gallery; some of them are even waving. Social media is now so important too. It is worth noting the recent Ofcom report that about a third of under-25s get their news from TikTok, which as we know has its algorithm written by individuals under the control of a foreign state—one that is not always friendly.

Students: Temporary Visas for Dependants

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of providing temporary visas to the dependants of visiting students and academics when the dependants are living in conflict zones. (900284)

There are a number of routes in the immigration rules allowing dependants to join family members in the United Kingdom. Where possible, people seeking to flee conflict zones should use those existing routes. In the past 12 months, we have allowed over 112,000 people to arrive under safe and legal routes, including over 6,000 family reunion cases.

My constituent is on a student visa at St Andrews University. On 7 October, her five-year-old daughter was in northern Gaza staying with her grandmother. They have since had to flee south. We have had good engagement from the student policy team, but will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can reunify the family?

I am very happy to look into the case with the hon. Lady. As a general rule, we believe migration should not be the first lever we pull in the event of humanitarian crises. We should be using the UK’s diplomatic muscle, our overseas development aid, as the primary way in which the UK can have the greatest impact in the world, but there are always cases where we make exceptions.

Last week’s net migration figures were completely unacceptable to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which is why the New Conservatives, helpfully, have a 12-point plan that the Minister for Immigration could copy and paste to ensure we get those figures down. Will he extend the closure of the student dependant route to students enrolled on a one-year research master’s degree?

First, we believe that the level of legal migration into this country is far too high. That has very profound impacts on access to public services, the productivity of our economy, and the ability of the UK to be a socially cohesive and united country. That is why we need to take action. We have already announced a specific policy with respect to dependants, which comes into force at the beginning of next year. We think it will have a substantive impact on the levels of net migration, but, as the Prime Minister said, we are keeping all options under review and will take further action as required.

Asylum Seeker Accommodation

5. What progress his Department has made on moving asylum seekers from hotels into less costly accommodation. (900285)

For the first time since the small boats crisis began, we are now closing asylum hotels, thanks to the good work done to reduce arrivals by more than a third; to the delivery of more appropriate forms of accommodation, such as on large disused military sites; and to better management of the existing permanent estate. I am pleased to report that the Home Office is making good progress on the first 50 hotels, which will exit by the end of January. We will be bringing forward a further tranche shortly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. On behalf of constituents who have asked me, can he please go further and give a more definite date for the start and completion of the decant of asylum seekers at the Newton Park Hotel in South Derbyshire?

When I first took this job, I was clear that the use of asylum hotels was completely unacceptable and that I would work with all in Government to ensure that we closed each and every one of them as quickly as possible. We are now in the process of closing those hotels. As I said in my opening remarks, the first 50 are closing seamlessly, so I expect to be in a position to announce the next set of hotel closures very soon.

Surely if asylum seekers had the right to work they would be able to pay for their own accommodation at little or no cost to the taxpayer.

No, I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely important that we reduce the pull factors to the United Kingdom. There are already plenty of reasons why economic migrants would want to make a life in the UK. Enabling them to work as soon as they arrive here would only exacerbate those problems.

I am really pleased that the Government have been able to reduce the number of asylum seekers in hotels. The use of the Atlantic Hotel in Chelmsford for families is putting considerable pressure on our school places, especially as Chelmsford is already very short of school places due to the large numbers of people who have arrived from Ukraine and elsewhere. Will the Minister look again at the policy and ensure that when people with children of school age are placed in hotels, they are put in places where there are schools that have places?

My right hon. Friend and I have discussed this many times, and I want to ensure that that particular hotel is closed as quickly as possible, because it is having such an impact on her local community. The Home Office is working with her local authority, and we have made a commitment that we will not place further young people, or families with young people, in that hotel if school places are not readily available. However, I hope that the hotel itself will close very soon.

When asylum seekers requiring medical care are moved to a new location out of area, they go to the bottom of the waiting list, and as a result their health requirements are not met in a timely way. How will the Minister ensure that they do not slip back from receiving medical care that they urgently require?

When moving asylum seekers from one form of accommodation to another, we make provision to ensure that there is support for those with the most serious medical conditions, but it is important that we are able to move individuals around the estate, and we are currently in the process of closing hotels. That is our No. 1 priority, because the public want us to close them as quickly as possible.

Illegal Migration

The Government have a plan to tackle illegal migration by means of a number of methods, and that plan is working. Small-boat crossings are down compared with those in other countries across Europe, where they are up. We are working closely with our international partners, including our nearest geographical neighbour France, we are dismantling the organised criminal gangs who are smuggling people, and we are taking action to reform the asylum system.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, the Government announced emergency legislation to address the issues mentioned in the judgment. I welcome the proposed new treaty with Rwanda, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the new legislation promised by the Prime Minister must be clear and unambiguous in establishing that the sovereign will of this Parliament, as expressed in primary legislation, takes legal precedence over the interpretation of international treaties and principles?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the excellent working relationship we have with Rwanda—on which I worked in my former role—will give us the opportunity to have a treaty that addresses the issues in the Supreme Court judgment. However, she is right to say that the legislation that will accompany that treaty must make it absolutely clear that the will of the British people, as exemplified by the actions of this Government, means we will work to get flights to Rwanda to make it plain that if people come here illegally they will not stay here. I can give her my commitment that we will do everything we can to make that happen.

Further to those points, will my right hon. Friend give me a categorical assurance that he will do everything he can to enable us to deliver the Rwanda policy, and will introduce all the necessary legal exemptions so that we can get on with those flights as soon as possible and provide the necessary deterrence to illegal migration?

The Rwanda scheme is an extremely important part of our basket of responses. I will do everything to ensure that we drive down small-boat arrivals: that is the promise we have made to the British people, and that is the commitment I will deliver.

One of the ways of dealing with illegal migration is to look at the number of cases. Can the Home Secretary say how many legacy backlog cases there are—if they have yet been triaged—and how many of those result from illegal migration?

The historic backlog has been reduced by 65%. It has fallen by more than 59,000 cases since the end of November 2022. We have recruited 2,500 asylum decision makers, and we have increased tenfold the pace at which these decisions are made.

The Secretary of State is well aware that under international law an asylum seeker cannot be described as an illegal immigrant. They are here legally unless and until they are found to have no valid claim to asylum after due process. Is it the policy of the Home Office and this Government to act within international law or to act outwith it?

