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Commons Chamber

Volume 742: debated on Monday 11 December 2023

House of Commons

Monday 11 December 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—

Industrial Action: Impact on Children and Parents

2. What steps she is taking to help reduce the impact of industrial action by teachers on children and parents. (900555)

Last year’s strikes were one of the biggest outbreaks of industrial action in a generation. Over 25 million school days were lost, with far-reaching consequences across our society. We cannot afford a repeat of that disruption, and it is my duty to protect children’s education. That is why we are consulting on minimum service levels to end further disruption to education, while providing certainty to parents. MSLs will balance the right to strike with children’s fundamental right to a good education.

The issue extends to university students as well. My constituent’s final degree papers were not marked this year because of industrial action. That put in jeopardy her postgraduate course and her employment offer. Her degree was issued only after her mother personally visited the dean of the university involved and demanded action. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that degree exam papers are marked on time in the current academic year?

Our young people should never be pawns in the disputes of adults. The behaviour of University and College Union members was disgraceful, and their actions caused untold disruption and stress for thousands of students. Although the higher education sector is independent of Government, the damaging impact of strike action cannot go unchecked. That is why we are consulting on minimum service levels in this sector, unlike the Labour party, which always bows to its union paymasters.

It is a pleasure to be called to ask a supplementary to the first question.

I am ever mindful of the importance that the industrial action finishes. Has the Secretary of State had any opportunities to discuss this with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland? I understand that she has no responsibility for Northern Ireland, but it is important that we work together to try to solve the problems of industrial action. It is affecting loads of schools, particularly those whose pupils have special educational needs. I am really concerned.

The hon. Member puts his finger on it. Industrial action has a massive impact, particularly on vulnerable children, those with special educational needs, and those in exam cohorts. I am always happy to share with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations, and I am very happy to share what we are doing on minimum service levels.

School Funding: County Durham

3. What steps her Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of school funding in County Durham. (900556)

Nationally, school funding will rise to over £59.6 billion next year, the highest ever in real terms per pupil. This year, the north-east had the largest percentage increase in per pupil funding in the whole of England.

I welcome the Minister to his place.

Every day is a school day, but I wonder whether the new Schools Minister is familiar with the School Cuts website, which indicates that 214 out of 240 schools in County Durham face spending cuts in 2024-25. The cumulative impact of cuts in County Durham amounts to £113 million, equating to a £175 cut per pupil. Does he believe that restricting school budgets will help or hinder the educational opportunities and life chances for children in my east Durham constituency?

I have seen the website that the hon. Member mentions. Its calculations are based on some very speculative assumptions, and the conclusions that it reaches should therefore be treated with great caution. Next year, County Durham will receive over £391 million based on current pupil numbers, which is an extra £7.8 million for schools.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place.

On Friday, I joined Labour’s candidate Alan Strickland on a visit to Ferryhill School in County Durham. The staff team and students are amazing, but staff are left teaching in portacabins, the dining room and the sports hall, the staff room is behind a curtain on a stage, and years 10 and 11 are in a different town. Last week, yet more schools were added to the list of those with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, and the Secretary of State could not confirm how many will need complete rebuilds. Given the urgency, can the Minister tell parents, children and staff when this chaos will end?

Mr Speaker, allow me to take this moment to pay tribute to all school staff, leaders, children and their families, who have shown great fortitude in dealing with the disruption caused by RAAC. We have moved quickly to make sure all schools with suspected RAAC are surveyed and to work with schools to put in place alternative arrangements. Of course none of that is perfect, but schools have shown great flexibility in working towards that, such that we now have 99% of affected schools back with full-time face-to-face education.

Childcare Support: Working Parents

The Government announced earlier this year transformative reforms to childcare to benefit children, parents and the economy. By 2027-28, we expect to spend in excess of £8 billion every year on free childcare hours and early education, representing the single largest investment in childcare in England ever.

In recent months, I have visited several early years providers across Bracknell Forest, where it is clear that the improved provision and ratios will make a big difference both for working families and for the providers. Could the Minister please outline what more could be done to better incentivise working parents to return to work?

Last week the Department for Business and Trade published its response to its consultation on flexible working, making clear that this Government are committed to changes to legislation that will enable more flexible working. Together with our expansion of childcare, that will ensure parents have more choice over how, when and where they work.

Welcome back, Mr Speaker.

The Early Education and Childcare Coalition has found that 57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering leaving the early years sector in the next 12 months, and Stroud businesses say the same thing. That absolutely cannot happen. They are a skilled and amazing workforce, whom parents trust with the most precious things, and the Government have backed the industry as integral to the growth strategy. What evidence does my hon. Friend have that the UK is retaining nursery staff and childminders, and what can we be doing to ensure the new system is successful?

I thank my hon. Friend for her work championing the early years workforce and join her in the tributes she pays to them. The total number of paid early years staff has remained stable in recent years, and between 2021 and 2022 the number of staff increased by 2%, or 5,900 people. We will publish updated statistics in the coming weeks.

Is it not a fact that after 13 years of the Conservatives in government, our country is in a situation where preschool and out-of-school care is the most expensive in Europe and beyond? We have so many talented people—especially women, but men as well—who are not coming back to use their high skills to recharge the economy, because they cannot afford childcare. What is the Minister going to do about it?

What we are doing is making the single largest investment ever made in childcare. That is going to save the average family up to £6,500 per year on the cost of childcare, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s party, which has no policy for this area whatsoever.


5. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of students completing T-Level courses. (900558)

22. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of students completing T-level courses. (900578)

I am very proud that more than 4,000 students now have T-levels on their CV. In the summer, 3,119 students completed their T-levels with a pass or above, meaning that we had a pass rate of 90.5% before factoring in remarking and retakes. We will publish a T-level action plan with more information early next year.

In my constituency, Christ the King Emmanuel sixth form college does fantastically well in educating young people, but an Education Committee report stated that in the first year of the T-Level transition programme, just 14% of students went on to start the T-level. The Government have yet to publish the data for subsequent years. Can the Minister outline when the new data will be published and whether that progression rate has improved?

I am very glad that Christ the King Emmanuel sixth form college is offering T-levels, and that the hon. Lady has had 8,300 apprenticeship starts in her constituency since 2010. Our T-level transition year is a new thing that we have introduced—it is now called the foundation year—and very close to 50% of students go on to do a level 3. However, I said in my opening answer to her, we will have more information about these matters in the next year.

Welcome back, Mr Speaker.

According to Make UK, 36% of manufacturing vacancies are hard to fill because of a lack of skills. There are 170,000 fewer apprenticeship starts than in 2017. The Prime Minister cast doubt on the future of T-levels in his conference speech, when he said that he thought they should be scrapped. Just what is the Government’s plan, or will they leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to address the chronic shortage of technical skills over which they have presided?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would celebrate the 9,000-plus apprenticeship starts in his constituency since 2010. We have built our skills revolution in everything from apprenticeships and our T-level programme to our higher technical qualifications, free boot camps and free level 3 courses, and that is driving the increased skills uptake. It is worth noting that we have had 337,000 apprenticeship starts over the past year. He should welcome that.

Shockingly, results last summer revealed that one in three students dropped out of their T-level course, which is higher than for earlier cohorts. Something is going very wrong. In April, the Education Committee raised major concerns about T-level roll-outs, regional variations and falling employer engagement. Access to opportunity really matters, so should the Minister not now pause and review the defunding of alternative qualifications, as Labour would, and urgently bring forward the 2023-24 T-level action plan in order to address concerns raised by the Select Committee and Ofsted and bring much-needed clarity and support for colleges, employers, parents and students?