The hon. Gentleman makes reference to the refugee convention, but his definition is only accurate if they come directly from a place of danger. I have visited France and it is a wonderful country. I can assure the House that it is not a dangerous country.

Violence against Women and Girls

In the last three years we have passed comprehensive new laws covering everything from domestic abuse and street harassment to online safety. Last year the Government added violence against women to the strategic policing requirement, placing it on equivalent footing to terrorism, and the Home Office’s award-winning Enough campaign is now entering its final phase with a firm focus on tackling perpetrator behaviour being rolled out across colleges and universities.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I pay tribute to Sandra Conte and her team at Future Living in Hertford for everything they do to support victims of domestic abuse. As a magistrate, I specialised in domestic abuse courts and I am utterly convinced of their value, both for justice and for victims. Will my hon. Friend share her assessment of the initiatives to increase specialisation in court processes for sexual offending and sexual violence?

The specialist sexual violence support project is now under way in Crown courts in Leeds, Newcastle and Snaresbrook. It is at an early stage but is due to report in early 2025. However, my hon. Friend should be aware that any victim of rape or sexual assault may now take advantage of section 28 procedures, which have been rolled out nationwide to allow people to give their evidence privately and ahead of trial. We are also engaging close to 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers in the system to accompany victims every step of the way through the criminal justice system. As a result, rape prosecutions are higher today than they were in 2010 and sentences are approximately 50% longer.

Can the Minister tell me how many forces are still not providing domestic abuse training to their officers?

I do not have that answer. I will have to go back to the Home Office and write to the hon. Member.

It is a privilege to take on this important role. I pass on my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her dedication and commitment. I am looking forward to getting to work.

A shocking new study has found that domestic abusers are controlling the finances of more than 5 million women in the UK. This cannot be allowed to continue. The Government have turned a blind eye to this issue for more than a decade, so what steps is the Minister taking today to tackle economic abuse?

The hon. Lady and I have worked together a lot on domestic abuse since we were elected. She will know that economic abuse is basically a derivative of coercive control, which Clare Wade KC, in her review of domestic homicide, says underpins almost all domestic abuse. Tomorrow the Criminal Justice Bill has its Second Reading in the House. The Bill will see serious coercive control offences placed under the multi-agency public protection arrangements and offenders placed on the violent sexual and terrorist offender register.

Rwanda Relocation Scheme: Supreme Court Judgment

8. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Supreme Court judgment of 15 November 2023 on the Rwanda relocation scheme. (900288)

The Rwanda scheme remains an important part of our response to illegal migration and people smuggling. We will continue to negotiate with the Government of Rwanda on a treaty that will be underpinned by domestic law so that the Rwanda scheme will join the other effective parts of our response in stopping the boats.

The Prime Minister has indicated his intention to override the Supreme Court by introducing emergency laws and a new treaty with Rwanda to save his unlawful deportation plans. So far, the UK has paid the Rwanda Government £140 million and the Home Office has spent £1.4 million on failed legal challenges, with no asylum seekers being sent there as of yet. How much has the Home Office spent in total on the Rwanda scheme? Can the Secretary of State give us a figure, please?

The funding from the Home Office will be reported in the usual, appropriate way. I do not have the figures to hand, but I will make sure the House is updated on the costs.

The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand how one responds to a legal judgment. He describes it as “overriding,” but I suggest that when the Government address the issues set down by the Supreme Court, they will not be overriding but respecting the voice of the Supreme Court.

I would make the point that we are committed to dealing with illegal migrants. I hear no such commitment from the Opposition. Until they come up with clear plans for how they will deal with this issue, they should support the actions the Government are actually taking.

Has the Home Secretary been struck, as I have, by the very small number of Opposition Members standing to contribute to questions on migration? Does he agree that, if democracies both within the EU and, like ourselves, outside the EU cannot find a solution to this problem, we will see the increasing emergence of far-right politicians in positions of power? That ought to frighten us all.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government were criticised by the Opposition and by voices across the continent when we started to take action to address the significant increase in the volumes of illegal migration. Countries across the continent are now looking at us in order to emulate the actions we are taking. Illegal migration has gone from something that the Labour party believed was a non-issue to being a core issue for Governments across Europe and North America. If the good people do not grip this issue, the bad people will attempt to do so, and I will never let that happen.

The Home Affairs Committee has taken a particular interest in small-boat crossings. We produced a report last year that I suggest the new Home Secretary might want to look at. We have also visited France and Belgium this year. Owing to our interest and expertise in this area, will the Home Secretary consider giving the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights the opportunity to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny of any emergency legislation that he plans to bring forward?

There is an urgency to the legislation that we seek to put forward and, although pre-legislative scrutiny has a part to play, I will not do anything that delays the implementation of this incredibly important legislation.

It is imperative if we are to crack the business model of the evil people smugglers that we operationalise the Rwanda scheme. May I register my profound conviction that the disapplication of elements of the European convention on human rights and the refugee convention will be necessary? The Court of Appeal cited human rights and the Supreme Court cited refoulement. What will it be next time, in the absence of Parliament expressly asserting the will of this House?

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, although I do not want to prejudge the content of the Bill. I listened carefully to his points, and he and the rest of the House should understand that we will do everything we can to ensure that we break the business model of the evil people smugglers he highlights and drive down the small-boat arrivals. He is absolutely right that the deterrent effect of the Rwanda scheme is a key element of that multi-strand approach.

Police Funding Formula

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a tireless campaigner on this issue. I completely accept the need for a new police funding formula. We have been working on it extremely hard, with colleagues across government. I hope to have something further to say on the topic shortly, but in the meantime we are getting as much money as we can to frontline policing. This year, we have an extra £550 million going to frontline policing and £330 million going to support the police pay rise, which makes £880 million extra for policing this year.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Nevertheless, it is concerning that Suffolk police were promised draft proposals for the review back in January. I urge him to get those to our local force as quickly as possible and, in the meantime, to work with it to improve the number of out-of-court disposals, where better delivery will relieve pressure on those in the force, who are working incredibly hard.

They are indeed working incredibly hard. I am delighted to tell the House that Suffolk police currently have 1,425 officers, which is more than at any time in their history, and they have that in common with England and Wales as a whole. I support what my hon. Friend said about out-of-court disposals, which have an important role to play, particularly in treating drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health issues. I will work with Suffolk and other forces to make sure that those are widely used.

Since 2010, neighbourhood policing, where officers are embedded in local communities, has been decimated, despite its huge advantages. We therefore desperately need the repeatedly promised reform of the police funding formula. However, one of the quickest ways in which the Government can get cash to police forces for neighbourhood policing is by reforming the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 rules so that more of the money is handed to the police forces that confiscated it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the matter further?

I would be happy to discuss POCA with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues. However, there is something of a definitional confusion on this question about neighbourhood policing, because there are local police officers who work on response teams and should be counted as well. In 2015, the year the Opposition keep referring to, there were 61,083 officers in local policing roles, whereas there are now 67,785. That is a much higher number, and overall we have a record number of officers across England and Wales—149,566. That is more than there ever were under the last Labour Government.

Topical Questions

My mission and that of this Government, on behalf of all people in this country, is to secure our borders and keep people safe from crime and terrorism. Good progress has been made in driving down crime and stopping illegal small-boat arrivals, but there is, of course, more to do. The Home Office has been considering further measures to mitigate migration, including by preventing the exploitation and manipulation of our visa system and clamping down on those who take unwarranted advantage of the flexibilities we provide. We will announce further details on these measures in due course. Tomorrow, we have Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill, which will give police the powers they need for longer sentences for those who would harm others and will increase the trust in policing.

In my constituency, the antisocial and illegal use of fireworks continues to affect law-abiding citizens and our pets. Will the Secretary of State commit to reducing the legal limit for commercial fireworks from 120 dB to 90 dB or less?

I have not yet had the opportunity to read into that issue—it was not the angle I was expecting in this question—but the proposal seems a thoughtful one. I will give it due consideration, but I cannot make a commitment at this point.

T3. Off-road bikes are a growing plague across Hartlepool, and my constituents face the danger of young men in balaclavas driving recklessly along our streets. Will my right hon. Friend commit to increasing the support for Cleveland police to tackle this nuisance, beyond the anonymous tip-off system? Will he also perhaps come to visit some of the excellent Conservative MPs in our region? (900308)

I would be delighted to do that, and I support her call. To achieve precisely the objectives my hon. Friend describes, from April next year—in just a few months—every police force in the country will receive substantial funding commitments to conduct antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols, including against the scourge of off-road biking that she mentions. In forces where pilot schemes have been tried, including those in Essex, Lancashire and Staffordshire, we have seen reductions in antisocial behaviour of up to 30%.

The Home Secretary has been in post for two weeks, during which time he has used the same language to pick a fight with Stockton and show what he thinks of his own Rwanda policy, he has been attacked by his Back Benchers, and Downing Street has already been forced to confirm it still has full confidence in him. Twelve days ago he said the number of asylum hotel bed spaces are down, but four days ago Home Office figures showed they are up to a record 56,000—10,000 more than at the beginning of the year. Does he even know what is going on?

Yes, I do. Let me expand—that answer was a by-product of the right hon. Lady asking a closed question at the Dispatch Box. I have been in this job for 14 days, and I am conscious that my counterparts around Europe and the world are grappling with many of the same issues. I would love nothing more than to be able to resolve them all in 14 days—I am good, but I am not a magician.

Perhaps that mean an end to the magical thinking that the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor called for. We still have 10,000 more bed spaces than when the Prime Minister promised to end hotel use. The Home Secretary owes the House the facts. There is still no sign of anything on the failed Rwanda plan, because he knows it will not work, and nothing on the trebling of net migration to tackle the skills gaps that are driving work visas. The Government have been in power for 13 years and all we have is chaos and briefing wars. His Back Benchers are already calling him “Colonel Calamity”, and he has Corporal Chaos next to him on the Front Bench. Given the mess he has inherited and his penchant for profanity, does he accept that he is now up a certain kind of creek without a paddle?

The right hon. Lady is someone I admire hugely, and one of the things I admire most is how she has managed to be at the Dispatch Box twice but has failed to ask anything resembling a sensible question about the issues we are discussing. When her party was in government, it addressed the volumes of migration by simply redefining people, wiping the slate clean and pretending there was never a problem.

I have said this about the right hon. Lady’s party in broadcasts, and I say it from the Dispatch Box: there is a gaping vacuum where the Labour party’s policy on migration, whether it be legal or illegal, should be. Unless and until Labour Members come up with something approaching a policy, I will continue to do what we know to be right: driving down small-boat arrivals and reducing the number of hotel rooms needed. We have closed 50 hotels and we will do more.

My right hon. Friend asks an incredibly important question. I have made it very clear to the police forces of the UK that when members of a minority group in this country tell us that they are living in fear, we must take action. I am pleased that the policing response this weekend was more robust than on previous weekends—the police are clearly listening to the conversations we are having with them and I commend them for doing so. I have spoken with representatives of the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and I will be having a meeting with the Chief Rabbi to make it absolutely clear that the Jewish community in the UK has the right to feel safe and this Government will take action to ensure it is safe.

T2. Many of my constituents have faced significant delays when applying for biometric residence permit cards because of technical errors. One constituent, whose application was approved in July 2020, did not receive their BRP until January 2023 because of printing issues. What actions are being taken to address the technical problems contributing to delays in processing BRP applications? I hope the Home Secretary can answer that question. (900307)

I am pleased to report to the hon. Lady that that part of our Visas and Immigration service is now operating within its service standard, so there is a good service being offered to members of the public, but if she has any specific cases, she can bring them to my attention.

T7. As a local authority closely tied to Heathrow airport, the London Borough of Hillingdon has been doing great work to manage the impact of those currently in the asylum process. That is despite a funding imbalance in national rates, given the local population and the numbers of asylum seekers. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work with me to look at how we can ensure that those authorities, such as Hillingdon Council, linked with major ports of entry are given the resources to cope with such demands? (900312)

My hon. Friend raises an important matter for his constituents. As they live in the local authority beside Heathrow airport, it is true that his constituents bear a particular burden with respect to asylum seekers. We do provide £3,500 per asylum seeker to a local authority to help meet those costs, but a local authority such as Hillingdon does need our support, and I would be delighted to work with him in that regard.