Not content with being in the anti-apprenticeship party, given her plans to weaken the apprenticeship levy and halve the number of apprenticeships, the hon. Lady is also taking on the mantle of T-level denier. We have 18 T-levels; we have, as I mentioned, a 90.5% pass rate; we have 10,000 students doing our T-level programme; and we expect the data that we will release early next year to show that many thousands more students are doing the T-level programme.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 7MC.] I am very proud of our T-level programme. I know that the hon. Lady will be eating mince pies at Christmas, but I suggest that early next year she may be eating humble pie, because our T-level programme is something to be proud of.

After-school Childcare: Long-term Educational Outcomes

7. If her Department will make an assessment of the potential impact of after-school childcare on long-term educational outcomes. (900560)

In October, the Government announced the allocation of £289 million of start-up funding to local authorities for wraparound care, which we know supports parents to work, as well as having the potential to improve attainment, engagement and attendance.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 7MC.]

I recently visited Muschamp Primary School in Carshalton and Wallington, where I observed the Junior Adventures Group UK—a leading provider of school-age childcare in my constituency—in the crucial support that it gives children, particularly those with special educational needs, beyond school hours. However, it is evident that school-age childcare needs reform. I welcome that £289 million, but can my hon. Friend explain how the frameworks will ensure that that investment effectively supports families, specifically those with requirements for special educational needs and disabilities?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have set out clear expectations that all wraparound provision should be inclusive and accessible. We have given local authorities flexibility in how to spend their funding, but we expect them to distribute it in a way that ensures equal access to provision for parents of children with special educational needs.

Pupils with SEN and Disabilities

8. What steps her Department is taking to support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. (900561)

We want all children to receive the right support to reach their full potential. That is why, since March, we have opened 14 new special free schools, with 78 more approved; we have launched our £70 million change programme, benefiting every region in England and testing key SEND and alternative provision, including innovative approaches to speech and language therapy; and, to help young people with special educational needs into work, we are doubling the number of supported internships to 4,500 by 2025. By next year, we will have increased high-needs funding by 60%, to over £10.5 billion, in just five years.

Last year in Buckinghamshire, one in three education, health and care plans were issued outside the legally required 20-week timeframe. Will the Secretary of State outline what concrete steps the Department is taking to improve access to educational psychologists and reduce waiting times for EHCPs?

I know how hard parents fight to get the right support for their children. Sometimes that takes too long, and I am determined to make that easier, which is why we are simplifying and standardising the EHCP process. However, to deliver that support, we need our fantastic teachers, teaching assistants and specialist SEND teachers; without them, we could not provide children with the support they require. That is why we are boosting training opportunities through a new national professional qualification for special educational needs co-ordinators, which will be launched in autumn 2024, and investing a further £21 million to train 400 more educational psychologists. We are also training up to 7,000 early years specialists, over 5,000 of whom have begun their training. We now have 280,000 teaching assistants in our schools, an increase of over 60,000 since we have been in office.

One in 10 children in education in my constituency receives special educational needs support. Thanks to the Department for Education, we have had a new special school, the Austen Academy—that is a free school—and significant increases in budgets, but can we also ensure that teaching children with special needs is a mainstream part of teacher education? Supporting children with special educational needs every day is now a mainstream part of school.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. That is exactly why we are developing a new NPQ for SENCOs, which will launch in autumn 2024, and are inputting into the standards for teacher training to ensure that everybody has an understanding of how best to support children. There are now a lot of children with special educational needs, and we all need to know how to support them better.

From my citywide consultation of parents of children with SEND, it came to light that the particularly harsh and punitive disciplinary processes being exercised in schools are having a very harmful effect on many of those children. Will the Secretary of State or the Schools Minister meet me to discuss a particular multi-academy trust in my constituency where those processes are having a very negative impact on young people?

I am very happy to confirm that the Minister for children and families will be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Julie Nixon, head of the Spectrum of Light charity in Rossendale and Darwen, for the work she did on Saturday by bringing together parents from across Lancashire and Rossendale and Darwen on a Zoom call? Those parents were exactly the same as me, in that they all had an autistic child, and I was appalled to hear from them about the time they are having to wait to see an educational psychologist. Will the Secretary of State agree to write to Lancashire County Council to find out what the heck is going on with those parents whose children are missing school and are unable to access an education, health and care plan?

I am very happy to work with my right hon. Friend to improve things in Lancashire. Spectrum of Light sounds like it is doing an amazing job—there are many people who are looking to better support our children with special educational needs. Of course, we recognise that we need to improve aspects, which is why we published an improvement plan in March this year.

Would-be educational psychology trainees for September 2024 have been left in limbo because of delays in the Department confirming the available funding. The number of educational psychologists has fallen since 2010, despite requests for education, health and care plans increasing every year. That national shortage of qualified practitioners is contributing to the crisis in SEND that is affecting so many families across the country. Does the Secretary of State agree that this uncertainty about Government funding for educational psychology training is unacceptable, and when does she expect it to be resolved?

We announced in November 2022 that a further £21 million was going to be spent to train more than 400 educational psychologists.

Pupils with SEN and Disabilities

9. What steps she is taking to reduce waiting times for children with special educational needs and disabilities to receive support. (900562)

In our improvement plan, we set out plans to deliver consistent early support through our new national standards, backed by a 60% increase in high-needs funding and in programmes such as our £13 million investment in the Partnerships for Inclusion of Neurodiversity in Schools programme, which supports the needs of neurodiverse children.

More than half of children with an education, health and care plan are now experiencing a delay, and even after receiving an EHCP, my constituent’s child was held back a year and had to wait another year before finding a space in a special school. Over 1.5 million children in the UK have special educational needs, so can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that parents and children such as my constituents get the support they need quickly?

We are investing £2.6 billion to transform the special educational needs and alternative provision system. That has included a 36% increase in funding to Birmingham, where the timeliness of EHCPs has been getting better each year between 2020 and 2022.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.]

Beyond the traditional methods of support for SEND, the Minister will know that councils give specialist provisions, and we have heard a lot today about some of those longer-term provisions, for children in particular, and the time involved. What assessment does the Department make when looking at the distance that some of these children need to travel to get this specialist support, particularly when it is out of county—for example, Shropshire into Staffordshire? It may not seem a long distance, but on some of those meandering, serpentine roads it can take a very long time to travel 20 miles.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Out of county placements are not ideal for the child and their family or for the cost to the local authority, which is why we have 78 new special schools in fruition. We are also committed to seeing the children whose needs can be met in a mainstream school being supported at an early enough stage with their special educational needs.

Thank you, Sir. It is good to see you back safe and well in the Chair. As this is the nearest I am ever going to get to it—No. 10, please! [Laughter.]

Special Needs Education: Access

I wondered what was happening there, Mr Speaker.

As part of our £2.6 billion investment to reform the SEND and AP system, we have announced 41 new special free schools, with a further 37 in the pipeline. We have also set out plans for new national standards to make clear the support that should be available in mainstream settings for children with special educational needs.

Can I take this opportunity quickly to thank the Secretary of State, her junior Ministers and officials for all the help for the schools affected by RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—in my constituency?

Turning to SEN, demand in Essex far outstrips supply. The Secretary of State will know that just prior to the summer recess, I launched a campaign for a new SEN school in south Essex. I am delighted to tell her that we have a trust that is seriously interested, we may have a site and we may even have some money. On that basis, could I meet her or one of her junior Ministers—early in the new year, please—to update her on where we have got to and to ask for help to make this dream a reality?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaign, with which we are very familiar in the Department; we would be delighted to meet him. Where local authorities do feel there is a need, they can open a new special school through the free school presumption route, which I would be happy to discuss with him further.