T4.   The Home Secretary will be familiar with the invasive surveillance systems that authoritarian states such as Russia and China impose on their citizens. Is he comfortable with the Policing Minister’s push for similar live facial recognition systems to be used on innocent Brits, at a time when our colleagues in the European Parliament are legislating to abandon this technology? (900309)

We should be clear that retrospective facial recognition puts hundreds, if not thousands, of criminals in prison. For example, it was used to catch a murderer who had killed somebody in a Coventry nightclub who was then identified using an image taken on a mobile phone. That is a murderer who would not be in prison but for the use of retrospective facial recognition.

Live facial recognition has been used extensively by two police forces and experimentally by two others, including by South Wales, which has an excellent Labour police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, who has led the way in this area in a way that is safe and that respects privacy. Critically, if someone’s face is scanned and they are not on the wanted list, their details are deleted immediately, which I hope provides reassurance on the questions of privacy. Where it has been used, wanted people, including a wanted rapist and a wanted sex offender, have been apprehended who otherwise would have gone free. I would hope that the entire House can agree that catching wanted rapists is something that we can all get behind.

T8. During the recent protests, we have seen politicians hounded out of their offices and even needing a police escort at a train station. What more can we do to ensure that people who make decisions are doing it fairly and not from intimidation? (900313)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly why we are having an emergency meeting of the Defending Democracy Taskforce tomorrow to assess these issues. The incidents that we have seen in this country since 7 October—absolutely hateful incidents—have left some people feeling unable to make the arguments that their constituents would expect them to make because they feel vulnerable or they feel threatened. That is why I have been engaging on a protective security review not just for the Government, but for all Members of this House, and for other elected officials around our country. It is completely wrong for our democracy to be silenced by anyone, and it certainly should not be silenced by cowards.

T6.   My constituent, Dr Lubna Hadoura, has given almost 30 years of service in a specialised role to our NHS. Today, all she can think about is her 84-year-old mum and other members of her family who are stuck in Gaza with no hope of escape. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet urgently with me and Dr Hadoura so that she can set out to him more powerfully than I ever could the urgent humanitarian and moral imperative to get the families of UK citizens out of Gaza before it is too late? (900311)

The Government have a duty to British nationals, which we take very seriously. I recognise the plight of many non-British nationals in Gaza, which is why, in my previous role and now supporting the current Foreign Secretary, we have long pushed for a humanitarian pause. I am pleased that that is in place. We will continue to work with the international community and the countries in the region to ensure that support is given to the people in Gaza who need it and that action is taken to end this conflict, so that Israelis as well as the Palestinian people can live in peace and security.

As we seek to reduce the backlog of asylum claims, there is a temptation to grant more economic migrants the right to remain here. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be no slackening of the rules to root out economic migrants so that they can be returned to where they came from?

The whole point of having border control is that we can ensure that our migration system supports our economy and our social cohesion. Both those things are important. We want to ensure that we are choosing the right people, in the right numbers, at the right pace. I give the House a categoric assurance that that will always underpin our thinking with regard to what future changes we might make to the legal migration processes.

T9. It is not simply the decibel level of fireworks that is causing an issue; police officers in Scotland have been coming under attack, with fireworks used as weapons. The Scottish Parliament has control over the sale of fireworks but not their manufacture, as they are classified as explosives. Will the Minister guarantee that steps will be taken to tighten things up in order to reduce the use of these weapons? Failing that, will he simply devolve the powers so that the Scottish Parliament can act, as it has done on air weapons and drink-driving? (900314)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. The control of products is often a matter for the Department for Business and Trade, but since he has raised it at Home Office questions, I will happily take his point away and look into it carefully.

As was referenced earlier, there is growing concern in the retail trade about increases in shoplifting and, in particular, violence against shop workers. Does the Minister agree that we need custodial sentences for persistent offenders?

Persistent offenders should certainly get sent to prison. There is no question about that. Of course, it is now a statutory aggravating factor if the victim of an assault is a retail worker. We are concerned, though, about retail crime. We do not want to end up in the same place as some American cities, such as San Francisco, with out-of-control looting. We want a zero-tolerance approach. That is why just a few weeks ago we launched with police a retail crime action plan, which will see police always follow up evidence, including CCTV evidence and the use of facial recognition technology; always attend where necessary to investigate, or where someone has been assaulted; and particularly target prolific offenders and criminal gangs.

T10.   Given the revelation in recent weeks that the Home Secretary’s predecessor struck a deal with the Prime Minister before she took up the post, and given that it is well known that the Home Secretary was very much enjoying his role as Foreign Secretary, will he tell the House what deal he might have struck with the Prime Minister before taking on this role? (900315)

A fantastic question, well worth asking. The contract that all Ministers have is with the British people, to work hard on their behalf and to focus relentlessly on their priorities. That is something that every Government Minister takes seriously, and something totally lacking in the narrative coming from the Opposition Benches, including the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The award-winning Cotswold Canals Trust volunteers have had enough of antisocial behaviour such as graffiti, dog mess and worrying drug paraphernalia everywhere. It is ruining their hard work on the canal network and is putting them at risk. Part of our successful approach to trying to tackle it is getting CCTV down the canals. Will my right hon. Friend let us know what is happening with the safer streets funding? Police and crime commissioner Chris Nelson and I have made an application, and we are waiting to hear about it.

A round of safer streets funding was distributed for the current financial year, and we will make an announcement shortly about the following financial year. More money will be available, and it will be up to police and crime commissioners to decide how they spend that money. We will also confirm shortly the roll-out of antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols across the entire country—across all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Where those have been trialled so far—in Essex, Staffordshire, Lancashire and elsewhere—we have seen 30% decreases in ASB. Pretty soon, that will be available in Gloucestershire as well.

Order. I will take points of order after the urgent question, unless they are directly relevant to what has just been said.

It is not directly relevant to a question that has just been answered—well, I am guessing it is not. [Interruption.] Order. We are moving on to a very important matter and I expect the House to be quiet to listen to the urgent question from Mr David Lammy.

Israel and Hamas: Humanitarian Pause

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the Israel-Gaza situation and the humanitarian pause.

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his question.

A tragedy is unfolding in the middle east. Israel has suffered the worst terror attack in its history and Palestinian civilians are experiencing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, last week’s agreement was a crucial step towards providing relief to the families of the hostages and addressing the humanitarian emergency in Gaza. This pause has provided an important opportunity to ensure that much greater volumes of food, fuel and other life-saving aid can enter Gaza.

On 24 November the British Government announced a further £30 million of humanitarian assistance, tripling our existing aid budget for the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year. During the pause, the fourth UK aircraft, carrying 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid for Gaza, arrived in Egypt, bringing the total amount of UK humanitarian aid provided via British aircraft to 74 tonnes. That aid is now being dispersed to the United Nations to support critical food, water, health, shelter and protection needs in Gaza and to pre-position emergency supplies in the region.

Today is the fourth and final day of the agreement. The British Government are supportive of the current pause in hostilities continuing, but that is for the Israelis and others in the region to agree. We are clear that this pause should not be a one-off. The increased flow of fuel and relief supplies over the Rafah crossing accompanying the pause was welcome and must be sustained. This pause should act as a confidence-building mechanism for future pauses, including those solely on humanitarian grounds.

We welcome the intensive international co-operation, including efforts from Qatar and the USA, that led to this agreement and we thank partners for their continued work. We remain committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. Britain’s long-standing position on the middle east peace process is clear. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The UK will continue to work with all partners in the region to reach a long-term political solution that enables both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.

I am grateful for the granting of this urgent question.

Holding the Government to account is a sacred duty of this House, but with Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton not here, this feels more like a game of “Where’s Wally?” I start by asking the Minister what progress is being made with Mr Speaker to ensure that all Members can question the Foreign Secretary.

The past 72 hours have brought much-needed relief to Israel and Gaza. I pay tribute to the work of Qatar, Egypt, the United States and the Red Cross. The images of hostages who have been released and reunited with their families have moved us all, but the situation remains bittersweet, with many more still captive and their families in agony.

In Gaza, the past few weeks have been an unimaginable nightmare for innocent Palestinians. The civilian death toll, which includes thousands of women and children, is shocking and intolerable. The increased flow of aid and fuel remains a fraction of what is required. More time is needed. We must urgently support the parties to reach an agreement to extend the cessation of hostilities, to secure the release of remaining hostages, to deliver more aid to ease the unacceptable humanitarian catastrophe and, crucially, to provide a stepping stone towards an enduring cessation of hostilities, ensuring that what follows the war is a durable political solution.

The danger is that the fighting will resume in mere hours. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the vital efforts to extend the cessation of hostilities fail, we cannot return to the situation of before the pause? We cannot go back to Hamas continuing rocket attacks on Israel, we cannot go back to unacceptable siege conditions in Gaza, and we cannot go back to the scenes of thousands of innocent Palestinians being killed.

The two-state solution remains the only credible basis for a lasting peace: a future in which Israel is secure from the threat of Hamas terrorists, in which Gaza is not occupied and its people are no longer displaced, and in which Palestinians and Israelis can enjoy security, dignity and human rights.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for most of his comments and, in particular, his desire to ensure an extension of the cessation of hostilities. On what he said about the broader situation, the Opposition Front Benchers and the Government are in complete agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what progress has been made in ensuring that the Foreign Office and the Government’s foreign policy is subject to proper scrutiny in this House. I completely agree with him that there is a sacred duty—I think that is the term that he used—to ensure that all that scrutiny is made available. I just point out to him the extraordinary authority that a former Prime Minister can bring to bear in carrying out those tasks, as he will have seen from Lord Cameron’s recent visit to the middle east. Lord Cameron is the most senior Foreign Minister in Europe—and, indeed, in the region—and I think that both sides of the House will see the benefit of that in the days and months to come.

This is a serious matter. The UK’s priority in the region is security and stability for the whole of the middle east, yet today Netanyahu plans to push forward with a special budget that will fund expansions of the settlements by over $80 million. As a friend, we have a duty to say to Israel, “Do not proceed with this plan. It takes us further away from peace and, frankly, it will risk not only the truce, but the ability to get home hostages who are still held by their terrorist kidnappers.” What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we speak plainly to our friends?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for her comments. She is entirely right that Israel must comply with international humanitarian law, and must not only prosecute but punish those who have been involved in settler violence. The Government are delivering tough messages to all sides in this dreadful conflict, and we will continue to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, and I commend the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for the integrity and courage with which she raised her concerns.

Does the Minister agree that the only way we will see a lasting and just peace in the middle east is through the establishment of a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine are recognised as equal sovereign states with equal rights and equal responsibilities to uphold international law? Given that there are now credible accusations of war crimes against both sides in this conflict, will the Government confirm that they will give full support to the International Criminal Court to investigate without fear or favour all allegations of war crimes, regardless of who is accused of them, so that any perpetrator of a war crime, regardless of whose friend or foe they may be, is brought to justice before the international courts? Given that it is an offence in international law to supply weapons where they may be used in the commission of a war crime, what recent reassessment have the Government made of the legality of their arms sales to the middle east?

Finally, I do not know whether the Minister was in the Chamber to hear my plea on behalf of my constituent Dr Lubna Hadoura—I have written to the Foreign Secretary specifically about her—but will he agree to meet urgently with me and her, and with the Home Secretary, so that we can find an effective way to get the families of UK nationals who are still stuck in Gaza out while the peace lasts? If we do not get them out during a ceasefire, we might not get them out at all.

Both the Lord Chancellor and I have made clear the position in respect of the International Criminal Court. I set it out in the House: it is not for Government Ministers and politicians to address these matters, but for the prosecutor and the administration of the International Criminal Court.

The hon. Gentleman rightly identified future thinking as critical at this time. He will recall that the progress that was made at Oslo was on the back of the first intifada. That should give us some confidence in these dreadful sets of circumstances that we need to focus on the future, and a lot of thinking is going on in that respect. To address his point about the arms regime, he will know that the British Government have the toughest arms export regime in the world, and we adhere absolutely to that.

During this lull in fighting, the whole House wants to see as many hostages as possible released and as much aid as possible getting in, but both sides are committed to recommence fighting. Does my right hon. Friend think it is time to call for a demilitarisation of Gaza in the longer term, and to consider future governance, security and humanitarian plans? Will he consider a joint summit with the United States, bringing together all the stakeholders to look at the long-term implications of this conflict?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of looking to the medium and the long term, and of doing all that is necessary to bring together people of good will to make progress on the two-state solution. We want to see all hostages released as swiftly as possible, and we also want to see greater volumes of food, fuel, medicine and life-saving supplies getting into Gaza, principally through Rafah but also through any other plausible means.