The Minister mentioned the £2.6 billion that the Government have invested, but this is not filtering down. That is the key issue for parents accessing SEN provision, and so many parents are raising it at my surgery. One concerned mother told me:

“Parents and children are being put under intolerable stress and anxiety with a system which is inefficient and creating a significant mental health burden”.

The Minister mentioned the national standards. Will the standards include the fact that SEN children and children with autism are being arrested and their mental health is not being treated properly because schools simply do not have enough training and support? Will the Minister please address that?

I thank the hon. Lady. We are keen that schools are as inclusive as they say they will be when it comes to children with special educational needs. We have nine change programme partnerships to try to make sure that the system works a lot better. The money is given to local authorities, and we should already be seeing an improvement, but I would be happy to discuss it further with her.

Local Skills Needs: Education Providers and Businesses

11. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that tertiary and technical education providers work with businesses to meet local skills needs. (900564)

16. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that tertiary and technical education providers work with businesses to meet local skills needs. (900572)

We are transforming skills through our local skills improvement plans, backed by £165 million and supported by business, further education and higher education, and though a £300 million investment in institutes of technology, which are collaborations between business, higher education and further education to revolutionise our tertiary education offering.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Stoke-on-Trent College has recently launched its new “Skills Ready, Future Ready” strategy and has been working with a number of employers locally to fill skills shortages, and it is very welcome to see the local skills improvement fund investment of around £3 million for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, but given our industries locally and the skills shortages, we need to go further, so what will my right hon. Friend be doing to help fill some of those skills shortages—to support our industries to help people earn better wages and get skilled now?

My hon. Friend is a true champion of skills in Stoke-on-Trent and, as he mentioned, we strongly support the £3.2 million we are investing through the local skills improvement fund. That is underpinned by £3.8 billion of additional national investment and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know we will be opening the Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire institute of technology in September 2024, with £13 million of capital funding as part of our revolution in tertiary education.

My constituency is at the beating heart of motorsport valley and it is critical for motorsport’s future success that we get skills training and education right for young people who want to go into that sector. The Grand Prix Trust is supporting that effort, having launched a £100,000 annual bursary scheme to help disadvantaged college students become part of the dynamic British motorsport sector, a partnership with the National College for Motorsport and Silverstone University Technical College. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming this fantastic initiative, and tell me what more he can do to help promote this important work?

My hon. Friend highlights the skills revolution we are having in this country, and the initiatives he has mentioned increase the collaboration between business and skills providers to help disadvantaged students in his constituency to climb the ladder of opportunity in a high-profile industry. I extend my thanks to Pat Symonds, chief technical officer of Formula 1, and Martin Brundle, chairman of the GPT trustees. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the South Central Institute of Technology based in Milton Keynes is also exploring opportunities to work with motorsport in the area.

Plymouth is home to world-class skills in marine and nuclear engineering. Demand for apprentices in our city is growing, especially with the construction of new berths and docks for nuclear submarines at Devonport dockyard. Does the Minister agree that skills training and apprenticeships are just as important as new cranes and new docks in making these projects a success and supporting our armed forces, and will he meet me, a delegation of Plymouth businesses, our city council and City College Plymouth to look at how we can turbocharge creating more apprenticeships in our city to deliver these exciting and innovative projects?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased that his constituency has received over 14,910 apprenticeship starts since 2010, which is really good news, but he is absolutely right that our skills offering is the key for future employment and jobs and to ensure people climb the ladder of opportunity. We have the apprenticeships, the bootcamps, the higher technical qualification and the free level 3 courses, but I will look at what he says and would be happy to meet him and other Plymouth MPs to work through the important issues he mentions.

Tertiary education providers are themselves businesses that seek to meet local skills needs, and the University of Exeter is no different. It hosts international students who contribute £486 million to Devon’s economy. People in Devon do not think of these students as immigrants, given how this funding helps boost skills among local people, so will the Minister talk to his counterparts in the Home Office about taking students out of the net migration figures?

As a former Exeter University student myself, I know how brilliant it is, and it also has a huge and incredibly successful programme of degree apprenticeships. I am very supportive of international students; they bring a lot of income to our country. Visa matters are always matters for the Home Office but I am sure there will be discussions about the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

School Support Staff Vacancies: Trends

Support staff play a vital role in our schools. We have given schools the freedom to recruit the staff they require to meet their own needs; although we do not collect central data on vacancies as a result, I can tell the hon. Lady that the number of support staff working in schools has increased for the past three years.

We have already heard in this Question Time about delays in getting the education, health and care plans in Lancashire. As a consequence, rural schools like Quernmore, which I had the privilege of visiting on Friday, are left with more children with special educational needs in mainstream but without the financial support package that should come with that. These small rural schools are therefore having to support children with additional needs and do not always have the right number of staff to be able to do so in the way they would like. Is support available to rural and small schools, especially in Lancashire, to meet the needs of all children?

We must meet the needs of all children; and at some level, every teacher is a teacher of special educational needs and disabilities. I recognise that there can be particular difficulties for smaller schools in rural areas, as the hon. Member mentions. We have the wider EHCP system, which is better than the previous system. On places available in special schools, where children are in mainstream schools, I recognise the central role played by teaching assistants. That is why we have set out in the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan how we will look to consolidate that position and give further advice on the best deployment of TAs.

Teacher Workload

Reducing unnecessary workload is a priority for the Department and for me. We have convened a workload reduction taskforce of experts, teaching unions and practitioners to make recommendations on how to minimise workload for teachers and school leaders.

It is good to see you back, Mr Speaker, and looking so well.

The last-minute nature of Ofsted inspections is causing huge anxiety to my small rural schools in Meon Valley. That means that teachers and in particular headteachers are putting off activities, such as residential school trips, educational trips and professional development courses, in case they get that call from Ofsted. Will my right hon. Friend consider changing the notice period for inspections so that teachers can plan their workload better?

I value all those activities that my hon. Friend sets out that schools undertake for their children. Like her, I represent a rural constituency—indeed, we have next-door constituencies. I recognise what she says about small rural schools. Inspections have an important role to play, but Ofsted also has the flexibility in the framework to take account of the particular position of smaller schools.

Teacher workloads are being exacerbated by teacher vacancies that schools are struggling to fill, and funding pressures are resulting in cuts to support staff, who often support the most vulnerable and needy children. That is leading to an exodus of teachers from our schools. Just last week, we saw the staggering figures from the Government that teacher training recruitment targets have been missed by a whopping 50% in our secondary schools, with the sharpest fall in maths, which is allegedly a priority for the Prime Minister. How bad does it have to get before the Government will produce and implement a proper workforce strategy?

I can confirm that there are 27,000 more teachers and 60,000 more teaching assistants in our schools compared with 2010. We have the most talented generation of teachers ever, and we continue to focus on a strong recruitment and retention strategy, so that we continue to get the best talent to teach our children.

The workload and stress levels of teachers rise exponentially during an inspection. I am sure that the Minister will join me in offering condolences to the friends and family of Ruth Perry. In the light of the coroner’s verdict that the “rude and intimidating” nature of the Ofsted inspection contributed to Ruth Perry’s tragic suicide, how is the Minister ensuring the welfare of school leaders is prioritised during inspections?

I of course extend my condolences to the friends and family of Ruth Perry. It was the most awful tragedy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will say a word on that tragedy and Ofsted in a moment. For now, let me just say that of course the inspection framework and process must both be fully informative to parents, and supportive to teachers and schools.

Free School Meals: Impact on Children and Parents

15. What recent assessment her Department has made of the impact of free school meals on children and their parents. (900571)

Free school meals support disadvantaged families to the value of £480 a year, ensuring that eligible pupils receive a healthy, nutritious meal. The Government have expanded free school meals more than any other in recent decades; now, more than a third of pupils in England receive them, compared with a sixth in 2010.

Recently, we have had high food inflation. While I welcome the fact that the Government have now halved inflation, one of my small schools has told me that it is unable to provide free meals within the money allocated, as it cannot benefit from the same economies of scale as larger schools. Will my right hon. Friend review the funds available for small schools?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point. The national funding formula recognises that some schools are necessarily small and do not have the same opportunities to realise economies of scale. Every school receives a lump sum, irrespective of its size—£134,000 for next year—and the Government have reformed the sparsity factor, increasing funding for that from £42 million in 2021-22 to £98 million in 2024-25.

Higher Education Institutions: International Students

17. What recent assessment she has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of university applications from international students on the long-term sustainability of higher education institutions. (900573)

I am pleased that we have surpassed our target, with well over 600,000 international students. They remain an important source of income and a source of pride for our universities, and the total impact of international students was worth £37 billion across the duration of their studies.

As the Minister has just mentioned, the economic benefit of overseas students is some £37.4 billion spread between universities and economies across the UK, but applications in this UCAS admissions round are down. With increasingly stiff competition from elsewhere, UK institutions cannot simply rely on their excellent reputations, so what more can the Minister do to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for international students to study?

As I said to the hon. Lady, we have something like 689,000 international students and our target is 600,000 a year.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.] We are working very closely with Sir Steve Smith. We want to diversify to a whole range of different countries to advertise ourselves to international students but, as I say, the trends are good. The hundreds of thousands of international students who are here benefit our economy and provide an important source of income for universities.

It is great to see you, Mr Speaker.

As well as contributing to Britain’s world-leading research, the financial contribution of international students is vital to UK universities, particularly at a time of rising cost pressures and real-terms fee value erosion. Any sudden changes in the number of international students coming to the UK obviously puts the higher education sector at risk. The Minister speaks of his pride, but I would like to stress the point and ensure that he puts this on record. Can he absolutely give his assurance to the House that the Government remain robust in their ambition to continue to attract 600,000 international students a year, as laid out in the international education strategy?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am absolutely committed to the target of 600,000. As I said in response to the previous question, we have surpassed that, with well over 680,000 students.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.] As I say, they are of benefit to our universities and our economy, and they are a very important source of income for all our higher education institutions.

Violence in Classrooms

19. What recent assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of trends in the level of violence in classrooms. (900575)

Of course, no one should face violence in school. In England, we have taken decisive action to improve pupils’ behaviour through strengthening the behaviour in schools guidance and investing in giving support and propagating best practice through the behaviour hubs.

The latest PISA figures, which were released in the last few weeks, show a stark picture of violence in schools across the whole UK. Nowhere else in the OECD do rates of violence reach anywhere near the levels in the UK. Pupils are almost twice as likely as the OECD average to witness a fight in their school—39% in England and 36% in Scotland—and, as a teacher, I can say from experience that violence in schools disrupts every part of pupils’ learning. Exclusion clearly is not working, and the Scottish Government’s recently announced proposal in Scotland is to put all the responsibility on teachers. What more can the Government do to illustrate a way forward for schools to deal with this problem, so that young people’s learning is not hampered by violence in the classroom?

For completeness, we ought to note that the PISA study noted that the great majority of pupils in England reported feeling safe in school—very similar to the OECD average—and were less likely than the OECD average to see the most serious manifestations of such behaviour, such as seeing gangs at school or seeing somebody with a weapon.

It is absolutely true that schools must have the full range of measures at their disposal. There is no right level of exclusion, and it should not be used lightly, but it has to be there; it has to be available. Early in our time in government, we made it clear that teachers can use reasonable force. We also extended searching powers, removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice for after-school detentions and simplified advice on how to prevent and tackle bullying, because a safe and ordered environment is essential for both children’s education and their general wellbeing.

Topical Questions

Ruth Perry’s death was a tragedy that left a hole in the hearts of her family, her community and her school. Throughout this year, I have been honoured to work closely with Ruth’s sister Julia and her friends Lisa and Edmund to introduce important changes to inspection practice alongside Ofsted, which ensure that headteachers can share their inspection outcome, including with colleagues, friends and family. Our new changes mean that if a school is graded “inadequate” due to ineffective safeguarding but all other judgments are “good”, it will be reinspected within three months. That has now happened at Caversham Primary School, which was regraded as “good” this summer. We also doubled the wellbeing support for our school leaders. In life, Ruth dedicated herself to her school, and we will build on her legacy to help ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement; I agree with those sentiments.

This Conservative Government will fund a new school to replace the flood-prone Tipton St John Primary School, which has had to close three times this year and had another near miss last week due to intense heavy rainfall. It is vital that spades are in the ground next year for the new school. Will she meet me to discuss this urgent matter further?

Our school rebuilding programme is transforming 500 schools across England, and I am delighted that Tipton St John Primary School is one of them. The school is currently in a flood zone and was impacted by the recent storms. We are working actively with the diocese of Exeter and Devon local authority to identify suitable sites for the school. I am happy to agree to meet my hon. Friend very soon.

May I start by again sending my condolences and those of the entire Labour party to the family of Ruth Perry? We must all now listen and learn to deliver an inspection system that works in the best interests of children, school staff and communities.

The Education Secretary has said that her Government are doing everything to get children into school, yet this term the attendance rate has declined consistently, hitting a terrible new low in the latest figures. Is not the real truth simply that the Government see attendance as a problem affecting other people’s children?

Absolutely not—attendance is my No. 1 priority. I regularly meet and chair the attendance action alliance group, and we are determined to help ensure that children are in school, because that is where they can get the best education. We are working with GPs and other medical professionals to ensure that everybody is aware that, first, school is a good place to be—actually, a better place to be—for those with mild anxiety and, secondly, we are there to give support in school, and we want everybody to be in school. Those efforts are starting to pay off—we now have 380,000 fewer children missing school—but it is very much at the top of my agenda.

If it is the Secretary of State’s No. 1 priority, why is she not legislating for a register of children not in school? That measure has wide support right across this House, but it was missing from the King’s Speech despite the Secretary of State’s repeated promises to legislate, despite it having been in the Government’s abandoned Schools Bill and despite it being in her Department’s submission, according to the permanent secretary at the Department. Will the Secretary of State confirm, as the permanent secretary suggested, that it was blocked by No. 10?

No, absolutely not. Of course, more things go into King’s Speeches than there is legislative time; that is a process that the permanent secretary laid out. But it is my priority, and I hope to legislate on it in the very short term.

T2. I heard from a school in my constituency last week that, even though it has six school counsellors, there is a long waiting list for children with mental health concerns to see a counsellor. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that schools are adequately resourced to best support pupils in that regard? (900580)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. We know that school-based provision works best when all staff are clear about how to support mental health, which is why we are providing senior mental health lead training grants to all state schools, 14,400 of which have claimed a grant so far. We are also working with the Department of Health and Social Care to extend mental health support teams to cover at least 50% of pupils by spring 2025.

If there is to be hope for a peaceful solution in the Israel-Gaza conflict, the input of Palestinian academics will be crucial, but many have already lost of their lives. Could the Minister make a statement about representations that he has made to Cabinet colleagues about introducing an emergency humanitarian visa for academics in Gaza?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour has been a long-time champion on this matter, and I know his local work well. There are 701 free schools open, and a further 140-plus are in the pipeline. There is a current round of applications for consideration of special and alternative provision free schools, but further capital would be a matter for future spending reviews.

T6. The independent review of relationships, sex and health education in schools submitted its recommendations to the Secretary of State back in September. When will those recommendations be made public? If they are not to be made public, why not? (900584)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are conducting a review of RSHE guidance. These are important and sensitive topics and it is important to get them right. He will not have long to wait to see the results.