Is it the Government’s contention that further hostilities—the destruction of the south of Gaza in the way we have seen the north destroyed, with tens of thousands more killed—will lead easily to a permanent ceasefire, or will it simply embolden the militants?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the very worrying position that exists in the south of Gaza at the moment. He will have seen that the United Nations and others are considering islands of deconfliction, particularly around Khan Yunis, including safe zones in order to dispense aid. But, like me, he will be very aware of the dangers experienced in other safe zones in the past, and the risks for civilians who are involved in them.

How can a two-state solution, which everybody says they want—everybody in this Chamber, at any rate—ever come to pass while Hamas remains in control of the Gaza strip?

I do not think that anybody thinks that Hamas are going to remain in charge of the Gaza strip in the medium term, or anything longer than that.

The prospect of the carnage simply resuming at the end of this pause is a really dreadful one. What is the Minister’s assessment of the likelihood that the ceasefire might be made permanent if, over a period of some further days, all the hostages are released?

The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the statements by the Israeli Government about the number of hostages to be released and the possibility of extending the pause in that respect. The view of the British Government is that we should do everything we can to ensure the hostages are released as speedily as possible. The longer that this pause continues, the greater chance there is for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and for progress to be made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any ceasefire continuing should be linked to the release of more hostages? Is he concerned that Hamas are breaking the agreement in several ways, including by separating parents and their children when releasing one but not the other? They have not even allowed the Red Cross to visit all remaining hostages, which has been a rule in conflict for over 100 years. Is he not concerned about these breaches?

I am immensely concerned about the fate of all the hostages. As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, there were originally about 240 hostages, and as of midnight last night 58 hostages have managed to get out. At the same time, 117 prisoners have been released by the Israeli Government. The sooner that all the hostages are out, the better.

Like others, I felt a real sense of relief watching some of the hostages who emerged and were reunited with their families yesterday. The Minister said that this pause could turn into a one-off; it need not. I know the issues are incredibly complicated and I know it is only through international intervention that we will make progress, but could he tell us what steps are being taken not to get to a two-state solution at this point, but to start a peace process between the warring factions that will eventually, one would hope, lead to a two-state solution? What steps are being taken now by international bodies?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She speaks with great wisdom on these matters. I can tell her that the discussions to which she refers are going on throughout the region and internationally. Britain is playing a proper part, not least by the visit last week of the Foreign Secretary to the region.

I very much hope we can extend the humanitarian pause. The Minister, as a former serviceman, like me, will know that the United Kingdom armed forces make extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties, even when targeting terrorists embedded in civilian areas—a point that has been made very forcefully to me by veterans in recent days—so will the United Kingdom carry on very clearly calling on Israel to follow similar standard operating procedures?

The pause is obviously welcome because it will save lives. The horror of 7 October has not gone away. The disaster of the killing of 14,000 people in Gaza has not gone away. There has to be a recognition, as António Guterres has pointed out, of the underlying issue, which is the occupation of the west bank and the settlement policy, and the violence that so many Palestinians have had to put up with for decades and decades. Does the Minister believe there is a role now for the United Nations to do more to try to bring about not just a ceasefire, but a long-term peace that will involve the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestine?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that there is always a role for the United Nations, but it has to be adapted to the circumstances. What he says about a ceasefire, which I have heard him say before, is fettered by the fact that Hamas have made it perfectly clear that they do not want a ceasefire. They want to repeat what they did on 7 October, the day of those terrible events. To have a ceasefire, we have to have two sides that want a ceasefire, and that is clearly not available on this occasion.

The conflict in the middle east is tragic, complex and, sadly, protracted. While the House is broadly aligned on the need to defeat Hamas, could the Minister please reassure me of the efforts being undertaken to urge restraint among all protagonists in the protection of civilians and non-combatants in Gaza?

Britain has been very clear about the importance of respecting international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

The Minister must be concerned by those who seek to play down what has actually happened to innocent Israelis in the middle east. He must be gutted and alarmed that Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister of a neighbouring state of ours, described one of the victims, an eight-year-old girl who was kidnapped and abused, as “lost”. That is unbelievable. Is the Minister concerned by the ever-increasing extremism and the anti-NATO and antisemitic attitudes emanating now from the Republic of Ireland? Is he going to have a word with that country about its attitude?

The Government have been absolutely clear on where we stand on antisemitism and Islamophobia: we condemn both without qualification and will continue to do so.

As the Minister knows, there has been no pause in violence in the west bank, whose largely defenceless population has been subjected over a number of months now to a campaign of what the Americans and French have referred to as “terror”. The Minister says he is asking tough questions and delivering tough messages to both sides, but when will those tough messages turn into tough action? The Americans have already said they will institute visa bans against those settlers who are perpetrating violence, but we have been talking about this for years to little or no effect. Given the centrality of achieving a two-state solution, is there not a strong case for us to take firm action against settlers, those who arm them and those who support them?

On his visit last week, the Foreign Secretary delivered very strong messages, when he was in Ramallah and when he saw the Israeli Government, about the importance of stopping settler violence and ensuring that people are put before the courts and punished—that if the perpetrators of settler violence were identified, they could be put before the courts.

The release of hostages and the increase in humanitarian aid is very much to be welcomed, but I am sure the Minister and the House agree that only a political solution can bring about a lasting peace. In that spirit, will he support Labour’s calls for a new middle east envoy? Also, I was not quite clear from his answer to the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, so will he say that the UK state condemns and is utterly opposed to the settlements?

The position of the British Government on the illegal settlements is absolutely clear. On the possibility of having an envoy, a whole range of different envoys are engaged in this, but if it was appropriate for us to deploy an envoy on behalf of the Government—either a humanitarian or political envoy around the region—we would have no hesitation in doing so.

Despite the pause over the last few days, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains catastrophic and is likely to continue to be catastrophic. While no one doubts the right of Israel to defend itself, the fact is that it is an occupying power and as such has clear legal obligations to the civilians of Gaza, so when my right hon. Friend next speaks to his Israeli opposite number will he remind him of those obligations and ensure that even after the pause ends sufficient aid is allowed to get through to the population of Gaza?

We are doing everything we can through the United Nations and other contacts in the region to ensure that aid and support gets through to those who need it so desperately in Gaza, and my right hon. Friend may rest assured that we will continue to do that.

The massacre by Hamas on 7 October is completely indefensible, but the Minister will be aware that since then no fewer than 5,500 Gaza children have died and there are hundreds more missing, probably under rubble. The Secretary-General of the UN said Gaza is “a graveyard for children” and most recently the executive director of UNICEF has said that pauses are not enough and only a ceasefire will save children. When are the Government going to use their good offices to press both sides for a ceasefire?

Regardless of whether the right hon. Lady’s figures are correct, we know that there has been appalling loss of civilian life in Gaza. In respect of what she says about the relative merits of a pause or ceasefire, we can build on pauses, but I point out that it is the policy of those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government to press for humanitarian pauses, and that is what the British Government will continue to do.

The release of some hostages is incredibly welcome, but the price for that is that Israel has taken the difficult decision to release many Palestinian prisoners held for terror offences, including bombings and stabbing attacks, in exchange for its civilians held in Gaza in unimaginable conditions. History shows us that previous security prisoners released by Israel have gone on to commit further terror offences. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this should be of concern to the whole world and that we must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel to support it to combat terror?

The point that my hon. Friend makes, particularly about prisoners reoffending, underlines the importance of our pursuing every possible way of getting on to a political track. When this ghastly violence finishes, or is significantly diminished, everyone must bend every conceivable sinew to drive forward a new political process for peace.

Few of us can imagine the trauma of being permanently displaced from our homes and never allowed to return. Can the Minister reassure the House that Israel will not take land in Gaza, as some Israeli Ministers have threatened to do, and that Palestinians will be allowed back to their homes and lands, particularly given that 1.7 million out of 2.3 million people living in Gaza have been displaced?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to talk about the deeply contentious issue of land, but what she says is, as I have understood it, absolutely in accordance with the policy of the British Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the pogrom that took place on 7 October, followed by the horrific levels of antisemitism that we have seen across our own country, let alone across the western world, with people feeling frightened to leave their homes for no other reason than their religion, shows why the state of Israel has a right to exist and must always be allowed to defend itself?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. What happened on 7 October was a pogrom, and it was the worst loss of life by Jewish citizens on any single day since the holocaust and 1945.

I thank the Minister for his assistance in getting some of our constituents from Birmingham out of Gaza. On his answer to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), for clarity can he state explicitly that UK Government policy is that every displaced Gazan currently must be allowed to return to their lands?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, and I remind Members from all parts of the House to use the hotline to communicate with the emergency centre in the Foreign Office on behalf of constituents. In terms of the Gazans who have been displaced by the terrible events started by Hamas on 7 October, it is the British Government’s policy that those displaced should be able to return to the area from which they were driven.

The mayor of Gaza City told al-Jazeera that not one litre of fuel has reached the Gaza municipality, likely due to the fuel being misappropriated. Why does the Minister think that the international community should trust Hamas to distribute any aid?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are extremely careful about how British aid is distributed and do it only through trusted partners of whom we have long and detailed experience. This is perhaps the most observed and scrutinised aid programme of any that the British taxpayer and British Government pursue anywhere in the world.

In Home Office questions, I raised the case of a constituent on a student visa whose five-year-old daughter is in southern Gaza, and I am hoping for a similarly positive response from this Minister. Were that visa to be granted, would that young girl be allowed to travel with her grandmother into Egypt with the FCDO’s support so that they can be reunited?

It is unwise and difficult for me to give granular advice on that specific situation from the Dispatch Box, but I will happily speak to the hon. Lady immediately afterwards and ensure that we do the best we can.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks about increasing aid to Gaza and the Palestinian people at this time, and I note what he said about the care taken to ensure that British aid reaches its intended target, but given what we now know about the industrial scale of theft and misappropriation of aid in Gaza over the years, who is making sure on the ground right now that British aid is not being taken by Hamas terrorists?

For aid in Gaza, we have not dealt with either the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas civil administration for many years, and we do everything we can to ensure that it gets through to the people who need it. He will have seen that, I think yesterday, a British aircraft delivered 4,500 blankets and 4,500 sleeping mats to al-Arish in Egypt. That was the fourth planeload. We will continue to ensure not only that we supply as much aid as we possibly can to meet the need, but that it gets to the right place as speedily as possible.

Does the Minister share my grave concerns about what Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent chilling comments—that “Nothing will stop us” and that he will fight “until the end”—will mean for Palestine and the further massacring of innocent civilians? We need an urgent ceasefire to prevent the further loss of life. How many more Palestinian children must die before the Government will call for a permanent ceasefire?

Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself, following the appalling events of 7 October. Of course, civilians, as well as hospitals, must be protected under international humanitarian law, but the hon. Member should be in no doubt that the Israeli Government have the absolute right to defend themselves under international law.

The recent discovery of a tunnel from the Shifa Hospital to a residential property is yet more clear evidence that Hamas are using civilians as human shields in this conflict. Will the Minister therefore join me in clearly condemning that activity, and will he confirm that the Government will continue to support Israel in its fight to eradicate Hamas from the region?

I, too, call for the pause to transition into a ceasefire. What discussions have the Minister and the Foreign Secretary had about opening up corridors for humanitarian aid to cross between Israel and Gaza, in the light of the poor infrastructure in Gaza for moving humanitarian aid from the south to the north?

We are in those discussions. As the hon. Member will know, the access through Rafah is fettered by physical and non-physical circumstances. When the Foreign Secretary was in the region last week, he had specific discussions about other means of access into Gaza, and we are doing everything we possibly can, together with our humanitarian partners, to achieve a far greater degree of access for humanitarian supplies.

From the perspective of my constituents in Bolton, we are watching the worst horror movie conceivable, and hitting pause will only delay the suffering. Boltonians are asking: when can all sides simply hit the stop button and bring about a ceasefire? If a ceasefire is not possible, what discussions are we having with Israeli and other counterparts about extending the pause after today?

My hon. Friend will have seen the discussions going on and the offer that, apparently, the Israeli Government have made if extra hostages are released. All those discussions are continuing. Clearly, the longer the pause, the more support and humanitarian supplies can get into Gaza. The British Government are doing everything they can to progress both those things.