T4. The Secretary of State will be familiar with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in Essex, and I thank her and her ministerial team for their support. Can she give an assurance that contractors such as Mitie, employed to build a temporary accommodation unit for local schools, are working with schools to deliver programmes on time and to meet their needs? Right now, we are seeing delays that are affecting the educational outcomes of local children. (900582)

The temporary classrooms at St Andrew’s Junior School were delivered by Essex County Council, which I thank once again for its exemplary leadership managing RAAC in Essex. The Department is working closely with all parties to ensure that any concerns are addressed quickly. Work is ongoing today to fix a disabled access door. I can confirm that we will remove RAAC from all schools and colleges. Settings will be offered either grant funding or rebuilding projects. We are assessing the right solution for each case and we will update the House shortly.

Swallowfield Primary School has a space-constrained site in my constituency, and relies on temporary accommodation to provide important special educational needs and disabilities interventions for pupils. However, because of an inadvertent breach of section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, it has had a loss of space and may lose that unit because of the compromising effect on outdoor space. Given that the space lost could never have been used for recreational purposes—

It sounds like there are important details to get to grips with, so I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

T5. The Government are rightly focusing on technical as well as academic education with the new British standard. University technical college sleeves would support the Government to enhance pre-16 technical education in secondary schools. Will the extra £50 million made available for technical education in schools in the autumn statement be available for UTC sleeves? (900583)

My hon. Friend is a champion for UTCs and technical education. I am delighted that the Secretary of State recently approved two more UTCs. A couple of weeks ago I visited the brilliant Harlow BMAT STEM Academy, which is a UTC, and UTC Portsmouth. We will respond shortly to Lord Baker’s request for a UTC sleeve pilot, as she mentioned.

Corpus Christi junior school on Brixton Hill has been closed since July due to RAAC. We now have tenders approved for the significant works that the Department for Education said were necessary and that it would pay for, but they must begin in January to ensure that they are completed in time. Could the Secretary of State explain why, despite repeated requests, her Department has still not approved the necessary funding? Any further delay could mean that my young constituents are left with further disruption and no building to learn in for the next academic year.

We are, as the hon. Lady will know, committed to ensure that reasonable costs for temporary accommodation and so on are covered in the immediate term and beyond, to make sure that capital costs are covered for either refurbishment or, in some cases, rebuild. There will be further detail to come before long.

T9. England has shot up the international rankings in education, but schools in Wales have not. Does that not show that Conservative education reforms are helping kids to thrive in schools in England? (900588)

Yes. We have to compare and contrast that with Wales, which has the lowest educational standards in the UK. The simple answer to why that is, is that it is run by Labour. Under Labour, our education standards plummeted from eighth to 27th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. Thanks to the hard work of our teachers and pupils, and the reforms under this Conservative Government, we have rocketed back up the tables to 11th for maths and 13th for reading and science. Every time Labour gets power, education standards fall. The Conservatives are the only ones taking the long-term decisions to deliver a better education for our children.

Despite my private Member’s Bill on statutory guidance to reduce the cost of school uniforms—the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021—far too many schools require a plethora of logos and branded items. When can we expect more robust intervention from Ministers to deal with this issue?

Staff at Bramhall High School have worked extremely hard to maintain the education of students following the discovery of RAAC. I am grateful for the support given by the Department and Stockport Council to ensure that temporary classrooms will be in place in the new year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the headteacher and the staff for all their hard work? Given the existing condition of the school, will he join me in calling for it to be included in a new build programme?

Can you just help me to get through? Members have not got in yet and I really do want to help everybody.

I join my hon. Friend in thanking and paying tribute to all the staff, children and families at Bramhall High Street. She is a great advocate for them. Schools and colleges will be offered either capital grants to fund refurbishment or permanently remove RAAC, or rebuilding projects where they are needed.

Last week, the Government published an update of the list of schools with RAAC. Will the Minister confirm that the Department is seeking to cross-check its list of schools affected by RAAC with the BBC, because it remains the case that the BBC journalists have more of a grip on this crisis than the Government?

We have a lot of people working on this and rightly so, including making sure that all the surveys get done. We have also committed to being transparent, which is why we publish regular updates to the list. We continue to work at pace to try to resolve the problems as quickly as possible for the good of the children.

Malvern College in my constituency employs hundreds of local people, supports the local economy, earns export earnings for our country, ensures that people around the world love the UK, and is a huge supporter of our local schools. What kind of destructive ideology would put all that at risk and make the UK the only country in the world to tax education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a dreadful policy and it will have exactly the opposite impact. It will probably actually cost money and mean children moving schools, and all because the Labour party just plays the politics of envy.

I offer my deepest condolences to the family of Ruth Perry. Following the inquest last week, will the Secretary of State now consider the removal of the single-word judgment from Ofsted inspection reports?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for arranging the initial meetings with Julia Waters—Ruth’s sister, who I know is his constituent—and attending the first few. I will be working very closely with the new chief inspector of schools when he starts three weeks today to see what more we can do, but we must remember that Ofsted plays an important role in keeping children safe and standards high.

Order. May I ask everyone to help me out in future, please? Some may not realise that topical questions are meant to be speedy, so that all Members can be accommodated.

Israel-Hamas War: Diplomacy

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the international diplomacy surrounding the Israel-Hamas war.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The Government are undertaking extensive and global diplomatic engagement to get much greater aid into Gaza, support British nationals and the safe return of hostages, and prevent dangerous regional escalation. Days after Hamas’s brutal attack, the then Foreign Secretary was in Israel to see for himself the devastation wrought by this heinous act of terrorism, and his successor visited in late November to continue dialogue with Israeli leaders. Last week the Prime Minister discussed the latest efforts to free hostages with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and stressed the need to take greater care to protect civilians in Gaza. Two days later, the Foreign Secretary discussed the future of the middle east peace process with the US Secretary of State in Washington.

The situation in Gaza cannot continue, and we are deploying all our diplomatic resources, including in the United Nations, to help to find a viable solution. The scale of civilian deaths and displacement in Gaza is shocking. Although Israel has the right to defend itself against terror, restore its security and bring the hostages home, it must abide by international law and take all possible measures to protect civilians. We have called for further and longer humanitarian pauses. It is imperative that we increase the flow of aid into Gaza, but as we have said at the UN, calling for a ceasefire ignores the fact that Hamas has committed acts of terror and continues to hold civilian hostages.

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.

I know that you continue with your best endeavours, Mr Speaker, but when it comes to a matter as important as this, I think we see why it is so problematic that the Foreign Secretary is not in this House.

The scale of death and destruction seen in Gaza over the last two months has been intolerable: the children left under the rubble, the families displaced from their homes, and the many innocent Palestinians facing the threat of starvation and disease. Despite international pressure on Israel to change the way it is fighting—to not replicate the kind of devastating tactics that it used in the north, to protect schools and hospitals, and to ensure that humanitarian aid is ramped up—Labour shares grave concerns that those conditions are not being met.

Diplomacy, not bombs and bullets, is the only route to a lasting peace. The grave warnings from the United Nations cannot be ignored, and they show the urgent need for action to relieve the suffering. It is right that the UN Security Council has been debating this war, but it constitutes a failure that it has been unable to reach a consensus and to speak with a collective voice. Labour wants a resolution to pass the UN Security Council —a resolution that properly condemns Hamas terrorists and the appalling 7 October attacks on Israel, and calls for the release of all hostages; a resolution that demands a renewed cessation of hostilities and the protection of Palestinian civilians; a resolution that acts as a stepping-stone towards an enduring end to this war.