I welcome the Minister’s words that the Foreign Secretary is exploring other crossings being opened to get aid into the south. It is essential that that happens. If the hostilities resume, as most people expect, what representations are the British Government making to try to stop them moving south, where almost 2 million are displaced and there is nowhere else to go?

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave a little earlier about the south. We are conscious of the fact that very large numbers of people are kettled into the south, which makes the supply of aid even more dangerous, unless there is a comprehensive agreement that there will be no hostilities around the areas where aid is being distributed. We are very conscious of that, and we are working with our partners to make it as safe as possible for aid to be distributed.

It is extremely good news that some hostages have been freed. However, polling suggests that 75% of the Palestinian people support the atrocities by Hamas, and 85% refuse to even consider the coexistence of a Palestinian state with the state of Israel. At the moment, Palestinian prisoners are being released to the west bank and Hamas are getting the credit, so does the Minister accept that there is a risk that Hamas not only dominate Gaza but end up dominating the west bank as well?

My hon. Friend’s comment underlines the importance of a political track emerging and being pursued with great vigour as soon as possible.

I want to talk about the plight of women in Gaza, which a constituent raised with me. Every day, 180 women in Gaza give birth, most without water, painkillers, anaesthesia for caesarean sections, medical supplies or, as we know, electricity for incubators. With more than 5,000 women expected to give birth in Gaza next month, will the Minister join Labour in calling for Israel to protect hospitals in Gaza and allow continued access to medicine, food, water and electricity to protect those women and newborns during birth?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the very large numbers of women who are seeking to give birth in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We are conscious of that in the aid and humanitarian supplies that we are making available. I completely understand the importance of the humanitarian support workers who are in Gaza—extremely brave people who are putting themselves in harm’s way to support their fellow citizens with humanitarian supplies. Nowhere is that more true than in the area that she described.

It has been extremely moving to see hostages starting to come out and aid starting to flow in. I hope that the truce will hold, but if the hostilities start again, please can the UK Government make every representation to Israel that, in its legitimate efforts to stop the terrorism, it must do more to prevent mass loss of civilian life, especially children?

My constituent Adam Abu Warda has close family in Gaza and is extremely anxious that they should have the opportunity to get out and come to the UK, as other MPs have said. What is the Government’s policy on our constituents wishing to get their very close family out of Gaza to bring them to the UK?

We are seeking, within the rules the hon. Gentleman will be aware of, to facilitate, in every way we can, those people leaving Gaza. As I said to one of our colleagues, it would not be sensible for me to look at the granular detail of the specific case he raises on the Floor of the House but, if he has contacted the emergency consular support team in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and has any concerns about the responses he is getting, I am of course very happy, to look at it myself.

Three weeks ago today, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and I were at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where we saw and heard things we will never forget, and where the smell of rotting blood and flesh was still pungent in the air, such was the butchery not only of Hamas but Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the thousands of Gazan civilians who streamed into the kibbutzim afterwards. There are some in this place who seem to give the impression that the only barriers to peace are the actions of the Israeli Government. The facts are that it is Hamas who are responsible for every death that occurs. It is the Palestinian Authority whose textbooks preach hate against Jews, not just in Israel but around the world. It is Palestinian Authority schools that were closed in a day of celebration after 7 October and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), hold such appalling views about coexistence. Will the Minister, in his dealings with the Palestinian Authority, encourage them to deal with their issues of extremism?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the British Government are doing everything they can to address the issues behind what he says. I have no doubt, having been at that terrible location so recently, that that is something he will never forget.

What is the Minister’s understanding and assessment of the Netanyahu Government’s medium and long-term strategy for the Gaza strip?

The right hon. Gentleman, who is extremely experienced in these matters, will draw his conclusions from what the Israeli Government are saying, just as the British Government do.

Now that the welcome temporary pause is under way, what steps are the UK Government taking to press to ensure that it becomes an enduring ceasefire as soon as possible, leading to a political process for peace? Are the UK Government being clear with the Israeli Government that, as they seek to continue in their legitimate aim of destroying Hamas, a return to the relentless bombardment, the razing of Gaza and the indiscriminate killing of civilians is not acceptable, proportionate or within international law?

As the hon. Lady will know, Israel has an absolute right to self-defence. It has been made clear around the world that that is the right position, but it must abide by international humanitarian law.

Nobody can help but be moved by the sight of hostages being released. This weekend, the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), on a public platform, said that the UK Government

“will not rest until each and every one of them is back in the loving embrace of their families,”

It is now more than a month since anybody at all from the UK Government has had any contact at all with the UK citizens who have family members as hostages—not a single phone call. The Minister will know that I have come to this place and pleaded with him to help arrange just five minutes of Lord Cameron’s time with the hostage families to tell them what the Government are actually doing to help get their family members released. It has been other Governments who have helped to identify that their family members are alive. Please, finally, can the Minister listen to those UK citizens asking their Government, “What are you doing to help get my family released?” and arrange that meeting as an urgent matter?

My understanding is not the same as the hon. Lady’s in respect of the British hostages. She will know that over 200 British nationals and their dependants have so far left Gaza, and we are working around the clock to get the rest of those out who want to leave. In terms of the hostages, my understanding is not the same as she has said.

Does the Minister agree that we cannot accept civilians being ordered to flee into areas that are then subject to bombardment? Does he share the concerns of the UN and the World Health Organisation about the proposals for a safe zone with no infrastructure, which will cause more problems down the line?

There are very serious problems with safe zones. We have learnt about them the hard way from the events that took place in Srebrenica, in—indeed—Rwanda, and in northern Iraq. It is an absolute preoccupation of humanitarians—including those in the United Nations, who are neuralgic about safe zones—to ensure that if we are to distribute very large amounts of aid we have the capacity to do so before too much longer, and we all hope that we are able to do it in the safest possible way.

I welcome the pause, with hostages released and aid delivered, and I hope that it continues. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the role that he has played to date, but if this drip, drip of hostage release is to continue, surely more must be done to ratchet up the pressure and ensure that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent gain access to the hostages about whom we have no information. Is that not a priority now?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right: it is a priority. There is some suggestion that while I have been on my feet in the Chamber, Qatar has announced that the truce will be extended by two days. Obviously we all hope that that is true, and that as a result more hostages will be able to leave.