We cannot give up. Too much is at stake. Can the Minister explain what steps he will now take to help reach that consensus? Can he update the House on any progress to open up the second crossing at Kerem Shalom? International diplomacy must focus on Gaza, but it must also focus on further escalation in the west bank and the wider region, including Lebanon. Will the Government therefore increase pressure on the Israeli Government in the west bank by imposing travel bans on illegal settlers involved in attacks, serious criminal activity and the fostering of hatred? Will he say unequivocally, like Labour, that we will not tolerate the expulsion of the people of Gaza or the west bank, and that they must be able to return to their homes? Finally, will the Minister and the Government back Labour’s call for a joint western and Arab-led international contact group to replace the defunct Quartet?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I recognise the enormous authority that Lord Cameron holds in these matters and the right hon. Gentleman’s request that he should be available in the House. I will do my best to satisfy him on the questions that he has asked. As he knows, Lord Cameron is keen to engage with the House of Commons in every possible way.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why Britain did not support the UN Security Council resolution. I can tell him clearly that there was a lot good stuff in the resolution that Britain does support, but there was no condemnation of Hamas, and for that reason we felt unable to support it. However, we did not oppose it, because it had a lot of useful and important stuff in it, and we therefore abstained. He will recall that there have been a number of resolutions. We voted yes to the UN resolution drafted by the Americans, but that was vetoed by China and Russia, apparently because they could not bring themselves to condemn what Hamas had done on 7 October.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about settler violence. The targeted killings of civilians are completely abhorrent and we are seeking that those responsible should be not just arrested but prosecuted and punished. On his comment about travel bans, I can tell him that planning is going on. The Foreign Secretary discussed this with his US counterpart last week and I hope it may be possible to say something about that shortly. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about Kerem Shalom. I think that the position of Kerem Shalom is being enhanced at the moment and I hope very much that that will lead to some facilitation, but those discussions are ongoing at this time.

I am sure that the Minister will want to condemn the gratuitous signs of antisemitism that we saw on the streets again this weekend, which led to Karen Pollock from the Holocaust Educational Trust describing London as

“a no-go zone for Jewish people”.

I know that he will want to condemn that. On the broader issue of a negotiated ceasefire, will he confirm that the Government’s position is as it has been throughout —namely, that Hamas can play no role in the future of the governance of Gaza and that it is Hamas who are responsible for what is happening in Gaza today?

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said. On his point about a ceasefire, at the moment a ceasefire is wholly implausible. First of all, Hamas would not agree to one. They have made it absolutely clear that they want to replicate the terrible acts that took place on 7 October, so I fear that that is not going to happen. That is why we call for extended humanitarian pauses, and as I understand it, that remains the position of His Majesty’s Official Opposition.

Humanitarian aid agencies are now repeatedly warning in strong and unmistakable terms that they simply cannot fulfil their mandate in Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has said that Gaza is “hell on earth”. Over 2 million Palestinians now need food assistance. What the hell are the UK Government doing allowing people to starve to death when they could do something about it? What in God’s name makes them think it is acceptable to stand by as more than 49,000 people are injured and the hospitals that would have treated them are being bombed and starved of supplies, when they could have an influence over that? How on earth have we reached a time when 18,000 people have been slaughtered in Gaza by Government say-so and still they are not calling for a ceasefire? Do they know that thousands of people in the UK are now screaming in horror at their TV screens because they just cannot believe what they are witnessing in Gaza, and that they are stunned by the UK’s response, which is to say that Israel has the right to defend itself? All countries have the right to defend themselves, but how can killing the former Glasgow University student Dima Alhaj and her six-month-old baby ever be described as self-defence? Why did the UK abstain on the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire? The former Home Secretary called that disappointing. I call it shameful.

I recognise the passion with which the hon. Lady speaks, but I have explained in some detail why the Government felt it was not possible to support the resolution. We did not oppose it; we abstained.

I urge the hon. Lady to think again, as a ceasefire is wholly implausible. It is much more sensible to try to get these humanitarian pauses, where we have seen some success. We urgently need to see more, for the reasons she set out so eloquently.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his unequivocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself. May I urge the Government to maintain that position, to stay the course and to ensure that we continue to give Israel our strong support?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have made it clear that Israel has every right to defend itself, but that it must abide by international humanitarian law and the laws of war.

It is

“wrong and illegal to target civilians…international law is very clear that there mustn’t be the targeting of civilians”.

Those are not my words, but the words of the new Foreign Secretary, and then Prime Minister, during the 2014 war in Gaza. Given that over 10,000 Palestinian children alone have been killed, can the Minister confirm whether the Foreign Secretary, and therefore this Conservative Government, still believes that Israel’s targeting of civilians is wrong and illegal? What steps is he taking to hold the Israeli Government to account?

Again, I recognise the integrity with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. I can tell him that, no, the Israeli Government never target civilians, but they are pursuing a strategy of degrading and eliminating the appalling perpetrators and the military machine that wrought the terrible disaster that took place on 7 October, which I remind him was a pogrom. More Jewish people were killed on that day than on any single day since the holocaust in 1945.

Even if the Foreign Secretary were at the Dispatch Box today, I doubt if he would do a better job than my right hon. Friend. Can he say whether the Government have made any estimate of the number of Hamas fighters who have been killed? We seem to get very precise estimates of the number of civilians who have been killed but, clearly, a large number of Hamas fighters are engaged in opposing Israeli forces on the ground. Are any other people, other than Hamas fighters, resisting Israeli forces on the ground?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks. Truth is often the first casualty in war, and none of the figures that we are hearing can be relied upon.

Words now fail to describe the despondency felt by those of us who stand for peace. When I say “us” I do not just mean those of Palestinian descent; I also mean people in Israel who have fought for peace over many years. The only way to have a lasting peace—a peace without fear—is to have two states, so I will repeat the question that I put last time: what are this Government doing? Later today, I will table a Bill to recognise Palestine. Will the Minister meet me to discuss it? How do we prevent this from happening ever again?

I will, of course, be very pleased to meet the hon. Lady. We have previously discussed the contents of the Bill in another situation, but I will be very pleased to meet her.

We are developing proposals. The hon. Lady specifically asks what we are doing and, obviously, we are trying to lift people’s eyes to the political track that will, at some point, be possible. We are looking in detail at developing proposals for support for the Palestinian Authority to build up the sinews of statehood, in pursuit of the established policy of both the major political parties in this House that there should be a two-state solution, with Israel living behind secure borders and Palestine as a free and independent state.

The Minister did say that too many Palestinians have died in pursuit of a solution to the Hamas problem, but I wondered: does he genuinely believe, and is it the Government’s position, that a military solution—a military defeat of Hamas—is possible?

I have no doubt that it is possible to degrade and stop the military machine that wrought the terrible disaster on 7 October. When addressing an ideology, however, it is extremely important to recognise that a political process is absolutely essential. That is why the Government are spending, along with our allies, enormous amounts of time in trying to work through how that could be achieved.

Shamefully, our Government refused to back the ceasefire at the UN Security Council last week, when a motion was supported by 100 countries, including France, Spain and Portugal, among other European nations. In the face of the indiscriminate killing and suffering that we are seeing day after day in Gaza, is it not a failure of moral leadership to refuse to back a ceasefire? Will this constant refusal to back a ceasefire not be seen as giving the green light to Israel to commit yet more war crimes?

I think the hon. Gentleman would receive the same response from those on his own Front Bench as he will receive from me. As I have already said to the House, a ceasefire is simply impractical, because we have to have two sides that are willing to sign up to a ceasefire and there is absolutely no suggestion, at any point, that either of them will.

A Minister in the Iranian Government, General Ezzatollah Zarghami, formerly of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has told Iranian media that this “first mission” as the “production manager” of Iranian-made rockets is to supply those rockets to be fired into Israel and hit civilians. He openly told Iranian media that he lived in Hamas terror tunnels “for some time”. That is an Iranian Minister openly admitting to having lived in terrorist tunnels and supplying rockets. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about Iran bankrolling and arming Hamas?

On illegal settlements, does not the experience of the past two decades show that words have absolutely no impact on Prime Minister Netanyahu? I welcome the Minister’s announcement today that the Government are examining sanctioning the violent illegal settlers, following in America’s footsteps, but why can we not have a ban on all trade between the United Kingdom and the illegal settlements?

The Government have always made it absolutely clear that the settlements are illegal under international law, and we will continue to make that case as forcefully as we think appropriate.

I agree with the deputy Secretary of State’s comments on degrading Hamas, but does he agree that the malevolent force in the region is Iran? Although, obviously, we do not want a direct conflict with Iran, what more can the Government do, with our partners and allies, to ensure that we can degrade the capacity and capabilities of Iran to inflict the suffering that it has inflicted on the region?

My right hon. Friend will know that the Government have been clear that measures need to be taken, and we have used our own military assets in this respect, to make sure that the conflict does not widen. We have sent a very clear warning to Iran in that respect, along with our allies, and he may rest assured that we continue to watch this issue with extreme care.

In response to an earlier question, the Minister talked of dangerous regional escalation and the scale of the loss of life. How do his Government hope to prevent either, and support a just and lasting peace, without calling for a ceasefire? How can they claim to support a two-state solution when they do not recognise the state of Palestine? One plus zero has never equalled two.

It is, I think, the policy of both sides of the House that we should not pursue the possibility of a ceasefire, because there is no possibility, for very trenchant reasons that have been set out. The hon. Lady is, however, right to point to the political horizon, to ensure that we take advantage, as soon as the moment is plausible, of building a political track. As part of that, we are looking to build Palestinian state capacity. We know that Gaza should be under Palestinian control when this is over. Hamas has no place in a future of Gaza and we must never allow them ever to be able to entrench themselves in the civilian population again.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. What recent engagement has my right hon. Friend had with Qatari counterparts in relation to their pivotal role as mediator between Israel and Hamas?

Discussions with Qatari go on all the time. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the middle east, has been in Qatar recently.

The Minister will have seen pictures of the horrific loss of life in Gaza, which started up again over the weekend, and of half-naked men being paraded through the streets. The Geneva convention prohibits turning prisoners of war into objects of “public curiosity”. He will also know of the grave concerns about reports of the use of rape by Hamas fighters on 7 October. All of this shows that we will need a very clear mechanism for the investigation of allegations of war crimes and for accountability, if war crimes are found to have happened. Will the Minister set out what the UK Government, who have said that international law must be upheld, believe that mechanism should be?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the points that the hon. Lady makes. The British Government have made it clear that all parties in this terrible conflict must abide by international humanitarian law. We continue to identify and look for mechanisms for ensuring that there can be no impunity in that respect, and that there will be transparency over the actions that the forces take.

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Speaker. The humanitarian pauses gave an opportunity for the welcome release of Israeli hostages. However, as a result of Palestinian prisoners being released, there is a concern that Hamas are gaining ground in the west bank and could end up being the major force in the whole of the area that we call Palestine. What efforts is my right hon. Friend making to ensure the release of the hostages without any conditions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the terrible plight of the hostages. I cannot give the House a running commentary on what is happening in respect of the hostages, but there have been no new developments. He will know that the Ministry of Defence is supplying surveillance flights over Gaza to assist in that general endeavour, but he may rest assured that the plight of the hostages is at the top of our list of concerns.

The Israeli Defence Ministry has told the UN that it “must do better” at delivering aid to Gaza. This is not a natural disaster; it is deliberate military action, during which Israeli forces have so far killed 130 UN aid staff, mostly alongside their families. How many more innocent people must die before Members on both Front Benches realise the scale of the atrocities and demand a permanent ceasefire as the only way out?

I understand the right hon. Lady’s strength of feeling, but she does no service to Members on either Front Bench, who have made it clear that the reasons why a ceasefire would not work are known to the House and that trying to secure humanitarian pauses—the longer the better—is the way to release humanitarian support to those who are suffering in the way she describes.

The despicable actions of Hamas and Iran are responsible for this conflict, but proportionality is important in the rules of war, as my right hon. Friend knows. Can he explain what we are doing, working with our friends in the middle east, to encourage a sense of proportionality in Israel’s response, so that we minimise the many civilian casualties while respecting their need to take military action?

My hon. Friend expresses the balance very clearly and very well, particularly in the first part of his question. The important point, which Britain makes continually to Israel, is that its response must be proportionate, and it must operate within international humanitarian law.

We urgently need to see steps towards a permanent ceasefire and an end to hostility on all sides, but the Minister is right that neither Israel nor Hamas have agreed to that. In seeking the release of hostages, and knowing that we need to see an end to Hamas’s influence and place in Gaza, there ultimately needs to be an alternative to Israel’s current strategy, with hospitals now at breaking point, food and medicine not getting through, and effectively the de-development of Gaza. What are the Government doing to push for a consensus at the UN, and for a strategy to ensure that the International Criminal Court will be able to hold all parties to account for their conduct?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the critical need to get support into Gaza. Yesterday, 100 trucks got through, and 300,000 litres of fuel got through during 9 and 10 December. It is nothing like enough, but we are doing everything that we can in respect of the humanitarian effort, alongside our likeminded partners, to galvanise the international humanitarian community to get aid into Gaza. It is not an issue of getting aid into the region; the aid is there, and there is plenty more back-up to come. It is about actually getting it into Gaza. We are stretching every sinew to try to achieve an increase in humanitarian support as fast as we can.

Few would deny Israel’s right to defend itself against an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation, but as a military man, I do not always find it easy to reconcile that with what we are seeing on the ground in Gaza, or the broader operational nature of that campaign. Could the Minister please assure me of the efforts being conducted behind closed doors to ensure Israeli restraint?

My hon. Friend is right to underline the concern about the humanitarian casualties, but as I have said repeatedly in response to this urgent question, we are doing everything we can to make the point that he has emphasised.

Hamas are an obstacle to peace and a two-state solution, and they must release all hostages now. While pushing for that as a means to further pauses in hostilities, can the Minister confirm what discussions are taking place with international partners to create the conditions where Israel is secure and Palestinians can see a path to reconstruction, renewal and statehood in Gaza?

I reassure the hon. Lady that those discussions are indeed taking place. The Foreign Secretary was in Washington DC last week, and he had discussions with his counterpart. The Prime Minister had a lengthy conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 5 December, and at COP the Prime Minister met Israel, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan. He emphasised throughout the importance of providing a political horizon. The hon. Lady is right to identify the set of actions that are required, but she may rest assured that the Government are doing everything we can to pursue them.

I was profoundly disappointed by the Minister’s comments when he dismissed calls for a humanitarian ceasefire as being implausible. If it is so implausible, can he explain why that is the position of every other country in the world with the exception of the United States of America, and does he not understand that it is damaging this country’s credibility to be an honest broker in the necessary international discussions that have to follow? Can he name one action by his Department that has been designed to try to gain the trust of the Palestinian people in this conflict?

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I am in no doubt that Lord Cameron’s visit to the west bank will have done just that. On his first point, perhaps he should ask those who are advocating for a ceasefire the question that I have sought to answer: how can there be a ceasefire when neither party to the military action would be willing to accept one?

Since the terrible attack by Hamas on 7 October, more than 250 Palestinians have been killed by illegal settlers in the west bank and there are unconfirmed reports of the involvement of the Israel Defence Forces in the violence. The criteria outlining who can receive arms export licences from the Government include strong wording on violence against women and children. What diplomatic engagement has the Minister had to ensure that any arms exported from this country are not used to facilitate unlawful military activity?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to make it clear that the targeted killing of civilians is completely unacceptable. That is why I said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary that we seek not just the arrest but the prosecution and punishment of those responsible. In respect of arms licences, she may well know that Britain has the most demanding export licence regime of any country in the world. I think that can give us all confidence that those export licences are granted on the right terms.

Is it not very obvious that Israel is herding the entire population of Gaza, in a state of utter desperation and poverty, with a lack of food, medicine and water, and with serious injuries that cannot be treated, and that its ultimate aim is to expel the population of Gaza and to reoccupy it? Does the Minister not think it is time that we supported the call for a ceasefire, as every other nation in the world has done, and stopped being isolated in this ridiculous approach of saying that somehow a ceasefire cannot work? We have to start somewhere to save life. We have to start somewhere to prevent this catastrophe from getting even worse, on top of the 18,000 already killed in Gaza.

I have set out what we are trying to do to relieve the suffering the right hon. Gentleman so eloquently describes in Gaza, but I have to caution him that a simple call for a ceasefire is not the answer. Much better, in the view of the Government, is to make it clear that humanitarian pauses—preferably extended humanitarian pauses—offer hope of the sort of relief that he and I both wish to see.

When this terrible conflict comes to an end, as all wars must, both Gaza and the west bank will require substantial investment to restore and enhance the economic wellbeing of the Palestinian people. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with other countries about how they may take a role in an economic revival of the area, which could play a role in a lasting peace?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise that the economic reconstruction and rebuilding of Gaza will be an essential element in any political settlement. More widely, as I have set out, the Government are trying to make sure that, when there is an opportunity to drive forward that political horizon, that is precisely what we will do.

I have just met with Othman, a constituent from Halifax, who is originally from Gaza and is utterly distressed about what his family back home are enduring. The UN Secretary-General has declared that

“nowhere in Gaza is safe”

for civilians. We know that the aid getting in is utterly insufficient and the humanitarian situation cannot be addressed until the violence ends. I have heard what the Minister has to say, but the humanitarian pauses that have been secured might have felt impossible at the start of this conflict. We urge him to redouble his efforts to work towards an enduring humanitarian ceasefire, which surely is the next logical step.

I agree very much with the hon. Lady about the importance of securing a humanitarian pause. That is exactly what we are doing; she will be pleased, like me, to hear that the United Kingdom permanent representative at the United Nations is on a visit to the region at this time to see, among other things, how we can achieve precisely that.

The Minister talks up the UK’s arms export licences, but Amnesty International has identified a particular loophole in those licences: the 2002 incorporation guidelines allow UK components to be sent to third destinations for onward export to Israel. Can he give me any assurances that, unlike in 2009 and 2014, that is not happening right now?

I have set out the fact that Britain has the toughest export licences and regulations anywhere in the world. Of course, if the hon. Lady has any evidence of those licences being infracted in some way, she should bring it to the attention of the authorities.

The Minister will be aware that, as far back as 10 October, the independent UN commission of inquiry said:

“There is already clear evidence that war crimes may have been committed in the latest explosion of violence in Israel and Gaza, and all those who have violated international law and targeted civilians must be held accountable for their crimes.”

As of Saturday, the death toll is more than 17,000 people, of whom nearly 13,000 are women and children, and thousands more are believed to be buried under the rubble. Every passing day is another day of children dying. Like so many of my Vauxhall constituents who email me, it is hard not to feel powerless when we watch the scale of death and destruction day after day. Does the Minister agree that the International Criminal Court should be the jurisdiction that addresses the conduct of all parties in adhering to international law?

The Government have made clear what the role and remit of the International Criminal Court is. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the British Government are a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court. The situation that she described only emphasises the requirement—the demand—that we achieve another humanitarian pause and are able to get deeply needed humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

With hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now homeless and parts of northern Gaza rendered effectively uninhabitable, there is understandably real concern that many people will not be able to return to their homes. Can the Minister tell us what representations he has made to make it absolutely clear that permanent forced displacement of the Gazan population is unacceptable, not just across international borders and into the west bank, but within Gaza itself?

The hon. Lady will know that, in order to help those people, the possibility of providing safe areas in which support can be given is being actively looked at by the United Nations. The problem with safe areas is that they have to be absolutely safe, and we must have the understanding that both Hamas and Israel, and every other entity, will guarantee safety when people are brought there to receive support. That is an ongoing discussion, but it is an area of considerable concern to the United Nations and other humanitarians, which are seeking to operate in this space.

The Labour party continues to call for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza to give us the time and space to alleviate the immense suffering of Palestinian civilians by getting the required food, water, medicines and other aid into blockaded Gaza, and to facilitate the release of all remaining hostages. Does the Minister agree that the international community can and must use the next cessation of hostilities to make political progress towards what we all want: an end to the conflict and a permanent ceasefire?

The hon. Gentleman is not, I think, straying from the policy that has been set out by his Front Benchers. We all want to see those pauses develop so that urgently needed humanitarian aid can get into Gaza, so in that respect, I think that he and the Government are in agreement.

I have heard the Minister’s explanation of why the UK made the deeply disappointing decision not to support the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Over the weekend, he may have heard the comments of Tom Fletcher—a former ambassador and No. 10 adviser—who said that when the UK supported such a resolution in 2009, it helped to move the US away from a veto and towards abstention, ultimately securing a ceasefire. Is the Minister at risk of letting the best be the enemy of the good, when we should be grabbing every possible opportunity to end the bloodshed and the suffering that we see in Gaza?

The Government are doing everything we possibly can. I have set out clearly the difficulties of achieving a ceasefire when neither of the prime parties to it is willing to accept it. I hope that the hon. Lady will reflect on that.

The UK’s abstention on the UN Security Council resolution on Friday was shocking and wholly wrong. It has been reported today that Egypt has invoked resolution 377 to circumvent the US veto on the Security Council, acting to maintain peace. Two million Gazans are displaced and facing disease and starvation, and 18,000 people have been killed, 70% of whom were women and children. Will the UK now back a ceasefire—I implore you, Minister—at an emergency session of the UN General Assembly? That is the only way peace will be achieved.

We have quite a few people standing. I am going to finish at 4.30 pm, and I do not want Members to miss out.

The hon. Lady makes an eloquent call for a ceasefire, but she needs to address the points that have been made elsewhere in the House about why a ceasefire cannot be achieved. I hope she will feel that the Government are doing the right thing in trying to secure humanitarian pauses and increase the flow of humanitarian supplies through Rafah and other entries into Gaza.

Does the Minister share my upset and deep concern that the UN Security Council was unable to find the wording for a resolution to end fighting in Palestine that all its members could agree on and to make political progress towards the permanent ceasefire we all desperately want? If he does agree that a newly worded UN resolution is needed, what role will the UK Government play?

I pay tribute to the British team at the United Nations under its leader, Barbara Woodward. That team has an extraordinary effect, punching above Britain’s weight in trying to corral people to agreement, but I hope the hon. Lady will understand that in the circumstances of last week, it was not possible for Britain to agree to a resolution. In many respects, it was a very good resolution, but as I pointed out, if there was not the will to condemn Hamas for the appalling atrocities committed on 7 October, we simply did not feel we could support it.

I have to tell the Minister that a humanitarian pause is merely a delay: innocent children are being bombed, and a humanitarian pause does not stop that. However, can he tell us what consideration is being given to the huge number of Gazans injured in the IDF’s indiscriminate attacks, for whom proper treatment is utterly impossible? Constituents who are NHS clinicians have got in touch with me, looking to offer their assistance in the region just as soon as it is practical and safe to do so. Have any discussions taken place about facilitating such offers?